Lou Reed passed away yesterday — in a cruelly apt twist of a fate, on a Sunday morning.
Those familiar with the Velvet Underground and Reed’s solo music mourned; it was a dark day for many who had found inspiration and solace in the musician’s particular flavor of psychedelically influenced glam rock.
Later, on the same day I found out about Reed’s death, I attended a Neutral Milk Hotel concert — the last show that the sleeper, indie band would play to end its first tour in over a decade. As Jeff Mangum launched into “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the crowd — myself, proudly, included — began to scream and sing along.
Most of us knew all the words. Our voices echoed throughout the venue — a reconstructed church that still bore the glass windows, religious paintings, and organ pipes of its former life. We were so loud — with our “thank you’s” and “I love you’s” — that we threatened to drown out the band.
Neutral Milk Hotel has only released a sparse amount of new material during the past few years, after front man Jeff Mangum traded life in the grit-and-guitar spotlight for reclusiveness. Yet, when the band announced last year that it was reuniting for a tour, the music world went crazy. Each show on the tour sold out within a matter of minutes, and finding tickets to purchase became Hunger Games-like struggles. The venues the band played were consistently stuffed to the brim with fans that knew Neutral Milk Hotel’s lyrics and melodies almost as well as the band members did themselves.
Despite avoiding the public eye with all the head-hung-low bravado of a champion agoraphobic, Mangum — and Neutral Milk Hotel — stayed relevant, even for a generation of listeners who were barely old enough to string together coherent sentences when he released most of his music.
As I left the show, I wondered how musicians like Mangum and Reed — who was most active decades ago — developed such devoted followings and why they continued to resonate with the new audiences who discovered them.
Musicians are a dime a dozen, and many will fade into obscurity as one or two hit wonders when we lose interest in them and subsequently search for the Next Big Thing. The Carly Rae Jepsens and the JoJos (anyone remember her?) of tomorrow are somewhere out there, waiting for their moment to shine as soon as we forget about the Carly Rae Jepsens and the JoJos of today.
So, what do Mangum, Reed, and others at their level of musicianship have to offer that we can’t — and won’t — find elsewhere? What makes them so special that we jump at the chance to see them perform live for the first time in years or that their deaths feel like personal losses to us?
It’s because their music resonates with us in a way that “Call Me Maybe” or any song on the Bangerz record (as fun-lovingly shame-inducing as it is) never will. Listening to pop music is like eating handfuls of cotton candy for dinner (and don’t lie, we’ve been all there). It goes down easily, but sugar and air won’t keep an empty stomach full for long. Eventually, you’ll want more substance — something that packs a punch and sits at the pit of your gut for hours.
Mangum, Reed, and their peers have produced music that is raw and unrefined — that is wholly their own. Record producers haven’t spent hours combing through their tracks and auto-tuning their voices to what they believe listeners will enjoy. Songwriters haven’t churned out for them sheets of lyrics that are, more or less, a series of stock words, phrases, and subjects.
Their music resonates not only because it is brutally honest but also because it is their own — not some Ryan Seacrest gloss-and-glimmer idea of what music should entail. Mangum cared less about his sound (in fact, his voice is so ugly that it’s pretty — much like Bob Dylan’s) than he did about using music as a means of expressing his fever-dream emotions. In songs like “Venus in Furs,” Reed experimented with instrumentation and sang provocatively sexy lyrics without — excuse the language — giving two shits.
Don’t get me wrong, I love twerking to “We Can’t Stop” as much as the next 20-year-old girl, and sometimes, an emotional listen to “Bleeding Love” can wring a tear or two out of my eye.
However, the musicians that I will always return to — and that will always continue to enrapture new listeners, even years from now — are those who make music not just for the sake of making it. These are the musicians who sing and play because they love and need to sing and play. And they are the ones who, in this process, end up creating something beautifully memorable.