It’s Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I’ve been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed’s musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I’m wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade’s last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.
Lou Reed’s career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful music — from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed’s classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He now seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn’t mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.
In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism (“Underneath the Bottle”, “The Power of Positive Drinking”, “Bottoming Out”). Though I criticize most of the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never criticize his personal sobriety, and I’m simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.
I don’t dislike the music of Lou Reed’s “sober decade” because I dislike sobriety. I dislike it because I don’t believe a sober artist must be a boring artist. The true purpose of Lou’s difficult recovery became apparent in 1989, when a miraculous change seemed to occur in his style and demeanor on stage. The gauze began to fall off the mummy’s face. Smiles began to crackle on Lou Reed’s lips, and an artist was reborn — now as a middle-aged adult, but, oh, with new stories to tell. Starting with the album called New York that dropped like a giant raindrop in a drought in January 1989, Lou Reed seemed to be enjoying himself again.
New York was funny, and transformative. A song called “Romeo and Juliette” kicks the album’s door open with a punchy beat, itchy, infectious guitars.
I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag
with Latin written on it that says
“it’s hard to give a shit these days”.
Manhattan’s sinking like a rock
into the filthy Hudson, what a shock.
They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome.
For the first time in over ten years, Lou Reed was writing about topics other than his own neuroses. After a decade of looking inward, he was looking outward again. In the songs on New York he cursed out corrupt New York City politicians by name, paid tribute to Andy Warhol with Mo Tucker on kettle drums, came out of the closet as an ecological-minded liberal with a song about saving the whales, belted out rockers like “Busload of Faith” and “Strawman” and “Hold On” with a joy in his voice that we haven’t heard since he shouted “DO THE DOOG!” on “Head Held High” on Loaded. He even got in touch with his Jewish ethnicity (finally) and forgivingly called out Jesse Jackson’s anti-semitism to the tune of a head-spinning guitar jelly backbeat on the truly weird and wonderful track “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”. New York gave Lou Reed his first hit single in years, the rocking three-chorder “Dirty Blvd”. The album was fresh, and it was fun.
He had completely shed his old band and was back with a new gang, featuring a skillful and delicately melodic guitar player named Mike Rathke. Rathke was not a bombastic electric shredder like Robert Quine or Steve Hunter, but rather a throwback to the gentle Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground, who laid down lovable, country-tinged, Buddy Holly-esque solos on songs like “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin”. For the first time since the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had a guitarist who could play sweet.
This meant that Lou could now play rough again. With Robert Quine in his band, it had been Lou Reed’s task to play the softer solos in his songs, because Robert Quine surely was not going to play a soft solo, and Lou Reed really wasn’t very good at it either. Now, with Mike Rathke in the band, Lou Reed could play “ostrich guitar” again. It was the nicest sound we could possibly hear.
Though New York presented the ecstatic image of a dormant artist springing back to life, the album doesn’t completely wear well today, since it contains so many topical political references to New York City politicians. It’s a “newspaper album”, like Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ or John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Sometime in New York City. Well, every album doesn’t have to be timeless, but there are at least a few timeless songs on this one. Even better, just at the same time that New York came out, Lou Reed was working on something else.
Yeah — when Lou Reed is on, he’s on. The songs from New York began to leak out to the radio stations in early January 1989 (many rock radio DJs have good taste in music, which means they were also very thirsty for good new Lou Reed in 1989, so New York got a lot of instant radio play). Just around this time, a strange short bulletin announcing a preview presentation of a musical tribute to Andy Warhol by Lou Reed and John Cale appeared in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Which was why I was now standing in line outside St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.
Montague Street is the street immortalized by Bob Dylan in “Tangled Up In Blue”, which only added to my sense of musical anticipation as I waited outside an old church in what felt like a vain hope that Lou Reed and John Cale were about to reunite, and that I would be there to see it.
This was rather too good to be true, since they hadn’t worked together since Reed kicked Cale out of the Velvet Underground in 1968. Twenty-one years ago. That’s why everybody standing in line outside the church was buzzing with questions, questions that none of us knew the answer to.
