Lou Reed died doing Tai Chi. The image is perfect. The man who enchanted me with his true-to-life tales of scoring dope, mainlining methamphetamine and dressing up as a woman passed away in the peace of his own home while practicing a meditative form of martial arts. (My own father suffered a heart attack in his home after jogging – his passion – while walking up the stairs to take a shower. At the time, Lou was promoting his New York album. They were born, for the record, a month apart in 1942: my father in Rome, Lou on Long Island.) The mind grasps for parallels, synchronicities, anything it can hold on to in order to make sense of loss.
I didn’t know Lou personally. I met him only once, briefly, at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City around 2000. I was working there and he came in to visit the owner Andy Brown. There were pictures in the hallway of parties the bookshop had hosted in its glory days. Among them was a picture of Andy and Lou from the mid ’70s, the decade Lou wasn’t supposed to have survived. I was in fanboy mode, and I think I just walked over to him and said something stupid like, “I’m a really big fan” and shook his hand. He was shorter than I’d imagined, but he filled the room with his presence.
I saw Lou in concert in 1996 at the Beacon Theater touring for Set the Twilight Reeling. At the time I was so deeply in thrall of the Velvet Underground that I believe I wore wrap-around sunglasses to the evening concert. I did that sort of thing. (In college I had made a t-shirt out of Richard Hell’s “Please kill me” motto. I considered it performance art.)
One of the most astute comments I’ve read on Twitter about Lou’s passing – and there were thousands – was that so many people seem to have taken it so personally. A bit, I thought, like the day John Kennedy died. A little piece of the known world is gone. Lou himself was an excellent eulogizer. He left us unforgettable portraits of his mentors Delmore Schwartz and Andy Warhol, not to mention songs like “Halloween Parade” and albums like Magic and Loss. On the recent “Like a Possum”, Lou repeats adamantly – and mournfully – “I’m the only one left standing.” He knew from loss.
High and low
It was through Lou Reed that I discovered Schwartz and Ornette Coleman, doo-wop music and Lenny Bruce. It was like the various cultural strands of 20th century America somehow came together in him: black music and Jewish humor, rock and jazz, high art and drug culture, poetry and street talk, the exotic and the mundane. Somehow they found a new form of expression through this man and his music, which has in turn influenced pretty much everyone since. Because, in the end, it was a question of attitude. Lou was uncompromising in his art.
If I were to go into a list of songs and lyrics I love this post would turn into a book. There are already many of them written by more competent hands than mine. The internet is producing daily top ten lists, photos and paraphernalia so I won’t bother with that here. I just wanted to give a personal appreciation of Lou because his loss is (in his words) “like a hole in my heart the size of a truck.”
So thank you, Lou, and goodbye.
This post appeared in slightly altered form in The American.