I first heard those eerie xylophone notes that open the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” when I was 14, sitting on the rug of my friend Mollie’s bedroom. A moment later, I heard Lou Reed’s voice for the first time, and everything changed.
That day, we were two Upper West Side Jewish girls who showed up to Hebrew school each week; only two years beforehand we’d been playing with paper dolls on the same rug. But at that moment we were self-styled rebels. The album gave us the chills and fit in perfectly with our other nascent explorations: the still-seedy shops on St. Marks Place, smoking cigarettes and eventually pot, and also, more crucially, the cruelty of adolescent and adult life — a darkness that I heard emitting from every note of that album. In its melancholy and relentless tracks, we heard the sonic reflection of a disordered world indifferent to our pain.
That deep identification explains why Reed’s death, at 71, feels so personal to so many. For me, embracing the Velvets was the beginning of giving up on the idea of fitting in (it’s a lifelong process, still ongoing). So I grabbed on to his music that day and never let go, because he demonstrated that being on the margins of acceptability was not only okay, but actually cool. I bought a baby tee emblazoned with his face and wore it regularly to school, so I could sneer at the kids who sneered at me — or more accurately, when I felt the urge to cower, I could let Lou’s mug do the sneering for me.