I used to sit up late at night with a boom box clutched tightly in my hands, feverishly scanning the radio dial in desperate hope of finding musical inspiration. Mostly I would spin the knob in vain, taking more interest in random patterns of AM static than anything masquerading as music on the perpetually commercial Indianapolis airwaves.
But, on occasion, I got lucky.
It's easy to forget how rare and magical it once was to discover a favorite new song or work of art. With the Internet, seemingly any experience we're seeking is just a click away. But the process of acquiring information used to be a bit more random and there was an element of luck at play. It was like looking up at just the right moment to see a shooting star flitter across the night sky.
I'll never forget the first time I heard Lou Reed's voice. It was 1990 and I was in the sixth grade. Up hours after bedtime on a school night with radio in hand, I laid awake restless, slowly turning the dial. I paused for a moment on Q95 to hear the last few seconds of a lifeless slab of arena rock fade out, bracing myself for the next blast of macho guitar riffing. But instead I was confronted with a bubbling jazz bass line and the droll delivery of Reed's voice rising from the speakers.
"Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she"
I sat transfixed, intensely absorbing each word as the song grew stranger and stranger. At eleven years old, this was the most powerful encounter I'd ever had with a work of art. I'd never heard sex, drugs, androgyny and race discussed in such a free and open manner.
"Walk on the Wild Side" provided me with a brief glimpse into an exciting underground world that I never knew existed, but had somehow been longing for. Reed's lovingly rendered portraits of the song's broken characters suggested an alternative to the banal lifestyles and restrictive moral codes touted by the dry mainstream culture of my suburban hometown.
In this way Lou Reed's voice has been ushering listeners into the underground of American counterculture for decades, and it will continue to do so for decades to come. Brian Eno once famously mused that although Reed's first Velvet Underground record only sold a few thousand copies, everyone who bought it formed a band.
I was fortunate to see Lou Reed in a rare Indianapolis appearance, a brief performance for 1990's Farm Aid benefit at the Hoosier Dome. I also had the privilege of spinning a night's worth of Lou Reed tunes at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the opening of Andy Warhol Enterprises in 2010.
Reed was a restless innovator throughout his career, constantly challenging his audience's expectations. My favorite work form his catalog, is his most experimental: the 1975 double LP Metal Machine Music. There's a misconception that Reed conceived the abrasive hour-long instrumental composition as a "fuck you" to his label or fans, but, to my ears, it's Reed's purest and most transcendent musical expression.
I put the LP on my turntable after hearing news of Reed's death Sunday afternoon and let the waves of ecstatic noise wash over the room. The fourth side of Metal Machine Music ends with a locked groove, causing the music to play on endlessly until the listener chooses to remove the needle from the vinyl. It seemed like a fitting way to acknowledge Reed's legacy - living on and on in a blast of eternal noise.
Kyle Long's weekly podcast will be posted on Wednesday.