LOU REED TRIBUTE
Lou through the years: high school, photo by David Gahr, photo by Waring Abbott
Under the Wheels of a Car on Canal Street:
A 24 Year Diary-Tour of Gotham Featuring Encounters and Assorted Non-Run-In's
by Jason Gross
I wasn't sure how to say everything I wanted to about Reed when I realized that a lot of my time in New York revolved around him in some way. It stretches back to when I first got here all the way up to the time that I'm writing this now, with a lot of pit stops in between, including places all over Gotham and side trips to Texas and the White House (though I myself didn't make it to 1600 Penn. Ave).
- November 24, 2013
DECEMBER 1989- "Songs for Drella," Brooklyn Academy of Music
At the last place that I lived in New Jersey, I heard about an unusual show coming up in New York City. To commemorate the death of pop-art legend Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and John Cale were going to do two shows at the BAM, performing a cycle of songs to honor their former mentor. I'd never seen Reed live before and was much too young to see the Velvets in their day. I spoke to an NYC college buddy of mine with eclectic taste and I thought would be interested in this. He was in.
I'd never been to BAM before and as far as I could remember, it was my first show in Brooklyn. I hadn't been to many shows period, only occasionally venturing out to Manhattan in the 80's to see indie rock icons like the Replacements, Husker Du, Camper Van Beethoven and Butthole Surfers at the Ritz, CBGB's or other grubby places with some character to them. BAM was so formal and seemed a little out of place for a rock legend like Reed, or so I thought.
He and Cale appeared alone, almost dwarfed by the huge stage and the screens behind them showing pictures of Warhol now and then. Similarly, the songs were sparse without a rhythm section behind them as they told Warhol's story or slipped in and out of his character. It was such a strange, moving and unique performance.
The show was fitting for me to see for a number of reasons. First off, I held in esteem many people who I considered quintessential New Yorkers: Duke Ellington, Paul Simon, the Ramones, Woody Allen, Bella Abzug, Sonny Rollins, Studs Terkel, David Johansen, Fats Waller, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Run-DMC to name a few that I idolized by the late 80's. Though there would be many more to come, I definitely considered Reed to be part of this esteemed list that I held dear to me.
I had been drawn by the allure and excitement of NYC for all of my teenage years, dreaming of living there to escape what I saw as the boring confines of suburban Jersey. Part of what convinced me that I needed to finally take that leap and make that move was that show at BAM. Maybe it was because Reed spoke to that sensibility that I had brewing up in me- he characterized the city more fervently and eloquently than any rocker I knew and only the third or fourth wave of hip hop acts that were just about coming into view then would construct such an articulate and detailed aural map of Gotham.
Earlier that year, Reed had put out his most political album, New York, which not only got him back in the graces of FM radio with "Dirty Boulevard" but also presented his most overtly political set of songs, based on his own turf. I had started reading The Village Voice in the mid 80's and was intrigued not just by the show listings and possibilities of what I could experience there but also by the hard-knuckled politics that Reed was singing about.
At the "Drella" show itself, the very first song was about Warhol's own desire to go to the big city: "When you're growing up in a small town/You say no one famous ever came from here." I knew how he felt too and I was determined to follow the same path he did into Gotham, which I did several months after the show. I went to school at Columbia's uptown campus, in the most crime-ridden part of Manhattan then- it had the highest murder rate in the borough and a friend who worked in the police department admitted to me that there were a few blocks there that the cops themselves wouldn't patrol in the day time. I didn't really care though. I was in the City and even though it would take about as long to get downtown as it would for me to take the bus to get there from Jersey as I used to, I was still there in the locale and ready to start a new life. Little did I know that my time here would be marked with other crucial encounters with (and related to) Reed.
FEBRUARY 1993- Tibet House Benefit, Town Hall
Part of the allure of NYC (or any big city) is that there's so many events going on that even with wads of cash at your disposal, you can't take in all the events that you'd want to. Having some money at my disposal and being a culture junkie, I wanted to take advantage of at least some of the offerings. Another thing that I loved about the City were the unique events that would come up which even other cities couldn't boast about- though these other cities had their own individual events, I was still giddy to indulge in some of the one-time happenings in Gotham when I could. One of these events was an annual benefit for Tibet House, which had just started around the time I arrived in NYC and was now going to feature long-time booster Philip Glass along with Laurie Anderson and Allen Ginsberg. That's a tough show to pass up.
