Lou Reed’s Rabbi
The rock star’s new tribute to his teacher, the writer Delmore Schwartz, illuminates their common genius
The attempt to read Schwartz’s overtly Jewish worldview through a universal lens isn’t new to Reed. A half-century ago on Velvet Underground’s first album, he put forth the first tribute to his mentor, by dedicating the record’s final track to him—“European Son (To Delmore Schwartz).” The track went down in musical history as one of the band’s most experimental: After a few cryptic verses, the song launches into a long frenzied improvisation, complete with a loud crash of a pile of plates. Hypnotic and unnerving, the song engenders an inner state wrought with unsettled, directionless intensity. If there’s anything that’s clear, it is a sense of a severe generational conflict: “You killed your European son/ … / You made your wallpaper green/ You wanted to make love to the scene/ Your European son is gone.”
In a short story “America! America!” describing a moment of disassociation from the immigrant Jewish community and his family, Schwartz evokes a character who views his relatives, the older generation, with much “irony and contempt,” and from “such a distance that what he saw was an outline, a caricature, an abstraction.” And yet, amidst identity vertigo, he confesses to having “felt for the first time how closely bound he was to these people. His separation was actual enough, but there also existed unbreakable unity. As the air was full of the radio’s unseen voices, so the life he breathed in was full of these lives and the age in which they had acted and suffered.”
Reed belonged to an entirely different era than Schwartz, and his concerns were also different. In a cautious, self-deprecating manner Schwartz examined the extent of his circle’s belonging in the wider American culture; he felt too haunted to fit in. Reed emphatically rejected normative Americanness and any notion of fitting in. What united teacher and student, then, was a constant social disorientation and dissatisfaction, the spirit of wandering and rejection. They both found themselves listening to what Schwartz referred to as those “unseen voices” and channeling them. In yet another song, written in Schwartz’s honor—“My House” on the “Blue Mask” album of 1982—Reed describes the deceased Schwartz as being “at peace at last, the wandering Jew” and imagines him occupying an empty room in Reed’s own house—“a spirit of pure poetry/ is living in this stone and wood house with me.” And to anyone thinking the word choice of “spirit” accidental, Reed then describes how he and his then-wife summoned his mentor with a Ouija board.
Given the depth of their respective existential crises, their perceptions laden with “unseen voices,” and all the transformations Schwartz and Reed respectively witnessed—personal, generational, ethnic—the metaphor of the supernatural does not seem terribly far-fetched. It fits right in with these two life stories, fraught with fantastic subterranean connections that belong equally to American Jewish history and to the mythology of American music and literature. How can one ever listen to Reed’s music or read Schwartz in quite the same way, after encountering the final lines of Reed’s introduction to In Dream Begin Responsibilities, in which the singer addresses his mentor: “I wanted to write. One line as good as yours. My mountain. My inspiration.”
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