The first Lou Reed song I ever really listened to was “What’s Good?”
It was 1992, and though Marky Mark had recently brought the sloping bassline from Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” to the American Top 40, I was completely naive of Reed or the paradigm-shifting songs by his New York City proto punk band The Velvet Underground.
I found him on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. I can’t quite remember why I bought that CD. I had never seen the movie (still haven’t). Maybe it was because it had U2 and R.E.M. and Talking Heads on it, or because it included an Elvis Costello song I had never heard before (a fantastic cover of an old Kinks song, “Days”). Whatever the reason, I listened to that album intently for the entire winter and spring of my freshman year of high school while thinking about the Apocalypse and my eventual death, which I did a lot in those days. It introduced me to Nick Cave, Can, T-Bone Burnett—it’s a hell of a collection—and it introduced me to Lou Reed, singing a strange poem that seemed like a lot of nonsense and plenty of truth. “Life’s like a mayonnaise soda,” he begins in his halting writer’s voice as a s. “And life’s like space without room. And life’s like bacon and ice cream. That’s what life’s like without you.”
Looking back, it was a strange song for a 13-year-old kid to fall for. But I did, hard. I went to my town’s big box store and found Magic & Loss, the album from which “What’s Good?” came. I bought it and played it incessantly, listening to Reed's speak-sing poems about life and death until I had saved enough money to buy another, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed, from Best Buy. I became obsessed with “Satellite of Love,” and then “Walk on the Wild Side,” which, upon hearing, had me swear off Casey Kasem. It took a little longer for me to warm to the Velvets, but it happened. I have been chipping away, off and on, at the mountain of music Reed has created ever since. Lou Reed didn't turn me into a musician as he has reportedly has done for so many others, but he did help me realize that music could sound both adult and raw at the same time. That quality was scant in the music available to me at the time. I would soon turn to books to find more of the same. Then I became a writer to try and create even more.
This weekend—at Columbia City Theater on Friday night and the Northwest Film Forum on Saturday night—a handful of the musicians from around Seattle who Reed also helped shape will be playing songs from the artists' ouevre in tribute to Reed, who passed away late last month following complications from a liver transplant at the age of 71.
It had been a while since I had heard Reed’s voice when that news came. After reading the reports, I put on “What’s Good?” I listened to the strange poetry that still confuses and I heard the truth, as clear as ever. “What’s good?” Reed ask-sings as the song winds to a close. His band answers, “Life’s good.” Then Reed responds, finally, “...but not fair at all.”
I asked some of the artists playing this weekend to share their thoughts on the artist they will be honoring and the songs they will be recreating on stage. Their reverence, humility and humor speaks volumes about this man we have lost.
Anderson sings and plays guitar in Hounds of the Wild Hunt , who will be playing an acoustic set at the CCT event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? I don’t remember when I first heard the Velvet Underground, and by extension, Lou Reed. I do, however, remember moments when the songs struck me like falling stars. I’m 16, laying on my bed, listening to The Velvet Underground and Nico on wax, and “Heroin” comes on, and maybe I’m kinda stoned. And it swells, and swells, and all of a sudden I realize that this is what real rock ‘n’ roll sounds like and everything I’ve heard up to this point has been lying to me. And then I saw ol’ Uncle Lou at Bumbershoot a couple years later, and he was wet-cat cantankerous, and he did his version of “The Raven” and I totally did not get it (though at the time I thought he didn’t get it, but hey, we’re all allowed to be young and wrong at some point right?). But for his encore, he played “Sweet Jane” and my girlfriend and I got to slow dance under warm summer light pollution. Also, reading Lester Bangs more or less hate-fucking him in interviews/reviews. That was pretty awesome too.
What songs will you be playing and why? I’m singing “I Found a Reason,” parts of “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Heroin.” I came to “I Found a Reason” kinda late. I’ve owned Loaded, in one form or another, since I was 18, but for whatever reason, “I Found a Reason” never jumped out at me. I never really noticed it until our dear friends Beth and Thomas’ wedding, when the band played it for one of the couples’ dances, either the bride and groom, or the bride and father, or something. It was crazy, stupid pretty and I actually listened to the lyrics—”Oh, I do believe/You are what you perceive/And what comes is better than what came before.” That line is not only an approximation of religious truth, it’s a lyrical form of an “If/Then” statement from geometry. If you believe that you are the summation of your perception, then everything after that belief cannot help but be more meaningful and important. Plus, I unequivocally love any song that goes from F to Dm.
