As news of Lou Reed’s death made the rounds today, I saw countless appreciations of Reed’s work, of the impact his music had had on people’s lives, on his regal position as an artist and innovator. It’s difficult to summarize Lou Reed and what his work meant in social media, because his work defies summarization. He was a fantastic songwriter when he felt like it, but sometimes it didn’t really sound like he felt like it. He was an exemplar of two-chord bashing, and of (seemingly) zero-chord white noise. He was one of the guiding creative forces in a scattered non-movement that articulated how rock’n’roll could be considered high art, and he was prone to confounding aesthetic decisions. As he aged, he settled into a position of being an almost lovable (if still prickly) elder statesman in rock, though, by many accounts, he spent years and years behaving in a perfectly awful fashion to almost everyone who tried to come close to him.
But for me, when I think about Lou Reed, it always comes down to “Sister Ray.”
“Sister Ray” is the weird, unwieldy pinnacle of The Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light/White Heat. It’s over 15 minutes long, and it rides the same (barely-) three-chord figure for its duration. To my mind, “Sister Ray” encapsulates everything wonderful about rock’n’roll. It’s catchy, it’s chaotic, it’s celebratory, it’s doom-caked, it’s simple, it’s indulgent, it’s smart, it’s dumb, it’s funny. “Sister Ray” belongs in that pantheon of great rock’n’roll tunes that boil down an idea so perfectly you can’t imagine anyone actually sitting down to write it, and you also can’t understand how someone else didn’t get there first, as its component parts seem so intrinsic to everything that is rock’n’roll — songs like “Please Please Me,” “Louie Louie,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “You Really Got Me,” “My Generation,” “Judy Is a Punk,” “Lust for Life,” “Tally Ho,” “Jet Generation.” It is a true Ground Zero moment, and it’s easy to imagine everything Lou Reed did up to that point as an experiment in how to get there, and everything he did afterwards as a question of how to either branch off from it or counteract its effects.
In the myriad obituaries for Lou Reed that have sprouted today, one descriptor that keeps popping up is that of “rock’n’roll poet” or “punk poet” or something along those lines. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. His songs often don’t have much in the way of poetic language. They don’t get off on assonance and synonance, on the sound of words themselves, and they don’t revolve around controlling metaphors. He was not so much a poet as a short story writer who rhymed. His best songs start in media res and end leaving compelling, unresolved questions in the air. They introduce and explore fascinating characters. Action unfolds and takes surprising turns. All of these elements are characteristics of good short stories. Lou Reed wasn’t necessarily a great rock’n’roll poet — he was one of rock’n’roll’s greatest storytellers.
“Sister Ray” is a monumental example of his storytelling skills, and in spite of all the darkness in it and in so many of his best songs, I still always come back to just how funny it is. There’s a great slapstick element to that song that not a lot of people talk about. If there’s a refrain at all in “Sister Ray,” it’s the parts where Reed sings, “I’m searching for my mainline./ I said, I couldn’t hit it sideways./ Just like Sister Ray says.” In a way, it’s terrible. It describes a guy having a hard time shooting up. It’s perverse, but to me, there’s something very funny about the fact that the narrator spends the whole song searching for his mainline. As he’s doing so, a whole parade of odd characters enters. He evidently gets head from someone. A man is shot and killed in front of him, which is bad, one character explains, because “you’ll stain the carpet.” And by the end, he still can’t find his mainline. If the music were a dour dirge, it might be a tragedy. Reed framed drug abuse tragically in other songs, but here, the band is playing it for yukks, in a gleeful rave-up, and it’s just terrific.
I came to “Sister Ray” fairly late in the game, relatively speaking. I was 20 years old, and I’d already spent the past five years fronting punk bands on and off. But it was also a perfect time to dive into Lou Reed’s work — I had moved into an apartment off campus, moved out of my parents’ house entirely, and for the first time I was exploring a world of weird characters, adult issues, no supervision, no bedtime. I’d picked up a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico when I was 19, but it only hinted at the kind of abandon and strangeness that I’d read about in descriptions of the Velvets. During that first summer in that apartment, my friend and then-roommate Alex Larson left his Velvet Underground boxed set in the dining room. Alone in the house one day, I put on White Light/White Heat, and I knew this was what I was looking for. At the time the Velvets recorded White Light/White Heat, they had walked away from Andy Warhol’s bankroll, and producer Tom Wilson had given up on the prospect of prettying up their sound, leaving the band to just track in the studio at incredibly loud volumes, leaving everything in the red, turning a blind eye to all their indulgences. There is a purity to that record that feels cataclysmic and perfect. And “Sister Ray” is its thesis statement. It might even be the thesis statement of Lou Reed’s career. Is it the thesis statement of rock’n’roll? I don’t know. But it’s definitely close.