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Lou Reed’s Rabbi

The rock star’s new tribute to his teacher, the writer Delmore Schwartz, illuminates their common genius

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Delmore Schwartz, once one of America’s most celebrated writers, died mad and forgotten, having produced little in his later life. His story remains a compelling cautionary tale for American Jews.

Growing Pains: Delmore Schwartz, Forgotten Genius

The writer Delmore Schwartz is largely forgotten today, but he once captured the anxieties and hopes of the Jewish intellectuals of the 1930s and stunned his generation with his poems and short stories

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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lcsterling says:

In the early to mid-70s I worked in public relations in the music business. Part of that time I was at RCA. Lou Reed happened to be with RCA at the same time. As part of my job, I set up interviews with the label’s artists. The editor of Coast Magazine wanted very much to interview Lou Reed so I arranged it for an evening at the Beverly Hills hotel where Reed was staying. When we arrived, it was clear that Reed was high on something, and he was glued to the television watching the first appearance of Chinese acrobats … or some such thing. He ignored me and the editor of Coast Magazine – completely. His manager made a few noises about there being people there to see him, but he simply kept smoking and watching. Eventually, I stood up and motioned to the editor that we might as well go. The editor shook his head and indicated that he would remain. As it happened, his tape recorder was on. He ultimately printed, verbatim, everything said in the room, which amounted to nothing more than a series of entirely inane comments such as, “whoa, did you see that?” And, “where’d the RCA guy go?” … about 30 minutes after I’d left. Lou Reed may have been a lot of things to a lot of people. To me he has always remained rude and clueless.

I started reading this article with the hope of learning something about a former idol of mine. In vain.
As for as I can see, the only thing “Jewish” about Reed was his stupid song attacking Jesse Jackson. Other writers have mined the Schwartz theme, but trying to mine it for some ethnic angle–this article leaves me completely unconvinced.

It’s called Syracuse University, not University of Syracuse.

Re: Reed’s Jewish side, he made a short film about his radical Jewish aunt, a former communist.

Thanks. Interesting. Could you provide more info on this? I googled it, but with no luck.

Maybe he simply found music journalism to be a ridiculous and empty exercise? I know I do. His job is to write songs, not have greasy executives and star struck writers harass him while he try to watch TV.

lcsterling says:

You are naive. It’s not free to produce recordings. I worked with David Bowie, The Kinks, John Denver … many others. They were all professional with the press.

I make music for free all the time. I don’t care who you’ve worked for. Good for you, want a cookie or something? Lots of musicians hate interviews. This includes many of my favourite artists. 80s era Nick Cave probably would have treated you a million times worse.

Fascinating article! And really interesting to learn who was an influence to a renowned songwriter who became an influence to others — and I’m intrigued by the Jewish connection. Once, when I was younger and living in NYC, my boyfriend at the time (a musician inspired by Reed) and I followed him home from a bar in the Village to his neighborhood in the West Village. Nothing too creepy, just your average NYC celebrity stalking. We got tired, eventually, and let him walk the last few blocks home alone. RIP Lou.


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Lou Reed’s Rabbi

The rock star’s new tribute to his teacher, the writer Delmore Schwartz, illuminates their common genius

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