Lou Reed, one of the great hellraisers of rock ‘n’ roll, died this week. He had a liver transplant in May but the years of heroin and hard living finally, and sadly, took their toll.
Reed was notoriously difficult, loathed being interviewed, and was often cited as the ultimate “no-place-to-hide” subject for nervous journalists. With Reed, what you saw was what you got, and from the days of his group, The Velvet Underground, onwards, he didn’t bother making nice if he didn’t have to. That was part of his attraction, and what made him cool.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born in 1942, the young Lewis Allan Reed — not Louis Firbanks, a joke name given to him by a music critic, and not Louis Rabinowitz either — was the son of Toby Futterman, and Sidney Joseph Reed, an accountant. It could hardly have been a less cool background for Reed and his sister: but soon his love of rock and “alternative” lifestyle led him into the orbit of Andy Warhol, the presiding genius of the 60s New York art and music scene.
Grumpy and contrary, Reed once famously said that his only religion was rock ‘n’ roll, though asked by a journalist if he were Jewish he supposedly replied: “Of course. All the best people are.” But even though the leading singer-songwriters of the day— Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen — were indeed among “the best people”, Lou Reed was the cat who walked by himself and never overtly discussed or displayed his Judaism.
That is, until his seminal 1989 solo album, long after the dissolution of the Velvets. The album, New York, is a perfect capsule of 14 love songs to the city in all its scuzzy, grimy splendour. And the best, and most hard-hitting of the tracks, is Reed’s fabulously disdainful Good Evening, Mr Waldheim, which dissects the repellent conspiracy of silence which allowed a former Wehrmacht intelligence officer to become president of Austria and then secretary-general of the United Nations.
Reed has a pop at the Pope for receiving Waldheim: Pontiff, pretty Pontiff, can anyone shake your hand? Or is it just that you like uniforms, and someone kissing your hand?
He has a go at the black politician, Jesse Jackson, who while running for the Democrat Presidential nomination referred to New York City as “Hymietown”.
Jesse, sings Reed, you say common ground. Does that include the PLO? What about people right here, right now, who fought for you not so long ago? The words that flow so freely, falling dancing from your lips, I hope that you don’t cheapen them, with a racist slip”.
And he goes on to tell Jackson: If I ran for president and once was a member of the Klan, wouldn’t you call me on it, the way I call you on Farrakhan? (Louis Farrakhan was the controversial head of the Nation of Islam whose remarks were repeatedly challenged as antisemitic.)
Remember, says Reed, those civil rights workers buried in the ground. The civil rights workers were, of course, Jewish; Jackson had conveniently overlooked that with his talk of Hymietown.
In one devastating song, Lou Reed demolishes the pompous, the pretentious, and the putrid.
Last year Israeli researchers — Reed came to Israel quite frequently, visiting his aunt in Haifa and appearing as a guest artist with his wife Laurie Anderson in Tel Aviv in 2008 — named a species of spider after Lou Reed.
Loureedia annulipes is, deliciously, a velvet spider, which lives underground in the sand dunes of Israel. The spider is said to be grumpy, contrary, talented — and, oh, yes — Jewish. Goodbye Lou: you will be missed.