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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2013/11/24
by Mike Gruenberg

Lou Reed

In My Life

For someone like me whose musical awakening occurred in New York City in the 60’s, there are certain songs and names of musicians that evoke a familiar feeling. Moreover, those songs, memorable concerts attended with a good friend and that record bought at a dusty record store are positive images that remind me pleasantly of days gone by.

As a young adult, I spent a lot of time in New York City at places like the Fillmore East, Max’s Kansas City, The Night Owl, Café Wha?, Steve Paul’s The Scene and The Tin Angel to name a few. These were just some of many places a young person could go to eat decent food and see the best music on the planet performed live. Even more exciting were the concerts in Central Park sponsored by a long forgotten brewery called Schaefer Beer where I saw all the current groups of the day like the Young Rascals, Sha-Na-Na, Lovin’ Spoonful, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, The Band, etc., performing at night under the stars in the greatest park in the world for the unbelievable price of $1.

There were places in the city like Washington Square Park where you could meet your friends and meet a whole host of characters and even make new friends. Or you could visit or at least walk by The Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street where luminaries like Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan among others were known to have visited and stayed at that landmark location. It was an exciting time with new music and new personalities seemingly appearing every week. It was an exhilarating time in the Big Apple for new music performed live or heard on FM radio.

New Yorkers take great pride in their city and take even more pride in the musicians and performers who were born there. People like Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel from Queens, Dion from the Bronx, Sonny Rollins, the great jazz musician from New York City, Leslie West from Forest Hills, Bobby Darin from the Bronx, Cyndi Lauper from Queens, Billy Joel from Long Island and the list goes on and on and on of musical greats who walked the same streets, rode the same subways and drank the same NYC water as I did along with 8 million other New Yorkers.

Today’s musical giants like Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, and Christina Aguilera all claim the New York metropolitan area as their place of birth and current homes. There are even famous people originally from other parts of the world that fall in love with the city and claim it as their own. Perhaps the most famous of that group would be the late John Lennon who became a resident of the city and loved being there.

Lou Reed grew up in Freeport, Long Island. After graduating from college, he got a job writing songs for a record company housed in the city. He wrote a song for them called “The Ostrich” which the company liked and released as a single to semi-moderate success. A band was assembled to promote the record and so that was the early formation of the Velvet Underground that included Reed. Although the Velvets did not sell many records, its music and association with Andy Warhol and a very vibrant New York music scene made Lou and the Velvet Underground stand out as one of the most influential bands in rock’n’roll history. One could accurately say that the timing for Lou’s emergence could not have been better.

In his career, Lou did not sell a lot of records. Clearly, he never achieved as many gold and platinum record sales awards as some of his famous s fellow New Yorkers like Paul Simon and Billy Joel. His was a respectable number, but not at a superstar level and yet for his fans, he was as monumental to them as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were to their legions of admirers. According to Billboard, in his 46 years of recording, Lou placed 23 albums on the Billboard 200, five of which with the Velvet Underground. Since 1991, he sold an additional 1.6 million units and with the Velvet Underground another 2.1 million sold under his name.

Of course, in death record sales of admired rock stars inevitably rise. The latest Billboard charts indicate that following his passing, three of his albums hit the Billboard 200 chart along with a Velvet Underground album. Transformer entered the charts at #98; The Essential Lou Reed a greatest hits album entered the charts at #155; Rock’n’Roll Animal at 191: Velvet Underground & Nico re-entered the charts at #129. In other words, Reed’s catalog added 14,000 albums while the Velvet Underground sold 9,000 albums for the week after his passing.

In terms of individual song sales recently purchased by fans of Lou Reed, 43,000 songs written or performed by Lou were downloaded along with 14,000 tunes from the Velvet Underground. While it’s a bit macabre talking about sales after one has passed, the reality is that Lou was a very beloved performer who at one time singularly appealed to a certain demographic, but in later years had found a more universal appeal.

To me, the beauty of his work was in the visual images of people described in his music. True or not, I always imagined that the people written about in Lou’ songs were from New York City. There is a unique grittiness to New York and the people who live there and Lou captured that essence in his music. Whether the song was about the ladies of the evening on the street corner hustling John’s or the ragged man on the street in the Bowery or the street tough guys, or teens struggling to understand their sexual preferences, Lou’s songs captured every nuance, every breath and every detail of life on the streets. At the top of the Lou Reed musical pyramid is his classic song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” It is truly a unique and brilliant musical masterpiece which to me is an anthem celebrating Lou and his career.

I never attended a Lou Reed or Velvet Underground concert. I bought very few of his or the group’s records. And I certainly did not know as much about Lou as I did about musicians like John, Paul, George and Ringo. But unlike the Beatles or Stones, I knew Lou on another level because I shared a city with him. I admired his ability to paint the visual picture through words and song. New York was Lou and Lou was New York.

Lou left us with a rich musical legacy and although I mourn his loss, I am glad that his music lives on for me and many future generations.

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