As I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog, I worked in a record store (well, alright, the music department of a Borders bookstore, semantics, whatever) for the better part of a decade. Lou Reed’s passing on Sunday reminded me of one of the stranger phenomena that I noticed in my time amongst the CD racks: the Death Sales Spike. When any famous and/or notorious performer would kick the bucket, we’d be swamped within hours with people looking to buy something – anything – with that artist’s name on it. The early birds of course got the plumpest worms, but a few hours in even the worst albums (insert Metal Machine Music/Lulu joke here) would get snapped up as though they were the toppermost of the poppermost.
Now that most of the record stores are as dead-and-gone as Mr. Velvet Underground himself, I decided to see if this strange ritual had made the jump to the interwebs. Brought up Amazon, typed “Lou Reed” into the search box, et voila: “Temporarily out of stock. Order now and we'll deliver when available” appeared as a chorus nearly as insistent as “Walk on the Wild Side”’s doot-de-doo-s.
But why? Why, if you were never interested enough while the artist in question was alive, would you suddenly need their album on your coffee table upon their death? Before the music industry committed hara-kiri, I understood going to the record store as a social thing, a place to congregate and talk it out with like-minded souls. I also understand not being able to find your copy of Transformer or New York and suddenly needing another - current events can be a bitch for the disorganized. What I’m talking about here is something different altogether: were I still employed at that upscale, Westchester County Borders, I’d probably have a fight on my hands between folks generally more inclined to the Josh Groban end of the musical spectrum over the single copies of (from memory now) Transformer, Berlin, New York, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and whatever random solo/VU best-ofs we generally kept in stock. Were any of these people actually going to go home and listen to Lou Reed? The optimist in me hopes they would, managing to expand their horizons a bit in the process; the realist in me knows that it was probably more a game of “look what I have that you can’t get right now”, and shrugs grumpily.
I’m thinking back to Whitney Houston’s death. I wasn’t a fan beforehand, never owned a single album of hers and still don’t. I eulogized her on this blog for two reasons: her story was an interesting/tragic one, and she was part of the soundtrack of my youth, whether I chose her to be or not. Maybe that’s the crux of it: sure, the customer I described above never listened to Lou Reed in their life, but maybe an old friend – or some long lost unrequited crush – did. Maybe the thought of Lou Reed – or at least the Lou Reed Persona – reminds them of a more rebellious time in their lives. Maybe Lou’s loss reminds them of what they’ve lost, and they need a chunk of him, an artifact, to grab on to. Maybe smart-ass blog writers eulogize people like Whitney Houston – performers whose music did nothing for them – for the same reason, whether we’d like to admit it in daylight or not. And maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a bit of momentary nostalgia when it beckons.
For all the maybes I’ve just mentioned, there is one thing I’m absolutely sure of: there is no bad time to legitimately try to discover music that’s new to you. If Lou Reed’s passing has pointed you in the direction of his music, congratulations: there is much of value to discover, and no time like the present to do so; the online record stores may be wiped clean at the moment, but the torrents are well-seeded – and after all, it’s not like Lou needs the royalty checks anymore. If you’re looking for a good, accessible place to start, might I suggest 1984’s New Sensations, an excellent, underrated album chock full of catchy, thought-provoking, image-making songs.
It’s an album entirely about life.