“Pale Blue Eyes” is a seminal song for me. Lyrically, the first verse is a top contender for Best Ever. I sometimes play a game with myself, where I imagine how musicians reacted when they came up with iconic riffs or lines or whatever. Like, “Damn, Jimmy Page must have shit kittens when he first heard Bonham’s drums on ‘When the Levee Breaks.’” And I like to think that Lou Reed must have shivered with a slow grin when he realized how awesome those five lines are. I also have blue eyes. They could be described as pale. So, you know, there’s that too.
I think “Heroin” is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. Anyone who knows anything about guitars knows that it’s easy to create feedback but controlling it is like sculpting fire. Let’s leave it at that. “Heroin” is sculptured fire.
Henningson sings and plays guitar in Hounds of the Wild Hunt , who will be playing an acoustic set at the CCT event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? So you know when you’re a fat teenager, and you honest to god have absolutely zero chance of getting a girl to kiss you let alone tolerate being naked in the same room with you? (Hopefully you get to be naked too.) Well that was me. Without the social aid that comes from good looks, participation in clubs, or some sort of team sport I needed to be a tad bit more resourceful to find a social identity. A few of my other horrible looking friends started talking about this thing called “punk rock.” I was 15 and literally had never heard that term before. So I got exposed to a few awesome records (and several horrible ones). But as it turned out punk kids got to go to parties that girls were at and also got to wear, like, leather and studs and shit. I wanted in on that. But at that point all I knew about punk rock is that it was invented by ska musicians in 1993 while they were on the Van’s Warped tour. So, not wanting to look stupid in front of the other punks (when I finally got the courage to talk to the other punks) I did what any other scared social leper does when the fear of failure looms in the distance. I bought a book. I bought Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk at a Borders Books in Gainesville, Florida. My plan was to know more about punk than any other punk so they couldn’t call me a poseur (and hopefully I’d get to call out some fucking poseurs). The book actually ended up changing my life pretty significantly, but I won’t go into all of that. The point I’m trying to get to is that the whole first third of that book is about The Velvet Underground, and how they were the progenitors of punk rock, so I became really, really excited to get one of their records and show it off at the imaginary punk parties that I would soon be going to. So I finally did, and I tell you what (and I stand by this assessment now), they sounded absolutely nothing like Rancid. So they sucked.
What songs will you be playing and why? I’m reading the liner notes to Metal Machine Music because I own it. Both reading the liner notes out loud at friends and playing that bizarro fucking record at people are two things that I take great joy in, so having a captive audience on Friday, I felt it appropriate. Also, I’m singing “What Goes On” and “Cool It Down,” ‘cause those are pretty cool songs. Originally, I wanted to do “Son of a Son of a Sailor” and “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” but apparently those are Jimmy Buffet songs so, no dice.
Devlin sings and plays bass in Hounds of the Wild Hunt , who will be playing an acoustic set at the CCT event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? John Cusack’s post-gen-X rom-com High Fidelity had just come out in theaters and all of a sudden I found a soundtrack in my mother’s car that I actually liked. I wanted to steal it. I did, and it wound up in my portable CD player on most mornings as I walked to school. I skipped between the two Velvets songs, the one Dylan tune, and when I was feeling particularly sentimental the Stevie Wonder ballad “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever).” “Oh! Sweet Nothing” sounded like the most meaningful thing I had ever heard. I went on to steal several Velvet Underground records from the family my high-school girlfriend lived with. I still owe those good people a copy of Loaded and a couple Tom Waits records.
What songs will you be playing and why? I’m singing “Some Kind of Love,” “Waiting For My Man,” and parts of “Pale Blue Eyes.” “Some Kind of Love” is an exercise in blasé restraint and insinuation, a weird Lou Reed strip tease of sorts. It makes me uncomfortable and always has. I like it. “Waiting For My Man” is a song I’ve covered in bands since I was 17. It’s a weird part of my DNA as a rock musician. I’ll always be singing that one. “Pale Blue Eyes” might be one of my favorite songs. For a songwriter, it’s a literal master class in story telling, restraint, and tragedy. The trajectory is amazing. As a listener you’re lulled in to the tragedy of the speaker’s words, only to be punched in the stomach by the last verse. It’s simple, sad, and human in a way that will always be human.
Starkey’s band Gibraltar will be playing the CCT event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? Arlo Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby, Lou Reed’s Transformer, and my birth all happened in 1972. In my mind I’d like to think that my mom was listening to Transformer but i suspect that it was probably Arlo Guthrie. You can argue though that they’re both really “folk” albums, just about very different folks. I digress. “Walk on the Wild” side was the first Lou Reed song i ever remember hearing, thanks to classic rock FM radio in central Illinois in the mid 1980s, and it was a pretty amazing song to hear when contrasted with Night Ranger. It spurred me on to purchase Transformer (on tape! used!) and it laid the ground work for what I imagined living in a “city” could be like, and from the point of view of small, Midwest America, I was soooo ready to get to THAT city.
