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Lou Reed: New York Legend

Remembering the iconic, enigmatic Velvet Underground co-founder and solo artist

Sunday, October 27, 2013 - 02:18 PM

Lou Reed plays 'Romeo Had Juliette' live on Soundcheck in the Greene Space, April 29, 2013. Lou Reed plays "Romeo Had Juliette" live on Soundcheck in the Greene Space, April 29, 2013.

Today is a hard day to be a Lou Reed fan. The news of his death can’t really be a huge surprise, given his liver transplant in May. But being a Lou Reed fan was never easy. It was easy enough to become one – you only had to hear “Sweet Jane” or “Rock 'n' Roll” or “Walk on the Wild Side,” for example. But staying a fan? That took work.

For one thing, being a Lou Reed fan meant constantly re-evaluating your fandom. Some of his albums seemed to be deliberate provocations—most famously, his abstract electronic 2-LP set Metal Machine Music. But whenever you were ready to write him off, he’d come up with something brilliant: The Bells, for example, a criminally underrated album featuring jazz musicians like the late Don Cherry. Or his collaboration in the 1990s with John Cale, his former partner in the Velvet Underground. Or the star-studded album inspired by Edgar Allen Poe called The Raven.

Then there was his larger-than-life persona. Of all the rock musicians associated with New York, perhaps none reflected the city’s dark corners and shadowy subcultures the way Lou Reed did in his songs. Perhaps none reflected the city’s hard edge and take-no-prisoners attitude the way he did in his onstage or on-screen persona. As I made my way in radio, I never approached his office for an interview. I was scared of him.

Hear Lou Reed's 1972 album Transformer

Of course, the city changed, and mellowed, and it is possible that Lou Reed did too. I finally met him backstage at Merkin Hall in the mid-90s; I was presenting Laurie Anderson (another artist long associated with New York, and especially with the so-called Downtown scene) in my New Sounds Live concert series there, and Lou came along. To my relief, he seemed really nice. He even said something complimentary about my hosting the show.

Since then, I and the Soundcheck staff learned a bit more about Lou Reed. In his appearances on our show, and in a couple of events I did with him — one at Carnegie Hall, one or two at the World Financial Center — I found out that while he could be as prickly as ever, and would suffer no fool gladly (or at all), he also embodied another, less talked-about characteristic of New York: he was fiercely loyal. To Laurie Anderson first and foremost, but I suspect she put in a good word for me at some point, because he not only came on Soundcheck to talk about his book of photography in 2006, he also agreed to come back and play on our first ever program in WNYC’s Greene Space. Our theme for that opening event was “Downtown,” and in our discussions of who to invite, I don’t believe we ever got past Lou Reed. He was our first choice, and when I asked, he said yes.

Two things I will always remember from our conversation in 2006: First, all of the photos were of New York—the city, not the people. “There is one figure in the back of an alley,” he admitted. “You can probably guess who that is.” (It was Laurie.) The other is that our building security gave him a hard time because he tried to bring his dog. In a little carrying bag. He was quite miffed that he wasn’t allowed to bring the dog in, and heaven help me, I couldn’t help thinking, “ A dog in a carrying bag??? You’re LOU REED! You should have a snarling Rottweiler or a Rhodesian ridgeback or some other super scary dog, not some little carry-on thing!” Of course I never said this aloud. I’m not a complete idiot.

Hear Lou Reed talk about his photos, the digital revolution in photography and music, and his dog. (Soundcheck, Jan. 17, 2006)

And he was still Lou Reed. Yes, he left early one night when we were at a restaurant after a World Financial Center event. He and Laurie were having a fine time and didn’t particularly want to leave, but they were fretting because the dog was home alone. On the other hand, he concluded our inaugural broadcast from The Greene Space with a version of his song “Romeo Had Juliette” that could’ve brought the curtain down on WNYC’s broadcast license. He’d been on his best behavior for most of an hour, and he was wrapping up with this live performance. I mentioned that the song had come from a little-known compilation called The United States of Poetry; he looked surprised and asked how I knew that. Well, it’s my job to know things like that, so I took mock offense and said, “Because I listen, Mister Reed.”

