Lou Reed: A Man Inspired

Was Lou Reed a religious person? Perhaps not. He was a man inspired, though.

The sublime, the body, and the mind breathed life and sound and vision into him onto his last. Vigor and passion too: “First came fire, then came light, then came feeling, then came sight,” he wrote. (Finish Line, 1996) “My life is music”, he said in his final interview, weeks before his passing.

As a poet-musician, Reed († 27 October 2013) acted as a conduit of love and lust, ignorance and ecstasy, death and dread, blood and gore. As an artist, he knew how to look up to others. As a person, he stood in awe of beauty and light, wisdom and integrity.

Time and again, Reed paid tribute to Master Ren Guangyi and Mingyur Rinpoche. Wise men from the East, who taught him Tai Chi and Buddhist meditation, respectively. Lasting lessons learned. A daily practice, interfacing life and death. He had the beginner’s mind, though others called Reed a master.

“He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form Tai Chi with just his musician hands moving through the air,” wrote Laurie Anderson, his wife and companion. His expression full of wonder, eyes wide open. “As meditators, we had prepared for this”, she added in a Rolling Stone farewell. And: “I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

Reed let fellow musicians shine. “The moment we played together it was like: Wow! This is really serious. My guitar on top of James and Kirk. The odds on that working—three guitars—is almost zero. It’s very hard even to get that two-guitar lock. I started playing against James—it was like, whuump!” Reed is talking about his collaboration with Metallica and the resultant album Lulu (2011), he is pushing 70.

Ever receptive to talent and youth, a couple of months before his passing Reed wrote about Kanye West’s album Yeezus: “He obviously can hear that all styles are the same, somewhere deep in their heart, there’s a connection. It’s all the same shit, it’s all music—that’s what makes him great. If you like sound, listen to what he’s giving you. Majestic and inspiring.”

Reed himself had no trouble seeing continua either. In his final interview, he said: “Sounds are more than just noise. And ordered sound is music.” To him, the albums Metal Machine Music (originally released in 1975) and Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007), were of a part. “Ordered sounds of an unpredictable nature,” read the liner notes to the latter.

To quote: “When I did Metal Machine Music, New York Times critic John Rockwell said, ‘This is really challenging.’ I never thought of it like that. I thought of it like, ‘Wow, if you like guitars, this is pure guitar, from beginning to end, in all its variations.  And you’re not stuck to one beat.’ That’s what I thought. Not, ‘I’m going to challenge you to listen to something I made.'” The flyer to Reed’s 2008 shows with Metal Machine Trio read “No Songs”.

The same year he noted that the Hudson River Wind Meditations are a way “of taking expectations and making it so that you do not have to bother with it. To free up your mind from ‘Where is the verse?’, ‘Where is the chorus?’, ‘What is the tempo?’, ‘What is the this?’, ‘What is the that?’ You cannot think that way with this, which is great. I love to have music that is that way. But I also did not want it to be atonal, where it draws attention to itself because you think it is out of key. I wanted to find something that is kind of keyless, which is another expectation that could go away.”

Lou Reed said this during a dialogue I had with him had in 2008 for Brainwave, the ongoing interdisciplinary program of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. The occasion was the release of Hudson River Wind Meditations, the subject was music, meditation and the plasticity of the brain.

That night, Reed’s hard won combination of strength and pliability contended with my scientific inclination to scrutinize, analyze and explain. How does music work? Why, precisely? Reed was averse to empty intellectualization, that much was clear. He trusted his gut, rather than idle rumination.

West’s album Yeezus works, he thought, “because it’s beautiful — you either like it or you don’t—there’s no reason why it’s beautiful. I don’t know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn’t, and that’s that. You can analyze it all you want.”

In his last interview, Reed said: “Sounds are the inexplicable. Sounds are like light. What is light?” And yet, he observed, we are born attuned to the sound of nature, the sound of love. “The first memory of sound would have to be your mother’s heartbeat. For all of us. So the thing that’s interesting is: You grow up from when you’re a peanut listening to rhythm. And that’s why we love: pfooh, pfooh, pfooh. It’s so simple.”

And yet, as he submitted to his audience at the Rubin Museum, “there is a reason for bass. There is a reason that when you go to a club, they have that bass up, and the foot pedal of the drum. It is not missing. It is there for a reason: Because you are physical and it is fun to have the physicality of the body. That is why with this music for the meditation I thought you would be encompassed in this cocoon of vibrating, moving bass.”

The contradiction is merely apparent. It dissolves once one recognizes that for Reed art, movement and sound were ‘all the same shit’. It’s all life. The sublime, the body, and the mind: Love incarnate, released upon death.

Rob Hogendoorn