“I’m Waiting for the Man” rocked my world.
In the pantheon of songs from Lou Reed, the Brooklyn-born rock legend who died Sunday at age 71, it’s an unforgettable one.
I didn’t get into music until I was approaching adolescence, but even then, I came at it with naiveté.
My parents were overly cautious about my musical interests. I wasn’t allowed to have a certain Eric Clapton greatest hits compilation because it included “Cocaine.”
I knew I strayed from Mom and Dad’s list of approved musicians with shock rockers Marilyn Manson, so I hid the records in a desk drawer as though they were a shame as secret as dirty magazines.
In the spirit of Reed’s own brutal honesty, part of what got me into music is it helped me feel less nerdy. It starts conversations, opens doors and brings people together.
Working in a record store after high school was its own eye opener. By that time, my interest in music was unstoppable, but some of the store’s other products – including adult videos and tobacco paraphernalia – were beyond the realm of naive, young Nick’s experience.
So it was with shock and surprise that I first heard The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” around this age.
The song barrels in with a pounding, persistent piano lick and some of the most urgent tambourine rattling ever committed to record. It sets the tone for the singer’s state of mind.
“I’m . . . waiting for my man,” sings Reed in the opening line, as though he pauses to check if anyone else is listening. “Twenty-six dollars in my hand / Up to Lexington, 1-2-5 / Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive.”
I knew enough to know what Reed was singing about, but I was still innocent enough to register surprise that he would press such a tale to wax. I knew drugs had inspired some great music, but such an unflinching portrayal of their retrieval seemed akin to brandishing a scarlet letter into his chest with a branding iron.
As time rolled on, I came to love the song in its own right, but I’ll never forget how gobsmacked I felt the first time I heard it.
That truth is the way I’m going to remember Reed. His legacy is that of honesty, a man committed at all costs to his artistic vision.
He suffered no fools. Some of the critical eulogizing is flattering for a man who would have had zero patience for it. He showed little patience for his own fans, telling some of them off even as they praised him. He was a cantankerous old coot at all ages.
His attitude to music journalists was more harsh. Speaking with Spin in 2010 about the lukewarm critical reaction to his 1973 rock opera, “Berlin,” he said, “I didn’t like critics then and I don’t like them now. There you go.” Later, he walked out of the interview.
He was an outsider who painted with that brush, a rebel with a cause who set things on fire just so he could stand there and admire the colors of the flames. I think that’s where “I’m Waiting for the Man” and other songs of such rawness about drugs, sex and life came from within him.
Still, he deserves to be remembered, not because he charted colossal hits, but because his artistic integrity made him a pioneer in so many ways – noise rock, punk, even hip-hop. I know Reed would want the truth to be said.
For me, he torched bridges I didn’t know existed. “I’m Waiting for the Man” was a dawning that artists can and must have the freedom to operate outside the law, at least in their works, to remind us of the humanity that ties us all together.
He was that outsider who stayed on the fringe, encouraging people to get comfortable with the uncomfortable parts of themselves and others. It’s no mistake that his most well-known song is “Walk on the Wild Side.”
We need artists such as Reed; ones who show us the world and themselves in such unvarnished terms in order to push us to a higher level of understanding.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.