Some of us on line recognized the rock critic Dave Marsh a few steps ahead of us in the crowd, and I thought of asking Dave Marsh what he thought Lou Reed and John Cale were up to, and if they were even going to perform together or maybe just read a press release or play a record or show a painting. Who knew? I considered asking Dave Marsh, but he looked like he didn’t know either. The newspaper listings had told us exactly three things: 1) John Cale and Lou Reed had written a tribute to Andy Warhol, 2) it was called Songs for Drella, 3) they were going to preview it here today. Beyond this, nobody had the scoop.
In the Velvet Underground, John Cale had been Lou’s artistic opposite pole: a cool, ironic Welshman with classical training, a dignified bearing, an affection for feedback and noise, and a wicked interest in dark subjects. Like Lou Reed, John Cale established a solo career after the Velvets broke up, though he lacked Lou’s ability to write fetching pop songs and did his best work with other artists like Nico, Iggy Pop, Phil Manzanera, Patti Smith and Brian Eno.
John Cale was built to collaborate, whereas after firing Cale in 1968 Reed had never once collaborated on equal terms with another artist. Since the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed always played with the Lou Reed band. This is why it was so surprising to hear that Reed would be appearing with double billing with another artist. The fact that the other artist was John Cale pushed this to a further realm of unbelievability.
I could barely believe I was standing in this line for this event, and until the doors of the ornate church opened and our long line began to slowly shuffle inside, I was figuring 50-50 odds that a guy with a clipboard would come out and tell us the show was cancelled. “Sorry, Lou and John got in a fight backstage. Show’s not going to happen.” Even after we made it inside and clamored into tight wooden pews, I could barely believe this was going to be real.
There’s something rich and moving about the inside of a church. Even so, we could have been seated in an airplane hangar or in the food court of a shopping mall and a hush would still have fallen over this crowd when, finally, two skinny, clean cut, black-clad men quietly shuffled into position on stage and nodded politely to the audience. There they were: Lou Reed, looking slightly astral and spooky, on stage left, equipped with an electric guitar and a mic. John Cale, sporting a quaint Prince Valiant haircut and a calm smile, behind a simple electronic keyboard on stage right. Beguilingly, an electric viola stood on a stand at his feet.
There was no rock band set up, no drums, no bass, no colored lights, no roadies, no introduction from a promoter to fire up the crowd. The crowd waited in silence until Cale began to play a fast, choppy sing-song piano figure, and Lou began the recitative “Small Town”. Lou didn’t touch his guitar. The song appeared to be about young Andy Warhol, a child in Pittsburgh:
When you’re growing up in a small town
Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty
People look at you funny
When you’re in a small town
A strange thing happened after the song ended. This was a rock concert — wasn’t it? The song stopped and the crowd clapped, and we then fell back into total silence. Classical music silence. Church silence. I had never seen this happen before at any concert, much less a Lou Reed concert. The crowd was awed into a complete hush.
The second song was “Open House”. John Cale’s keyboard figure brought forth a deep, smooth moodiness, punctuated by heavy echoing notes. Lou Reed sang the lyrics, and during the chorus he finally hit a chord on his guitar, and just let it ring. I was starting to feel a tingle of … hmm, this is pretty good. Lou was singing in the voice of young shy Andy Warhol after arriving in New York City, scrounging for work as an advertising artist, and starting to make interesting friends:
You scared yourself with music
I scared myself with paint
I drew 550 different shoes today
It almost made me faint
By the time this song ended – again to enthusiastic clapping followed by complete awed church silence – I was starting to notice that this church silence was having a positive side effect. It seemed to me that Lou Reed and John Cale appreciated the audience’s respect. They must have been nervous themselves, debuting what appeared to be a rock opera with only two instruments and no rhythm section. But it was going over, in a big way. They must have noticed this, and it must have given them heart as they began the next set of songs, which were harder, louder, more guitar.
Cale and Reed were both tuned into a precisely minimalist vibe. Cale played repetitive, vaguely Shoenberg-esque multi-tone figures. Reed seemed to be feeding off the same idea as Cale, scratching out hard repetitive guitar rhythms, sometimes ringing, sometimes choppy, that bounced off the sonic surface of Cale’s tonal washes. The pure two-instrument equilibrium was unlike any sound I had ever heard before.
The sound recalled the Velvet Underground, but the Velvets always aimed for a muddy mix, sonic chaos, and Reed and Cale tonight were locked in like clockwork, completely attuned to each other’s rhythms. The lack of bass and drums made a huge difference. “Negative space” as visual artists say. The silence in the church became the third instrument in the room.
