By Tony Fitzpatrick
Everybody has something to say about the passing of Lou Reed. The past couple of days have yielded an outpouring of love for the man that quite honestly might have surprised even him. Particularly from music journalists, some who never had a kind word for him in life, who have written fawning eulogies that say a good deal more about themselves than they do about Lou. It is a curious thing.
And right about now? He is probably laughing his ass off. One of the things I treasure the most in this life is that Lou Reed was my friend and, for more than twenty years, we shared meals, dirty jokes, stories and a lot of friends.
People would often complain to me that Lou was rude or nasty to journalists, but I never once saw this. I can believe he could be formidable and thorny with some in the ink racket. Do I condone this? Yeah, every goddamned bit of it. When some asshole with a notepad decides to make a punchline out of you, the last goddamned thing you are obligated to do is help them. So if Lou messed up their hair a little bit, good for him.
I met him through Penn Jillette, who had given Lou an etching that I’d made based on one of his songs. Lou liked it and shortly after that Penn arranged an introduction.
One always hears, “Don’t meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint you.” This was not ever the case with Lou. He never treated me with anything other than kindness and generosity. He also challenged the way I thought about music, art, poetry and damned near everything else.
We talked like guys talk, unguarded. I wasn’t a journalist wanting to pick at the legend and see if a reaction could be needled out of him. I was a young artist trying to find my voice and, along with some others, Lou helped me find it. With forthrightness, humor and, from time to time, some tough love.
“Get off the cross kid, somebody needs the wood,” was what he told me once after a condescending review from a Buffalo newspaper. “What you do, kid, is you outlast the fuckers.” It was the best advice I ever got.
For all of Lou’s perceived flintiness with the press, he was a constant source of fascination for them: an artist who seemed at once fully formed yet restlessly experimental. Lou’s real audience probably hasn’t been born yet.
He is one of those who casts a very long shadow and coming generations will discover what ours missed with brilliant works like “Magic and Loss,” and “Set the Twilight Reeling”; there will be a newer, less cynical appreciation for songs like “Talking Book,” which was written for one of his collaborative shows with Robert Wilson. For those whose appreciation for Lou ceased with the end of the Velvet Underground, you haven’t realized half of this artist’s output.
I met Lou right after he and the artist Laurie Anderson became a couple and if he became less flinty and friendlier, it was due to her. I remember walking through the West Village with him one night and him telling me, “Everyday I think of a new way to adore her.” He smiled the big smile. There are damned few photographs of that smile—if any—but if you ever saw him play live, you know the one I am talking about. I spent many nights in their company and I’ll tell you this, Lou and Laurie knew how to be in love. When they married in 2008, I saw Laurie backstage after one of her performances at the Harris Theater, and she told me, “Me and Lou got married—isn’t that crazy?” The whole time I knew Lou and Laurie, they were never happier than when they were with each other. At times I thought of them as one being, as odd as that sounds given their distinctive and iconic artistic identities.
It’s been said that the Velvet Underground records didn’t sell worth a damn, but everybody who bought one started a band. I don’t know anybody in rock ‘n’ roll who was NOT influenced by Lou, Lou and the Velvets, Lou and John Cale… the list of incarnations goes on and on.
What we can all learn from Lou Reed is to be fearless, to be fierce and to be unflinchingly honest—no matter what it costs us. That some of his records were greeted with derision and jeers tells you a lot more about the writers of those reviews than they ever did about Lou Reed. I can tell you this: Every time Lou made a record, he emptied the tank, gave it his all and left every thought, appetizing or otherwise, in the songs. You never got half measures from Lou Reed.
I was lucky enough to get to hear records before they were released, songs for shows that were never produced in the U.S., including a lot of his collaborations with Robert Wilson, and it was thrilling. I got to meet Fernando Saunders, Tony “Thunder” Smith and the great Mike Rathke—all guys who contributed to that loud, muscular sound that made his live shows such a treat.
Something transformative would happen when the seventy-year-old man strapped on a guitar. Lou Reed, the wanton teenager whose life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll, showed up and played with a wild abandon; and for a while, he pushed the stars back up into the sky and let them shine on the rest of us who were hell-bent on rebellion. Those of us who looked to rock ‘n’ roll for our answers and our hopes and our prayers. He was a fleet and dangerous magic cat with nine rock ‘n’ roll lives; and in the feedback of those relentless and ferocious songs? I learned not to fear anything.