I sat down and listened to “Songs For Drella” straight through, and as I’m writing this I’m playing a Polygram “Best Of” compilation. “Waiting For The Man”, “Heroin”, “Venus In Furs”, “White Light/White Heat”, all the usual suspects.
It’s hard for me to explain exactly the influence that The Velvet Underground has had on my work, but it is considerable. I always write to music, I need the beat to help me pace my prose. I also consider song lyrics poetry, (which horrifies my poetry professor, although I did trick him once into accepting “Frank’s Wild Years” as a poem because I didn’t tell him it was by Tom Waits) and the poetry of Lou Reed has a big influence on my own poetic style. The rhythm of words is its own language, and I have 4/4 time in my blood, even if it’s not always obvious.
The lesson that I learned from Lou Reed, though (which is a lesson that I doubt he set out to teach) is that art needs rules. When an artist steps outside of the rules of a formal system he or she must create new rules, and the artist has to enforce those rules ruthlessly, because no one else can be counted on to enforce them, or even understand what they are.
That, to my way of thinking, is what separates an artist who is breaking new ground from some guy who is just dicking around. Art is always creative, and the first thing it draws is the frame to enclose everything else. Good artists take the frame that they are handed and draw their own picture on the canvas. Great artists shatter the frame that they are given and use the pieces to build something entirely new.
Bad artists color outside the lines.
It can be tough to tell the difference between bad artists and great ones, sometimes. Usually it takes having a new artist come along, steal the newly minted frame, and draw their own picture before we as the audience are able to see the lines and realize that the original artist wasn’t just scribbling at random.
The Velvet Underground, it is said, only sold 100 copies of their debut album, but everyone who bought it went out and started a band. Great artists do that, they inspire by breaking down walls. That takes guts, a certain form of manic courage, and vision. You need to have a story that won’t fit in any of the existing forms and won’t shut up.
It also takes talent, and it takes discipline. Freedom is hard work, it’s much easier to do what you’re told.
Good night, Lou Reed. Sleep easy.