On October 27, 2013, we lost Lou Reed, legendary front man of the Velvet Underground and a musical innovator with a long and remarkable solo career.
Reed’s death immediately sent me back to his catalog, and for over a week I revisited memories I attach to his music. Though my favorites come mostly from the early Velvet Underground era, his album that left the deepest impression on me was New York, which came out in 1989, the same year I went to New York City for the first time as a fully conscious, relatively autonomous human being. I was fourteen.
I bought a vinyl copy of New York at Bleecker Bob’s (RIP) and listened to it endlessly after reluctantly returning to my depressingly rural hometown in Maryland. From the first twangy notes of “Romeo Had Juliet”—with its almost lyrical ending, resounding with disappointment and a blatant disregard for the dangling modifier: “The perfume burned his eyes / Holding tightly to her thighs / Then something flickered for a minute / Then it vanished and was gone”—through all the seething social commentary (what teen can resist a line like “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em / That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says”?) to the cello-haunted, monotonous thrumming of “Dime Store Mystery,” the album was an alluring snapshot of the city’s seedy underbelly at the end of the Reagan years. And that was exactly where I wanted to be. Getting mugged at knifepoint on 42nd Street during my trip had only confirmed how enticingly treacherous the place was, and it allowed me to pretend that I myself had walked a few blocks down Reed’s Dirty Boulevard... Much later—after high school and college—I moved to New York and got my own real taste of the city, which is as different now from the city I knew as my New York was from the one Reed depicted in 1989.
Of course, Lou Reed left behind a long list of great songs: “Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “I’m Waiting for the Man”... Now it’s difficult to listen to “Perfect Day” without tearing up at the thought of its author being deceased. And hearing Lou croon Transformer’s concluding “Goodnight, Ladies” from beyond the grave gives the song a resonance it never had for me before.
In TQ2, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke remembers Reed with “Sweet Nothing: A Manifesto,” in which she spins another old favorite (“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” the final track of Loaded [1970*], the Velvet Underground’s last album with Reed) into a false documentation narrative with mystical overtones. While VU’s original devotes but four lines each to Jimmy Brown, Ginger Brown, Polly May, and Joanna Love, in her imaginative exegesis of the song Werner-Jatzke morphs Reed’s refrain into a kind of Nietzschean mantra: it’s not just “sweet nuthin’” but “The Sweet Nothing,” a blissful, transcendent nihilism represented by four downtrodden Prophets who have been captured and quantified by the system. Imagine Lou Reed rewriting “An Orison of Sonmi-451” from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
My advice: put on your headphones, crank up the volume, and listen to “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” as you read this piece. They go together perfectly, as though the author tailored her work’s length to match the song. You’ll find that, as much as the song enhances the story, the story transforms the song.
*Note the birthdates of her characters.
Read “Sweet Nothing: A Manifesto” by Chelsea Werner-Jatzke here.