After an intro by a group of chanting monks, Anderson did an amusing solo piece, Glass did a solo piano piece and Ginsberg did a reading and then they all got together for a nice but somewhat awkward performance at the end.
What I remember about the show wasn't just what I saw on stage though. I had a seat in the balcony and sitting right in front of me was Reed and his then-wife Sylvia. Before the show and during an intermission, people were crowding around him to glad-hand him and beg for autographs. I briefly thought of doing it myself but he was already surrounded by enough people and I thought as a courtesy to him, I'd let him have a few moments to himself. To his credit, Reed was very polite and patient with everyone who came to gawk and drool all over him. Also, it was kind of ironic in hindsight that he was attending with his wife, watching someone who would later be his next wife.
As a music fan, I was excited to be there not just to see the show but also to be seeing it alongside Reed. It meant that at some level, a show like this had his stamp of approval as he wanted to be there just like I did. He was just a fellow New Yorker who had a cultural appetite like I did. It wouldn't even be the last time that I'd see him as a fellow spectator at an NYC event. And who knew how many other shows that I was at that Reed happened to be at too in NYC where I didn't happen to see him? I'm not a stalker and I'm not deluded enough to think that the two of us had any kind of personal bond through these run-in's, but at least it meant that we had similar tastes and sensibilities that happened to draw us both out to these events. Of course I didn't want to just be at shows thinking that he might be around too (which would be creepy) but it was a nice plus to just have him around as a recurring presence in my Gotham escapades.
JANUARY 1995- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Waldorf Astoria hotel
At this austere NYC event (which I wasn't at though I would become a Hall of Fame voter several years later), Neil Young, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Al Green and Martha and the Vandellas were all inducted, alongside Frank Zappa who had died just over a year before this ceremony. For anyone who knew a bit about the Velvets and Zappa, there had been a long history of bad blood between the two bands, nicely documented here by Kevin Courrier. So, watching the ceremony which was happening about 30 blocks north of me, it was quite a surprise to see Reed was the one inducting Zappa. Listening to his speech, you'd never even know there was a rivalry. You can see the YouTube video of the induction speech but the beginning of it is worth excerpting here too:"It's very rare in life to know someone who affects things - who changes them in a positive way. I've been lucky enough to know some in my life: Andy Warhol, Doc Pomus, people whose vision and integrity was such that it moved the world a bit. People who through the articulation of their talents and intelligence were able to leave things better than they found them. People who were not only not [sic] in it for the money, to paraphrase Frank Zappa. Frank Zappa was such a person, and of the many regrets I have in life, not knowing him a lot better is one of them. Whether writing symphonies, satirical broadsides, or casting a caustic glow across the frontier of madness that makes up the American political landscape, whether testifying before Congress to put the PMRC in its rightful, lowly place, or acting as a cultural conduit for President Vaclav Hovel and the Czech government, Frank was a force for reason and honesty in a business deficient in these areas. As we reward some with money for the amusement they supply to the cultural mass, I think the induction of Frank Zappa into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame distinguishes the Hall as well as the inductee..."The fact that Reed could list Zappa along with his mentors (Warhol, Pomus) says a lot about a guy who's usually been seen as a relentless hard-ass. Clearly, the real Reed had a lot more to him than many people gave him credit for.
FEBRUARY 1996- Set The Twilight Reeling
As much as I enjoyed Reed's renaissance of good-to-great music in the 80's, I was a little despondent by his draught of music in the 90's after Drella. Along with the requisite box set, he only had to show another album which was an extended grieving piece for another old friend and influence- Doc Pomus on 92's Magic and Loss. It was as gloomy and cathartic as it should have been (and reminiscent of Berlin) but not something I could latch onto even in dark, sad moments of my own. It would be another four years before Reed would put out another album.
