Lou Reed's final walk on the wildside

The American guitarist, singer and songwriter dies at age 71

"And just remember different people have peculiar tastes

and the glory of love, the glory of love / might see you through"

— Lou Reed, "Coney Island Baby"

Like many over-educated and under-motivated American males who came of age in the 1990s, my first experience with Lou Reed occurred during Renton's horrific and hilarious smack overdose scene in "Trainspotting."

Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, is sitting on the grimy floor of his preferred heroin dealer's Glasgow flat when he takes a hot shot that seizes his nervous system and he falls into a death coma. His body sinks deep into the carpet and he peers out of the narrow opening above him. It looks like he's staring up from a grave.

Meanwhile, the first tinkling of a softly played piano seeps into the background. The voice drifts into the song, almost conversational in its delivery.

"Just a perfect day / Drink sangria in the park / And later when it gets dark / We go home," is the open verse.

In four lines the song goes from soothing to slightly menacing, and all the while the singer doesn't alter his cadence to oversell the last two lines. We go from enjoying a glass of wine in a park to taking refuge once the sun goes down. Because you never know what might happen in a park after dark. Bad things certainly.

I'd heard "Walk on the Wild Side," Lou Reed's only Top 40 hit, plenty of times on classic radio. "Walk" is a truly great song, and probably one of the more perverse tunes to hit popular radio. But "Perfect Day" reached a whole new level.

My friend and I, after having watched "Trainspotting" three times in three days, made a trip to Terra Haute to buy the soundtrack, which included a who's who of late-'70s glam and Euro club music. And it had "Perfect Day," which was the standout track, in my opinion.

Later that summer I moved to college and got a job at Walmart. I stashed a few bucks from my first three paychecks and bought a $100 Lou Reed box set that collected a large swath of his work from his post-Velvet Underground days to his late-'70s lull to his resurgence in the late '80s with the "New York" album.

My dorm mate, Adam, hated Lou Reed. We alternated music in the evenings, each of us putting on a CD and allowing it to play in its entirety. I can remember him grimacing when I'd take out the box set, searching for "Berlin" or "Coney Island Baby." Reed was a bit dark and gloomy for Adam. His favorite bands were Blues Traveler, Third Eye Blind and Dave Matthews.

One night, at about the halfway point in "Berlin," when Reed is raking his guitar over the top of the amplifier and droning on about a drug-addled prostitute dragging herself through the streets of lower Manhattan, looking to sell her son for heroin money, Adam had a breakdown.

"I just "¦ I just don't know why you like this guy! He sounds like he's dead," Adam said, desperation creasing his face.

"I don't know, man. I just do."

"I'll let you play two CDs by ANYONE else and I'll play one. Two for one! Come on, man," Adam said.

I'm pretty sure by the end of our freshman year, Adam had developed a grudging respect for Reed. Oddly, he drifted toward the "New York" album, which is Reed's most nakedly political. Adam was a fairly conservative dude, so I was taken by his interest in Reed's call for burning down religious institutions and sexual liberation.

I wasn't expecting to wake up this past Sunday and learn that the world had lost Lou Reed. Why would I expect such a thing? People are here and then they're gone.

I was on a boat on the Rogue River, fishing for steelhead. I glanced at my phone to check football scores when I saw the update. Reed was dead in his home on Long Island. He was 71.

I called my best friend in Illinois, who had taken his kids to the pumpkin patch that morning. I could hear their kid voices in the background, belting and laughing brought on by the ecstasy children feel in a pumpkin patch.

John and I sang the first few lines of "Coney Island Baby" over the phone, and I let him get back to his kids among the pumpkins. It was the Sunday morning before Halloween, a big day at pumpkin patches across the country.

It then occurred to me that thousands of people probably learned of Lou Reed's passing while standing in a pumpkin patch, surrounded by kids goofing around and hugging large orange squash in the fall sun.

Lou Reed never struck me as a sentimental type, but I think he would have appreciated this scene. A person learning of a great loss in a pumpkin patch with the cacophony of children in the background sounds like something Lou Reed would have written.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.


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