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.
In other words, like the bands of the 1980s and ‘90s I revered, Reed found incredible success in a limited, bohemian subculture. And like many members of Generation X—like, say, Pavement et al—he seemed self-sabotaging about his career if the measure of success was units sold. His famous line, “And anyone who ever played a part / Wouldn’t turn around and hate it,” spoke to this ambivalence, and he seemed to have internalized the diktat of his mentor, the poet Delmore Schwartz: “You Lou must never write for money or I will haunt you.” (That his ultimate model was a poet was a part of this--poets epitomize disregard for economics.) Yet in the 1980s, he also appeared in Honda scooter ads, in front of my old favorite now-defunct New York club The Bottom Line, covered in leather. Soon, Nick Drake and tons of indie acts would be the soundtrack for VW and Nissan commercials—any stink that followed this maneuver seemed to disappear by the late 1990s.
His narrative songs about drag queens and hustlers and later about New York’s poor in his indelible album New York (“This room costs $2,000 a month, you can believe it, man, it’s true. Somewhere a landlord’s laughing till he wets his pants.”) made Reed the ultimate outsider-insider, someone who imported underground or sub-cultural ideas into the mainstream. Outsider-insiders, in turn, became Generation X’s most treasured kind of celebrity. Think Cobain popularizing Pixies, Jennie Livingston scoping out ball culture, and rappers speaking for the inner city. Reed was similarly dispersing tales of drugs, masochism, and his experience of genderqueer culture into the center.
There was also Reed’s relationship to pastiche, another element of 1990s culture, from hip-hop to grunge. Reed offered an ironic medley of soul music and doo wop. As with later indie music, Reed and VU’s irony and pastiche hid an earnestness: the earnestness of actually having mixed feelings and leaving them in your art intact instead of choosing sides artificially to be more easily understood. As the critic Ellen Willis, Reed’s best interpreter, wrote, The Velvet Underground’s songs are “about the ways we (and they) habitually bury them [our profound emotions] from a safe, sophisticated distance in order to get along in a hostile, corrupt world.”
Then there was Reed’s complicated sexuality and exultation of fetishes, including S&M, which would become so celebrated in the 1990s, even in the universities. There was his faux-amateur musicality, the cracking voice and lack of range and at-most two chords he played, a la Gen X bands like Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. There was the androgyny of his early 1970s period—kohl eyeliner, emaciated body—masking the immoveable masculinity of his Long Island guttural vowels, butch look, and muscles. The musicians who followed Lou also sometimes reveled in a similar macho androgyny. (Think of The Replacements: “Androgynous/ Closer than you know/ Love each other so.”). There was Reed’s street poetics—from “Walk on the Wild Side” to “Dirty Boulevard”—as an escape from America’s suburbs, which was very Gen X as well. So much of our alt-culture was produced by street-obsessed suburban escapees.
The Southern California arena rock, hair metal, laidback hippie garden culture—for many growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, none of it made us who we were like Lou Reed did. He seemed to consider himself an institutional outsider, his eyes sardonically rolled at everyone from “suits” to reporters. Gen X-ers in kind repeated the mantra of “whatever,” watched infomercials ironically, and avoided the career track (as if it would have us). A lot of us retreated from the harsh world of “wage slaves” into an imaginative, albeit adolescent, underemployment. You might call what we traded in “damage chic,” for which heroin chic was actually a small subcategory. Showing off your neuroses and failure was very much part of that period, eyes averted as part of our minstrelsy of nervousness. “What’s your damage?” Winona Ryder’s character would ask in Heathers.
Lou was a founding influence of this culture. His seeming hopelessness was more hopeful than any 12-step program. He recognized the proto-slacker dropouts and edge celebrities as legitimate. He gave the downtrodden and the outsiders their rightful power. We have followed in his wake.