The Velvet Underground: “Rock And Roll” (Loaded, 1970)
When I told my wife Lou Reed had died yesterday, we had this moment where I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing: “That’s crazy. Lou Reed can’t die.”
That’s not a joke about him surviving his lifestyle in the 70s. It’s more the sense that Reed is so much a part of what the world looks and sounds like today that it’s hard to imagine all of it without him. He had a public image unlike anyone else—the dude was so cool that everything he did looked like a pose, but it was actually just him being himself.
Reed was never comfortable just being agreeable—he’d push back at interviewers and critics and pretty much never gave a stock answer or said what you figured he’d say. He could seem ornery for the sake of it, he intentionally made one of the most unlistenable albums ever produced, and he could be maddeningly inconsistent from project to project, but the underlying humanity of his work was never far from the surface.
I think that’s why “Rock & Roll” is my favorite Lou Reed song, with VU or otherwise. His songwriting was illuminating, and hell, it’s probably the only exposure a lot of people have had to drug culture, drag culture, and the thought processes behind modern art. This song ties all of that together without bothering to get into the details.
"Her life was saved by rock and roll" is essentially autobiography—music was the thing that lifted Reed out of a life that included being forced into shock therapy to "cure" his bisexuality and put him in the driver’s seat. In some ways, the song seems light, almost a lark, but I think that everything else Reed ever wrote about is embedded within it. With VU, Reed was one of the people who did the most to stretch the definition of rock and roll, and I think that all the drugs and lives he wrote about were facets of his own definition of rock and roll. All of it was rock and roll. All of it was what saved him.
The girl in the song hears the music, and her life is saved. Reed claimed that rock and roll was his god, so salvation here can assume a sort of literal meaning if you want to read it that way, but I think there’s room in this song for anything, from a particular type of music to movies to painting to hiking to whatever else might be the thing that gives your life direction and meaning, to be your rock and roll, the thing that saves you.
Plus, it rocks. Long live Lou Reed.