L-R: John Varvatos, Lou Reed, October 7, 2013; Photo by Shannon VanEsley
Some guy projectile vomited right past my head at a Lou Reed show in 1986. Though Lou Reed had just released Mistrial, a fairly rocking if too-80s sounding stab at a hit, was seemingly sober, and on a kind of revived roll, his stature within his fanbase was nonetheless settling into “revered rock icon.” Hence, it was a sit-down old theater affair, and while the show was great, much of the crowd was too polite for my then-burgeoning dive bar punk show evolvement. I wanted to stand and yell and scream “Do ‘Vicious’!” and could barely sit down knowing what was apparent even then, that we were all watching a man who was arguably the most influential underground rock figure of the end of the 20th century.
Of course the one drunk dude who was up and rocking out was doing so right in front of me; and I soon noticed a similarly sauced fellow behind me who was making noises that did not sound like singing along to “Sweet Jane.” I looked back, he leaned forward, I ducked to the left, and his puke came flying, hitting the other rocking dude in front of me. Now this was the Lou Reed show I’d imagined I’d see since I’d first heard White Light White Heat.
I’m going to assume anyone reading this knows that album’s punk rock blueprint, and the general genetic Big Bang that Reed’s late-’60s/early-’70s band, the Velvet Underground, set off, alighting (along with maybe three other people) everything we eventually called underground rock, glam rock, punk rock, alternative rock, indie rock, shoegaze rock, and any other rock that wears predominantly all-black clothing, wrap-around sunglasses, and distorted guitars. And it should be said that the knee-jerk “he didn’t do much after the ’70s” comments that have dotted reminisces since the announcement of his death yesterday morning are probably from people who either haven’t actually listened to his solo work (Transformer, Street Hassle, Legendary Hearts and New Sensations being personal faves), or are a bit blind to the fact that the veracity of most professional accomplishments of any kind often dial down as the years progress. So what?
And yes, he was often grumpy to fans, pissy to reporters, and his pretentions sometimes got the best of him. But so are most people who’ve got more bent thoughts in their head than they know what to do with. I love Lou Reed’s music too much to go any deeper into the myriad personal struggles that created his “persona.” But the cat could’ve recorded just I Heard Her Call My Name and retired to Miami, and he’d still be a towering influence.
Anyway, the few times I met him, he was cordial enough, answered whatever question was asked of him (you don’t have to like answers for them to be answers, as it turns out), and was, no matter the mood, the guy who wrote most of the Velvet Underground stuff.
A few years ago, Reed was doing a Q&A at Housing Works in Manhattan, and a particularly funny pal I know showed up. We scammed seats near the front, and went about giggling at all the softball questions being tossed at Reed. “Um, Mr. Reed, first question, why are you so awesome? And my second question is really just a comment…”
So every once in a while my pal chirps out queries about the trashy, mid-’60s garage-dance ditties Reed wrote/recorded for speed money while working as a staff novelty song-churner at Pickwick Records. “What about Cycle Annie?! “The Ostrich?!” Various shushes and dirty looks seemed odd to absorb from fans of the “Godfather of Punk.” But even my sauced pal and I understood the respect spiel, so we calmed down. Then suddenly at the very end of the Q&A, Reed was like, “Okay, ya wanna know?” And he proceeded to say a few things about working at Pickwick. My friend went up with the “You’re Driving Me Insane” bootleg 7-Inch, and Reed signed it with a smile, or what constituted a smile from Reed.
Three weeks ago, Reed did a sit-down Q&A at the John Varvatos store on the Lower East Side—what used to be CBGB. The irony about all that is spilled milk for most New Yorkers at this point, but it was still weird. Until Reed and photographer Mick Rock—there to present the publishing of a new huge book of glorious early-’70s Reed photos—started chatting and reminiscing about the good ol’ druggy days. Reed was just a few months removed from his liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic (a strange full-circle, as next to NYC and Boston, Cleveland was the town the Velvet Underground played the most). Compared to appearances I’d seen over the last few years, his skin was more yellowy, his body even smaller, but his spirit and voice level seemed a bit stronger. He smiled a bit and was using words like “love,” “appreciate,” “fun” and “rock ‘n’roll.” My gal and I walked out thinking he’d turned some corner and was maybe finally fully soaking in all the accolades and memories. But then, maybe he just saw the writing on the wall.
Lou Reed was 71 years old.
Photos of John Varvatos store appearance by Shannon VanEsley.