The man was dressed in black head to toe. His head nearly touched the ceiling. If his back wasn't bent like a spoon, it would've crashed through the tiles. Before the houselights went down the tall figure I would come to realize was Lou Reed, ambled out slowly to the front row and took a seat.
The show was a preview of performance artist Laurie Anderson's in-progress play, "Delusion," hosted by MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. I was fortunate enough to have had a conversation with Anderson, Reed's wife since 2008, a week prior for an article in The Berkshire Eagle.
When the play finished I expected a crowd to form around Reed, but to my surprise the audience only stretched and yawned in their seats. I marched down the isle to the front row, turned left and stood, face-to-face, looking upward, at the rock and roll poet and feedback maestro. He was standing straight, stretching his legs and somehow I found his eyes.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," I said, holding out my hand. He shook it, mildly stunned, a slight confused, and replied, "It's a pleasure to meet you, too." Then the silence hung, his eyes fixed harder on mine, and I had to get out of there.
Lou Reed's exit from earth this past Sunday has been a slow, slimy shock. The man wrote "Walk On The Wild Side," "Perfect Day," "White Light/White Heat," "Heroin," "Ecstasy." God, the list goes on. He fronted The Velvet Underground, America's greatest rock band. He shot smack, did coke, kissed David Bowie on his lips, gave Iggy Pop his wings and inspired every musician who zonked-out to "Venus In Furs." He is every bit New York City's man. (Woody Allen, Jay Z, Jerry Seinfeld all take a backseat.) He exemplified every aspect of his home city--the drugs, the people, the hustle, the implosion of new music and art, the politics, the violence, new age thought--embedding it deeply in his work and his towering personae.
When the first shrill sounds of The Velvet Underground leapt from cruddy amplifiers in the psychedelic Sixties, the basic pop structures for modern music would never be the same. No one else could ever meld the harmonic infatuation of doo-wop with the guts-in-the-oven sound collage of blind squelching guitar feedback, fierce like a kitchen knife slowly wedging into your ear.
Reed was an abstractionist with the exact blueprints for The Song tattooed on his brain. He is at the helm of all things experimental in rock and roll. He taught the world that music doesn't have to be clean or have perfect tonal quality. The words don't have to rhyme, or even fall slickly with the beat. While most artists in the Sixties and Seventies turned to the surreal and psychedelic for their lyrical output, Reed was giving us the scuffed words of the street. The dead-pan wit of his lyrics are fraught with realism and touch on subjects other than the usual love and heartbreak. His tales are hard, low-down and dirty; almost too truthful to bear.
In the decades following the dissolution of VU Reed would release brave, unctuous, unapologetic albums, scattered across the spectrum of what music could be. Metal Machine Music (1975) is the sound of forty amplified guitars being taken apart while Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007) is the sound of a single breeze floating over the mind. In between the classic songs are too many to quantify. With Reed's passing, our planet has lost a legend. New York City has lost its reverent son. Poetry has lost its rebel of the street. Rock and roll has lost its godfather. He leaves behind the most daring catalog of music from an artist in any era, blowing out all preconceived guidelines for the following generations.
Lou, Lou, Lou, it's the beginning of a great adventure. Rest in peace.
Lou Reed's Classic Albums
The Velvet Underground (1969)
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Coney Island Baby (1975)
New York (1989)
The Blue Mask (1982)