It happened one brisk evening in the fall of 1988. I was a freshman in college and was midway through an East Coast road trip, having already stopped to see friends at various colleges along the way. When we got to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, I remember walking through the city to a divey but incredible Vietnamese place. By the time we stumbled back to my friend Tom’s apartment, a dozen beverages into the evening, we collapsed on a pair of threadbare couches next to a few crates of records and an old turntable.
At our small prep school in northeastern Ohio, he and I were among the handful of folks who obsessed over music. He turned me on to the Grateful Dead and Tom Waits, and I turned him on to “alternative music,” which at the time included R.E.M., The Smiths, Husker Du, and Cocteau Twins. We would be forever bonded by our shared love of music. Like all true music nerds, we could, and still do, talk about music for hours, arguing about the relative merits of specific songs or albums.
At some point, he dropped the needle on the Velvet Underground’s final album Loaded. This was a remarkable choice because it not only very appropriately described our state of mind at the time, but for me, it was like finding the missing piece to a puzzle I hadn’t realized was incomplete. Immediately, and I mean within the first few notes of the album, my mind was blown and my musical life was changed forever. We must have played the album four times straight without really talking — just lying there letting each precious word and guitar line wash over us.
It was the epic, rambling closing track “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” that got under my skin, where it has remained for 25 years. In some ways, that song was the bridge between the distant first wave of modern rock bands (that wouldn’t occur until a decade after Loaded was released) and the music that we now call “classic rock.” What the Beatles did for pop music, Dylan for folk, and the Stones for rock and roll, the Velvet Underground did for what would become “independent music.” I knew it had to come from somewhere, but I never knew where.
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” rides on a smooth, patient guitar line and rock-steady drum line, slowly building into a celebration of the destitute New York characters about whom Lou Reed is singing. The chorus is beautifully echoed by backup singers who lift the song from what would otherwise be a mildly depressing tale to something almost optimistic. It is magic every time I hear it.
Now I understand much more clearly what Lou Reed was going for: it’s a song about reinvention, set in the bleakness of a New York frozen in time. I lived there once, too, and loved that same beautiful grit. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Harold and Maude, and a handful of other exquisite works of modern art that changed my life in immeasurable ways, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” set me on a very different course. I can’t imagine who I’d be without it. Great songs take you back to moments you can otherwise not access. To this day, I remember that night and the friendship forged over a love of music.
Song Stories is an essay collection written by music professionals and independent artists about songs that impacted their lives. It's available on Amazon.