Remembering Lou Reed: The Sound of NYC – and That Radio Station in Your Head

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Tributes to Lou Reed are playing all over the radio this morning. Many of the songs are by him and the bands he played with, others are clearly inspired by his decades of revolutionary work.

Lou Reed was intrigued by the chance to give audiences a listen to Lou Reed during his 2009 live performance of "Metal Machine" at NYC's Gramercy Theatre. (Photo by Dave Rife, courtesy of Arup.)

Lou Reed was intrigued by the chance to give audiences a listen to Lou Reed during his 2009 live performance of “Metal Machine” at NYC’s Gramercy Theatre. (Photo by Dave Rife, courtesy of Arup.)

The style each time: raw, honest, and straightforward. That’s what I knew about Lou Reed, who passed away yesterday at the age of 71, and was as much a presence in New York City as he was the standard bearer for a sound.

Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Reed was not a Velvet Underground concert or a listen to the unlistenable Metal Machine Music, but the famed 1985 Honda Scooter ad synched to “Walk on the Wild Side.”

I had never heard music like that – not on the radio, and certainly not in a commercial – and, looking back, I can see now how it was one of the formative siren calls that lured an antsy teen from the Midwest to NYC.

The gritty, musical Manhattan collage that’s squeezed into that :30 left an indelible mark on my mind. Watching it today for the first time in a couple of decades, a couple of things struck me:

a)    That Reed himself is in the commercial, capping it off with an offhand, “Hey, don’t settle for walkin’.” All I ever remembered about that spot was it’s atmosphere and his unmistakable music – an anomaly that I’m sure would suit him just fine, and

b)    That the shiny scooter he’s perched on is parked outside of the legendary club The Bottom Line (also, like Reed, now dearly departed)

No NYC resident’s city experience is complete without a deep casting call of celebrity sightings, and spotting Lou Reed at some point was absolutely de riguer, especially if music played a big part in your life.

My own personal Lou Reed encounter came, of course, outside of the Bottom Line. He was simply strolling past on the sidewalk when my friend – a famous drummer himself – noticed him, was amply blown away, and pointed out the iconic rocker’s fleeting presence to me. Reed was already out of my sight, but the charisma of his passing shadow secured a bright, ever-lasting spotlight in my mind. It was the briefest of encounters, but one that came satisfyingly full circle to me just now.

And then there was the other gift that Reed gave to me, which came not in the form of a song or a walk-by, but in a quote. I’m not sure where I read it’s paraphrase first, but it referred to his habit of carrying a recorder with him at all times to capture song ideas. What it had been boiled down to was: “There’s a radio station in my head, and it’s always on.” (See the real thing in Sylvie Simons’ 2005 interview for Mojo.)

I was thunderstruck to read that line years ago. I realized I had a compatriot who apparently lived out the same condition as me, and countless millions of people who have music and audio as a huge part of their lives.

I’m always hearing music in my head, I just never knew the right way to describe the experience – thank God that Lou Reed did.

All the better, since so many of those essential songs that I’m tuned into are his. And so many more of them could never have existed without him.

–    David Weiss

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