Lou Reed’s Last Sunday Morning

Lou Reed

I don’t know if Lou Reed’s life illustrates the maxim that promiscuity is a misbegotten search for God. But his lyrics do.

Reed’s lyrics were certainly promiscuous—and omnivorous—when it came to sex, as well as drugs and rock ’n’ roll. But they were also filled with spiritual seeking, which is why a Vatican official paid tribute to Reed’s life after his death on Sunday.

Lou Reed is one of those figures who is in danger of being distorted beyond recognition by great praise. I only know about him because there was an effort 25 years ago to make him a figure of importance. His career stretched from early 1960s forays into mainstream music to his late ’60s helming of the band cited as the inspiration of every oddball singer from David Bowie on. He is called the godfather of punk rock, as if punk rock needed a godfather and as if it would be worth bragging about if it did.

I am afraid that the efforts to promote him had more to do with his legacy of sexual transgression than his handful of good songs. As one obit put it, he was a handsome deviant when one was needed.

But there is a reason his death is being noted outside the halls of the hip. In addition to the Vatican, First Things noted Reed’s passing the day he died and National Review has posted two pieces and a slideshow about him this week, and Weekly Standard has hosted an article, too. He was a glimmer of hope for those trying to find depth in pop music as well as for those trying to find breadth there.

The search pays off, especially in the 1960s with his band the Velvet Underground (I bought several of his 1970s albums in the 1980s and like everyone else seems to, found them mostly disappointing). The band’s 1969 self-titled Velvet Underground album includes a series of Reed songs about dissatisfaction with life and the expectation that there’s something else, from “Candy Says” to “Beginning to See the Light” to “I’m Set Free.” But the most surprising lyrics are at the end of “Pale Blue Eyes” and in the song that follows. “Pale Blue Eyes” sums up a sexual encounter with a now-married ex-girlfriend this way:

It was good what we did yesterday.
And I’d do it once again.
The fact that you are married,
Only proves, you’re my best friend.
But it’s truly, truly a sin.

The next song Reed sings on the album is called “Jesus,” and feels like a further reflection on that sin.

Jesus, help me find my proper place
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
Cause I’m falling out of grace
Jesus
Jesus

Reed was not a Christian; he born, raised and lived his life as a New York Jew. But the song sounds utterly sincere. It is either a junkie’s desperation or a seeker’s inspiration, but he certainly seems to mean it.

He means a lot of things. Looking over his albums after his death is a lesson in irony. Velvet Underground & Nico, the band’s iconic “banana album,” includes odes to sexual deviancy and drug use. But it also relies on religious imagery. In “Heroin,” he praises the drug as a quasi-religious escape from the sinful world:

When I’m rushing on my run
I feel just like Jesus’ son …
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds …

The album ends with “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” but it begins with a song that is given a new meaning when you know Lou died on a Sunday Morning.

Sunday morning
Brings the dawn in
It’s just a restless feeling
By my side

Early dawning
Sunday morning
It’s all the wasted years
So close behind

How close behind were Lou Reed’s wasted years when Sunday brought his dawn in?

An interesting comparison could be made between Leonard Cohen, who struggled with sexual and religious themes throughout his career, and Reed. But I think Reed would pale by comparison.

He seemed to give up struggling with religion (and writing good songs) far earlier. Reed’s mentor Andy Warhol showed a lifelong passionate interest in his Catholic faith; but Reed showed a lifelong passing interest in his Jewish faith, at best.

His songs show that the search for meaning in sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll can indeed be a proxy for the search for meaning in God. But eventually one must move past the proxy if one hopes to find him.

Tom Hoopes

By

Tom Hoopes, former editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine, teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department, edits The Gregorian speech digest and is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

  • jacobhalo

    i feel for people like Lou Reed. As Jesus said, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

  • AcceptingReality

    The fact that you bought Lou Reed’s “70’s albums in the 80’s” caused me to raise an eyebrow. So I scanned down to see your bio pic. I wanted to gauge your age. Seems like you took a modest sampling of his body of work and formed a broad opinion. It’s science like that which discredited the “climate change” movement. I bought his 1969 album in 1969, his 70’s stuff in the 70’s and so on. He was, as you say, a seeker. Religiously inclined? Maybe. He was definitely irreverent towards things the mainstream was reverent about. He was often reverent about things the mainstream despised. His genius lie in his effort to infuse the music of his age with serious, poignant poetry born of his life in Manhattan. He was edgier and more sophisticated than Dylan. That’s what made his songs interesting. I think his best work was the 1988 album “New York”. After that came a couple other very good albums, “Set the Twilight Reeling” and “Ecstasy”. A particularly good Anthology collection is “Between Thought and Expression”. His guitar work had a raw quality that was often emulated but never duplicated.