From then on, over the years, I keep discovering him again and again at different points in my life. Honestly, I wasn’t really ready for the Velvet Underground when I was 14. But it started to make a helluva lot more sense when I was 20. I think the discovery of his work is still in progress for me in the sense that he was complicated, his art could be complicated, and that some songs have more resonance with me the older I get. I haven’t quite arrived yet for Metal Machine Music, though. I hope I get there, or maybe not?
There is one more thing that I’d like to add. Gibraltar was created due to the intentional influence of this record (as well as Dinosaur Jr., Television, and PJ Harvey). Specifically, because of Transformer I wanted a strong piano sound, one that acted as a guitar with as much darkness, NYC @ 4am, rawness, queerness, tension, and punkish drive as possible. All because of Transformer. Anyways, not sure if that makes sense in the context of the piece you’re writing, but the band really is fundamentally informed by it. It’s foundational to me.
What songs will you be playing and why? "Sweet Jane," "Vicious" and "Satellite of Love." My favorite guitar part, of any song, ever made or yet to be made (which is a big statement) is at the very end of the swirly guitar intro on the studio (Loaded) version of “Sweet Jane.” These huge, swirly guitars build up and tumble over each other and then build up again and again, and then they stop ... pause ... pause ... pause ... and then a feedback squeal (from what I’m guessing, or hoping, is the electric guitar getting turned up) breaks the silence and then perfectly, on the one, the first chord of the song comes in on the downbeat. I LOVE THAT FEEDBACK squeal. It’s so perfect and subtle and cool.
I didn’t originally care for “Vicious” when i first heard Transformer, I was more drawn to the moodier and darker songs on the record. But over time, (as this was a tape) I kept “having” to listen to it until I found that I actually had come to like it. And such a weird song too ... the super sharp guitar bend on the D that hits through the entire song and is mixed so weird and so hot that i forces you to pay attention ... the lyrics ... repetitive ... weird ... snarly. So good.
I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to play “Satellite of Love” all of the time. At every show. It’s super fucking fun to sing, dark and heavy and joyful all at the same time. And with a full band powering through it, it’s quite epic. Especially if you imagine that David Bowie is singing the outro with you.
Shuler will be playing with his Invisible Shivers bandmate Rian Souleles at the CCT event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? I found a Best of Lou Reed tape hidden in a musty drawer of cassettes in my parent’s house growing up, and like theSelected Poems of Leonard Cohen, it didn’t make sense to me how it fit into our suburban nuclear household. So I made it my own. As a teenager I let that tape cycle over and over in my parent’s Ford Taurus. It always seemed to confuse adults—even though it was from their time, not mine. I remember, as a pizza delivery driver, giving my boss a ride and him sitting awkwardly in silence to the music before finally asking that I put on the game. I was fascinated by this subversive music, which was simultaneously catchy and off-putting, serious and silly, sweet and sour. And then there were these characters in the songs, like out of a Salinger book, which populated this far-off, twisted and magical metropolis: New York City.
What songs will you be playing and why? We’ll be playing two Velvet Underground songs (“Rock & Roll” and “Candy Says”) and two tracks from Lou’s first solo album, Transformer (“Hangin’ Round” and “Perfect Day”). I don’t want to spoil it, but they’re all hits in the underground. At least to me.
I didn’t get my first choice: “Satellite of Love.” I’m a sucker for sentimental pop songs. When it gets to the bridge I always smile: “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold with Harry, Mark and John/ Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday through Thursday with Harry, Mark and John.” Reed is such a grapevine artist; he starts a rumor with a name and a tease and sees how far it goes. In the songs Rian and I picked, we’ve got Harry, Jeanie, Jenny, Kathy, and Candy. I like that these songs, even at random, fit together to tell a story.
“Rock & Roll” talks about a girl who’s bored with the comforts of a suburban life and gets lured in the city through the sounds of the radio. It could be my story—any of our stories! But I picked it because of the way it feels. I can’t not be happy when I hear it.
Martin’s band Bigfoot Wallace will be playing the CCT event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? I first listened to Lou Reed when I saw my buddy Philip’s Myspace page in like 10th grade or something and Philip is/was a righteous dude so I just started listening to everything he put on there, including Velvet Underground.
What songs will you be playing and why? I’ll be playing “Black Angel’s Death Song,” “Femme Fatale,” and “Run, Run, Run.” “Black Angel’s Death Song” is really ugly and dissonant and beautiful and meditative. The violins on that are amazing. I’m gonna have a bunch of drone stuff running while I sort of yell over it, so that should be fun and weird and I think Lou would like that? My girlfriend told me I should play “Femme Fatale,” and she’s right! So I am. “Run, Run, Run” is one of VU’s most rocking jams and I think it was the song that started the garage rock thing. Most of my band’s songs are just trying to sound as perfectly shitty as “Run, Run, Run.”
