“I’m from Baltimore, he’s from DC. I think we’re okay.”
That was my explanation to the clerk at a 7-11 in Richmond Virginia, who seemed very concerned about the well-being of my friend and I. We had gone into the store asking if there was any place around that had some good Barbecue food. The clerk said there was one nearby, but it was in a “not so good neighborhood.” Since both us resided in cities that had a reputation for bad neighborhoods, the worst parts of Richmond didn’t seem to faze us.
We eventually found our way to the restaurant, which was a glorified hole in the wall that wreaked of barbecue sauce, corn muffins and cigarette smoke. The other patrons stared us at for a second or two and continued on with their meals. “You can’t get really good Barbecue above Northern Virginia,” My friend explained as he bit into a pulled pork sandwich. I nodded in agreement, secretly wishing that I had some hot sauce for mine; it was too sweet for me.
On this Saturday afternoon, the two of had traveled about four hours down to Richmond to see one of our rock and roll heroes: Lou Reed. Over the years of attending numerous concerts together, the two of us were slowly counting down the list of rock heroes we’d seen in concert. Lou Reed was at the top of the list, but neither of us thought it would actually happen.
A few months earlier, I had purchased the tickets as a surprise birthday gift for my him. And now, despite being excited, we were both slightly nervous about what the show would actually be like since Reed was notoriously cantankerous.
At least we knew what we could potentially be getting into. It’s not like we were going to see Bruce Springsteen who goes out of his way to please the audience. Since the early days of the Velvet Underground, Reed loved to challenge his audience. You don’t make an entire album devised of feedback if you really give a shit what your audience truly thinks. There’s a certain irony in the fact that people loved him even more for it. That included us.
As we ate, we debated the finer points of The Velvet Underground and Reed’s career. “I have this theory,” My friend said, “that what kind of Velvet Underground songs you like define what kind of rock snob you are.” We were both unapologetic rock snobs, so I was intrigued to see where he was going with this.
He then explained that if you liked the noisier, artery side of the band found in songs like “Sister Ray” or “Venus in Furs” you’re likely to appreciate Captain Beefheart, The Stooges and Joy Division. The softer songs and traditional songs like”Pale Blues Eyes” and “Sweet Jane” probably meant you loved R.E.M., The Smiths and other alternative bands.
In fact it was through R.E.M., that I first learned about the Velvet Underground. The band included versions of “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again” on their 1987 B-side compilation Dead Letter Office. R.E.M. took a more conservative approach to Reed’s songs which gave me the impression the Velvet Underground would also sound like that.
If you’ve ever listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico or White Light/White Heat you know that’s not the case. Those two albums, especially the latter, are benchmarks in volume, noise and general boundary pushing. Few albums – even metal ones – pack a punch as hard as White Light/White Heat. There’s nothing conservative about those albums.
While I prefer the edgier songs in The Velvet Underground’s catalogue, my favorite song has always been “Sweet Jane”. With its its memorable guitar riff and catchy chorus, it’s the closest that they ever came to a straight ahead rock and roll song. There’s no feedback drenched guitar solo or viola freak-out. “Sweet Jane” is the one Velvet Underground song that non-fans could easily identify.
As I write this, it’s the first anniversary of Reed’s death. In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of my musical heroes die. But few have hit me as hard as Reed’s did. Rock and Roll seems a little tamer and safer without him. Geniuses like him don’t come around too often.
As we headed out of the BBQ joint, I took a look around at the surroundings. This particular neighborhood in Richmond didn’t seem nearly as bad as the clerk made it out to be. Not that I was surprised. I was more concerned about Reed’s potential attitude on stage.
Inside the venue, the crowd seemed equally apprehensive. I had never been to a show where the the feeling was mixed with equal parts excitement and nervousness. Outside, we could hear thunder rumbling loudly. From the side door, where all the smokers huddled outside, there was a loud whoosh when the rain let loose. All the smokers came rushing back in, soaked to the bone. Amidst the chaos, there was a loud announcement over the PA that the show would be delayed due to the storm.
Shouts of expletives filled the room, along with a few chuckles of laughter. I went to get a beer and chatted with a guy who had seen Reed in the mid-70’s. “It was fucking crazy man,” He said taking a large gulp from his whiskey. “There were lots of guys in black leather. I’m pretty sure I saw some one with a whip.”
Reed had written quite a few songs about S&M, but I had a feeling this guy was trying to impress me. “Uh huh,” I nodded, playing along. I then asked him if he thought Reed would be pissed off. The guy almost choked as he took another drink. “Dude, who gives a fuck? He’s Lou Reed. He’s the man.”
He was right. I took another sip from my beer and reminded myself why I was there: to see a legend.
About 45 minutes later, when Reed did show up, he seemed genuinely happy to be there. In his trade-mark black t-shirt, he tore into many of his classic songs with an energy and vitality few his age have. His guitar was exactly what you wanted it to be – still noisy and instantly recognizable.
The absolute highlight was “Sweet Jane”. From the moment, he played the opening chords, the crowd cheered loudly in excitement. Even Reed seemed to enjoy the response it got.
On the way out, my friend and I talked about lucky we were to see Lou Reed in the flesh. This was in 2008. We had no idea how lucky we actually were.