Below is an essay about Lou Reed written before his passing. I wanted to pay homage to a master. His poetry is good for the “poor but healthy”. An Andes potato farmer would have nothing to do with Lou, yet probably has private joys that I would not care for either. A little Emerson before Lou:
“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle. There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow-storm. We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys, to be sure, are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe. The intellectual man requires a fine bait; the sots are easily amused. But everybody is drugged with his own frenzy, and the pageant marches at all hours, with music and banner and badge.”
From Cookbook For The Poor:
A few years ago, at a restaurant I cooked at, Oswego Republicans hosted a fund-raiser for the Governor’s re-election campaign. The newly refurbished steak and seafood restaurant could now seat four hundred without difficulty. Hors d’oeuvres of baby quiches, stuffed mushrooms, and vegetable crudite trays. The town’s elite getting giggly from anticipation. Everyone was excited, myself included. I was setting up a booby trap for the governor. Back in my apartment during a string of several cool September mornings, I day-dreamed about how to upset the party without physically harming anyone. I’ve always been so angry at the money-hoarders. Cold mornings when you can sleep in with the covers over your shoulders, when the wind shakes the leaves and the outside smells are inside smells now. I had a good plan, one to really piss off the martini men. The restaurant’s new stereo system was locked in the office. I would stay late after work the week before the Governor’s arrival and have the bartender teach me how to use it. Then during cocktail hour, at that perfect moment, right after all the local yokels had their drinks and got the nerve up to kiss the Governor’s ass, I’d slip into the office unseen, lock the door, and send “Strawman” at high volume out into the dining room.
Baby quiches and Lou Reed. A very bad meal for the Governor. An upset stomach, a happy cook, and maybe, just maybe, one legislator’s spouse with goosebumps. What a great party! What a wide frown on the governor’s face. “We have so much, to you who have so little, to you who don’t have anything at all…” A fund-raiser! Elect the governor to make one’s ass more pallid and fat. “Strawman” is a disgruntled cook’s best friend. It is a plate of basmati rice served at all state dinners. That, and water from the village well. Montezuma’s revenge. Ron Throop’s clever way to remind the money hoarders how incredibly caked with goop the Governor’s intestines are. Feed the hungry. “Does anybody need another politician caught with his pants down and money stickin’ in his hole?” Lou Reed yelling out his four minute truism while Ron the laughing cook is escorted out the door by body guards. Pour Lou couldn’t spit out the first minute with these guys on the job. The office door is hollow-core, and they’re trained to stop things like Lou Reed before he can happen.
The mission was aborted. The Governor never got his slap to the face. His aids must have sensed the danger and ordered the helicopter in mid-flight to turn back toward Albany. I didn’t have to work that night anyway. My plot was all in a daydream. After dessert I walked along the riverbank opposite the restaurant with my wife and child, deliriously happy. The smells of early autumn are intoxicating. They retard me enough to feel like a god. Lou Reed goes well with autumn. It’s got to be the most poetic season.
Oh, what a pile of piddlepuke! For all I know he’s sloppy drunk, sucking cocaine out of a teenager’s belly button. He could be watching Nightline on TV. Is he a child-abuser, a sitcom viewer, a rich loser? Maybe he has aspirations of becoming Governor. Maybe he’s a hypocritical bigot. I don’t know the man. I know the artist, and as far as I can tell the two are not the same. So Lou Reed’s not wise. But god damn is he good at writing songs! That’s what matters. I know the feel I get from his poetry. He’s a poet because one of his words—just one—can lift me out of the death state. One word packs it all. That’s modern technology. “Lisa says,” or D.H. Lawrence says..? I want to hear that guitar wail. I want to feel it and his voice cock me in the face. Sunshine does that. 10:00 a.m. on a late September morning. There’s a cricket under the couch, and outside my door the maple leaves are giggling their lush green away. Music with lyrics. The sun with green leaves and blue water. There is no sun without blue sky unless astronauts are the only dumb jocks who read D.H. Lawrence’s poems. Maybe he and every writer is a sun. But give one of those blazing stars a C-chord and CD-ROM, and he’s free to stab someone in the heart without going to prison. A man can commit murder and assassination, kill naked on the street while listening to Lou Reed. That is poetry.