It’s unusual to hear an entire album for the first time in concert, and when the songs are this good it’s a revelation. There were several aggressive, angular hard rock numbers built around repeated themes — “work”, “images”, “starlight” — all of which featured Lou Reed’s powerful voice. There were a few gentler songs, mostly featuring John Cale’s lilting voice, including an enchanting number called “Style it Takes”. After every song, the crowd burst into happy applause and then fall back into awed total silence. I looked around at one point and saw Dave Marsh the rock critic grinning. We all couldn’t believe our good luck to be present at this event.
There was so much I instantly loved about Songs for Drella — the affectionate tribute to artist Andy Warhol, who had been the Velvet Underground’s earliest sponsor, the sharply rendered lyrical portrait of Andy’s improbably life and career, the smart instrumental work of John Cale.
But what I remember most is Reed’s guitar playing — guttural, decisive, deliberate. Many of the wailing bends he reached were atonal, yet just close enough to the notes they hovered around to sound exactly right. At one point during the song “Forever Changed” Lou hit a note of some strange cosmic mid-tone that sustained and fragmented visibly in the air for several seconds, before he blasted it away with an E chord. He chopped and dug at his strings, and then he let chords ring for four measures, eight measures, sixteen measures. The sounds echoed off the walls and harmonized with the next chord he hit.
They did the entire album-length song suite that would eventually be released as the album Songs For Drella, and that was it. There was a big standing ovation, of course, and Reed and Cale acknowledged it gracefully and silently before ducking away. It was a short show, no greatest hits, no “Rock and Roll” encore. We didn’t need to hear anything more.
Ten years earlier, I had sat with the noisy, jaded crowd at My Father’s Place in Roslyn listening to Lou Reed play my favorite album Berlin and bitterly resenting the fact that the band was playing it wrong, that Lou was singing in a distant monotone, that the crowd around me was noisy and inattentive. I felt like I was seeing Lou Reed but I wasn’t.
Now, I was in a church with the most attentive and awed concert crowd I had ever seen, and now Lou Reed wasn’t singing his words like he was reciting them from memory but rather like he was feeling them in the moment as he sang. This was my fifth Lou Reed show, but I was pretty sure it was the first time I had found Lou Reed.
Two months later Lou played New York City again, this time in a Broadway theatre, the St. James, with Mike Rathke and Rob Wasserman and the new New York Lou Reed band. It couldn’t have been quite as amazingly great as the St. Ann’s Drella show, but it wasn’t far from that peak. He opened with the awesome “Romeo Had Juliette” from the latest album, followed by the touching “Halloween Parade”, a tribute to Lou’s friends who had died of AIDS, and then by the hit single “Dirty Blvd.”. I don’t remember for sure, but I’m pretty sure the show’s first set was the entire new album, more or less in order. The second set was older songs, but he only did a couple of his most classic numbers — “Sweet Jane”, of course, and “Rock and Roll” and “Walk On The Wild Side”.
I vastly preferred the new songs, because Lou was a singer who could never hide his boredom with old lyrics. He sang the new songs like he’d just written them over breakfast, and that made all the difference. I also dearly loved his new band with Mike Rathke and Rob Wasserman, though I was slightly disappointed that Maureen Tucker didn’t come out to play kettle drums on Dime Store Mystery, as she had on the record. Well, I guess a Velvets fan can’t have all his dreams come true.
I had a few chances to see Lou Reed after March 1989, but I passed on them, mainly because I was truly satiated. I didn’t think any other concerts would equal the two great shows I had seen. I was also now in a different state of mind myself regarding music. I had recently been listening obsessively to hiphop and gangsta rap (a genre that has a few things in common with Lou Reed: vignette-style storytelling, urban attitudes, lush rhythm tracks, complex beats).
I didn’t see Lou again until February 1997 when he played a club I really wanted to hear him in: the tiny and acoustically excellent Knitting Factory, a showcase club for jazz and experimental music in Tribeca. I showed up for the night’s early show, intending to hang out for the late show too if the earlier one passed my inspection and if the bouncers didn’t kick me out and make me buy a second ticket.
Lou Reed was now in his mid-50s, but seemed to be having yet another recent surge of popularity due to the popular movie Trainspotting which had featured his early song “Perfect Day”. I’d always liked “Perfect Day”, one of many excellent tracks from Transformer, but the song wasn’t really well known until Trainspotting. Lou opened with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, an unexpected surprise, and followed it with “Perfect Day” and then a stirring “The Kids” from Berlin.
