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Remembering Lou Reed, Rock-and-Roll Bard, Career Counselor

Lou Reed performs in New York in 1976

Photograph by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns via Getty Images

Lou Reed performs in New York in 1976

Lou Reed, who died Oct. 27 at the age of 71, left a huge legacy as rock-and-roll seer, bohemian icon, and curmudgeon of colossal proportions. What’s less appreciated is his wisdom as a career counselor.

Recalled for walking on the wild side in his musical stylings and narcotic habits, Reed also provided a model of self-definition in one’s life and work. He evolved on his own terms and in his own time: from Warholian troubadour to heroin-addled androgyne, to motorcycle-riding rocker, to metal-head distortionist, and on and on and on.

The New York Times and many other observers have recalled Reed as an “outsider” who had a “dark lyrical vision” of everyday life. And it’s true that the narrators of Waiting for My Man, Heroin, and some of his other best-known songs did not hew to the straight and narrow. The speaker in his masterpiece Sweet Jane watches a street-corner parade of ordinary working stiffs and declares: “Me, I’m in a rock-and-roll band. Huh!” Despite modest talent as a drummer, I put together a college cover band largely so I could play Sweet Jane in public. I, too, was a rocker, like my idol Lou.

Listen more closely, though. The narrator of Sweet Jane doesn’t condescend to the workaday world. As I’ve written elsewhere (pretentious rock criticism alert!): “The song seems to question whether the rocker’s pose is any more real or original than that of Jane, who is a clerk, and her banker boyfriend, who together save their money and listen to classical music. We all choose parts to play, Reed suggests. ‘And anyone who ever played a part / They wouldn’t turn around and hate it.’”

My bandmates and I, the Corporate Empires, were pretty conventional, even when we were 19 and pretending otherwise. Still, I learned a lesson from Lou: Do your thing the way you think it should be done. I have never felt more like myself than I did at Saturday-night beer parties in 1980, banging on my four-piece Ludwig kit, playing Sweet Jane.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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