So is this: I’m a hack writer. I got Lou Reed on the brain. Yet I still need to finish my ceiling upstairs. I take the wife to work. We all got to work. I am going to stop at the home center for sand paper and screws. I got a rich life. Easy, free, full of immediate surprises. I walk right past Jeff standing at the counter paying for his screws. I haven’t seen Jeff alone since before the wedding. Look at him standing there with that sly grin. Man, how far we go back! And he doesn’t even know it. There’s his face. His lips are moving. And I hear the voice that calls me back in time. I might be humming a Lou Reed song. I know I smell bacon and last night’s garbage in the hot July sun. Jeff stares at me. Look at his eyes. He listens to you because you speak, like poets used to. You speak to him. You miss his mocking eyes. You miss his sly grin. You miss the thousand encounters that with practice your memory could recall in chronological order. Stand next to Jeff at the counter paying for his screws. Inertia big boy. Inertia. A gigantic shiny hammer pounding you in place. You are not smart. Not rich. Not free. Not happy. Not until the song lets go from your stomach. Not until you open your mouth and vomit poetry. Lyrics pouring onto the floor. Music splashing Jeff in the face. Poetry, hot from your stomach, welcoming Lou Reed into the room.
I don’t think he understands. That’s the five minutes of poetry no one gives a hoot about inside a book. I look at Jeff and see my hand on the outside of Marie’s thigh. I hear Heroine playing in my old apartment. A camel stuck between my teeth. This will be Jeff’s apartment after I check out. He’ll go through his own sun and moon mania. Then he’ll want to hear my poetry, and lay in the landlady’s grass to dream of a girl. His stop talking and long look with his eyes is a poetry without music. His standing at the counter with a box of screws is Jeff death without Lou Reed.
Are you able to cry? Do you have the talented will to unleash emotion whenever it is summoned? Could you listen to “Dreamin’” without falling to the floor and wailing? His music has the same rhythm and sound of crying over a loss. There’s a mirror. Walk up to it and wail. If you ever loved anything—a pet toad or a human being—think of their breathing just before death. This song is real poetry again. “I turn and say, ‘What were you saying?’” While you let go during the next four minutes, notice how your gasps, fist clenching and crying moans perfectly match the waves in the music. It’s phenomenal. The cat and dog stare at you. They want to help, but it’s better for you to feel.
Magic and Loss is the greatest emotional cry ever made by an artist. Any artist, of all time, musical or otherwise. Years ago I picked a poetry book at random off the library shelf. Thirty pages in was a poem about a child standing by the flowers with the bees. It was the saddest poem I ever read. The child was dead, and the daddy remembered. I never cried from words alone, except this one time. I was out, on the floor wailing, lifting my belly and straining my neck. A small yellow poem book published in 1875. Jesus, if only the man could write music! If there were nineteenth century promoters and record companies to mass-produce the poet’s loss. So many people to feel his pain. What if Lou Reed had no music? Maybe he would live incognito like Louis Reedbower, like Jeff, or Ron, and leave behind small yellow spit-ups of magic and loss.
