Good Advice from Lou Reed

By Mark Alpert

Lou Reed’s death this week really bummed me out. I loved his songs, especially the ones about New York. Here are some amusing lyrics from “Dirty Boulevard”:

This room cost two thousand dollars a month
You can believe it, man, it’s true
Somewhere a landlord’s laughing till he wets his pants

And this song came out in 1989, which means the same room is probably renting for five grand now.

One of my favorite Lou Reed albums is “Songs for Drella,” the biographical collection of songs he wrote with his Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale. The album is dedicated to Andy Warhol (whose nickname was Drella, a mash-up of Dracula and Cinderella), and the songs tell the story of Warhol’s life. The Velvet Underground was the house band for Warhol’s Factory, and it’s fascinating to listen to Reed and Cale recall those years in song. I’ve been playing the album every day since I saw Reed’s obituary.

An irrelevant aside: I met Warhol once, in the spring of 1979. He was signing copies of his book Pop-ism at the university bookstore at Princeton. I knew nothing about art — I was an astrophysics major, a real geek — but I bought one of the books anyway, just so I could meet the guy. Warhol looked terrible: haggard face, bad skin, hopelessly wrinkled clothes. But he scribbled “To Mark, Love Andy” on my book, and now I have a collector’s item that my kids can auction off.

Okay, but how does any of this relate to writing fiction? I’m getting to that. One of the tunes on “Songs for Drella” is called “Work.” Lou Reed is singing about Warhol’s ferocious work ethic. Warhol produced a phenomenal amount of art and made Reed feel guilty for not being equally prolific as a songwriter:

No matter what I did it never seemed enough.
He said I was lazy, I said I was young.
He said, “How many songs did you write?”
I’d written zero, I’d lied and said, “Ten.”
“You won’t be young forever,
You should have written fifteen.”
It’s work, the most important thing is work.

I think of this song when I’m finished writing for the day. How many words did I write? Five hundred? A thousand? Maybe I’ll even feel good about myself, satisfied with my daily output. And then I’ll hear Lou Reed’s voice in my head, channeling Warhol: You won’t be young forever. It’s work.

7 thoughts on “Good Advice from Lou Reed

  1. Mark, I’ve been listening to THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO all week. It still sounds great, over forty-five years after the fact. I bought the record the day it came out, without hearing it first or even knowing anything about it. I saw, it picked it up, and thought “This has got to be great.” I had no idea.

    I never met Reed or Warhol; closest I got was emceeing a concert in San Francisco in 1973, looking out into the audience and seeing Reed sitting at a table in the front.

    I’ll eventually revisit the rest of Reed’s body of work (with the possible exception of METAL MACHINE MUSIC) as well. Thanks for a great post.

  2. What a sane, sound piece of advice.

    “How many words did I write? Five hundred? A thousand? Maybe I’ll even feel good about myself, satisfied with my daily output. And then I’ll hear Lou Reed’s voice in my head, channelling Warhol: You won’t be young forever. It’s work.”

    I really needed this … and you and Warhol are so right… we’re not young forever. And just so you know, the older you get, the faster the time goes! I’ve always felt that youth and energy are wasted on the young. Time is precious, don’t squander it.

  3. After so many have said it, is there any point to saying it again? Yes, there is: except for the very young, for everyone else the essence of meaning is meaningful work.

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