Those gritty, witty lyrics, dealing harsh truths that I never quite lived but knew I wanted to know about. As a teenager, I listened and I loved the dark worlds he painted. But later—I am not even kidding about this—Lou Reed was the heart of my parenting soundtrack, my melodious Dr. Spock. Because in addition to songs about edgy experiences that I never had and never would, Reed wrote, so eloquently, to the world I do live in. In my pantheon of Reed favorites, two in particular have been going through my head since we all got Sunday’s sad news.
* * *
My children, like pretty much everyone’s in this particular 21st-century parenting culture, are quite gifted.
Gifted children get enriched to within an inch of their lives in my world, and while I can mostly recognize this is bullshit, I am also easily seduced. A mama starts to worry that if her children aren’t virtuosos at a potpourri of sports, stringed instruments, and world languages, they will end up all kinds of fail.
But Lou Reed always called me on it. Whenever I found myself about to sign some small person up for something ridiculous, be it baby French or a couple of paychecks’ worth of SAT prep, the bossy and unsubtle lyrics of Reed’s “Teach the Gifted Children” smacked me to my senses:
Teach the gifted children, Lou told me, and then he listed exactly what those children need to know: Teach them to have mercy. Teach them about sunsets … about anger … about mystery … about forgiveness …
Dude. It’s so much easier just to sign them up for Math Club and soccer camp.
That path of those other lessons is not nearly as well-marked, and comes with very little college-admissions upside.
Lou Reed knew what kind of gifted mattered most, and the characters that populated the underbelly-world he mostly sang about were not that. My children, irrespective of how they might fare on any test, have been gifted with love and support, with the assumption that they’ll be fed when they’re hungry, and stay warm and dry when winter comes.
Teach them about mercy, he sang, and for children born into lives of education and enrichment and power, what more important subject could we possibly teach? Baby Mozart, surely, is secondary.
* * *
Reed’s chronicling of the world’s darkness has long been hailed from all corners. But in my own small corner, it was his ability to mix light into all the dark that spoke most powerfully. “What’s Good” is a catchy little number, a hilarious catechism of the ridiculous:
What good is seeing-eye chocolate?
What good’s a computerized nose?
Reed wrote “What’s Good” after watching two close friends die in the same year, and he moves his lyrics quickly from goofy-absurd to horror-absurd:
What good is cancer in April?
Again and again he asks the question—What’s good?—but his song keeps not answering and it starts to peter out until you think maybe there won’t be an answer. But at last, gathering strength, the backup singers start to chant: Life’s good. Reed speaks, rather than sings, the wonderful, terrible truth in the song’s last line:
Life’s good. But not fair at all.
Life is absurd-funny and absurd-horrible. Deeply unfair, and deeply good. It’s hard to hold both those truths, so Lou Reed wrote us a song to help.
I added “What’s Good” to a hundred playlists, hoping to inoculate my children against that awful, inevitable moment when they must learn about horror and pain. When the great unfairness strikes, I prayed for them, let this live in their bones, so deep they don’t know whence it came: Life’s good.
What better way to put a truth in our bones than to sing it there, with Lou Reed?
Youngest was ten when she, too, lost one of her closest friends to cancer. Acute myelogenous leukemia doesn’t fuck around, and when this sweet boy went from healthy to gone within a week, all we could do was hold our girl tightly as grief howled through her too-young self. She hurled her shaking body into us—her daddy, sister, brother and me—and we made it to the couch. She lay across all our laps at once and we wrapped ourselves around every trembling bit of her, murmuring.
“I know it, baby. I know. It is the worst possible thing, and it is not fair.” We listened to “What’s Good” over and over, that winter.
“Life’s like Sanskrit read to a pony,” Uncle Lou sang, and we understood that he wasn’t being glib. He simply knew that sometimes, there is no sense to be made.
That spring, Youngest approached me, a little shy: “I’m starting to think maybe…” she stared at her foot in its pink sock. Pink had been her buddy’s favorite color, and she’d barely taken off the socks they’d passed out at his funeral. “I’m starting to think some tiny good things have maybe come from the huge, awful thing. Does that make me a terrible person, thinking that?”
“Not at all, sweetie. That’s life. What kinds of things?”
“Like, from the beginning of fifth grade, boys and girls couldn’t play together or people would tease and make kissy noises. But now, everyone just plays with everyone, and is nice to each other. It’s like we all know what matters. I think … I think it’s good…”
She left it there.
Thank you, Lou Reed. Not just for your brilliant raising up of streets and grit and darkness. As I try to teach my gifted children, try to teach them what’s good, I thank you also for your glimpses of light, and for singing me into the motherhood I want to live out.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
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