The Murshid of the Underground

Bluemask

In the fall of 1972 my musical outlook was infected, then, by my early experience with the virtuosity of Flatt and Scruggs. I loved most of all blues-rock and country-rock. My much more experienced musical mentors at the time were hippies, so was I; we were into hippie music in all its plainness and simplicity,

This would not be changed by having my boss at Music Madness obsessively subject me to his in-store playlist during the holiday season that year: The Yes Album, the entire catalogues of Ten Years After, The Moody Blues, Procol Harum. Santana, and The Velvet Underground.

When we were both in the store he would shake his head when I played anything by The Grateful Dead or The Byrds, (except for Chestnut Mare on Untitled.). He could tolerate The Band, the first Moby Grape record, Little Feat, and Joni Mitchell. Our only shared mutual enthusiasm was for the Jefferson Airplane, The Allman Brothers, Santana and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  

His playlist was substantially altered in 1972, first (in my graduation month of June,) with the release of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and next in November, with the release of Lou Reed’s Transformer. He played the shit out of those two records. 

I hated Lou Reed and thought The Velvet Underground might turn out to be Satan’s house band. I thought Transformer was not only boring but was intentionally so; like, to be dull and repetitive was its point.

Scroll ahead thirty years, and I’m by this time I’m a grizzled muso–having spent the better part of 17 years selling music–with this really huge collection of records being dragged around, and ending up at this time renting a half a house situated a mile away from the scene of my boss’s original attempted crimes against my youthful musical prejudices, so-to-speak.

By then, Lou Reed had come to inhabit a decisive role in my musical awareness for over thirty years. Having his raw NYC rock serve as an unwanted dental procedure during my formative late-teen years had helped create his greatest impact on my tastes: in the realms of rock, I was tone deaf in the face of anything raw and underground for the next twenty years. The major deficit I incurred was my facile rejection of the entirety of punk and experimental and so-called ‘downtown’ rock music. Years later a friend called me ‘a loser’ for this fact of my development!

But Lou Reed’s spot in my awareness becomes ironic in 1982, when Lou at forty years of age delivers to me at twenty-eight a record The Blue Mask, and does so due to the automatic delivery of RCA new releases I was subject to as manager of the record department at The Vermont Book Shop.

“What the hell, I’ll give it a spin.” Hypnotic noisy post-punk–post-punk already?–crashes into something like Bleeker Street balladry. Listenable. WTF? I took the promo home and attended to what seemed to me to be either an apparition or actual appearance of virtuosity.

Robert Quine.

Two years later came Live In Italy. Bingo! I rapidly came to dig Lou Reed for three reasons: he was truthful, he was a romantic, and he shared with the world his creative destiny. It turned out to be uncomplicated but it also turned out that I was too callow to comprehend Lou’s artistry at 18.

Nowadays, even suffering the weight of accumulated prejudices and biases and blinding spots, I appreciate the VU and Bowie, and the first post-VU outpouring of Mr. Reed. Yet, I immensely enjoy the more recent high points of Lou Reed’s output, and these include the mountain of live bootlegs, he and the bootleggers delivered over the past thirty years. 

This has little to do with any increase in virtuosity, after all Mick Ronson was a great rock gunslinger in 1972. (What did I know?) It has to do with one part ultimate irony, that Reed was a generous touring purveyor of his greatest songs as he grew to be a rock elder, and, a second part for which I became able to move into a deep alignment with his poetic, hypnotic, (as I would term it,) two-and-half chord rock and roll, and, a third part, that I came to view and understand the context for his long and committed experimentalist’s journey.

Combine this context with his influence and he joins The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, as the ur-influences birthed by the second and most critical wave of musical counter-culture. A case could be made that the magnitude of his actual influential import on others places him first among equals.

I get it, now. Thanks Lou.

Youtube archives so many glorious artifacts of Lou Reed’s artistry that I will leave you to your own devices on that account except for the following and magnificent document from 2004. 

Bonus: Lou Reed with Robert Quine, 1983.