i’m sticking with you (contains: lou reed, teen years, theater, music, and sex).
lou reed died. he was 71. the above picture and quote ran in the guardian.
warning: this blog contains listening instructions (a soundtrack for reading).
…please load this and press play and then read on:
(since it’s blocked for some regions on youtube, here’s a fan video on vimeo that uses the song as soundtrack, and here it is on spotify)
i was in a cab on the way to a house party in london when i saw it on twitter, and once i determined that it wasn’t a hoax, i texted neil.
then my sister. then my dad, who gave me “new york” on tape when i was 16.
i knew neil would be shaken up. neil worshipped lou. everybody has their teenage idols, the rock stars that shaped them. his were david bowie and lou reed.
mine were robert smith and edward ka-spel, but the velvet underground and lou reed climbed into the bed of my lonely and ecstatic teenage art-head, and i was forever changed and happily violated. neil wrote a beautiful piece that ran in today’s guardian, about how lou influenced “sandman”, his writing, his life, how lou’s non-singing singing voice made him brave enough to front a punk band, and how he named holly after a drag queen in “walk on the wild side”.
when we were on tour a couple years ago recording the “evening with neil and amanda” collection, neil’s birthday was coming up, and i always find it impossible to get him anything. we’re not really into Things, we don’t do Gifts the way some people would, there are no socks and sweaters or watches or gadgets or whatever. the greatest gift we can always give each other is some kind of art, or experience, or accidental wonderful moment, because we both know that it means more. especially because we’ve been so fucking busy and homeless since we started going out. sometimes we fail. neil once tried to send me to a bar full of people in australia who were all instructed to hug me. i was feeling overwhelmed and depressed and it was one of the hardest things i ever did, hugging all those people when all i wanted to do was cry. i think i actually did cry most of the time. whatever. gifts are weird.
anyway, on that tour i decided to give neil a lou reed or velvet underground song every night…i called it a “hanukkah-birthday” countdown. a song every night for 8 days until his birthday arrived. i’d already covered a lot of lou reed and velvet’s songs in my career….”femme fatale”, “perfect day”, “caroline says”…the grand theft orchestra had been doing a roving acoustic “walk on the wild side” all summer. it’d be easy. i learned a few easy ones i’d never hit before and roped in friends to help. he liked his present.
his birthday is coming up again, on november 10th. he’ll be in wisconsin. i’ll be in budapest, touring. it just worked out that way due to the cancer re-scheduling. i’m trying to make him happy. so this blog is part of it. i want to tell him, and you, how lou reed fit into my plot. my life plot. not my canadian plotte. plotte means vagina in canadian.
neil reminds me of lou. he looks like him, a little; maybe it’s deliberate, and maybe it’s just fate. maybe neil was drawn to lou because he saw some cosmic variation of himself…a perfect doppelganger, a portrait of the artist as another man: neil gaiman as a lower-east-side new york jew strung out on heroin hanging at the factory, instead neil gaiman as a suburban english jew from east grinstead, strung out on milky tea and hanging inside libraries and science fiction stories.
here’s the other thing: i worship lou’s wife as well, laurie anderson. i was turned onto her music in college and fell hard. when those two got together, i felt the way some people tell me they feel about me and neil; that two of their favorite forces collided. their relationship made sense. lou was only a little older than laurie, by about five years. my first thought when i read the news about his death was about how she must be feeling. my second thought was that’s going to be me, neil’s 16 years older than me and looks like lou reed. he’s going to die and leave me alone. my third thought was shut up you paranoid asshole.
i texted neil to please not die, not just now. i asked the same thing of my dad.
my dad is 69.
i don’t want anyone to die.
the velvet underground made songs that didn’t sound like anything else, but they sounded like songs, which is why i got addicted. i was 15.
i started with “the velvet underground & nico”, found a used “best of” compilation CD somewhere in harvard square, taped “VU” off my stepbrother, and got lou reed’s “berlin” on cassette tape. that was it. i was satisfied and i played those four records over and over and over. dad gave me “new york” and the sound was different: it was just lou telling stories over much plainer rock and roll. it didn’t do it for me quite as much, but i still played the tape into the ground. the stories were worth it.
“manhattan’s sinking like a rock
into the filthy hudson
what a shock
they wrote a book about it
and said it was like ancient rome”
nothing even really rhymed.
lou was just talking.
the velvet underground records, with songs like “heroin”, “i’m waiting for the man” and “andy’s chest” made me feel like i was listening to something cool – it was you’re-inside-the-warehouse music. there was a time and a place and the people in it were being drawn for me, sketched in bloody lines, and along with lou’s own harrowing drugged-out self-portraits, they were a fantasy cast of characters living in the hotel chelsea in manhattan, doing all the substances they could get their hands on but being ARTY once they were high. these were my people.
and nico’s voice gave me hope. if she could sing that flat, so could i dammit.
i talked in a recent blog about how certain artists stretched my songwriting playing field. lou reed was a huge one. i remember listening to “i’m sticking with you” and thinking “you’re allowed to do this? you’re allowed to sing about heroin over a seven-minute drone with a screeching avant-grade violin, and then sign a major key almost-OOMPAH-song on solo piano that sounds like it belongs in a children’s musical about rainbow puppet-friends? you’re allowed to do that?? guess so.”
lou was fucking punk rock because he did it. there is no genre, only zuul. when i went on family vacations and i brought my walkman, lou reed’s “berlin” went in the bag with the 90 minute tape that had VU on one side and “the velvet underground & nico” on the other, along with my legendary pinks dots’ tapes, the soundtrack to “cats”, the pixies, and a soft cell tape. i listened to what i liked. i miss having that intimacy with music. i miss my walkman. i miss putting “berlin” in and listening to the bee-DEE-BEEE of the tape start and then the soundtrack to the musical i hadn’t seen.