Mass produce the poet’s loss. Put a catchy melody to the words, and have the voice finish the poem. For we cannot feel with our eyes only. The poet’s job is to make us feel using our own talents. I want to hear. I want my feet and hands to move. To dance! To strut! To feel! Ancient life rhythms retrieved by Lou Reed and recycled through an amplifier. The masses have got to move. “Sweet Jane. Ah Sweet Jane…” Eight seconds to sing it. A day to think about it. If you just read it, you might set the book down and go to the bathroom. But if you hear it, you have felt it. I could be a corn farmer or a cab driver in the big city. The music affects me. Is the word aurore or dawn? Tomato soup or pink? Am I alive or dead? “Two roads diverged into a wood…” Now put that crap into a rock and roll song. The poet shouldn’t have to use words if he’s not in the mood. Five minutes of guitar so the starving masses can think for themselves. Look, just close your eyes and feel. You’ll see exactly what you need to see. I don’t think you should suffer the old words of a dying farmer, who wrote books after the corn harvest. He’ll finish reading his poem, set the paper down, cough, take his glasses off, blow his nose, and listen for the approving applause from a sterile audience. It comes. Then a quiet pervades; a very uncomfortable quiet. Then another bunch of words to read. “Everyone quiet!” He can’t feel good about the words he wrote down forty years ago because he knows they make a lie. The road less traveled by? Robert Frost playing the guitar, spitting and swearing, laughing the lyrics to shake his neighbors loose from the living death. That would be the road less traveled by! Can you imagine a barnyard of New England farmers in 1922, arriving from all over the county to hear one of Frosty’s new poems? Do you know that Frosty’s been in the bathroom all morning, drinking from a bottle of moonshine? He’s riled up and furious over the madness of suffering. God damn him if he ain’t ready to give them a chill. A megaphone tied to a spade stuck in the dirt. An old guitar, calloused fingers and a big dry thumb. “I was thinkin’ of things that I hate to do…sex with your parents…”
“Jesus Fred, is Robert telling us to have sex with our mothers?”
“I think so Wilbur. And our fathers too!”
“Do you think we better kill him?”
“No choice Wilbur. Tie him up and lay him down. Oh yes, and shut him up! I’ll go get the McCormick.”
Poets of old. Ancient monsters. Lou Reed is one of these animals. A psychopathic troubadour—actually how a 13th century troubadour might act today if left alone with electricity. Robert Frost had electricity, but about as much emotional spark as the moon gives to a coal miner. “Good fences make good neighbors.” In the name of Lou Reed, what the bloody hell is that? Wouldn’t you rather kick over the fence and clobber your neighbor?
Music is emotion. Song, quite like the nostalgic sense of smell, triggers that force in my mind responsible for opening those doors regularly passed by in the human comedy. Imagination, reflection, hope, will, well-being, love… Yes, love absolutely! Thinking back to early childhood, I know that at least half of my waking moments since that happy time have been shared with a favorite tune. A song that plays beside my breathing, in my head, for days if it wants to. When I was a boy, it played for her because I wanted to be cool. Not a bit of difference now. I’m an old man, and it still plays in my mind, all day, alone with her. As a boy, I could lay in bed for hours dreaming wide awake. Just dreaming! Where could I take her? What would we do? Did she love me? Maybe I should telephone? No. It’s more wonderful, and safer, to dream. In class we talked about an old man in boots walking along a stone fence in the rain. “Mending Wall,” and yet the whole time I may have been humming a Journey tune and dreaming of her bra strap. Lies! Everything they teach us is lies. I’m an old man and still humming thoughts of love. “Good fences make good neighbors…” That’s what illusion does to us, no? We live and breathe the lies, layer upon layer of built-up lies to ourselves. I have music in my head right now, while I type. “Baton Rouge” is a new song from Lou Reed. It was in my head last night while sautéing snails. And that’s not significant enough for an eighth grade subject? “Two roads diverged into a wood…” “When I think of you, Baton Rouge… I think of a backseat in a car.”—that’s exactly what I want to hear after finding pubic hair. I’ll save writing about walking into the woods long after retirement, when music can no longer inspire movement, when the moon’s dull reflection is the only light left in my heart. And I go out walking very slow with a cane, never a fight!
Jesus, the song’s been in my head now for forty-eight hours. I can’t get it out! Is it Lou Reed? Is it me, or everyone? How about you? What’s playing in your head? How well are you in control? What impressive accomplishments are you making today while the music pounds at the back of your brain? Why won’t we fall back and let go? Should the song leave our minds or should we? Is it bad to have “Baton Rouge” control my noodle for two days straight? Is Lou Reed a mantra I need? I don’t have the answers. Sometimes I feel quite goofy about my mind. Yes of course it’s embarrassing to hear a bird at dawn on the outside, and on the inside repeat lyrics that have no meaning to you besides melody. Embarrassing, sad, and often horrifying when you ask yourself to stop and cannot.