So it was something of a relief for me when he returned again in '96 with another record. This wasn't a major statement as an artist per se but instead, Reed asserted his Gotham pride again, which was good enough for me. Along with the revved-up title track and a touching (and appropriate) song with Anderson ("Hold On To Your Emotions"), he had blunt statements like "NYC Man," a tribute to the local deli delicacy ("Egg Cream"), a guest spot from local area jazz legend Oliver Lake (of World Saxophone Quartet) and especially a wonderful, gorgeous rocking little tune called "Hookywooky." On the surface, this song seemed like a throw-away but it was much more than that. As Reed races through the words and music, he paints a picture of the fireworks, gunshots and the skyline in his 'hood. And then he sly considers and proposes jealously disposing of his sweetie's other suitor in an elegant manner- toss the mother off of a roof so that he winds up 'under the wheels of a car on Canal Street.' Only he doesn't just sing that once but again and then again and then again as a mantra and then as an anxious demand, a crazed, one at that, soon joined in by the band who chant the same line along with him even more times: 'UN-DER THE WHEELS OF A CAR/ON CAN-AL STREET!." At the end, they all slow to a crawl, yelling out the line just one more time, just in case you (not to mention his would-be lover and the other guy) didn't get the point. By that time, the line is unshakable and you can't get it out of your brain. Getting thrown under there doesn't even seem like a bad proposal anymore, one that you yourself would consider as a grand way to get 86'd if you had to. Here, Reed is loose, relaxed, rockin' out and even having fun, chuckling a few times during the song. To show that the song obviously meant something to him too (or that he thought it would gain some traction on MTV), he made this humorous video for it.
I remember that I started to think that someone who loved and extolled New York so much should at least have a street there named after him, which is something that should still happen. I also vowed that if I did have the chance to meet him sometime (which would never happen actually), I'd tell him how much "Hookywooky" meant to me and that I'd be honored anyway to have him toss me under the wheels of a car... well, you know where.
JULY 1997- Ornette Coleman/Prime Time, Lincoln Center Festival
Along with the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and New York Philharmonic, this LC fest including a three night stand of the one of the greatest saxophone pioneers of the 20th century. Coleman's "? Civilization" program included a performance of his "Skies of America" symphony with the Philharmonic, a reunion with his classic rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins on another evening and for the show I caught, a set with his current band Prime Time doing his latest album, Tone Dialing. That particular night wasn't just any old concert, and not just because it featured a titan like Coleman. Along with videos and a trio of dancers doing different choreographed styles, there were a pair of female contortions who walked and jumped up and down on a bed of nails, later with one woman lying on it while the other smashed a cinder block on top of her with a sledge hammer. Coleman would later say that he thought it was appropriate to have this daring duo there performing in front of the band because he wanted to show the human body stretching itself and performing amazing feats as he wanted the music to do the same and reflect that. Why all of this isn't available on a video now is truly a mystery.
Towards the end of the show, Coleman brought out a pair of guests- Reed and Laurie Anderson. My memory's a little foggy on the details here but I seem to recall that Anderson did one song with the band and Reed did at least two: "Dirty Blvd" (from N ew York) and "Hold On To Your Emotions" (from the recent Set the Twilight Reeling)- another friend who was with me that night remembered that "Satellite of Love" might have been included too but I don't remember hearing it that evening (I wish I had as I love that song).
While it was great to see these three New York music colossuses sharing the stage together, to be honest, it seemed that other than some wonderful fills from Coleman, he and his band were adopting to Reed and his music instead of making it a real (and even-handed) summit. My friend Eric (who went with me to the Drella show) said ‘that's probably the first time his (Coleman's) band had to play bar chords in a while." Just as the Ginsberg/Glass/Anderson summit was great to watch too, this seemed another awkward attempt at all-star synergy, even if all involved were indeed kindred spirits. Still, I was glad to witness what would be the first of a number of serendipitous Reed performances that I'd see in New York over the years.
SEPTEMBER 1997- Robert Quine interview, East Village
As author Jim DeRogatis was researching a bio on long-time Reed fan/nemesis Lester Bangs, he managed to get some time with guitarist Robert Quine who had not only worked with Richard Hell in CGBG's punk pioneers the Voidoids but also played with Reed himself in the early '80's, appearing on The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts and Live In Italy. I begged DeRogatis to put me in touch with Quine so I could interrogate him also about his career but I was warned that the subject probably wasn't going to be receptive. After much pleading, Quine finally relented. We met at a guitar shop in the East Village. When he first saw me, he said to the guy at the counter with a sigh 'Ah, another writer to eat up and spit out.' I was definitely in the presence of another hardcore New Yorker.
