Lou Reed died last Sunday, and so now the people who we have given the job of telling us who is popular are telling us that Lou Reed was popular even though he demonstrably wasn't.
Lou Reed was never popular, however much the idea of Lou Reed was.
Lou Reed, in case you didn't know, was a rock 'n roll star. His most famous song was "Take a Walk on the Wild Side." It was also his best song, as measured in relative terms by all his other songs, most of which were much worse.
He started out his musical career with the band the Velvet Underground, a cult band whose popularity defied, ... well, their popularity. The people who have heard of the Velvet Underground far exceeds the people who have actually heard the Velvet Underground, which for these latter people is (probably unbeknownst to them) a good thing. Its members wore black leather, played long interminable songs about sex and drugs, and generally made a cultural nuisance of themselves.
Reed himself played guitar only passably, and sang mostly off key. He said he learned to play the guitar from listening to the radio. I think we can safely assume the the radio from which her learned to sing and play didn't have very good reception.
Since he was not very good, his mourners have had to resort to saying things like, "He was prophetic," although exactly why he was prophetic or what he was prophetic of remains a mystery.
Reed's publicist Bill Bentley claims that the reason no major label would sign the Velvet Underground was because their songs were seven minutes long, rather than three. Maybe. On the other hand, maybe they couldn't get signed because they stunk--not that I would have complained if we could have subtracted four minutes of bad music from the world.
Lou Reed was a musician we were all supposed to like. Which accounts for all of the Twitter eulogies coming from celebrities, most of whom probably never heard more than a song or two from him, if that, but know that it's just one of the things you're expected to say to be thought fashionable in the world they inhabit--a world that, unfortunately inhabits many of us.
I mean, Miley Cyrus (who tweeted, on Reed's death, "noooooooooo notttttttttt LOU REED")? Really? She probably thinks her music is good too.
Reed once said of his album Metal Machine Music, which even his admirers admitted was really bad, "No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive." But he underestimated the bad taste of his admirers and the depths to which they would descend in order to retain their avante garde cultural status.
Oh, and, by the way, in case you did't notice, he didn't survive after all. That's why we're talking about him right now.
Or maybe it wasn't just bad taste. No. He was one of those cultural heroes who gets more popular the worse he is. Badness is a quality greatly valued by those who those who don't have any real aesthetic standards think have them. They can't do it themselves quite as well and admire anyone who can. If you can sing badly, write bad songs, flaunt your homosexuality (at a time when it is not celebrated like it is now), take drugs and write songs about how good it is and get away with it all, then you can take the final step to pop cultural apotheosis and insult the people who admire you for doing it.
That's what really throws them into an ecstatic frenzy. Just look at the life of J. D. Salinger.
Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air" did an adulatory show on Reed earlier this week. She admitted that she had no past recordings of Reed on her show because the one time he was scheduled to be her guest, he walked off after several minutes because he didn't like her questions. Gross said the incident did not detract from her admiration for his music, but you've got to know it probably only increased it (something other than the music itself just has to account for anyone's admiration of it). Such is the masochistic tendency of those R. Emmett Tyrrell once termed the "chi chi intelligentsia."
Ah, yes. Masochism. Did I mention that the title of Lou Reed's biography was Please Kill Me?
Lou Reed wasn't nice to people and said and did a bunch of bad things, including being rude and selfish, walking out of interviews, and once held a gun to his military superior's head (for which he got kicked out of ROTC at Syracuse University).
But, said one of his cultural entourage, that was "just Lou."
Here is an excerpt from Terry Gross' interview with Mary Woronov, who did the "whip dance" in the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable," a series of multimedia musical performances thought up by Andy Warhol, featuring the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s (And, by the way, were the 1960s really necessary?):
There was tremendous antagonism between New York and L.A. L. A. was, you know, um, full of color, full of acid, full of hippies, and we were not like that.No way. They (Mary Woronov and her friends) had, you know, standards. They were, um ...
... dressed in black and white, uh, we did not like free love, we liked, uh, S&M, real, uh, restraint, uh, perversion too, um, we took amphetamines. We took LSD, They were, you know, sort of loving and happy, and, uh, we weren't, uh, really evil, we were more intellectual, more about art.Mmhmm. Intellectual. About art. I think I see the problem now.
In his interview with Terry Gross, Bentley says that Reed was "tortured." She could have pointed out that, if you want to talk about being tortured, you should try to listen to Reed's music. But it apparently didn't occur to her.
But being tortured is also a good thing to be if you aspire to occupy a spot in the pop cultural pantheon. They said this about Johnny Cash too--who, if he hadn't been a "tortured soul," would have been way too Christian to have gotten any attention from those who tell us who we should give attention to. Of course Cash was, by his own account, tortured by the Devil. Reed didn't need the Devil to torture him: He had himself.
I hope he found some kind of peace in the end. Death isn't the kind of place you want to be walking on the wild side of.