But is music good?
Without reason or care, I’d have to say “Yes, absolutely!” And why not? Just look around. Everyone has some music. It plays, and our world moves. Everyone is dreaming. Music and poetry work very well together to cloud our thinking. Mantras on our changing mental health. It’s right to walk to work singing. It’s right to feel. One should love and hate and always be prepared to sing out loud about it. And if he can’t do it alone, then call on the professional for help.
Lou Reed is my pro. And he is my servant. All artists, whether they would agree or not, are man-servants. Through their tireless, though meaningless efforts, mankind’s most desperate and suppressed needs are fulfilled. They remind us that childhood never ends. We are children. We can love others and ourselves with an overflowing heart. All our mentalities need the understanding and belief in our mutual nobodiness. Artists know. They say, “Sir, the world has gone stark-raving mad. Now take your bath. I’ll sing you a lullaby before bedtime.”
The best servants are cheap to hire. Any art with a high price tag is not art worth serving you. Lou Reed is rich because he is promoted. Yet his art is very cheap. I can purchase a piece for under fifteen dollars. A piece of his bleeding heart! And I know I’ll get my money’s worth. So far he’s been at my side for two days straight. I crawled out of bed with his song falling off my lips. He led me to the toilet, dressed me, and placed the dog’s leash in my hand. All that for a half a penny an hour. What a cheap, useful servant boy!
So here’s a grand finale of the Lou Reed I know. Five songs chosen from my humble collection, followed by a brief summary of the feeling of having your insides set on fire. Each has its own distinct power to reach me. Each penetrates my busy brain as a single naked poet among a million songless, murderous, bigoted, hateful dread-brokers and fear-mongers. Lou challenges everyone to a fight to the death and wins. Read them as a reference from one empty head employer to another. Yes, for just a few dollars a year, you can have my faithful servant sweep the brain, wash the filth, wax the heart, and ignite a small fire in the hollows of your barely animate clay. Here, have a listen…
Only the perfect nobody can reap the multitude of benefits from a single orange maple leaf. Pirate Cook Gots His Lost Daughter Leaf. That’s my painting after hearing Lou Reed. Purple is the color of the sky. The moon is cold. Her hand is too soft and you have no money. You have music and a pack of Camels, and do not need to prove to her that you’re a poet, but you do anyway. Pictures from books taped to the walls. Patchen and Miller, themselves starving, but dead, so very much dead, and “ Lisa says, ‘On a night like this, it’d be so nice if ya gave me a great big kiss.’”
Oh look at his poor home! Outside the hovel the night is black and cold. The pumpkins are cut and hollow. Light them. He and she are miracles. He is tall and strong. She eats homemade pasta with red lips and a perfect body. She is beautiful. The world is young and full of hope. Paints on the table. Water standing ankle-deep in the bedroom. Don’t you fools get it? They make love every night, take a walk after a dinner of soup and bread, and fall into a sound sleep without worry. Up in the morning. The birds are leaving. Depressing but true… When the cricket under the couch stops cricking, winter comes, and life as ecstasy is just another goddamn memory.
Delusions of grandeur? What on earth are the psychiatrists talking about? Man, you’re rich! You’re wonderful. You have every right to act and be ruler of the world. The street is there for you. Walk down it! “Sweet Jane” is new to my collection. It was on my first Lou Reed CD, but purchased with a scratch my player couldn’t get over. Then, when I got older and upped my machine a grade, I tried the song again. It worked! Here it is, warming up right now as I write. I am on a plane overlooking my kingdom. On a train arriving in New York at 6 p.m. on a Thursday. In my car, one hand resting on the wheel, and my eyes popping out of my head. Delusions of grandeur? Just warming up folks. Three minutes spent murdering a psychiatrist. These aren’t delusions. They want you to believe truth is delusion. The movie cameras surround me. I am the greatest wonder ever caught on film. “Children are the only ones who blush…”
Walking about my house… Do you really think my little lint-pickers that I am not a god? I get up from the table. I walk past my daughter’s school books. It is cold and gray for July. I can stand in the middle of this room, throw my arms up, and shout for joy. Dance you dirty, tiny men. Dance you frozen statues. Here comes… “Sweet Jane. Ah, sweet Jane…” I am so positively happy. God is such a puny little poet. I am a greater god. And imagine, I was just passing through this cat hair littered room on my way to the toilet.
