He liked to watch things on TV.
Every tribute to Lou Reed I’ve heard or seen these past 24 hours has seemingly been as much about the person paying tribute as it has been about the late artist. Is that the point? Are they trying to tell us this is the great Lou Reed’s true legacy? An alumnus of Andy Warhol’s notorious Factory, the man undoubtedly learned much about taking narcissism to previously unimagined levels. Perhaps, then, in an existentialist sort of way, the ideal celebration of Lou Reed’s life is to talk about yourself.
I like to think not. And to demonstrate, please allow me to talk about myself.
I had the honour of experiencing the aura that emanated from Lou Reed on but two occasions. The first was 20 years ago in London, England, during The Velvet Underground’s ill-fated reunion tour. It was fascinating to observe the multitude of ways in which Reed and John Cale strove to avoid making eye contact — lest one lunge at the other’s throat in response. The palpable tension between the two creative giants made for a slightly uncomfortable experience, and some truly extraordinary performances. Aggression, as any metalhead will tell you, can inspire a pretty awesome cathartic experience. And it rarely gets better than the all-out assault on Hey Mr. Rain that was a nightly highlight of that inevitably brief reunion.
Later that same year, I was present at Madison Square Garden in New York City for a tribute to Bob Dylan that featured a number of highlights and an impressive selection of rock royalty. Lou Reed’s lone song came midway through the show. During a star-studded tribute whose lineup included Neil Young, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and some dude claiming to be Bob Dylan, the MSG audience saved its most heartfelt welcome for its true hometown hero. “Loooooooo,” the chant began moments before the man sauntered onto the stage. It continued until well after his killer performance of Dylan’s obscure born-again song Foot of Pride had ended. I recall being transported by the sudden intimacy of this cavernous home of the Rangers — a massive arena instantly converted into the most intimate of venues, as nearly 20,000 people greeted an old friend. A friend as impenetrable, in many ways, as the night’s supposed star. A friend who unlike that enigmatic singer-songwriter, had remained the public face of all that is artistic about the world’s greatest city. Not a bad gig. And Lou Reed at all times played his role as ambassador with style.
I recall basking in Reed’s interpretation of Foot of Pride, savouring the unique delivery, as the man the legend took time to process each line, speaking it (for he almost never sang after the 1980s, instead talking his way through even the Velvets’ songs) as only Lou Reed could. Several months later, when excerpts from the concert were compiled and broadcast for a PBS series of breaks between pleas for donations (Can we talk about CKCU for a moment? ckcufm.com or 613 520 3920 to contribute to a worthy cause.) I was taken aback by the sight of an onstage teleprompter, to which Lou was giving his full attention, reading words aloud as they appeared onscreen. It was enough to briefly make me wonder whether he had always relied on a teleprompter; whether what we thought was a wholly original style of delivery was nothing more than the work of a newsreader. Certainly, if one wishes to emulate the vocal stylings of Lou Reed, a teleprompter may be a good place to start.
I never saw a proper Lou Reed concert. I did, however, see the Velvets and I caught Lou Reed in front of a loving New York audience. So I can’t complain. And after hearing the CBC Radio guy yell the news about Lou Reed’s passing yesterday, I was glad to have shared those moments with him. I wish we could have had more like them. In a career that spanned some 50 years, the man who was New York City provided many an unforgettable moment, in person and on record. It’s safe to say his influence on my own life is greater than I can imagine. New York City looms large in my record collection, and Lou’s spirit is infused into nearly all of those LPs. Late Sunday evening, we celebrated the man’s life via a small selection of records from his influential catalogue — notably the marvelous 1981 release The Blue Mask and the live album Take No Prisoners, which perfectly captured that intimacy of which I spoke earlier. A playful audio documentary of an evening at a New York City club, Take No Prisoners finds Reed rarely sticking to the script, instead turning gems like Satellite of Love, Sweet Jane, Pale Blue Eyes and even Walk On the Wild Side into observational monologues only occasionally interrupted by snippets of lyrics to remind us what song we are supposed to be hearing. What we are hearing, of course, is the full Lou Reed. And it works magnificently.
I considered giving Metal Machine Music a spin. Lou probably would have liked that. But there’s no rush; we’ll always have the music.
Three years after those two evenings with Lou, I spoke with John Cale about his musical adventures past, present and future. I raised the subject of his and Reed’s relationship, in light of the reunion and the haunting collaboration Songs For Drella, a tribute to their mutual mentor Warhol. “It seems that as much as things pull the two of you apart,” I said, thinking back all the way to Cale’s first hasty exit from the Velvets, “something always bring you back together. What is it about that tension that brings out the best in both of you?”
Cale wasted little time in responding. “Well, we won’t be working together again,” he informed me. “Ever.” Something about the art not being worth the “torture.” They never worked together again.
Yesterday, in the wake of the sad news of Lou Reed’s passing, Cale was understandably more conciliatory, mourning the loss of “a fine songwriter, a poet… my ‘schoolyard buddy.'”
I asked Cale about the tension that inevitably resulted when the pair got together, but how they couldn’t seem to stay apart. “Well, we won’t be working together again. I can tell you that,” he replied. Sure, I thought. They never worked together again. Sunday, on his website, Cale mourned the loss of “a fine songwriter, a poet… my ‘schoolyard buddy.'”
Schoolyard buddy. So much more tactful than adversary. And anyway, this isn’t about Lou. It’s about you. It’s about us.