I can still remember the first time I listened to Heroin. I was 18 and Rock & Roll was an escape valve for the growing alienation that accompanies becoming. My friend and I had secured an overnight shift at a local college radio station, to satisfy not only our desire for rebellion, but also as an expression of our fumbling adolescent attempts at grasping onto something more authentic than the often disingenuous moral certitude expressed by the institutions that defined our life in a small southern town. The transformation from the magic of childhood, a time of seemingly wondrous unlimited potential, to the ‘realistic’ and confining roles we are forced to assume as young adults; is never an easy transformation. The sting of becoming something limited from that which was once unlimited led me, and many of my adolescent friends who did not survive the transition, to look for identity and transcendence in frequent drug use, occasional sex, and the ever present beat of Rock & Roll.
The Buddha taught that birth necessitates death, and Lou Reed was a comrade to me and so many others in our search for transcendence and rebirth by clinging to the destructive processes of abusing of our ‘fix’. Youth is often accompanied by the delusion of perceived immortality, for death is perceived as something far off, and in our ignorance we tend to believe that we can really ‘live’ by drinking sangria in the park, by being the life of all tomorrows parties, by abandoning ourselves in embrace of sex on the wild side. In youth it is easy to ignore the message of the hangover, dope sickness or the smokers hack; but with every up comes the down, and as the Black Angel’s Death Song becomes harder and harder to ignore, we learn to dance the mythos of celebrity; idolizing the 27 Club and secretly hoping that we too may flame out spectacularly like a bright roman candle going pop, pop, pop in the sky while everyone oohs and awes.
Some of us are destined to survive. Reed was sober by the time I began experimenting with the obsession of transcendence through death, and our cultural tendency to glamorize and idolize that which bleeds, has predictably led many to try to honor him by pointing to his many degradations. The true legacy of Reed however was his ability to constantly transcend his self-destructive obsessions through transformation. Unlike Thompson, Hemingway or Kerouac; Reed was able to learn a new tune and the ‘Transformer’ transitioned into old age gracefully, picking up Tai Chi and enjoying the stability of a multi-decade love affair with Laurie Anderson. We are what we believe we are, and our cultural fascination with ‘creative self-destruction’ has led us to poison the seas with radiation, to cloud the skies with carbon, to trade liberty for a security apparatus that would make Orwell blush; all in vain quest to seek our salvation in our ‘fix’. The body of work that Reed was able to create during his long life is a stark contrast to the comparatively small canons of James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, or Janis Joplin; and that its the survivors who will continue to shape the world. Reed’s true legacy is his example for the survivors, those of us who will live through the coming turmoil; that true transcendence is not in the seeking of the ‘fix’, but in the personal transformation that comes from quieting the obsession of death that rages in all of us.