    Having listened to a broad section Lou Reed’s music for a long, long time, I do recognize he was searching for something in his music. Maybe it was “Truth”. Or maybe it was his own truth. In the process he did carve out an enigmatic place of some notoriety in the annals of Rock History. But does he deserve a mention in Crisis Magazine? About as much as Meister Eckhart deserves a mention in Rolling Stone.

  • Rev. Alan B. Maria Wharton

    To me, it seems to be an unfortunate trend among media-phile pop-culture apologists in the Vatican to eulogize secular idols of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. This trend is part of the post-Conciliar “evolution” of ecclesial culture that makes some, if not many traditional conservative Catholics doubtful about whether the Council has been correctly interpreted up to now. Many far graver changes could be cited (communion in the hand, for example), but this “opening to the world” which has been more of a contamination of the sacred than an evangelization of the secular is also an evident problem, at least for me.

    Just because, like most human beings, rock stars also think about spiritual topics from time to time, does not mean they deserve special attention from the Vatican, let alone what comes off as glowing praise, for purveyors of what amounts to, when all is said and done: a culture in which God occupies, at best, a less than a prominent place, a culture which in many ways is a sort of anti-cult that passes for culture. The numerous, hardly critical features of pop-culture in various “Catholic” publications, amounts in effect to the continuance of secularization, which has been fatal to the faith for so many. Sad to see it coming from the Osservatore Romano and the Cardinal president for the Pontifical Council for Culture.

    Lou Reed’s music is a reflection of a lost soul in a lost culture, hardly an icon for a Christian society.

    • Bono95

      I don’t think Mr. Hoopes is trying to present Lou Reed as an icon for Christian society. He’s simply reflecting on Reed’s reflections.

    • TullyConleth

      Lou said his songs came from somewhere else, maybe another world he said,which is why you never heard Walk on the Wild Side 2. Sterling Morrison complained about doing a Jesus since it diminished the VU’s rep as rock’s gritty M for mature rated band. Lou probably didn’t remember why he wrote that song. He took so many designer drugs in the 60’s and 70’s he said he doesn’t remember entire years of his life. He was given shock therapy as a kid by his parents who suspected he was bi. Lou eventually married-a great woman- and lived a stable life.
      Lou was a Jew by birth only. He was spiritual, not religious, but respected faith. He performed for the Pope in the 90’s in a Vatican sponsored concert. The song Jesus is the mere product of a spiritually astute artist letting a prayer come through him via music, honestly and simply, sharing pain and a desire for redemption.
      Glen Campbell did a nice cover of this.
      Some Catholic hymnal music was produced by Martin Luther, and who knows what kind of lives many of the song writers of traditional church music actually led.
      When God’s truth shines on us, lets recognize it no matter how unconventional the source.

  • donna sherwood

    are you kidding ? I am 63 actually personally acquainted with one of his former managers and, for first time, listened to song on youtube which only confirmed my worst fears. The utter lack of aesthetic discernment manifested by our so called intellectual elite is shocking. I might suggest a viewing of “They sold their souls for rock and roll” a four hour video well worth watching. It is a scandal that this publication permitted this essay to be published. Reed is to be pitied and do not bother coming up with banal excuse of “cultural influence” he yielded which is more properly understood to be the corruption of a several generations of youth. What an accomplishment.

  • Mack

    Well, “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord” — and to all of us, please.

  • Hoonu

    Let’s not be too hard on Tom Hoopes. Lou Reed was a drugged out musician, but one of the most creative, swimming in a sea of mediocrity. Whatever else his failings, he was a thinker. Oh, and I bought his stuff (has there ever been a better live album than Rock and Roll Animal?) when it was first released. Crisis does well by acknowledging pop culture. (If nothing else, it is good to know the enemy.)
    Nice work, Tom.

    • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

      A thinker? A THINKER??? The bar that Lou Reed passes as a thinker is no bar at all.

    • Adam__Baum

      Everybody is a thinker.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    It’s rather pathetic that such an underwhelming artist gets a raving mention in a religious publication just for mumbling pious stuff that he never considered seriously. The only reason: he was a celebrity.