Lou had the last word. Twice, in fact. Both times it was a word that I know for a fact was not in that song before, but his little riposte resulted in frantic attempts in the control room to bleep a pair of F-bombs. As our executive producer Joel Meyer just told me earlier today, “In hindsight, I’m so proud that he threw a fit on our show. It was kind of an honor. I’ll tell my kids about that one.”

Watch Lou Reed perform on Soundcheck in the Greene Space. (April 29, 2009)

A year ago December, WNYC produced an event in the Greene Space for my 30th anniversary here. Lou came, with Laurie naturally. We barely had time to say much more than hi, how are you; but that too was kind of an honor. Since one of my daughters was there and the other watching on the web, I’ll have to save that one for my grandkids.

Actually, now that I’m thinking about all this, I’m going to qualify what I said earlier. Today is a hard day to be a Lou Reed fan. But it’s also a perfect day to be a Lou Reed fan.

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Comments [23]

heather from Freeport, NY

In the mid nineties I took my parents to see Lou at the Knitting Factory. My usually conservative mom had become obsessed with the New York album and was playing the cassette tape over and over in her car. The poetry and stories of the people Lou told her about moved her. My dad identified with Lou's tough NY guy persona. What a night. My folks are the same generation as Lou but somehow they seemed so far from him in terms of how they conducted their lives. But that night you could see clearly how much they could relate to him and I imagine that had he met them he could have connected with them - my immigrant mom .. my Brooklyn dad... who lived a wild, clandestine life through his music... thanks Lou..

and thanks Lou from your hometown - Freeport NY

Oct. 29 2013 12:48 PM
Jeff Wave from Manhattan

As a very young man (boy) many years ago, I don't know how many times I listened to Berlin trying it figure out what song I might possibly want to cover in one of my early bands. Ultimately it probably just seemed too ridiculous to even think about being able to do anything so cool. Any kind attempt at a cover. I had a number of those solo records and remember usually actually liking about half of the songs on each album. But even when he was "bad" meaning, writing clunky, just kind of dumb lines, he did it in a way that was still always with a sense of humor and he showed you at the same time that he didn't give a shit what anyone thought about it. Admirable in itself. How could anyone be "allowed" to write a song like that?! He used simple chords and usually pretty simple language but there was that energy, edginess and topic manner in his songwriting that contributed greatly to making mid-western suburban white boys like me HAVE to move to New York.

Oct. 29 2013 12:14 PM
Bruce B. from NYC

In 1979, shortly after the release of the album The Bells, Lou Reed was taking phone calls on WPIX-FM.
Me: Whatever happened to (former member of The Velvet Underground) Sterling Morrison?
Lou Reed: He's become an assistant teacher.
Me: Really?
Lou Reed: Why? You think it would make more sense if he was working in a gas station?
Me: Well, yeah, actually. By the way, I noticed your voice has changed on your new album. What's the reason for that?
Lou Reed: Puberty.

Oct. 28 2013 10:42 PM
jon leopard from Flushing, Queens

Two summers ago after waiting in the darkened wings, Lou Reed joined Laurie Anderson for the finale of her show at Lincoln Center. He came out raised his arms, like just completing a touch down, triumphant, of course we could see him from our seats and I like a fool kept motioning him to come on down. Today the city is less gritty and perhaps less poignant, but Low Reed always kept it sharp like a diamond headed bullet. R.I.P. and condolences to his family and friends.

Oct. 28 2013 05:34 PM
Donald Sosin from Lakeville CT

A great tribute, John, thanks! I only saw him perform once, it was a concert at Damrosch Park two years ago where he appeared at the end to jam with Laurie Anderson and others. The crowd went wild when they saw him. New York is much the worse for his passing.