We went to a coffee shop for lunch and talked about everything from his childhood in Ohio to projects that he was working on at that time. He spoke about how he hated the Velvet Underground when he first heard them and then became a fan, not only seeing them several times but also taping some of the performances (which would later come out as a 3-CD box set). Of course, I had to ask about the time that he played with Reed and he had plenty to say about that:"Musically, the first week and a half was really great, out of the four years. We did The Blue Mask. It's a record that I'm really proud of. There was no rehearsing, no overdubs, no punch-in's for mistakes. The exact opposite of the Voidoids. I inspired and encouraged him to play guitar again. I didn't have a lot of fun with him but at least it's out there and I'm proud of that. With that record, (bassist) Fernando Saunders and (drummer) Doane Perry were taken aback by this primitive playing. There was an intensity there and we reacted to each other as musicians. It isn't a jazz record but there's that kind of sensitivity. He listened to some wild ideas I brought in like with 'Waves of Fear'...You can see the rest of the interview here.
... On a personal level, Reed was a guy who really influenced me and I had a chance to give something back to him. Encouraging him to play guitar again was digging my own grave. But I would have done it again because I owed it to him. This guy changed my life. If I did something to put him back in the right direction... I wish that it would have gone on with the level of something like The Blue Mask. Everything else after is pretty lousy. He never found anyone else to replace me except the Velvet Underground and he had to ruin that. I hate him because if I had my way, we'd still be playing. It was good steady work. He didn't tour often. I hate his guts because he made it impossible to play with him. There was nothing in it for me. He was not going to give me any space for any creativity."
I kept in touch with Quine for years after that, right up until the time he took his own life in 2004, struggling after the unexpected death of his wife Alice. At a memorial that Richard Hell organized at CGBG's Gallery for Quine, I was honored to be invited and spoke about the time that I knew him, which I did right after Yo La Tengo did the Velvet's "Train Round the Bend" in honor of Quine. One of the other speakers there was Sylvia Reed who also talked about the time that Lou and Quine had worked together, albeit in less harsh tones. When I later put together the tribute to Quine on PSF, one person I didn't think to ask was Lou himself, maybe because I figured that there had been lingering bad blood between him and Quine.
SPRING 1998- Moe Tucker phone interview
Several months later, another colleague of Reed's was about to tell me about a different side of him. Because I already knew that she'd been peppered with more than her share of questions about the Velvet Underground, I tried to mostly ask drummer Moe Tucker about her own career though inevitably the Velvets came up. She spoke about how much she admired Lou and his work and how great it was to have the brief reunion of the band and how grateful that she was that he also would lend his services to play on her own records."I've never tried to write a song until those on Life In Exile. When I was writing those songs, I thought 'is this stupid?' I was really worried about that. So I sent Lou a little tape of a few songs with me playing them in my kitchen. He was a big help in my career because he was SO enthusiastic and encouraging. He was great- he just loves the idea of me doing stuff on my own. With the songwriting, to have Lou call and say 'hey, good song....' and I know that he would have said 'eh, not bad' if he didn't think they were OK. He wouldn't have said 'Moe, this stuff sucks!' I realized that he thought they were reasonable songs so I thought 'OK, I won't be embarrassed to sing these.' He's been a REAL big help in that way and been SO encouraging. He's really been good."You can see the rest of the interview here.
After that, I'd get several signed Christmas cards from Tucker including a beautiful one with her grandchild. Later, we'd meet up on Facebook and I'd even see her with Reed again, though not performing that time.
SEPTEMBER 1998- White House
No, I wasn't there for the auspicious occasion but there is a connection here. Reed met President Clinton alongside Czech head of state Vaclav Havel, who insisted on Reed's presence there for the ceremony and supposedly threatened to make an international incident out of it because the White House balked at inviting Reed at first. They were also there with the late Milan Hlavsa of the Plastic People of the Universe. A Czech friend of mine and Milan's gave me a series of photographic slides (remember slide projectors?) which I printed and scanned. The whole story of what happened at the White House is worth hearing and you can find it here on my Ye Wei blog. Milan himself was an amazing guy and worth hearing more about if you're not familiar with him or the Plastics- see this interview that I did with him in Prague and this extensive article on the history of the Plastics by Joe Yanosik.
Milan shared something in common with me as he was also a big fan of Reed and the Velvets especially. When the Plastics played their first American show in 1998 (which happened to be my first piece for The Village Voice), for the encore, they did "Sweet Jane."
