I remember exactly the first time I heard Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. I was fifteen and at a party to which I had been invited by a girl. That fact alone was remarkable. What’s more, she was the host and somehow had heard about me from a friend at her all-girls’ school some twenty miles from my all-boys’ school and had sent me a hand-written card asking me to attend. She was, I seem to recall, called Jane.
A warm early Autumn night in a verdant back garden on England’s South Coast. Apple trees, candles, wine, and a new crowd, and, for the first time in my experience, kids smoking cigarettes that were sweet and aromatic. My guess is that I was invited because I was the putative singer in a new wave rock band. We were called the Idle Frets and had recently played the first of what would be a grand total of two live gigs. It had been loud and incoherent and mercifully brief. But we looked great, I’m sure.
Jane’s father was a dentist and amateur jeweler and divorced from his wife. From the perspective of the parent I am now, he must also have been keen to get into his daughter’s good graces. I’m pretty sure he was gone for the entire evening.
Such was the set up. The party itself, as I remember it, was a massive bore. The kids were a tight crowd, with little to say to newcomers. Plus they were, for the most part, seriously stoned. And then there was the music. Jane’s friends were comfortably aligned on the other side of the massive divide that was the defining experience of my generation – the punk explosion. The boys I hung out with at school cared about The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers, The Clash and The Jam, and part of the point of our musical passions were that they made a clear break (as we saw it) with the epic hippie indulgences of the likes of Genesis, Zeppelin, ELP, and Yes – the kind of bands that our immediate elders still revered and that Jane’s friends still seemed to be stuck on.
But then she put on an album that complicated my prejudices – The Velvet Underground and Nico. It was clearly of a time before punk. But it was also raw, and dark, and as uninterested in pleasing anyone as anything I’d heard from my New Wave idols. And yet it was melodically compelling, too. It was the best thing about the party. Then they played Loaded.
Jack is in his corset, and Jane is in her vest, and, me
I’m in a rock’n'roll band. Huh –
. . .
I don’t remember staying late or seeing much more of Jane. I received a Valentine from her the next Spring and soon after a call during which she told me that she thought we should break up, which left me dumbfounded because it had never occurred to me that we were in a relationship.
Reed and The Velvet Underground, though, stayed with me. I had always intuited that valuable music must have been made before 1977, but tribal loyalties hadn’t let me admit it and the vicissitudes of teen life in the late seventies, when it was hard to hear songs that weren’t on the radio or owned by your friends, made sonic ignorance a tough thing to overcome. Now, I sought out Reed’s albums. I found out about New York’s proto-punk scene, got interested in John Cale, in the artist responsible for the cover art of The Velvet Underground and Nico – Andy Warhol – and the community he built around him at the Factory. Years later, I named a play that I wrote Satellite of Love.
In acknowledging Reed’s death today, my local Public Radio station played “Sweet Jane.” In the kitchen of my California home, that adolescent English Autumn instantly returned.
And, everyone who ever had a heart, oh -
That wouldn’t turn around and break it.
And anyone who ever played a part, whoa -
Wouldn’t turn around and hate it.
No heart was broken that night. My Jane was sweet, but not a whole lot more, which is pretty much the level at which things should work when you are fifteen – when music is the more appropriate vehicle through which to be moved, or shocked, or devastated, even.
In the years since, I’ve grown up. I’ve come to understand that great rock songs are compelling fictions and not, as we imagined then, confusing manifestos for life. Best of all, I’ve found love. I hope Jane has been as lucky. If she kept Lou Reed’s humanity, his cool, his humor, and his transcendent melodies in her life as she’s aged, she’s had great company – and a vivid connection to her youth – at least.