In the past 34 years I’ve seen Lou Reed in concert nine times. The last show was in 2011. The first was on July 10, 1979 at a nightclub called My Father’s Place in Roslyn, Long Island. I was 17 years old.
Why did I spend 34 years of my life going to Lou Reed concerts? I suppose when this began I was searching for Lou — but not as a father figure (who would want Lou Reed as a father?) nor as a guru (he really didn’t seem to have his shit together at times). I was searching for him as a magus, a creator of Dionysian musical experiences, a demonic master of ceremonies. His concerts were legendarily wild and unpredictable, and his reputation for onstage insanity was at a peak by the late 1970s.
Supposedly a crazed drug addict in real life, Lou was known during the 1970s to act out intense psychodramas on stage. Sometimes he wore kabuki makeup. Sometimes his hair was bright blond and he pretended to shoot up on stage. Sometimes he harangued his audience with hilarious monologues (one of these nights was immortalized in the great 1978 live album Take No Prisoners). Sometimes he didn’t say a word and just played.
It’s only now, in reaction to the news of his death, that I’m taking the time to think about the lifetime of Lou Reed concerts that I witnessed between 1979 and 2011. There was a continuing sense of revelation in these concerts, but often the revelation was one of isolation or failure. I saw more bad Lou Reed concerts than good ones. However, the best Lou Reed concert I saw may have been the best concert of my life. There was one constant: whenever a room went dark and an announcer called out Lou Reed’s name, you never knew which Lou Reed you were about to see.
My first show at My Father’s Place happened to coincide with a strange phase in Lou Reed’s career. He had recently released an album called The Bells that was, in my teenage opinion, pretty blah, and he was working at this time on a surprisingly confessional album called Growing Up In Public. Both albums included self-lacerating, inwardly directed songs about problems with women and family members. Word was out (it would soon be revealed in a song called “The Power of Positive Drinking”) that Lou had declared himself a reformed alcoholic. What? I didn’t even know he was an un-reformed alcoholic. I thought he was a junkie.
The Bells and Growing Up in Public transmitted a message that Lou Reed was going through therapy and/or rehab, and perhaps some kind of self-cleansing. Well, when John Lennon went through primal scream therapy he created the best music of his career, so this could have turned out great … but psychological autobiography didn’t bring out the best in Lou Reed. His songs from this period felt underbaked, both lyrically and musically. His spiteful verses about women and his father indicated that maybe he wasn’t as far along in his therapy as he should have been, that he still had some serious issues to work out. When Growing Up In Public came out, he looked tired and defeated on the cover. This, not the masked beast of his ferocious 1970s creative peak, was the Lou Reed I would see at my first concert.
Well, okay, so Lou was going through a lull in his career. The Bells wasn’t his first disappointing album, though he had maintained an incredibly good batting average of vinyl masterpieces since the mid 1960s, including four great Velvet Underground studio albums, two great Velvet Underground live albums, one campy glam-rock vinyl classic (Transformer), one beautiful, willowy, whispering tragic rock opera (Berlin), and two promethean screaming-guitar proto-punk-metal live albums (Rock & Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live).
He had also initally reacted well to the musical changes in the air in the mid-to-late 1970s, when all great mega-successful rock artists had to respond to the twin challenges of two youthful new trends, disco and punk. Some artists and bands tried to go disco, like Rod Stewart and the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. Others gravitated towards punk, like Neil Young, Brian Eno, the Who, the Kinks and (separately) both members of Hot Tuna. Lou Reed, of course, ran with the punks, and he produced one excellent punk-toned studio album during the peak of the CBGBs era, Street Hassle, followed by the very listenable live album Take No Prisoners.
I would have been very happy to have seen the Street Hassle-era Lou, and that had been just a year ago. But The Bells and Growing Up In Public suggested that Lou was reacting to the twin challenge of disco and punk by withdrawing into interiority, sort of like his compatriot Bob Dylan, who had recently announced that he was a born-again Christian. I wasn’t sure exactly what Lou was going through, based on the evidence of his recent music, but I had a feeling as the lights went down at My Father’s Place that the uncaged animalistic punk of my Lou Reed dreams was not in the room tonight.
Musicians wandered onto the stage as the dark room echoed with tepid applause. I had a panicky sense at this moment that something was off in the room, that the air felt stifling, that the crowd was in a restless and unsympathetic mood. And yet even so I felt incredibly excited to be there, to be moments away from seeing my lyrical hero in person, to be breathing in the same air as Lou Reed. The lights came on. And I felt immediately underwhelmed.
Lou stood there, no guitar, waiting for the band to finish setting up. No white makeup, no robes, no messy t-shirt stained with heroin and last night’s breakfast. It was a 37 year old guy from Freeport, Long Island, in jeans and a jacket. The band burst into “Sweet Jane”, then went straight into “Rock and Roll”. I bobbed my head eagerly and tried to get into it. But I could already tell that the show was a bust, and that everybody else in the room knew it too.
There were two problems: the look on Lou Reed’s face, and the boredom in his voice. He appeared to be nervous and unsure of his stance, as if he knew the crowd wasn’t buying the stuff he was putting over. When he sang familiar words, he seemed to be reciting from memory, and the look on his face often contradicted the emotion in the song.
