What I remember is this:
In college, I worked at a Rizzoli book store in Boston, selling coffee-table art books in the upscale Copley Place mall. We constantly played music in the store on a CD player at the back of the shop. We sold CDs too. That’s why we played them: to encourage sales. But we were only allowed to play certain CDs. There was a lot of Windham Hill on the “ok” list: George Winston-, William Ackerman-kinda stuff. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations was probably as good as it got. But, really, my favorite musical moments in the shop occurred in the span between me realizing the CD player was skipping and one of my co-workers realizing. Sometimes this would go on for five or six minutes and the boredom and subservience of retail would evaporate in a little glitch-symphony, an inadvertent music of metal machines.
Then one day, I went back to the CD player and found something new in the “ok” pile. This would’ve been 1985. VU, the Velvet Underground’s outtake compilation had just come out. There it was, on top of the pile. “Who,” I wondered, “back at Corporate, ok’d this?” They couldn’t have screened it from the beginning. Track one “I Can’t Stand It,” would never have made the mall-store grade. Maybe the screener got called out of the office until track two, “Stephanie Says,” all chimey arpeggios and sweet, plain-voiced singing. I guess whoever it was missed the opening lines: “Stephanie says that she wants to know / Why she's given half her life, to people she hates now.” But I heard those lines and knew exactly what they meant. Whoever you are, back at the main office, wherever you are now, the person who gave VU the thumbs-up, I owe you one. You enabled me to endure the long hours in that mood-lit brothel of conspicuous consumption, selling R.B. Kitaj monographs and suffering the presumptuous ignorance of customers who flaunted their middlebrow tastes by asking me to fetch a copy of Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), thereby implicitly declaring themselves victorious colonizers and I their Gunga Din. My little revenges consisted of reading Borges on my lunch break, taking home a shopping-bagfull of unpaid-for books every night, and playing VU. (I was later banned from the premises of all Rizzoli stores, worldwide. Oh, our little infamies.)
Even a middling Velvet Underground album has redemptive capacities. But I have no patience for any argument about the best Velvet Underground album. They’re all good. But if you have any commitment to the radical; if you believe, even a little, that courage and abandon are more noble impulses than craft; if you value fuck-you’s over fidelity, then there’s no debate. White Light/White Heat is not only the Velvet’s high water mark, it is also the simultaneous founding and folding of rock’s greatest enterprise. There have been times when “Sister Ray,” the last track, has subsided into the maelstrom of the infinite, and the tonearm has returned to its cradle, that I think that everything that rock and roll is capable of has just happened.
Lou was not the Dylan he thought he was. He was middle-class (in every sense of the term). But, for those brief, crucial years in the Velvets, he was the right ego in the right shitstorm. The magic of time and temperament never visited him the same way again. Still, no one else could have made “Sister Ray.” And for that, alone, I will be forever his student and his fan. The first flyer I ever wheatpasted to a telephone poll to find a drummer for the band that John Przyborowski and Brad Larrabee, and I were forming, mentioned the Velvets. When we found that drummer, the first song we played at our first gig, was an instrumental version of “Sweet Jane,” because we wisely assumed we’d all be too nervous to sing for the first four or five minutes.
The lesson of Lou Reed, outside, on top of, and because of, all his songs is this: Happenstance can transform run-of-the-mill into the run-of-the-millenium. You can't will this stuff, you just gotta be ready. Lou was ready.
As Lester Bangs, who understood Lou better than any of us, would’ve written if he hadn’t beaten Lou to the pavement, "Bye bye, baby. And amen."