JUNE 2000 - Beacon Theater
As it turns out, I'd only get to see Reed himself headlining a show with his band only two times. For this first time, he was touring support of his album Ecstasy, which I thought was a decent record but not anywhere as likable as his other later-day work like New York or Set the Twilight Reeling. It wasn't just that there didn't seem to be enough NYC in the new record but it didn't seem to have as much heart and brains, though there was more than its share of noise there for anyone who thought that he'd gone too soft and mainstream.
To my surprise, he made a much better case for his new songs at the show than he did on the album itself. It helped that he had a great band with him, still working with Saunders as well as guitar foil Mike Rathke and drummer Tony Smith. Reed and Rathke in particular worked up a lot of sparks and great interplay and an amazing aural rapport, the kind that he once achieved with Quine and Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison. In fact, almost all of the main set was the new record though he added in "Romeo Had Juliette" from New York, "Small Town" from Drella and finished off with a blistering version of "Set the Twilight Reeling."
What amazed me wasn't just how jaw-dropping the whole show was but also how he had built it only on his recent material and proved to the crowd how strong those songs really were. By that time, I was so enthralled by what he had achieved that when he came back for the encore, I actually didn't want to hear any freakin' Velvets songs. Really, I kid you not and (as you'll hear me drool later), I say that as someone who wore out his copy of their first album. I thought he should just stand on the incredible case he'd made for himself and his latest music. To his credit, he only pulled out one Velvets song then ("Sweet Jane"), but his heart didn't sound like it was in it- it sounded more like a kind sop to the old fans. Much more convincing was a roaring take on "Blue Mask," a buoyant take on "Dirty Boulevard" and his sweet finale "Perfect Day." And thankfully he also showed enough class not to cart out "Walk On the Wild Side" that night.
EARLY 2003- PSF articles
Oddly enough, for someone who claims to be a big Reed fan, this is actually the first article I've ever written about him (other than a short review you'll see later). Was it because I was too enamored of the subject to try to be objective? Maybe also it was because I was already so immersed in this work that it didn't even occur to me to write something down about it? That didn't mean I avoided anything written about him. But looking back, I also heralded Reed's work another way, by working with other writers on pieces about his work. Going through the archives of this magazine, I was kind of surprised and amused that at the start of 2003, I actually had two pieces about him here- the first being a virtual thrown-down between him and Cale during their solo years and the second being a piece of science-fiction based on Metal Machine Music.
Brian James: "I'm Set Free To Find A New Illusion" (January 2003)
"By the time the Velvet Underground belatedly gained the recognition they had deserved for so long, a best-of collection suddenly appeared in 1989. The fact that this band that had flown so far from commercial recognition in their all-too-brief tenure as a working entity was being distilled down to their most marketable elements was strange enough. Yet more peculiar was the subtitle of this collection, which read: "Words and Music of Lou Reed." The cover of this compact disc featured all three of the other band members as well as Nico and Andy Warhol, so presumably the men and/or women behind this set couldn't plead ignorance of the fact that Lou Reed did not manufacture the sound that came out of Velvet Underground records all by his lonesome. Additionally, the fact that Reed's solo records rarely approached the sonic territory mapped out the Velvets speaks to the singular contribution of the other members, most notably John Cale."
Mike Edwards: "I Lou Bot" (March 2003)
"I wrote (this) to satisfy two obsessions that I was suffering through simultaneously a few months ago. One was re-reading Isaac Asimov's "I-Robot" series and the other was my continuing love/hate relationship with the mercurial Lou Reed. I'd recently bought Metal Machine Music on re-issued CD and reflected upon the fact that I had owned it on 8-track, LP, cassette, and finally compact disc and it still sucked like a Bangkok whore on payday. I wondered, who could like this? Is there a chance that even Lou Reed has successfully listened to the finished product of his guitar strangling? Lester Bangs thought the album was the cat's meow, but really, I think Lester was just trying to be contrary. Anyhoo, I digress... My thinking for "I Lou-Bot" was, who would like this collection of squalling chaos? Who?"
I felt a little better knowing that if I didn't have anything to say about Reed before, at least I'd found others to say something and then present it here to the online world.
See Part II of this Reed tribute
See the other articles in our Lou Reed tribute
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