“berlin” is the favorite, because while all the velvet underground records made me feel cool as shit, “berlin” made me feel something deeper. i knew these stories were real, every one of them. lou was doing reportage on his own psyche, and on the women around him, and i related to their unsalvageable situations.
“the kids” goes down in history as the only song i’ve ever heard that has made me cry every time i hear it.
there’s a lot of lore about the sample at the end…but no matter.
i dare you to close your eyes, listen to this song, and not fucking lose it. again, i suggest waiting for a quiet moment. selfishly i want you to stay on the current plot of this blog. (here it is on youtube / spotify)
lou had a leitmotif of “says” songs; “candy says”. “stephanie says”. but nothing beats “caroline says II”.
and THIS was a song that aimed an arrow right into my head, where it struck and took a ninety-degree turn down into my gut.
okay, this one you should listen to right now:
(here it is on spotify if that’s blocked for you)
as she gets up from the floor
why is it that you beat me?
it isn’t any fun”
you’re allowed to say that? i suppose you are.
it almost sounded funny, really. it’s that major key again.
i always tried to picture her.
was she with lou?
was she heading over to lou’s house after shit got bad, and acting as a junkie muse?
was she lou?
as she gets up from the floor
you can hit me all you want to
but i don’t love you anymore
but she’s not
afraid to die
all of her friends call her alaska
when she takes speed
they laugh and ask her
what is in her mind?”
when i was seventeen, i was writing and directing my own plays. they were never linear, or very dialogue-heavy, they were more like strung together live music videos.
i gathered images and inspiration from the music i was listening to, and i wrote the songs onto the stage. when i was 16, i wrote a play called “i’m sticking with you”.
the idea came to me when i was on a ferry to nantucket, making an illegal visit to my then punk-rock boyfriend-of-sorts, stu. stu was prepping to head off to brown college in the fall and was working a summer job as a dishwasher on the island. we’d met that summer in The Pit in harvard square and had run around to punk parties a fallen in love just a little. i wanted to keep chasing him. my parents were away for the weekend and expressly forbade me from leaving our town. i went anyway. i felt a sort of freedom i’d never felt before…even though i was traveling only 4 hours from my home, it involved buying bus tickets and ferry tickets and heading to an unknown destination to undoubtedly have sex, which i’d JUST started doing, and it all seemed very mature and adventurous to me. i selected my walkman tapes gingerly. i needed a soundtrack for a rebellious adventure. i chose my VU/nico 90-minute double-header cassette and a few others.
the ferry landed and i eventually located stu’s restaurant, where i sat and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes feeling incredibly bad-ass and grown-up, until he got off his shift. we spent the night together, we woke up in the sandy bed in his 6-roommate flophouse with the sun streaming down on us and his piles of dirty clothes and ashtrays, we hitchhiked to the beach, we chased each other around, we went back to his flophouse to have sex again in the middle of the day. i had an orgasm unlike any i’d had before.
my relationships up until that had all been (and currently were) fraught, dark, deep and complicated. this one wasn’t. it felt like absolute freedom, absolute yes-ness, absolute happiness. there were no punishments or dark sides, nobody was playing wicked mind games, nobody was tying anybody else up. i didn’t know it could be like this. i was in awe of life and sex.
on the ferry home, i sat out on the bow of the boat and listened to VU while the wind whipped my face. i’d accomplished my mission, i’d had a legitimate adventure, i’d somehow lost some version of my virginity. i closed my eyes.
“i’m sticking with you” started, and i saw it all – the entire image of the last scene of the play.
she was tied to a chair, and he was dancing with her. but in order to dance with her, you see, he had to carry the chair with them. because she was, you know, tied to it.
all of it, the cycles of abuse, the masochism, the craving, the light, the dark, the whole mess of it, my own impossible relationship with my sex life and the push and pull and lust and love of the men around me and the guilty wreck inside me, it all fell out onto that song, onto the blank stage in my mind’s eye.
the production didn’t come to fruition until later that year, and i still think it was one of my better ones. i wish it had been video taped. maybe somewhere, it is.
the protagonist was named caroline, of course. i played her myself. the soundtrack was broad: king missile’s “the box”, legendary pink dots’ “regression”…”caroline says II”.
i was basically doing primal scream self-therapy on stage and casting the rest of the theater kids in high school as the players in my life. i’m not even sure how much they understood.
this is what the most powerful music does, i think. it opens doors, it makes more art.
neil, in his guardian article: “Brian Eno said that only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album when it came out, but they all formed bands. That may have been true. But some of us listened to Loaded over and over and we wrote stories.
I would see Lou’s songs surface in the stories I read.”
the best art pries you open, it makes you want to make. it ploughs up dirt and lets you plant things.
and the best artists make you want to make, to think more, to try to express something in a way you hand’t thought of…to say something in a way nobody has ever said it.
lou did that.
ten years later, i dated blake.
i stole a page out of lou’s book (as antony did with “candy says” and countless others probably had too), and wrote my own portrait.
audio-only that works everywhere (because bandcamp)…
and it’s all completely, absolutely true, except the parts that aren’t.
now go make something.