When I was 13, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground made more sense to me than anything else. In 1985, I went to see Reed at the old Ritz on 11th Street, and I walked to my nearby home singing “Street Hassle.” At night, I would pore over a Velvet Underground fan book that I bought at a comics bookstore near my house on St. Mark’s Place. I slept with an original copy of VU’s banana album under my bed; I’d gotten it at Bleecker Bob’s and the sticker was still intact.
But even then I felt born too late, too long after Lou’s Transformer phase to authentically relate. What I didn’t understand was that my whole generation was shaped or reflected Lou Reed’s vision—that I and so many others had been made by Reed whether we knew it or not. He offered among the first incarnation of the ethos that would define Gen X, seen in bands like The Replacements, Sonic Youth, and Pavement, and in the lives of the people growing around me.
As I write in my book Republic of Outsiders, the phrase “selling out” has now been retired by millennials. A weak economy made its purities seem unaffordable. The rise of a surround-sound celebrity culture insisted mass audiences were an imperative (when was the last time you heard the phrase "dumbing down"?). An IPO-mad technology boom made "selling out" itself into an honorific. But the concept of “selling out” was very alive to Reed, The Velvets, and the generation that followed them. He had a complicated relationship to sales, to the popular, and to being an insider. The Velvet Underground & Nico, the famous banana album only, reached No. 171 on the Billboard 200 chart, and Reed only charted one song as an artist on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, "Walk On the Wild Side," which hit No. 16 in 1973.