Reed was a seminal figure in rock and roll history, as important, in his own way, as Dylan and Springsteen though he never quite caught on with the public like they did. He didn’t write catchy pop diddies, nor did his songs generally carry messages of hope or love or inspiration. Instead, Reed wrote in a matter-of-fact way about the things he saw on the mean streets of New York, things like drug addiction, male prostitution and child abuse. He was an artist who went to a place most artists either fear or simply ignore, that sometimes dark and often painful side of the human experience which many of us simply call life.
Too often, writers – whether lyrical or prose – prefer to play it safe. They do not want to explore those dark, depressing corners of existence because they find them too technically difficult to express in words, or because they worry no one wants to read about such things, or because they simply find them too uncomfortable to think about. And those are all legitimate concerns. They are also rather insipid ones. While I’ve always found characterizations of artists as being “brave” for taking some chances in their art entirely overblown (people who run into burning buildings to save someone or charge an enemy machine gun nest are brave; writers are, at best, merely plucky) not taking such chances can probably be called “timid” if not outright cowardly.
But why should a writer take such chances? Why write about topics he finds uncomfortable and which many of his readers don’t want to hear about? One might equally ask, why ever try anything risky or challenging… like becoming a writer? If you’re going to devote yourself to being good at something, you might as well go all the way and get as much out of it as you can, and that means pushing yourself into areas of the craft that you’re not always comfortable with. To those of us with a more depressive nature, getting such thoughts out in our writing offers – maybe not a therapeutic value – but at least the opportunity to gain a clearer vision of what’s tormenting us. And for readers of such disposition, it’s often a relief to find you are not the only one on earth possessed by these gloomy thoughts. Misery loves company and it’s nice to know there are others just as screwed up as you are when you read their darker works. Of course, not everyone enjoys a good wallow in misery.
I have a friend who refuses to read books or watch movies where the main character dies at the end. “It’s too dark. I don’t want to watch something depressing,” he constantly says to me. But I’ve always found that attitude shallow in the extreme. Life is as much about suffering and death as it is about joy and living. And to deny one side of it, you almost render the other meaningless. You don’t really know the value of something positive unless you understand the value of something equally negative.
While I would not recommend writers devote themselves exclusively to such negative subject matter, I would suggest negativity can play an important role in any type of writing, whether high drama, low comedy or genre fiction. Hemingway once wrote, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” Though that may be a rather limiting view, it’s also one many writers might want to keep in mind next time they’re looking to add a bit of veritas to their work.
To paraphrase the late Mr. Reed, hey babe, take a walk on the dark side.