Deeble will be playing both the NWFF and CCT events.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? My first real encounter with Lou was in the public library of a community college waiting each week for my girlfriend to get out of class. There was a listening corner underneath the stairwell with an easy chair, gigantic headphones, a turntable and a bin of records. So there in that chair with my gigantic headphones I fell victim to Reed’s poetic realism and gradually became compelled by his lyrical honesty and musical minimalism.
What songs will you be playing and why? “Open House” is a rather obscure choice off Lou and Cale’s Songs for Drella Album. But oddly that album left a significant impression on me as a songwriter. The Songs For Della record is a personal and intimate look at Lou’s friendship with Andy Warhol. I loved it because Lou allowed such a personal side of him to emerge as he dealt with issues of regret, sadness and even guilt for the way their relationship ended. It gave me courage to write personally without relying on an over use of emotionalism as many songwriters can do. “Open House” is classic Lou post VU, especially for its rhythmic qualities in the vocals, not to mention a bitch to memorize.
“I’ll Be your Mirror” was chosen quite simply because I played my own version of it on a previous record and didn’t have to learn it. “Jesus” was chosen for two reasons. The first is that Josh Golden (former Pedro the Lion bassist) and I have always loved the minimalism of this song and we really wanted to try to cover it in its original form. The second reason is that I love spirituals that stem from earthly places. There is a realism and a humility in this song that allows me to be comfortable with a hope towards the spiritual, which can get so easily lost in the dissociative overtones of religiosity.
“Candy Says.” well. because after four years of graduate studies in psychology this song pretty much sums up everything I’ve ever leaned about myself or my clients.
Cortese will be playing the NWFF event with his band The Jesus Rehab .
How did you first discover Lou Reed? When I was in high school I was a huge Nirvana fan and I would buy up and seek out every bootleg they had. There was this horribly recorded version of “Here She Comes Now” that I played over and over on the tape deck in my 1987 Honda Civic hatchback which only had two working speakers. It sounded terrible but I didn’t care and I LOVED it! I thought for the longest time it was a Nirvana song, and then one of my friends was in the car and revealed it was a Velvet Underground song. I remember thinking, “If Nirvana likes The Velvet Underground, they must be cool.” I checked out a few songs and of course was familiar with the big hits, but I feel like I really didn’t appreciate the genius of his writing until much later. He had an ability to make music that is complex and interesting, but appears to be simple and approachable. That is a quality shared by all of the greats.
What songs will you be playing and why? We are going to play “White Light/White Heat,” “Perfect Day,” and “Into The Sun.” Lou Reed means a lot to a lot of people, so we wanted to try and pick songs we thought would work well with our band, and we could do justice. When we found out we were going to be contributing to the event, I decided to ask a few friends to pick out three or four of their favorite Velvet Underground and Lou Reed songs. Then I listened through each one and tried to really get a sense of what really connects people to each of the songs, such as certain lead lines, or a driving rhythm. Because we are a two piece we have to approach covers in this way, because we have limited resources and sometimes it’s difficult to reproduce a song that was performed by more than two people. For instance, “Perfect Day” is harmonically lush and lyrically driven, but rhythmically everything hits kind of at the same time with all of the lead lines being played mostly by the piano. That kind of song is right down our alley! Aside from that these three just spoke to us and we really look forward to playing them.
Martin will be playing with his band Kinski at the NWFF event.
How did you first discover Lou Reed? I was working an intern job at The Bloomsbury Review in Denver. The layout artist there used to take a break every day from 10 to 11 a.m. to watch Little House on the Prairie. He also had a bunch of records there. One was Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask. I had read about the Velvets but hadn’t really heard anything yet. (The vinyl reissues hadn’t come out I don’t think.) The layout guy let me borrow The Blue Mask and I took it home and found it really intriguing. Especially the song about loving women (“Women”). I bought myself a copy a little later and listened to it a bunch. I then bought the comp Rock and Roll Diary: 1967-1980 which had some Velvets songs on it and his new record New Sensations.
Lou was playing a show in Boulder soon after and did a record signing in Denver. I went. Which I’ve hardly ever done before or since. But I was going to get to meet “Lou Reed”! It was really nerve wracking. He would take your record and then stare into your eyes for about 10 seconds but it felt like 20 minutes. He would then silently sign his name and hand the record back. He did this to everybody. I then went to the show that night and saw him play with Robert Quine on second guitar. It was completely amazing.
What songs will you be playing and why? It’s a surprise. I haven’t even told my girlfriend. I’ll just say two Velvets and a Lou. One is my all time favorite Velvets song and the other two are great and seemed right for the band to do.