It may sound bizarre, but Lou Reed was one of my first childhood heroes, along with Debbie Harry, Patti Smith and David Bowie. Yesterday, his passing reminded me that the exposure I got as a young child to adult themes only made me more open-minded and aware. A child’s life doesn’t have to just revolve around Sesame Street.
To say that Lou Reed’s songs contained adult content is like saying the most obvious thing ever. You can barely utter a line without reference to drug use, sex in many forms, and words that would have never gone over on the playground at my Catholic school in the late ’80s.
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
With lyrics like that let’s just say I understood transgender struggles a decade or two before my first episode of “Orange Is The New Black.”
Yet my parents didn’t worry about me repeating vulgar words or being exposed to concepts (like giving head or creaming her pants) that I wouldn’t understand for another decade or more. They knew I would be drawn to what they loved. His deep meaningful voice, the jazzy saxophone in “Walk On The Wild Side” or the string melodies of “Street Hassle.” Decades later, “Perfect Day” would play at my wedding. Instead of focusing on his words I was forever marked by his jaded but vulnerable spirit, speaking for all the lost souls of NYC.
His songs also bridged the gap between my father’s talent as a musician and mine as a writer. Lou Reed told amazing and raw stories, the kind my father wrote about in his own songs, the kind I am still drawn to this day. The pictures Lou Reed painted in my childhood and adolescence are the essence of what occupies my fictional story worlds to this day. His music was my first exploration into ideas of what it meant to live and be alive (not always the same thing), all without ever having done heroin for myself. And thankfully, it never once occurred to me to repeat the lyrics to any of the nuns.
For these reasons, my kids both went to nursery school never having heard “The Wheels On The Bus” once in their lives, yet they could sing every lyric to Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” We love to watch the Vh1 Top 20 Countdown every Sunday morning where they are exposed to the varied sounds of Tegan and Sara to Avicii to Lorde. One of my proudest moments as a parent was when my two-year-old requested these three songs at bedtime: “I Love Rock n’ Roll” (Joan Jett), “You Are My Sunshine” and Om Gate Gate (a Buddhist mantra). If that doesn’t reflect the all-ideas-are-welcome-here household they are being raised in, I don’t know what does.
It’s true they have seen Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecky Ball” (as my two-year-old pronounces it) more times than any episode of “Ni Hao Kailan.” And I think they will be better people for it.