Power and the Glory
This song appears twice on Magic and Loss. Oh my God, we’re all going to die! Now see how you handle watching cancer eat your friend. What is it gonna make you do? We are the living dead. Sometimes we’re waiting to die. I’m painting my bathroom semi-gloss white. “I want all of it.” Rapture, ecstasy, power. Happiness is that goo behind the heart powered by a 9-volt battery. When the chord lifts, the heart switches on, and a microscopic red wire sends a small hum through the arms to electrify the fingertips. Our whole emotional complex should be foaming at the mouth, running out into the street naked and screaming; our entire existence, from birth to death, is a streak of lightning in the dark sky. A flash of light, a word pronouncing every letter’s total sound and just stopping, mute forevermore.
“I was captured by a larger moment
I was seized by divinity’s hot breath
Gorged like a lion on experience
Powerful from life”
So I am painting my bathroom semi-gloss white, powerful from life. Sometimes I feel the small breezes blow through every pore hole on my body.
I taped a piece of paper with these words on our apartment door. I wanted everyone to walk in knowing that Marie and Ron were alive. No one ever asked “Why the sign, Ron?” They knew.
The first notes of this song fall with bright yellow leaves. The rain is all day. Windows are wet. I’ll come back from the store, my socks soaked with water. Someone watches me walk in from the cold. Someone else sees my soaked army coat, and knows my intentions are mostly pea soup and baked bread. But Marie is at work! Who is watching then? Are there two mes?
Love has got to be in the doing. One must always be thinking, “tomorrow is Saturday morning under the covers” thoughts. Life and death are so easy to speak of, but to really know them is both the highest glory and greatest disappointment. To think of this opportunity, life, and then to watch how carelessly we bust everything up. To think of children and wonder how they could ever believe in love after years of witnessing their parent’s mutual disdain and petty bickerings. To think of her as a child constantly, and try with your life to give what she hoped for when her heart was glad. This should tire you out completely and deliver long, contented sleeps in the night.
And ending on that drowsy note is a very short story about a human phenomenon. Lou Reed has got to be almost sixty. His latest eighteen minute scream confirms my belief in the universal need to age poetically. Try this game: Count up all the old men that you’re acquainted with. Is there just one standing in a room holding a guitar, and releasing a violent urge in the pit of his gut to twist and tear out his own beating heart? What the hell is going on? Who’s juiced Mr. Reed?
I know many old men, and not one of them tired stinkers walks the streets like a proud cock. “I got a whole in my heart the size of a truck…” Hmm, what rhymes with truck? And he probably does enough of that too! When I listen to “Possum Day”, I think of our father’s dreams, of the sweet days to come, lying dormant in their heart’s mind. I juxtapose their desperation, their suppressed hope, their countless moments of not doing exactly what they wanted to, with the reality of a single Lou Reed. Then I realize, after all, he is not a servant of mankind. That a lackey is what the lot of us become. A million lackeys to one man. Lou Reed, or any old man who feels out loud with that kind of power and passion, is an ancient jeweled kingdom of many busy roads. He can be found on any one of them at any time, when he is singing. It is the mute old men I know who saw just two roads diverging in a wood. It doesn’t matter which one they took because they both suck.
“The only thing I hope to never see
is another possum in this tree,
just like a possum”
Now take a club to your heart and frantically beat out the lifetime of lies.
“Calm… Calm… Calm as an angel.”
The whole Magic and Loss in concert. Wow!