He was always the one — the primal and primordial aspect of what was happening on the margins of music, which was more valuable than what was in the center of music. I owe everything in my devotion and vocation in rock & roll to him. When I was old enough to buy records, when I was 14 or something, you would see albums in the cut-out bins that the labels couldn't sell, and kids like me, who didn't have much coin, would buy those weird records. And they really informed us.
I remember buying the banana album [Velvet Underground & Nico] there. I'd been reading about them in Creem magazine and wondered exactly what they sounded like. Then I bought White Light/White Heat next and I was like, "Oh, my God — who let this happen?" Rock 'n' Roll Animal was huge for me. It was such a smart record, to take this material that came out of the John Cage-LaMonte Young school and have these Detroit rock guys shred on it. I saw him in concert for the first time in 1976, when I was 18 or 19, where he had all these black-and-white TVs behind him. Halfway through he came to the front of the stage and sat down and sang Berlin songs, and my friends and I ran down and knelt down before him.
When we started Sonic Youth, I knew I was not a singer with any real dynamic range, and it was really instructive to hear a singer like Lou with his alliteration. The words were so pronounced, and I liked the idea of someone coming out of literature. For me, he was an early calling card to New York and how to be an artist. He was like the Empire State Building to me.
I had a nice evening with him once when the two of us watched a rough cut of The Basketball Diaries; there was maybe some thought of us doing music for it at the time. I was sitting on a couch at someone's house in between Lou and Jim Carroll. Lou thought the movie was ridiculous. He said to Jim, "You know, that whole scene of leather-clad Christopher Street guys on the subway — that was the corniest thing I ever saw. You gotta get rid of that. You gotta get rid of all the dialogue. It should be just you reading your book." And I'm sitting there like, "I don't think the Hollywood studios are going to go for that idea." But it was interesting. He had that kind of force field against reality, and to see that was amusing.
He was always very guarded, which I thought was understandable. He didn't seem like somebody too interested in making new friends just for the social sake of it. But the whole mythos of Lou as a monster is completely uninteresting to me. I was at South by Southwest in 2008, playing at a Lou Reed appreciation concert. I'd just heard "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore," which had just surfaced on a Velvet Underground bootleg. It was this powerful song I'd never heard before. Before we went on, I was talking to Lou and told him about it and he said, "How the hell do you know about that song?" I said, "It just surfaced on a bootleg on the Internet." I said I thought it would be a good song to play since I just turned 50. And when I said that, he looked at me, half smiled and embraced me. It was wonderful and completely unexpected.
For me, his passing is as significant as anyone's. He's probably the only musician from my youth who continued to be an inspiration to me It seemed bittersweet that he died on a Sunday, when one of the most beautiful compositions he ever wrote was "Sunday Morning."