When Kurt Cobain died I was 13. I wore his suicide on my sleeve for several years. I identified with him and it, and wanted to preserve his timelessness, not make light and deflect. I learned from his work to accept people lovingly, as they are as they were as a trend as a friend…
When Syd Barrett died I was 25 and was temping at Bear Stearns doing accounting tasks that I did not understand but somehow accomplished anyway. I wrote an “appreciation” and posted it on my website, and sent it to my dad. He had written a brief prayer on the night John Lennon died which I have read many times and I thought he would empathize with the loss of a hero. Barrett made awkward beautiful. Timeless forgotten graspings. The sea isn’t green / and I love the Queen. Puddletown Tom was the underground.
When Elliot Smith died I was 23 and standing on Broadway between 157th and 158th streets, about to go underground to the train. My brother-in-law called me and asked if I’d heard. I hadn’t. He told me. I laughed. Not that I thought his personal horror and tragedy was comedy – but because I had learned to be distant from my heroes. At least the ones that I did not know personally. I was working at a dog kennel and was a blistering painful confusion following distant lights of inspiration and patience.
I thought of Dan Bern’s song, “Kurt.” “If you want my tears tell me your name / Give me your hand let me feel your pain / But for Kennedy and Jesse James / There’s Joan of Arc and Kurt Cobain.”
When David Foster Wallace died I was 27. I called my mom even though it was past 11pm, because we had read Infinite Jest together after I had spoken so highly of it to her. She is a minster’s wife and no stranger to the deaths and tragedies of people. I then climbed the fire escape to the roof of our apartment building where friends were drinking and informed them. I returned to the apartment and started reading Infinite Jest. But I had never read Beloved.
When Gore Vidal died I was 31 and had been anticipating it for years not at all in a macabre way. He, along with some of the living that I won’t name for kindness, was the reason I checked the obituaries. I opened his United States essays and began reading. I heard someone say that he was a “vicious sexist” and asked why she’d said that and she showed me an article of Vidal saying nasty things about Roman Polanski’s teenage victim.
When Lou Reed died I was 33. I was working on writing some songs of my own and opening the web browser for a video I use to tune the guitar when I saw the headline. I heard in my mind “Hey hey hey hey busy suckin on my ding-dong.” I imagined myself at 21, having just purchased my first Velvet Underground with White Light/White Heat, leaving the low-wage convenience store parking lot with “Sister Ray” bludgeoning the drive home into an ecstasy of circles that are wound and wound like springs and you don’t know if you are traversing up or down.
I can think of dozens of more eloquent lines from Reed’s catalogue to quote, but that’s the one that surfaced in my mind. Perhaps because I’m a gross pig. But perhaps because the lyrics’ crudeness and oddity are so memorable in the 17-minute song about sex, drugs, love, murder and the foreboding of the wolf (in this case, the police) at the door.
Reed’s Ecstasy includes the 18-minute “Like a Possum.” Another of my favorites of his circles of songs, and again crude and sexual. Some pop masters like Brian Wilson or the Beatles kept their gummiest ditties short, repeating a chorus only once before fading out instead of repeating until the listener could grow weary. But every time “Sloop John B” fades out, I always want more. Reed’s pop could satisfy this more primal desire to be lovingly lost in the song with no end.
The freedom in proclaiming sexuality that Reed employed startled and excited me in the same way Nirvana’s “Moist Vagina” had when I was 13. There were very few lyrics, but what they amounted to was sex, drugs and rock and roll in a song which added up to a proclamation of freedom (at least to those denied even knowledge of these things) just as “Surfin’ U.S.A.” had decades before. It was as Timothy White wrote of the Beach Boys, “a purity of purpose in the honest expression of pleasurable needs.”
These needs often lead to nowhere good. But more often it is the stifling of these needs that leaves people worse for the wear.
Reed’s catalogue has much to offer, and what I’ve mentioned here is only a miniscule portion. I just wanted to make sure someone stuck up for long droning songs with the strange lyrics – for me they often held firm a collapsing circle, for 17 minutes.
And of course not knowing him personally, my Lou Reed will always be with me. The one I discovered long after the recordings had been recorded. The recordings etched into the grooves in my brain. Just as Wallace’s books have not disappeared. They are as alive to me as Homer or Emily Dickinson.
All of the dead memorialized here are white males. Me too. I don’t know where I was when Tupac or Biggie died. I was 28 years old before I heard of MOVE being bombed by the authorities in Philadelphia. But I just finished The Autobiography of Malcolm X and he is alive to me now. When I think of how long my heroes were only white males then, like Scrooge, I beg to be forgiven for the time that I’ve wasted. And I cannot expend important energy and time mourning those who are still giving unto me, while I have so much to give unto others.
And for Lou Reed and Jesse James / There’s Joan of Arc and Kurt Cobain.