I am sad that Lou Reed is no longer with us, and I have read many heartfelt tributes to the man I once considered my third-favorite songwriter (behind Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello) and the musician behind my third-favorite album (New York, which trailed Paul’s Boutique and Blood on the Tracks).
This is not a heartfelt tribute. It’s a memory of my first encounter with Lou, which occurred (of course) on MTV. Here was this not-so-young singer, supposed to be a big deal for some reason (I had heard the name), trying the white-guy-rap thing.
I didn’t get the title — that there was a half-serious argument to be made that his talk-singing style, dating from the late-60s was a form of proto-rap.
But more than that, I didn’t get that it was the ’80s, a weird time for music when everyone was going a little crazy — particularly the guys who’d survived the ’60s and ’70s. For me, ’80s music was just music, the only music I knew. Steve Miller wasn’t famous for “The Joker” — he was famous for “Abracadabra.” Billy Joel wasn’t the Piano Man, he was the screaming angry guy of “Pressure” and the guy who sounded kind of like Sha Na Na in “Uptown Girl.” Tina Turner wasn’t a classic soul singer, she was the lady with the spiky hairdo doing “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and hanging out in the Thunderdome. Bruce Springsteen wasn’t the scruffy working class poet of the Jersey Shore, he was a guy in a tight white tee dancing with Courteney Cox. Elton John wasn’t the Rocket Man, he was “I’m Still Standing.” David Bowie wasn’t Ziggy Stardust, he was “Let’s Dance.”
This music is all basically unlistenable today, but amid the fog of synthesizers and drum machines and MTV — hey, shit happened and I don’t necessarily hold it against these people. But I did have some unlearning to do. Forget about “Young Turks” and go back to “Maggie May”; forget about “Higher Love” and go back to “Gimme Some Lovin'”; forget about “Living in America” and go back to “Sex Machine.”
As I was saying, “Original Wrapper” was the first Lou Reed song I ever heard, and it confused me. To this day, it confuses me. Is it a parody of the times, or was it Lou really trying to do the shuffle and appeal to the MTV kids? It’s probaby both. The shots of him wearing a fedora with glitter raining down are supposed to be spoofing Michael Jackson. The roller skaters? Maybe it’s parody, or maybe it’s just unavoidable 80s-ness. The peppy 80s-ness of the guitar and drums — hey, it was going around like a disease, everyone caught a little bit of it. Still, if you didn’t know what Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground were about and you played “Original Wrapper” next to “Rappin’ Rodney” … well, you might see more similarities than you ought.
But get past some ’80sisms, and it’s kind of a good song (much better than “I Love You, Suzanne”):
Just a few years later, Lou would release New York, the album that converted me, and that made me go back and seek out the Velvet Underground, and that probably sowed seeds of the love affair I’d later have with New York City. “Original Wrapper” became a footnote, a bad first date. This was my Lou Reed, may he rest in peace. Angry, cynical, loud peace: