Beginning to See the Light


Douglas muses on life, death and the meaning of Lou Reed …

You might have mistaken the cars out the window for lumps of sugar. A series of winter storms had come down from the Gulf of Alaska and dropped enough snow on Seattle to enforce a five-day hibernation. Queen Anne Hill, where I lived, was cut off like an iceberg, its steep slopes sheathed in ice. No one went to work. Public buses were stopped. Truck deliveries were impossible. Soon the local grocer began to run out of food. My roommates and I listened to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and drank Jim Beam and marveled at the transformation of the world outside. It was like a little holiday with a faint specter of starvation. That night I dreamed that Bowie circa 1973 was cooking a meal for us. The cupboards bare, he dropped armloads of colored felt puppets into a vat of boiling water. We would dine, he said, on puppet stew.

That must have been in 1996 or ’97, I’m not sure which. I was a few years out of college, poor and single and working at the bookshop. Back then I lived almost entirely on spaghetti and bagels, Bowie and The Velvet Underground. Seattle was still vaguely famous for its “grunge” music, but I was more interested in the music of my parents’ generation. Not that my parents ever listened to David Bowie or Lou Reed. In the sixties and seventies they had been more interested in The Beatles, Donovan, Simon and Garunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. But my roommates and I kept The Velvets’ entire discography, and Bowie’s from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs, on near-constant rotation. When working the front counter at the bookshop I listened to the same.

The obsession – though not the enjoyment – began to wear off. I started exploring jazz from the fifties and sixties (Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Chet Baker, and Dave Brubeck) and modern Eastern Bloc composers (Gorecki, Schnittke, Ligeti, Arvo Part, and Peteris Vasks). Most of the latter I can’t bear anymore, having retreated to the more gratifying Baroque period – the music of which, along with a broader sampling of jazz artists, makes up most of what we play at home these days. This past Sunday, however, after hearing of Lou Reed’s death, I listened with deep satisfaction to an old Velvet Underground disc while washing the dishes. The leaves were piling up outside and things suddenly felt melancholy. I don’t know why we should be affected by the deaths of artists, most of whom are strangers to us and haven’t produced memorable work in years, but sometimes we are affected, a little.

Lou Reed was one of a handful of aging popular musicians whose passing might mark something for me. The others include David Bowie, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Paul McCartney. Like any good parents, my wife and I have tried to raise our kids to appreciate rock and roll of the sort they made. So far we’ve failed. Our son, age ten, is a rather good violin player. He’s been taking lessons for four years now and practices an hour each day. Mondays he plays with a local youth chamber orchestra. My daughter, eight years old, is showing some promise with the piano. I can’t even read music, so their achievements are, to me, miraculous. But they absolutely hate – detest – rock and roll. I expected to raise music snobs, but not this kind. I’m Beginning to See the Light came on while I was finishing up the silverware. You can imagine my dismay when both son and daughter covered their ears and stomped off to the bedroom to blast Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major.

Douglas Dalrymple lives near San Francisco and blogs about books and life at The New Psalmanazar.
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About Author Profile: Douglas Dalrymple

Douglas Dalrymple lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and kids. He earns his bread working for a dotcom in Silicon Valley where he gets by on the timely use of magic words. He blogs about books and life at The New Psalmanazar.

6 thoughts on “Beginning to See the Light

    November 14, 2013 at 09:53

    Still haven’t got into Bowie or Velvet Underground, which I feel is most remiss of me…

    November 14, 2013 at 14:19

    Its never to late, either for your kids Douglas or for you worm. And yes it really is most terribly remiss of you.

    November 14, 2013 at 20:37

    I was surprised at how much Lou’s passing affected me. I was in a funk for days.

    I was honestly a bit surprised at the amount of press he got. I assumed that his decades out of the spotlight would have limited the media interest.

    I was not a serious fan, but I really loved one particular album, NEW YORK, that has been on regular rotation in the house CD player since, well, since shortly after CDs were invented. It became the one and only CD that was played, over and over, here for three days after his passing. The missus was really beginning to wonder about me.

    How can the coolest guy alive be dead? I wonder who gets the mantle now? Is anyone even really cool, in that way, anymore?

    I’m better now, but it does worry me how I might react when, inevitably, the great god Dylan goes to his reward. Gonna be a hard rain….

    November 14, 2013 at 20:49

    Nice piece, DD.

    I like ‘The Velvet Underground’ album best (as opposed to …’& Nico’) — a good intro, Will.

    John Halliwell
    November 16, 2013 at 08:17

    That final paragraph had me casting my memory back to a time when I was about your age, Douglas. When my three daughters were pre-teenage I struggled to know how strongly I should push a particular type of music in their direction. In the event, I simply played the stuff via records and CDs and left it up to them to decide whether or not they liked it: classical, pop, rock, folk. I recall my middle daughter, then seven or eight and in love with Abba, skipping into the living room, doing a little dance around the settee, and then pulling up with quite a start “What’s that?” she asked following a dramatic passage in the music coming through the hi-fi system. “That’s the Egmont Overture by Beethoven.” “Oh! Isn’t it good?” She skipped a bit more, then was gone. I think I concluded that Beethoven speaks to all, irrespective of age. That evening we listened to Top of the Pops on the radio and as Abba’s Super Trouper launched, the dancing started again; sadly Beethoven’s Egmont was never mentioned again. All three love a variety of music: two selected Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending to be played at their weddings, and one of those two got quite excited yesterday (Friday) when we practically collided with Liam Gallagher, co-founder of Oasis, on Manchester’s Christmas Market. So, push it or let it be? I’m still not sure.

  6. Douglas
    November 18, 2013 at 20:08

    Thank you, Mr Halliwell. Not that I’m especially encouraged about my kids’ prospects for a broader appreciation of music in the future, but it’s good to know that parents can actually survive the rearing of their children.

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