The band lacked the edge I would expect from a Lou Reed band. The most prominent guy on stage was the bass guitarist Ellard Moose Boles, who looked like Clarence Clemons in a cowboy hat and made Lou and everyone else onstage appear small. There was a halfway decent drummer and a whizbang kind of guitarist named Chuck Hammer who was a little too showy and symphonic for my tastes. I yearned to hear Lou jam with one of his great earlier guitarists like Sterling Morrison or Steve Hunter.
Lou wasn’t playing much guitar at all today, which was a pity, because even though Lou Reed always liked to have a smooth lead guitarist in his band, his own rough guitar solos were often the best parts of his songs.
The mundane, loping backup band at my first Lou Reed concert was very disappointing to me, because my main fascination with Lou has always been musical, and the chemistry of a Lou Reed song is always about guitar bass drums. I knew what I wanted to hear from Lou Reed, and I wasn’t hearing it.
I would have been happy with any of a number of sounds, because Lou Reed was a master of sonic experimentation. He was a shape shifter. Sometimes he wrote catchy songs with easy, bouncy rhythms and hooky rhymes that recalled his early days as a Brill Building-style pop songwriter: “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Hanging Round”, “Sweet Jane”, “Wild Child”, “I’m Waiting For My Man”, “Sally Can’t Dance”.
Then there were the screaming pounding guitar songs. Primal chaos, noise. Best applied with Maureen Tucker on drums, but even after Mo was gone Lou found lots of different ways to package and repackage pure noise: “Sister Ray”, “I Heard Her Call My Name”, “White Light/White Heat”, Metal Machine Music, “Murder Mystery”, “Kill Your Sons”, “Leave Me Alone”. You could clean out your ears with this stuff — it went through your brain like ammonia, and after 17 minutes of “Sister Ray” on headphones you could really feel reborn. At My Father’s Place, I bitterly resented the lack of screeching feedback and noise. This was supposed to be a Lou Reed concert!
But noise wasn’t even the main thing I was hoping to hear at this show. Here’s the funny thing about Lou: he’s a rocker, but his best songs of all, even better than the catchy ones or the noisy ones, are the soft, mellow ones — shimmering love songs with corny, sweet melodies like “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Perfect Day”, “Satellite of Love”, “I’m Sticking With You”, “Sunday Morning”, “Femme Fatale”, “After Hours”, “Coney Island Baby”.
Lou was quite a craftsman with quiet music, and had also conjured rare mellow vibes on more experimental tunes like “Candy Says”, “Heroin”, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'”, “Ennui”, “Ocean”. Then there was the magnetic and exquisite side two of Berlin, with its ringing harmonics and plaintive flutes. That sound, the sublime hushed Berlin sound, was probably my favorite Lou Reed sound of all.
You can hear the ultra-mellow vibe that was so unique to Lou Reed on one early live recording of “Sweet Jane”, which later became an uptempo number, but in its earliest form on Velvet Underground Live 1969 is an acoustic ballad. (Years later, the Cowboy Junkies recorded this acoustic version of “Sweet Jane” right off Live 1969, and everybody praised them for reinventing “Sweet Jane”. No, they played it right off the record. Heavenly wine and roses and all.)
Now, here’s the weird thing about this concert. There was probably nothing I wanted to hear more on this swirling Long Island evening, as I sat on a wood bench and sipped the Rolling Rock beer that I was amazed the bartender let me buy, than the entire side two of Berlin. I never would have even believed I’d be lucky enough to hear a single song from side two of Berlin, of which there are four: “Caroline Says II”, “The Kids”, “The Bed” and “Sad Song”.
Well, get this: Lou played the whole thing. All of side two, in order. Lou Reed played my whole favorite side of my whole favorite Lou Reed record. And guess what? It just didn’t work for me. He didn’t play it right.
(Yeah, I know. I was a 17 year old brat, and I should have just sat there and enjoyed myself. Well, what can I say? I was jaded with good concerts by 17 — I’d already seen Pink Floyd and the Who and the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull and the Ramones and Talking Heads and David Bowie, so I wasn’t some wide-eyed concert virgin. I guess I was already developing the keenly tuned critical sense that makes me such a curmudgeonly literary blogger today.)
And the truth is, Lou was standing there butchering his best songs, as Eddie Van Halen-wannabe guitarist Chuck Hammer zoomed up and down his fretboard and the noisy people in front of me kept arguing with the waiter that their steaks hadn’t arrived. It was a mess. See, the real problem was this: in the four heartbreaking sad songs that make up side two of Berlin, Lou sounds like he is living the romantic hell he’s singing about. He’s telling us his secrets. He’s writing his diary. His voice is rough and whispery, like he’d been up late in smoky rooms with too much Dubonnet on ice. The chiming acoustic guitars and flutes are so sublime that they create a hush in the room when the record plays, like a blanket of eiderdown wafting from the sky.
But here in Roslyn, Long Island the jaded nightclub crowd was rustling and talking, and Lou was mumbling and monotoning the lyrics on stage, and where were the ringing harmonics in “The Bed”, the best part of the song? Well, it felt tragic for me to be sitting there in person hearing such personal songs from a musician I cared so much about, and yet feeling this certain sense that Lou Reed wasn’t in the room. Not the Lou Reed I was looking for.