“Jenny said when she was just five years old
There was nothing happening at all
Every time she puts on a radio
There was nothing going down at all, not at all
Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station
You know, she don't believe what she heard at all
She started shaking to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll”
Rock 'n' Roll – The Velvet Underground – Loaded (1970)
Lou Reed was neither a doctor nor a fireman, yet it could be said that he saved a large number of people through the seventy-one years of his life. At the dawn of the seventies, Lou might not have realized it, but when composing “Rock 'n' Roll”, one of his career's biggest hits, he was writing a tune that would serve as an autobiography of sorts, a stunning summary of the musical journey that would define his life.
On “Rock 'n' Roll”, little Jenny is just sitting at home. At the early age of five, she is already bored with her life. She looks at her parents and fears of what she might become. She wants something to either drastically change her world or simply make her day a little brighter by giving her hope that there is something out there that breaks away from the dull mold of modern life. She wants something different; something that introduced her to new possibilities and to an alternative lifestyle, something that would allow her to find her true self.
And then, out of nowhere, a New York station playing some good old rock 'n' roll comes to the rescue. She is enchanted by what she hears, and her life is rescued from the jaws of boredom. Little Jenny is one of many characters Lou created, but she transcends fiction. Whether we are five or fifty, we have all been there: bored, hopeless, sorrowful, you name it. And then, we listen to one magical song that shakes it all away and makes us feel better for no explainable reason whatsoever.
We have all been Little Jenny at some point in our lives, and even for those who have never listened to The Velvet Underground, chances are their world was once made better due to a band inspired by the New York group or Lou Reed himself. Although the group's records did not sell much, and even if Lou Reed was never a huge superstar, if Brian Eno's now famous remark about the band's debut that says “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band", then those who - much like little Jenny - have been saved by rock 'n' roll have been indirectly saved by Lou Reed.
The tidal waves of The Velvet Underground's first records and of Reed's songwriting kick-started many bands in American soil on the 60s and 70s, and the echoes of their sound were still felt on the 80s when the alternative scene, captained by the likes of R.E.M., Pixies and Husker Du, often made reverence to the Velvets. And their importance and power came to the forefront once more when the so-called rock revival of the early 00s was lead by The Strokes, another New York City band, and one that used The Velvet Underground as an inspiration for their signature sound.
If a genealogical tree of American modern rock was to be built, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground would be right on its top, serving as the source of energy to all of its magnificent fruits. Under that tree, protected by many of its branches, generations of people have been sheltered and saved, even if for a little while, from the evils of the world. And if we have all been little Jenny, then Lou was our rock 'n' roll.