I stayed, of course, to see the later show. This is the complete setlist of the last Lou Reed concert I would ever see:
I’ll Be Your Mirror
Romeo Had Juliette
Busload of Faith
Set the Twilight Reeling
Doin’ the Things That We Want To
Hang On to Your Emotions
White Light/White Heat
Satellite of Love
Walk on the Wild Side
The Knitting Factory sets were far from perfect — I still don’t think Lou ever managed to reproduce the sonic greatness of the Berlin album onstage, and he still suffered a bad tendency to recite his older lyrics in emotionless syncopated monotone. A couple of years later, this tendency would mar a series of Velvet Underground reunion concerts, which I only caught on video but was not sorry to have missed. Lou didn’t rise to the occasion as a vocalist at all. He only does, it seems, when his songs are freshly written. Lou Reed was no method actor; if he wasn’t feeling the lyrics, he clearly had no ability to pretend.
In 2011 I went to a Yoko Ono concert, a charity event to generate funds to help the victims of a terrible recent earthquake in Japan. I was mainly excited to see Yoko Ono with her reformed Plastic Ono Band, and it was a night of powerful music. Cibo Matto delivered a delightful “Aguas de Marco”. Sean Lennon played MC and host for the entire evening, and he played bass for his Mom in a cathartic screaming set, and then introduced moving sets by Patti Smith and Anthony Hegarty, aka Anthony, an unusual vocalist I’d first heard of when he sang “Candy Says” on the worthy late live album Animal Serenade with Lou Reed. Then Lou Reed came out to jam one vocal performance with Yoko Ono.
What can I say about my last glimpse of Lou Reed in person, as he sang onstange with Yoko Ono, another of my musical heroes? It was a late moment in a great, ear-pounding concert, and I honestly can’t even remember what Lou and Yoko sang. If I knew at the time that Lou Reed would die two years later, and that this would be my last look at him, I would have paid closer attention.
This was my last glimpse of Lou Reed, who I first saw when I was 17 years old, 32 years before. Lou Reed was now much older. I was now much older. He was also much better, and I hope I am also much better.
Maybe this is why the findings of my 32-year stalking of Lou Reed in concert may be valuable. It shows that a visionary artist can maintain great inspiration and dignity in older years, and can even regain lost inspiration and lost dignity. (Interestingly, yet another of my other musician/songwriter heroes, Bob Dylan, is also a rare example of this story. Like Lou Reed, Dylan also mostly sucked during the 1980s, and also managed to become relevant again after that dispiriting swale of a musical decade.)
Also like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed didn’t validate his late career by returning to the styles and customs of his early years. Lou’s work after 1989 is totally unlike anything he did before. He never returned to the crazed, unpredictable musical approach of his early masterpieces — and likewise his early albums lacked the easy-rolling mirth and humane wisdom of his mature work. Lou proved that perpetual innovation is possible, that an artist can remain vital and relevant through the course of his entire life.
I believe Lou Reed lived a very happy and blessed life. It was an honor for me to sit in the audience nine times and bask in his performance art. (Iincidentally, I had a few other in-person glimpses of Lou Reed that I’m not writing about here, including a tribute to an Allen Ginsberg memorial event at St. Mark’s Church in 1997, a concert celebrating Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music in which he performed alongside Nick Cave and David Johanssen in 1999, and one encounter on a street corner right outside St. Mark’s Bookshop one summer day, in which I suavely stood there and gaped and said nothing.)
From 1979 to 2011, I went looking for Lou Reed on stage. When I was young, I went to his concerts looking for his masks — the bright yellow mask of Transformer, the olympically miserable vocalist of Berlin. I was furious when I found that Lou Reed had taken these masks off.
Later, I was able to go to concerts without heavy expectations of what the artist would bring … and later Lou was also able to relax onstage and deliver much of the musical beauty I had come to demand.
During my first Lou Reed concert, when I was 17, I bemoaned the fact that the show I was at sounded nothing like Rock and Roll Animal. Well, I ended up seeing a couple of shows that were maybe even better than Rock and Roll Animal, or at least equally great, and totally different. In the end, I found the Lou Reed I had gone looking for. And he found me.