    “Do you want paper or plastic with this rag?”

    • Crisiseditor

      Given your reputation as a curmudgeon, it would be a mistake to take anything you say too seriously. This case is no exception. You clearly did not read the article. To say that the author gave Reed a “raving mention” is complete nonsense. Here are some passages you didn’t read:

      “Lou Reed is one of those figures who is in danger of being distorted beyond recognition by great praise.”
      He is “cited as the inspiration of every oddball singer from David Bowie on.”
      “He is called the godfather of punk rock, as if punk rock needed a godfather and as if it would be worth bragging about if it did.”
      “I am afraid that the efforts to promote him had more to do with his legacy of sexual transgression…”
      “…like everyone else seems to, [I] found [his music] mostly disappointing.”

      Yes we published a column on a celebrity. It just so happens that celebrities have cultural influence. And we can learn from them, if only to reaffirm the rightness of our own beliefs. To ignore the culture is to cede territory to the enemy and that only leads to cultural suicide.

  • Giorgio Minguzzi
  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    I’m afraid this article reminds me of all the nonsense written about Andy Warhol, who, it is said, very often attended Divine Liturgy and whose consumerist art must be understand as a kind of neo-Christian iconography, notwithstanding the fact that Warhol was an enthusiastic pornographer. I will concede that we are all sinners, and we all seek something we cannot find in this world, and that search can sometimes take on a quirky guise. But is it really wise or even possible to interpret perversity as just another spiritual quest? Perhaps High Hefner’s publication is just another Baltimore Catechism?

    • Valentin

      I know a priest who’s job it was to point out bad things in a proposal for the Dutch Catechism (a few decades ago) and he said that it was shocking. But from what I have read from the Baltimore Catechism it is most certainly not like Hugh Hefners publications.

  • Valentin

    I don’t know much about Lou Reed but I do hope that the dope he used as well as the dope so many people my age smoke in this city (Minneapolis but also St. Paul Minnesota) are at the very least a sign that these people realize that there is something bad to escape from.

  • Bifdy

    What a stupid article. First, you can’t take everything an artist writes as autobiographical, which appears to be all that you know of Lou Reed. Second, you fail to give credit for the journey. The direction that one’s life is headed is the way to judge, if you must, an individual. Where did Lou start, and where did he end up. Find his performance of “Jesus’ on Letterman with the Blind Boy of Alabama. That’s where he is ending in this life, and that’s where he will keep going and progressing after this life. If you understood anything about Lou, you would see that

  • Tom Page

    This magazine is mainly created by opinion for our entertainment. The comments are included.

  • RedMiner

    Dismissing Reed’s achievement as ‘a handful of good songs’ is like describing the Waste Land and the Four Quartets as ‘a couple of good poems’.

    Aside from the fact that there are rather more than a handful, it should be noted that what there is effectively forms the blueprint for just about everything that has come along in pop and rock since Bowie. Think now, does the rock scene from the 70s onwards sound like it’s built on the Beatles or the Velvet Underground? It would take an enormous leap to associate the atonal, aggressive noise of post-punk with the Fab Four.

    Punk may be not to your taste, it’s not to mine, but no artist is culpable for all those he influences, and fellow Velvet’s guitarist Stirling Morrison famously dismissed punk unflatteringly as ‘folk music’. The alternative rock scene, which became the default setting for any rock and pop that wasn’t disfigured by heavy metal’s misogynistic, demonic posturing sounds like a digitally remastered tape loop of the first Velvet’s album.

    Reed deserves his iconic status, and personal evaluations of his oeuvre should be a little more substantial than ‘since I don’t care for it, he must be overrated’.

    • givelifeachance2

      I would compare Reed’s achievement as more in the category of Harry Houdini, or the technical skill of pop-Warhol mesmerization, than to T.S. Eliot, who had something real and deep to say about things.

  • Rosemary

    Reed was a long-time friend of Andy Warhol. Some of Warhol’s old associates said that one of the strange things about Warhol was that he liked to watch what was going on but that he did not want to always participate.
    It seems that Reed followed that method – watching and commenting but never getting around to participating. While it appears that Reed produced many songs, I could not find any mention that he developed much as a person. His personal life was spontaneous, living for the moment. He took on the appearance of the tortured soul, wearing the hairshirt of the restless soul searching for a home.

  • Cathy Ruse

    Great, Tom!

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