“It’s quite likely that I will live forever, because me and some doctor friends I hang out with just discovered that there’s a secret, heretofore unknown ingredient in methamphetamine which retards the aging process.”—Lou Reed, as quoted by Lester Bangs1
The summer before I started high school, on the bus home from camp, I lost my CD collection. I had experienced a remarkably privileged childhood. This was the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me. No matter that most of the CDs represented embarrassing preadolescent affinities like Puff Daddy and Green Day. Those albums were my identity. It vanished.
Then, the day before high school started, I got dumped. I had spent the summer growing my hair long while cultivating a stoned demeanor and radical politics. My high school was a preppie cesspool. My girlfriend no longer wished to be with the resident hippie. She wasn’t so harrowing a loss as my music collection, but I tingled with misery nonetheless, for I hadn’t managed to disabuse myself of my virginity.
I marched in the West Indian Day Parade, carrying the banner for a civil rights lawyer who was campaigning for elected office. The campaign dispatched me to bring placards to Al Sharpton’s contingent, but the crowd was too thick. I got lost, a lanky hippie kid in pre-gentrified Crown Heights, arms loaded with political placards. I sat down in front of a bodega to gather my bearings. A man sat down next to me. He had a flute in his hands, a deep trill in his voice, and a Jamaican flag bandanna tied around his ropy dreadlocks. He used to be a rich man with his very own truck, he told me, but he gave it all away because Jesus told him to—it was in the Bible! If you will be perfect, go sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me (Matthew 19:21).
My fourteen-year-old self decided he was the wisest person I had ever met, quite likely a reincarnation of Jesus. He told me I had peaceful eyes, and that peaceful eyes were a blessing; after all, Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9).
I wanted to be a peacemaker. However, I dressed in black and called everyone at school “sheep” to their faces.
The lefty lawyer lost the election. At the weepy event that was supposed to be his victory party, I met an older woman. Almost three years older. She would have been a senior if she hadn’t dropped out of high school and started shooting heroin. She was everything I thought I wanted. She came over to my house. She sat in my open windowsill smoking clove cigarettes. She asked to spend the night. We concocted an excuse, something about the Queens-bound 7 train not running, and asked my parents if she could spend the night. They threatened to call the cops and forbade me from ever seeing her again. I declared on them a war of snarls and silence. I began sneaking out of school during free periods for trysts in Riverside Park. Less romantic than it sounds; my inamorata spent these stolen hours teasing me for living in fear of my parents. She wanted me to call up the civil rights lawyer and get myself legally emancipated. I argued, meekly, that my parents, however oppressive, probably weren’t the worst civil rights violators out there. Soon, she checked herself into a mental health facility because she couldn’t stop threatening to kill herself. I could have told my folks I would stop seeing her, a harmless surrender while she was on lockdown. Instead, I embarked on a hunger strike.
My parents sent me to an addiction counselor. He had a greasy bobbing ponytail and his grin was unctuous. He took one look at me and started talking about ducks.
“If it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, then it’s a fucking duck!”
Having never heard this peculiar aphorism, I was bewildered to be called a duck.
“I see you, kid, and I see a stoner!”
I pissed into cups all winter. Throughout these filial skirmishes, I didn’t stop accepting my twenty-dollar weekly allowance. After all, I had a CD collection to rebuild. I intended to acquire a radical new identity by acquiring as many radical CDs as possible. As soon as I could get down to St. Mark’s Place, the city’s hallowed ground of counter-cultural gentrification, I purchased the two bedrocks upon which to construct my new persona: Lou Reed’s Transformer and The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs idolized Lou Reed. He also made a habit of eviscerating the musicians he most admired. So his interviews with Reed proved especially pugnacious, not conversations so much as verbal brawls, fueled with booze and who knows what else—Lou was partial to speed, Lester to cough syrup. This love-hate friendship ended for good with publication of Bangs’s 1975 Creem article, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake.” Lou wasn’t so offended that Bangs called him “My hero, principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of,” or even “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf…the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide.”2 Bangs also directed some nasty, transphobic barbs at Lou Reed’s romantic companion, and that was where the death dwarf drew the line.
