Lou Reed: New York Legend

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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.