The highlight of my young life — and a highlight of my entire life, actually — was the hour I spent one spring Sunday night as KUCI radio’s “High School Deejay of the Week.”
Exactly seven days earlier, I was with friends at Wayzgoose, the University of California at Irvine’s mildly medieval, freaky-for-the-OC spring festival, where I entered what I assumed to be a hotly contested competition for an on-air slot. The entry card asked for basic info, a promise that I was still in high school and a few lines about why I should be chosen. I wrote a testimonial to my musical specialness. But the real reason I wanted to be on the radio, of course, was to inflict my musical tastes on an unsuspecting but ultimately grateful public. I fancied myself a younger, more punk rock, feminist Dr. Demento.
When I got a call the next day saying I’d been chosen to be on the air the following Sunday, I was shocked. In my mind, I deserved to win, by dint of my eclectic tastes and sparkling personality. But I didn’t expect to win, and certainly not so quickly. By 18, I was already used to the fact that life was unfair.
I spent the next six days pondering which records to bring — because a 1980s college radio music library might not have any X or Elvis Costello. I was excited about the chance to express myself musically publicly for the first time, but I didn’t have a playlist in mind.
My buddy Jennifer and I arrived at the station, and I got a quick lesson in how to queue up LPs and speak into microphones. As my stint was about to start, I panicked about which song would set the right tone — for the show and for my self. What song would express my emerging inner badass? In retrospect, the choice was obvious and inevitable: the opening track of Transformer.
“That was ‘Vicious,’ by Lou Reed!” were the first words I ever spoke to an audience I couldn’t see, announcing both the provenance of my clanging, guitar-driven opener and the fact that I was developing an interest in walking on the wild side. Reed’s persona helped me to become my own person.
(For the record, that night I also played “Love Power,” the tour-de-force, every ’60s song rolled into one, performed by my then-favorite living comedian Dick Shawn as Lorenzo St. Dubois — “but my friends call me LSD” — from the original Producers movie soundtrack; X’s “Los Angeles,” Elvis Costello’s “Let Them All Talk,” which I dedicated to my high school boyfriend, even as I was jealous of all the potential dates Jennifer was getting as she answered the phone while I was on the air; and the Dickies’ catchy cover of the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin,” the original of which is unlisten-to-able unless you’re tripping and staring into your boyfriend’s eyes — and even then, it’s a stretch.)
My introduction to Lou-ism started innocently enough two years earlier, when my cool uncle and I were talking about music. I was mostly into 1960s psychedelia and LA punk, which didn’t seem at all contradictory to me but piqued his pedagogical interest. From the time I was 9 until he died 15 years later, my uncle was my main male role model. He had a beautiful daughter of his own in another state and a few ex-wives. But no matter how messy his personal life, he always seemed to have the important things — like humor and culture — down. Better still, of all my relatives, he seemed the least invested in perpetuating my obedient, responsible, good-girlishness. He wanted me to be me.
“You know who you might like?” my uncle asked. “The Velvet Underground. You should check them out. I think you’ll enjoy them.”
“OK,” I said. And that was that. (As I said in his eulogy, when Uncle Michael gave you music advice, you took it.)
Once you know what to look for, you find it everywhere. On my very next trip to the record store, I picked up The Velvet Underground & Nico (aka, the Banana album). And, oh my G-d, I loved it. The music was both tuneful and discordant and the singing — even Nico’s — sounded as bad and real as mine. “I’m Waiting for the Man” only made me love New York more. “Heroin” was my gateway drug to Lou Reed and all his detached, writerly glory.
From there, I moved on to White Light/White Heat, every single song of which is genius. The almost unbearable sweetness of “Here She Comes Now” plays unbelievably well with the droning and driving “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” the dark humor of “The Gift,” and the wild, neverending (17-plus-minute) party that is “Sister Ray.” This record is a journey, and I wanted to go to there.
It’s not hard to exhaust the Velvet Underground’s oeuvre, and once you do, you have nowhere to go but to follow Lou Reed. Which brings us back to Transformer, which is also chock-full of classic songs that are the soundtrack of our lives — or my life, anyway. It starts out blazing, with the raw guitar and mean-but-clever lyrics of “Vicious,” strolls through the quiet power pop of “Perfect Day,” and plunges face first into “Walk on the Wild Side,” a tune that gets taken for granted but is so inventive and pretty much perfect when you take a moment to really, really hear it. “Satellite of Love” kicks up the glam, but it’s the lesser known — and rarely played — “New York Telephone Conversation” that’s been “dancing in my head” in the days since Reed’s death. It’s sweet, silly, snarky and about as on-the-nose a representation of how people actually talk on the phone — when they used to *talk* on their phones — as I’ve come across.
We were never lunch buddies, like he was with Penn Jillette, whose Penn’s Sunday School podcast tribute was fun and funny and emotional. And chance encounters with Lou Reed are not among the stories I tell about my charmed, if impoverished, post-collegiate New York youth. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing him for the first time ever at the Warfield last spring when he abruptly canceled on account of his liver transplant.
On my best, most “perfect day,” I’ll never be as cool as Lou Reed on his worst. But I don’t have to be. We were really just two people who survived the suburbs to grow up and be ourselves. I think that’s why his work resonates so much with me — and the millions of others who suffered and felt themselves surprisingly overcome by the news of his death last Sunday. Having recently learned of the death of a major figure in my Burning Man family, and still smarting from the untimely demise of wisecracking, gawky-girl goddess Marcia Wallace the day before, my Lou grief came on like a slow burn.
He mattered to me for so many reasons. Somehow, my uncle knew he would.