Lou Reed could have packed it in at any number of points over his career and still become a rock 'n' roll immortal. After the Velvet Underground's 1967 White Light, White Heat album, for instance, Reed would be known forever as the father of "Sister Ray" and "Sweet Jane," and the dark brother of avant-garde musician John Cale. If he'd simply walked away after "Walk on the Wild Side" (Transformer, 1972), he would have gone down in history having proven himself capable of writing cooler and catchier rock poetry than Brian Wilson and Ray Davies combined. He could have out-bleaked Kurt Cobain if he had quit after his 1975 Metal Mach-ine Music, one of the most aggressive and notoriously unlistenable recordings ever released. Or if Reed had walked away after the 1989 New York album, both fans and critics would still be waxing poetic about the edge and beauty of "Romeo Had Juliet" and the punk-slam of "There Is No Time."
But he obviously did continue on, and the awards and honors have poured in: his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996; his declaration as a Chevalier Commander of Arts and Letters by the French government in 1997; his performance for the Pope, believe it or not, in 2000. Any one of these could have guaranteed Reed a throne in Pop Culture Heaven.
Whatever has inspired Lou Reed to keep going, this fan is personally grateful. He's created so much raw, beautiful music -- 18 solo albums, not even counting the golden first four with the Velvets. When I listen, I can't help feeling he made this music just for me.
Which Lou Reed do you see when you close your eyes? A twitchy youngster with sunglasses in Warhol Factory portraits of the Velvets, looking offstage at something or nothing while Nico gazes vacantly and angelically right at the camera? The fuzzy-coifed rocker? The concentration-camp-survivor-fashion-plate of the late '70s, a prison-clipped bleached blond with black circles under his eyes? The Gary Numanesque leather android of Metal Machine Music? Or the perpetual New York poet, suited up in dark T-shirt and leather? All of those personae, of course, are Lou. Ever tough, but with a romantic streak that makes him more accessible. And that shook-up voice -- as if he's trying to summon a good answer to the question: "Hey, white boy, what you doin' uptown?"
The Velvet Underground played their first gig in 1965 at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey, when I was 12 years old. It was just five miles from my house and only three years shy of my deep "MC5 and Stooges" phase. I first heard the Velvets in 1967 at the same electronic shrine where I learned about the Incredible String Band and The Fugs -- WFMU-FM, broadcasting from Upsala College in East Orange. It was just powerful enough at the time to come in clearly on my transistor radio in Westfield.
After longing to see Lou Reed live for what felt like my whole life, I finally got to witness a performance at the St. Denis Theater in Montreal on the New York-supporting tour in '89. It was grand. The concert was being videotaped and, since Lou had envisioned that album as one unified work, the band played it straight through. And loud.
After the New York set, Reed treated the audience to "Sweet Jane" and a few other classics. The concert was all the more exciting because the opening band featured Moe Tucker -- still drumming in the same beautiful, brutal style she had perfected in the Velvets -- providing rhythm with guitarist Sterling Morrison. The possibility that she might actually play with Reed onstage that night was almost enough to make my head explode. She never did. Still, I rate this one among my "top five" concerts of all time -- right up there with the MC5 at my high school in 1969 and Paul McCartney performing Beatles songs during his 1990 Wings tour.
At long last, Lou Reed is performing in Burlington for the first time --Wednesday, March 12, at the University of Vermont. His show, presented by Burlington impresario Ken Mills, coincides with the current Fleming Museum exhibit, "Andy Warhol Work and Play."
What can we expect Reed's show to include? Allow me to make a few predictions. For inspiration I've cued up a recently purchased bootleg CD featuring dark and slightly surreal acoustic performances of "I'm Waitin' for My Man," "Heroin" and "Black Angel's Death Song," from a Paris club show in 1972 with Nico and Cale. OK, here we go:
1. Edgar Allen Poe -- a safe bet. Lou's most recent project features musical and electronic impressions of Poe's poetry.
2. Something from Songs for Drella, his joint memorial piece for Warhol composed with Cale in 1990.
3. Hopefully lots of music -- the presence of bassists Fernando Saunders and Rob Wasserman, two long-time Reed backup instrumentalists, bodes well.
4. Reed's own poetry -- remember, he considers himself a poet above all else.
5. "Sweet Jane." Don't get your hopes up, but it is one of his big hits.
6. "Dirty Boulevard" -- probably wishful thinking, but it's one of my favorites.
7. A nasty mood if clueless people in the audience start yelling for requests. He's touchy that way.
No matter what, Lou Reed's concert is a once-in-a-lifetime performance event for Burlington. And what more appropriate place for fans to worship than Ira Allen Chapel?