Oct. 28 2013 02:10 PM
Connie Colvin from Jackson Heights, NY

This is a great loss. A boyfriend of a long time ago in my life was a big fan and played him all the time and I gradually got into him. Saw him a couple of times in concert. Very sad, very brave, uncompromising, and launched a thousand groups. May he rest in peace and my deepest sympathies to his wife and family/friends.

Oct. 28 2013 02:08 PM
Tim Young from Sedona

I saw Lou Reed at the Bottom Line club in the village. I guess it was the mid 80's.
I remember his leather jacket and at the bar, a group of Hell's Angels.
This was a scene I was not going to forget and of course the place was packed.

Oct. 28 2013 12:54 PM
Michael from Brooklyn

We owned a restaurant (now closed) on Smith Street in Brooklyn in the early 2000s. The entire storefront opened so that customers eating at the front tables could almost think they were eating outdoors. These tables were our most popular, especially on nice evenings.
One beautiful Saturday in the Summer of'06 we had a 5:30 reservation for 4 people. The first of two couples came in right at 5:30, gave us their name (Anderson) and asked to be seated. I was at the door and since the restaurant was empty I immediately offered them the table up front, right at the sidewalk. The man looked stricken, and cast his gaze around for a different table. After he and his companion talked between themselves, they took the table I offered and waited for their friends to arrive.
As I walked back to the kitchen, one of the waiters came up to me and said, "You know who that is don't you? It's Lou Reed and his wife Laurie Anderson." I had not recognized them, and realized that he may have thought I wanted to show him off by putting him up front or at least thought his dinner would be interrupted by a passing fan. I thought about going back and offering him the quiet dark table deep inside the restaurant, and then thought "Nah".

Oct. 28 2013 12:26 PM
Marv Gellman from New York City


This is the story of how our Jersey shore band-- The Beachnuts-- had unknown ties to Lou Reed who worked for Pickwick International starting in 1964.

In 1966, our band recorded two original songs for Pickwick International: Iconoclastic Life (http://www.groovierecords.com/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=665), and Nature's Company. These recordings are now collected worldwide by garage band enthusiasts. And, Iconoclastic Life is considered one of the top garage band recordings of the '60s (Teenbeat Mayhem).

While at Pickwick, Lou also recorded songs under the band name The Beachnuts. Over recent years, many have speculated that Lou sings lead on Iconoclastic Life (http://www.groovierecords.com/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=665). Not true.

We only learned over the success of Iconolcastic Life and the Lou Reed ties when several years ago we researched The Beachnuts Iconoclastic Life/Nature's Company recording online.

RIP Lou Reed.

Marv Gellman
Drummer, The Beachunuts Iconoclastic Life/Nature's Company
917-783-8351

Oct. 28 2013 12:13 PM
SC Producer

Thanks for your comments and stories, everyone! Today (Monday) at 2 pm ET, we'll be taping a show that features some of your Lou Reed moments. Call us up and share yours at 2 pm at 212 433 9692. We'd love to hear from you.

Oct. 28 2013 12:06 PM
Carlos Pulido from New York

moved to the East Village in the summer of '88, right after the Tompkins Park riots. had to step over so many homeless folks walking to work in Soho, and one night the F train conductor announced "Second Avenue, hold your noses". got held up at gunpoint at the 14th St Subway stop on Christmas eve. "New York" was the soundtrack of my life then...

Oct. 28 2013 11:34 AM
Linda from Jersey shore

This isn't actually my story, but my daughter's best friend Marielena. Marielena worked for Film Forum downtown a few years back, and quite often after the movie ended she would have to wake up those patrons who fell asleep. One day she woke this "old couple" after the movie. Of course to the 20something Marielena, the "old couple" was Lou Reed and his wife Laurie Anderson.

Oct. 28 2013 11:00 AM
Matthew Greene from New York City - Tribeca

Since the age of maybe 12, I was aware of Lou Reed and much of his body of work.

And as lifelong New Yorker myself, I felt an unusually strong affinity to and with Lou, even though his life and mine rarely intersected nothwithstanding the random spottings on the street. And like many of us, I'm sure this geographical connection to Lou made us all feel cooler, more artistic, more connected to that side of NYC we so carefully avoided because of its inherent dangers.

