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