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At the dawn of FM radio, sometime around the fall of 1967, I remember sitting on my stoop in Queens, N.Y., when a neighbor told me he heard this band called the Velvet Underground. I'd never heard of them, but loved the band name, and was fortunate enough to have an FM radio in my house. Few people had them then, and they certainly weren't in cars in those days. Commercial AM pop was all there was.
Hearing the Velvet Underground on the radio was a life-changing experience. Despite the rich change that was happening in music that year, nothing sounded like that band. It was so very raw and spare in comparison to everything else: that drone, that desperate, bursting sound. Lou Reed would be the one to sum it up best a handful of years later in his song "Rock 'n' Roll":
"Jenny said, when she was just 5 years old
you know there's nothin' happening at all.
Every time she put on the radio
there was nothin' goin' down at all,
not at all.
One fine mornin', she puts on a New York station
and she couldn't believe what she heard at all.
She started dancin' to that fine-fine-fine-fine music
ooohhh, her life was saved by rock 'n' roll,
hey baby, rock 'n' roll
Despite all the amputation
you could dance to a rock 'n' roll station,
and it was all right."
This is the greatest song about the power of music from a band that actually sold few records, got nearly zero exposure on the radio, and was about to break up. But the one thing I've always believed — and the one thing the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed would prove — is that great music rises to the top. The Velvets and Lou set off a revolution, one that still inspires. They may well be the most universally respected band in rock 'n' roll. Lou Reed's own solo career was also filled with vibrance. His work with David Bowie, trumpeter Don Cherry, his songs of Andy Warhol with former bandmate John Cale are brilliant songs of magic and loss and the heart.
In the days since that autumn day in Queens when I discovered Lou, I've rarely gone a week without listening to his music. I've seen many musicians leave this world, but losing Lou is the saddest of them all. I just feel fortunate that he was able to be with us this long. He defied the odds in life. I'll miss him terribly, but he left a legacy. I trust for the next year, I'll be hearing young bands take on his music in their encores. I trust I'll cry every time.
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