Daniel Browne is a Brooklyn resident who has written about music for Salon, The Oxford American and Mojo Magazine, among others.
In the days following the death of Lou Reed, I found myself contemplating which entry in his bewildering catalog means the most to me. It would be easy to pick 1989’s New York, my official answer to the favorite-album-of-all-time question. When I really think about it, though, I have the deepest personal connection to Set the Twilight Reeling from 1996.
It had been four years since his last release, and in the meantime he’d found love with Laurie Anderson. It shows in the songs, which are warm, self-reflective, funny, nostalgic even. This is the album that begins with a billow of buzzing guitar and the words, “When I was a young man, no bigger than this, a chocolate egg cream was not to be missed.”
Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, the gentler, more domesticated Reed of StTR was just my speed. The sad fact is, even at age eighteen, I was about as domesticated as it gets. My parents were globetrotting hippies when they were young, and even after they settled down, they remained outsized personalities, rule-breakers, irreverent, emotional. For me, teenage rebellion took the form of excessive caution, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, a tendency to internalize—basically, I was uptight. (Still am, to some degree.)
My mom was the OG Lou Reed fan in the family (she actually saw The Velvet Underground back in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable days), and at first I was resistant. On initial exposure to the violence and profanity of New York, eleven-year-old me considered it crass, ugly (Paul Simon would never say that!). See: uptight, right? Eventually, I was seduced by an early Best of… compilation with less threatening sorta-hits like “Satellite of Love,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Sally Can’t Dance” and kept going from there. Nonetheless, while I was fascinated by what I was hearing—the language, that voice—none of it had anything much to do with me. I had never taken a walk on the wild side. “How Do You Think It Feels?” poses a string of provocative questions (“How do you think it feels when you’ve been up for five days? …How do you think it feels to feel like a wolf and foxy?”) to which the only answer I could give was, “Haven’t a clue.” “Heroin”? Not even Zima for me. “Kiss the boots of shiny, shiny leather”? You’ve got to be kidding.
StTR was a different story. “What’cha gonna do with your emotions/Ones you barely recognize?” Reed asks in “Riptide”—now that’s a relevant question for a teenager with a neurotic habit of self-regulation. And while “Riptide” is a portrait of extreme mental anguish, far beyond my own frame of reference, another song dealing with the same question, “Hang On To Your Emotions,” hit closer to home.
When a demagogue inside your head has taken charge
And by default what you say or do is criticized
And this litany of failures is recited a thousand times
Hang on to your emotion, hang on to your emotion.
There’s another track on StTR I want to mention, an unreserved love letter to Anderson. Listening to Reed rapturously sing her praises, you can tell he sees her as the living embodiment of the quality he most admires and aspires to. It’s called “The Adventurer.”
Unlike my parents, an adventurer is something I’ll probably never be. I’m still hanging on to my emotions most of the time. But in honor of my mom and dad—and Reed—someday soon I’m going to wait for twilight and give letting go a try. Consider yourself warned.