Given Bang’s description of Reed, I was surprised to find most of his tunes sentimental and pretty, even if they were about getting whipped and scoring dope. I was even more surprised to find myself hopelessly clinging to those cloying tunes. During free periods at school, I would nap with my Discman underneath benches in the student lounge and moan, “Heroin, be the death of me” at any passing feet. However, after dating a morbid junkie with a yen for pink furry handcuffs, those early Lou Reed albums quickly ceased to shock me. By the time I turned sixteen, I found myself craving a stronger, purer fix. Enter: Metal Machine Music. Reed recorded it by placing two out-of-tune guitars directly beside humongous amplifiers. The massive feedback vibrated the strings, causing the guitars to play themselves. Metal Machine Music was an hour-long recording of shrill, overlapping guitar feedback that, legend has it, Reed only made because he was contractually obligated to produce another album and wished to screw his record label. Indignant vintage rock critics declared the album unlistenable.
That meant I had to listen to it. I found the screech so soothing, so melodic, that I fell asleep to it most nights of my junior year of high school. I had a peculiar late-night habit of spoon-feeding myself unbrewed coffee grounds, so I needed some powerful white noise.
Lester Bangs was the only critic who didn’t find Metal Machine Music despicable. He dubbed it the greatest album “in the history of the human eardrum”3, using this as one of seventeen tongue-in-cheek rationales:
When you wake up in the morning with the worst hangover of your life, Metal Machine Music is the best medicine. Because when you first arise you’re probably so fucked (i.e., still drunk) that it doesn’t even really hurt yet (not like it’s going to), so you should put this album on immediately, not only to clear all the crap out of your head, but to prepare you for what’s in store the rest of the day.4
Like many lost weekends, mine started on Thursday. I was twenty-six years old by now, co-producing a Swahili hip-hop festival in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I didn’t listen to much Lou Reed anymore. Not since I took a few too many hits of acid my first semester at Columbia and developed a phobia for “white people music,” a flexibly-defined genre that most certainly included Lou Reed.
It wasn’t my first time in Tanzania. I had spent a semester at the University of Dar es Salaam, using much of that time to orbit a club named Meeda, where the drunks and students and prostitutes and pickpockets all came to dance until the early hours of the morning. Sometimes the students left with the prostitutes, and sometimes the drunks fell asleep in their chairs and woke up with their pockets sliced open. During that first stay in Dar, I walked out of Meeda one night with a fellow drunk student and his lipsticked ladyfriend. Suddenly I was lifted by my neck and held up a foot off the ground while my pockets were emptied and my Teva sandals removed from my feet. I went back the next day and basked in my friends’ outrage; they couldn’t believe anyone would dare mug Jesus. At Meeda, indeed all across Dar es Salaam, drinking buddies, street hawkers, officious businessmen, queueing motorcyclists, even white-robed pastors saw my long scraggly hair and pious-looking beard and shouted, “Look, it’s Jesus!”
Six years had passed since I first came to Dar, but my colleagues were still camped out at Meeda. On a Thursday night, I ran into a man who remembered me as an old acquaintance from the University. I could not remember him. All my drinking buddies had been rowdy, sweaty socialists and raving hip-hop aficionados. This guy at Meeda wore a sharp, collared shirt and expensive spectacles. I pretended to remember him, too. He bought me beers and complained that I wasn’t drinking them fast enough.
I liked being bought drinks. It combined two of my favorite things: feeling drunk and feeling flattered. I didn’t like to buy people drinks. It combined my two most persistent worries: that people were taking advantage of me and that I was drinking away all my money.
As that weekend unraveled, I threw back at least forty Safari Lagers. That is twenty liters of beer. Almost a third of my body weight. When the sun rose Sunday morning, my abdomen felt as poached as an egg. I dragged my feet toward Kwa Ndama, a bar owned by a guy named Ndama, yet another drinking buddy from the University cafeteria.
