It is a Sunday and I wake from a mid-afternoon nap on the couch. I've just had a vivid lesbian dream. Nate catches me stirring and looks over at me, droopy-eyed. I feel guilty, like the dream is written on my face. He softly plants the words "Lou Reed died" into the room. I am still groggy and like a baby I immediately begin to cry. I cry for the lesbian I don't know in my dream, and I cry for Lou Reed. I maintain my post on the couch for a while, laying belly-side up and watching whitecaps bloom out of waves from a window. I feel an impulse to text message every man I've ever loved but instead I think about the probable death of other people that I will weep for, like Mick Jagger or somebody. I think it is all ending, music is over, and I put on a slow version of "Waiting for the Man" and I weep a little bit more.
By now I have read all of the eulogies; big - the Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and small - the unexpected E-mail from an old friend who is thinking about me and Lou Reed too. From the distinguished like Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson come intimate and inimitable anecdotes, like a first time meeting Lou and stories of exchanging poetry in elevators, of singing opera in elevators, of butterfly hunting, and apparitional visions of a last time seeing Lou. In the two weeks since his ultimate passing, it has become evident that everyone, not just his confidants, lovers, and collaborators, has a Lou Reed story to share. For those of us who never met the man or didn't achieve rock and roll fame in time, our stories are grounded and patterned, characterized by the singular moment that we heard what we did, when the Velvet Underground changed our lives.
I think of my first teenage love when I think about the VU. The day I met Tony Daynes on a beach in northern Massachusetts was the same day that my behavior resulted in being grounded under my mother's roof for the first and only time. Tony was mouthy, cynical, at times even rude. He went to a private school but his hair was longer than the other boys I knew from my conservative suburb - "shaggy" - and his voice was deeper, rounder than theirs. I was thirteen, and so was he. I had braces, and so did he. I wore an electric green Ramones t-shirt, and so did he, although his his was black and belonged to his girlfriend Kate whom I was both infatuated with and endlessly jealous of. Tony coveted the shirt the same way a child does the blanket given to them when they first left the womb, and though it was a constant reminder that he was in love with another thirteen year old girl instead of me, I liked our matching T-shirts. One time I showed an old babysitter a picture of Tony that I had discovered on his MySpace page and she told me he was "very Flock of Seagulls." I didn't know what the reference meant and so I dismissed it. Nothing was relevant except for Tony and Tony's Myspace picture. 10 years later I know what it means when someone says someone else looks "very Flock of Seagulls" and Tony doesn't, and never did, look very Flock of Seagulls.
Tony lived with his parents an hour away from my home and the frequency of our playdates relied on the generosity of our parents. I preferred Tony's house to mine and so once a month on a Saturday morning my mother drove me to him with the understanding that one of his parents would deliver me later that night. I liked Tony's house because I liked his parents, and I liked his parents because they left us alone. I liked Tony's house for the two big and bashful golden retrievers that came with the visit. I liked Tony's house because sometimes we would hang out in his dad's office unsupervised where the vintage Telecaster lived. Tony would play for me, strumming mainly aggressive and sloppy bar chords. I knew I was better on the guitar than he was but I never played for Tony or for anyone besides my mother. I liked Tony's house because it was bigger than mine. It was aged and many of the rooms seemed forgotten, as if nobody went in them anymore and hadn't for a long time. I never went in those rooms either but I know they existed because we would pass them on our way to more popular rooms and I would try to peek and ask Tony what that room was for. I liked Tony's house because it was always winter and the wall of windows in the living room let in a white cloud light that swallowed us whole and made the whole place feel damp. The windows looked over a neglected pool, asleep for the season in the middle of an overgrown backyard. I liked Tony's house because of the rusty brown couch in the basement where we spent most of our days together, sitting innocently side by side. On this couch Tony showed me films. On this couch Tony willingly shared with me illuminating and revelatory music like Guided by Voices, like the Jesus and Mary Chain, like My Bloody Valentine. And on this couch we sat together and exchanged few words while I heard the Velvet Underground's Loaded for the first time. The reissue was being sold as a double CD and the pink hologram on the cover shape-shifted while Tony held the case in his hands and professed his love. The music dribbled into my brain and oozed out through my limbs and I reveled in the pleasure of hearing something new and knowing I would never hear anything like it again.
It was imperative that I got this CD for my own keeping as soon as possible. There would be no more early bus rides to school, no more falling in love with one more person, no additional self-discovery, and no shedding any tears until this sound was also playing in the background as my soundtrack simultaneously. That same week I rode the commuter rail into Cambridge after school and took myself to the record store on the third floor of the garage that smelled of sugar and shrink-wrap. The album was more expensive than most of the other CD's around because there were two discs and because it was new and probably because of the pink hologram, too. Using three weeks worth of allowance I bought it anyway and every other VU album I could swindle.
While reflecting on my discovery of the Velvet Underground (& Nico too), I realized that I don't have memories of that definitive moment of exposure for other musical artists. I am more familiar with and even more devoted to other notable big guys like Neil Young and Dylan, the latter who pierced my heart some time during puberty and stayed there. But I don't remember the who, the how, or when with them. Was I in a car the first time Neil Young played to me through the radio and whose car was it and did I ask them to turn it up? What was the first Dylan song I ever heard and did I even like it? I can estimate that they happened to me sometime during early adolescence when I was a budding sentient and informed record collector, but it is ordinary and organic, as if one day they weren't there with me, and then the next day they had always been there.
Why do my opening moments with Lou Reed stand out exclusively? Why did the other guys blend together in a generic memory from sometime when I was crossing into cool? It has been suggested by a close source that it is because "Lou Reed was a weirdo." After chewing on this theory, it occurred to me that my exposure to an artist like Bob Dylan likely took place much earlier than I previously speculated. Because both Dylan and Young were one with the mainstream before I was even born, it is possible that I spent my childhood being involuntarily desensitized to their remarkable and otherwise noteworthy music via shameless car commercials and a steady flow of movie soundtracks. But Lou Reed never traversed airwaves to my ears unbeknownst to me. Lou Reed happened to me when I was ready for him to happen to me. Lou Reed never stopped being an irregular weirdo and he molded within me a very exquisite and a very irregular memory. And so on a rusty brown couch, Lou Reed will forever be with me.