Velvet Revolution

What Lou Reed Was Really Like: Legs McNeil’s Tribute to the Velvet Underground Legend

Punk old-timer Legs McNeil on how, despite his best efforts at acting like a grump, Lou Reed died a beloved legend.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Lou Reed was always a grumpy old man. Okay, so I did my best to ask him the most annoying questions when the Punk magazine staff first interviewed him after our first night at CBGB’s, with questions like, “How do you like your hamburgers cooked?”

Lou never forgave me, which was OK by me. I was a bit put off by Lou’s date, Rachel, a transvestite with a 5 o’clock shadow, who sat next to Lou during the interview and didn’t open her mouth. Weird. It seemed to me that Lou inhabited some ultra-hip netherworld where all the rules had been discarded or rewritten—gay, drug addict, narcissist—and as repulsed as I was by this place he occupied, I was also fascinated.

White Light/White Heat was the first album I ever bought, when I was 19 years old and it seemed to contain all the rage, noise, dark humor, and confusion I was living. I kept the record at my porn star girlfriend’s apartment on 14th Street, where I would run away from the Punk Dump, Punk magazine’s offices next to the Tenth Avenue entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. That record saved my life countless times when the rats and filth got to be too much, and I’d chug a six-pack of Bud and listen to “Here She Comes Now” or “The Gift” or the title track, and dissolve into a place where suddenly everything made sense.

Lou Reed articulated things that were never supposed to be clarified, like those “rushing” sounds on “Heroin.” I actually get goose bumps listening to those sustained notes of the different drugs flowing from my bloodstream and magically walloping my brain that the song mimics. I mean, that’s a real fucking achievement—to audibly duplicate the experience of a drug hitting the brain. It’s so ludicrous, so exact, and so wonderfully transcendent that I can’t help loving Lou Reed for dedicating his life to making songs of the depraved. Not just for the hopeless, but music that spits back that private experience—just in case you’ve never had the pleasure—and makes it sound so beautiful.

Lou elevated rock ‘n’ roll to literature. (Consider that he released “Heroin” the same year the Beatles released “All You Need Is Love.”) That was why I love punk rock so much (which was originated by The Velvet Underground—they did everything first). The songs are so beautiful and so beautifully capture the hysteria and the confusion, and, occasionally, the bliss of being a fuck-up. Magic. Fucking magic—as if Lou was writing the real soundtrack to Last Exit to Brooklyn and In Cold Blood and Down These Mean Streets and The Executioner’s Song—all at once.

So I was actually fine with Lou Reed hating me. I don’t know how many times I came out of a blackout to find Lou and Punk magazine’s editor in chief, John Holmstrom, huddled in the corner of some music promotion party, talking about some obscure sound-tech innovation or some half-assed artistic pronouncement. Lou never even acknowledged that I existed. I didn’t care, because Lou once paid me the highest compliment of my young, skinny, insecure life. Of course he didn’t tell me but mentioned to Holmstrom one time, “He may be an asshole, but he can write…

Now that compliment got me through almost as much as his music.

Over the years, people asked me, “What’s Lou Reed really like?”

“An asshole,” I’d tell them and see the disappointment in their faces, and wait until they were thoroughly bummed out, before adding, “But if I’d written just one of the hundreds of great fucking rock and roll songs that he has written, maybe I’d finally be a happy man. Can you imagine if you’d written ‘Heroin’ or ‘Sweet Jane’ or ‘Rock & Roll’ or ‘New Age’ or any of his songs? Jesus, the guy really is good, isn’t he?”

Unfortunately, I came to learn that Lou’s “grumpy old man routine,” at least in his younger days, was an act. I think Lou did it to keep out the noise. I know a select few people who were truly friendly with Lou and enjoyed the charming, funny, smart version of him, when he allowed himself to be human. How tedious. I prefer my version—the ultra-bored, quick-witted, cheap, miserable, malcontent man who never experienced a moment of joy in his life. It went with his songs.

Of course, thanks to Laurie Anderson, we know this is not true. Lou actually seemed to be silly in love with her, as so many gossipers and bloggers have detailed their stupid, tender moments. Makes you wanna barf. But Lou was human after all—and at least he tried to keep these snapshots to himself. And believe it or not, I think Lou died happy. Don’t quote me on that, but I think he fooled us all.

I was there the night the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and just by accident I bumped into Lou as he was walking to the stage to accept the honor.

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“Hey, buddy,” Lou said and stopped to shake my hand. I thought, “He must not recognize me?”

Either that or he was so overwhelmed by the moment that he let his guard down. But I prefer to think he didn’t recognize me, since it keeps my world that much more organized and orderly, knowing that Lou Reed still hated me.

And probably still hates you, too.