Now, the waitress: in Tanzania, waitresses are mainly paid in room and board—a room they all sleep in behind the bar plus a cornmeal porridge known as “ugali,” with a side of unsalted beans. Their salary is often less than a dollar a day, and tipping is almost unheard of. Many are expected to supplement their salary by sleeping with customers.
The waitress at Ndama’s was Angel. Angel never called me Jesus, only Mzungu, the Swahili word for “white person.” She welcomed me with a coy, wet kiss on the lips.
“Mzungu!” she chirped in her sharp Northern accent. I blushed. I was kmown to be gregarious in Dar es Salaam, but it was an act. I was still a shy, nervous boy. No matter how much I enjoyed casual sex, I often felt as if it was sneaking up behind me, pushing me into a dark, humiliating pit.
I asked her for a Safari Lager, a bottle of water, and a phone voucher.
“You haven’t bought my phone yet,” Angel said.
Every time I thought our flirtation was becoming more natural and open, she reminded me she didn’t have a phone. She didn’t want to compromise herself by exchanging sex for nothing. And I didn’t want to compromise myself by exchanging a flip phone for sex.
“I’ve been busy,” I said.
“Busy with your bottles?”
I was a bit dizzy to think up a snappy comeback. Angel snapped the cap off my Safari. I took a sip of beer and watched the bottle tremor in my grip. I couldn’t actually feel my hand shake, but I could see it, and it looked like my grandfather’s. He died of Parkinson’sI took another sip. This wasn’t the most painful hangover I’d ever had—not yet anyway—but it was the scariest. I felt my veins and muscles vibrating, like they were the strings of the guitars Lou Reed used to record Metal Machine Music. My body was playing itself.
I asked Angel for another Safari
“Mzungu!” she popped her hand over her mouth in mock astonishment. “Don’t you ever get tired of drinking beer?”
“Never,” I vowed, even though I was extremely tired of drinking beer. I slurped one Safari and then another. Soon, Angel was stacking all the plastic picnic chairs and wobbly tables. She asked me, “Where do you sleep?”
I didn’t know whether she was asking to sleep with me, or asking me to get out of her hair and go to sleep, already. I waved uphill, towards the last stop on the commuter bus route. “Where the daladalas end.”
“I don’t even know where that is.”
This was the moment where I should have invited her to come find out. It was only a five-minute walk. And then I walked home alone, kicking myself all the way. Stray dogs darted across the road in front of me. They would wake me in the middle of the night with their howls. I crawled into bed with a little bottle of scotch and scrolled my Facebook newsfeed. All my friends were posting Lou Reed lyrics. Because Lou Reed was dead.
His death hurt. Even though I didn’t listen to his music anymore, I suddenly craved those disembodied guitars and their howling screech of spite. Lester Bangs was long dead, too, having overdosed on cough medicine at 33 years old, just when his gonzo reviews were beginning to smack of maturity. And my teenaged self was deadest of all. I never slept with Angel; the following weekend, a less perplexing lady handed me a pint of Irish whiskey and that was the basis of a fling that while satisfying, didn’t leave me feeling any less lonely. I drank my way through another month in Tanzania and after that, another few years in New York. By any objective measure, I was a miserable lush. And I miss it.
1. Bangs, Lester (1988). “The Greatest Album Ever Made” in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. ed. Greil Marcus. New York: Vintage Books. P. 198
2. Bangs, Lester (1988). “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake” in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. ed. Greil Marcus. New York: Vintage Books. Pp. 170-171
3. Bangs, Lester (1988). “The Greatest Album Ever Made” in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. ed. Greil Marcus. New York: Vintage Books. P. 195
Richard Prins is a lifelong New Yorker. Publications include Gulf Coast, jubilat, Ploughshares, and a “Notable” mention in Best American Essays 2014. Arrests include criminal trespass (Trump Tower), disorderly conduct (Trump International Hotel), resisting arrest (Republican National Convention), and incommoding the halls of Congress (United States Senate).