Yesterday, we lost our bragging rights to say that Lou and we breathed the same air in NYC and environs, however, we feel the more thankful to have known him and his experiences.

Thank you Lou!

Condolences to Laurie and Lou's mom and close friends and family.

Oct. 28 2013 10:39 AM
Joe from New York

Instead of being such a rude grouch, he should have been humble and thankful every day that he had a career in music at all. 'Nuff said.

Oct. 28 2013 10:17 AM
karen from long island

Lou Reed is a part of the mix tape of my memories....
longings
loves
losses
perfect days

http://youtu.be/--AUcTZvvT4

Oct. 28 2013 09:53 AM
Jon Reiner from Manhattan

A few years ago I was riding my bike along the Hudson on a beautiful, crowded Sunday. Lou Reed was walking in my direction, along with his tiny dog, Lou in a silver metallic jacket and aviator shades, and the dog in a simple collar. A charming incongruity, and in my surprise I blurted "Hi Lou." He did not respond and did not look pleased -- of course.

Oct. 28 2013 08:59 AM

Thanks Rory, Christopher, BB, Adam and Virlana. Let's hear other Lou Reed stories and tributes -- we might use them on tonight's Soundcheck.

Oct. 28 2013 08:38 AM
Virlana Tkacz from St Marks Place East Village

Lou Reed memorial last night on St Mar's Place near the old DOM
photo by Virlana Tkacz

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201969241206396&l=48e9dc5f79

Oct. 28 2013 07:44 AM
Virlana Tkacz from St Marks Place

Lou Reed memorial on St Mark's Place last night near the old Dom
Photo by Virlana Tkacz

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201969241206396&set=a.1401564032894.56643.1046107126&type=1&theater

Oct. 28 2013 07:40 AM
Adam Rude from Briarcliff Manor, NY

Beautifully written, John. And very personal: appropriate, I think, because Lou forced a more personal reaction than most.

I was born too late to know first hand about the Velvet Underground, or even Lou's Transformer-era music; I came to his music midway through high school in the late 70s and really connected with it in college in the early 80s. At the time, Lou had just released "the Blue Mask" and "Legendary Hearts." Both albums were kind off understated, but always struck me as the work of an adult -- and helped me to think about the adult I hoped to grow into. "New York" and "Magic and Loss" proved similarly affecting to me. I listened to the latter last night and while Lou sang of his own losses, I couldn't help but think of ours. I am loathe to assign the cloak of greatness to anyone -- we all do that too easily. Nonetheless, I feel like I -- and clearly we -- lost a great friend yesterday. Rest easy, Lou -- you were appreciated and you will be missed.

Oct. 28 2013 07:29 AM
BB

So sonic. He had an ear. One of the best read too. Showed in his writing. Thanks for the posting John.

Oct. 28 2013 07:18 AM
christopher from East Village

I remember buying (this was the 80s) the re-issued vinyls of the VU and the early solo albums, then later on, once I moved to NYC, seeing him and Laurie Anderson attending theater events in the East Village and reading his comments in "Please Kill Me". Lou Reed wasn't the most gifted singer, but he was raw and honest and open-minded and damn it all, he inspired everyone I knew to play guitar and rock out with honesty (about sex and drugs, etc.), and to also be embracing of lifestyles and a diversity or voices (Jimmy Scott, etc.) and frankly of just the crazy world in all its complexity. He was this impossible mixture of working class and John Cage and Warhol and vaseline and heroin and gravel. I've been listening to VU all day. F*ck, I'm gonna miss him.

Oct. 27 2013 10:06 PM
Rory Dineen from brooklyn

Honesty. that to me is what is definitive about the work of the late great Lou Reed. Truth. he spoke to whirling energy that exists in new york city. Fun. who can forget pouncing to this legendary rock n roll animal - thank you Lou. RIP.

Oct. 27 2013 05:49 PM

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