If you had told me when I was 19 that I’d be living in California when Lou Reed died, I’d probably have thrown up all over your shoes. The first reason for this is that I was a sophomore in college, a year I spent alternating between states of severe drunkenness and less severe eating disorders; but the main one would be to illustrate my horror and disgust at the intimation I would ever voluntarily leave the brilliant, impossible, cantankerous city of which my brilliant, impossible, cantankerous idol seemed the living embodiment.
I have loved the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed, as much as it is possible for me to love any band or artist (except maybe for the Smiths/Morrissey because I like my men sexually ambiguous and unpleasant). I, too, had the moment I’m sure you’ve read about a hundred times since Saturday, the moment I first heard the Velvets and the rightness, the simplicity, the intelligence of the sound that makes the world make sense, but I’ll leave that to people who actually know how to write about music. What I will say is that I remember how startled I was to find that they were contemporaneous with all the stuff people’s parents listened to, the earnest, folksy, all-you-need-is-love anthems of the Baby Boomers. The Velvet Underground was nobody’s parents’ music; Lou Reed, almost alone among the Jewish artists of his generation, seemed to have utterly escaped worrying about what his parents, what any parents, thought. He was too cool for that, too sardonic, too wry, too mean. Even his tenderest lyrics (“you made me forget myself/ I thought I was someone else/ Someone good”; “when you think the night has seen your mind/ that inside you’re twisted and unkind/ let me stand to show that you are blind”) drip with knowing self-loathing. So what? Lou Reed was from a New York where you didn’t have to be nice, from a New York that was far from nice itself.
And he didn’t have to be, because he was something better: He was there. Think of his contemporaries, the other voices of his stature. When was the last time you bumped into Bob Dylan outside the bodega? Or Mick Jagger unexpectedly showed up to one of your shows? Lou Reed could have retreated onto some mountaintop; he could have disappeared into a maelstrom of supermodels and Maseratis and English country houses. Instead he kept tying up pay phones and kvetching about comedians he didn’t think were funny. It wasn’t so much that Lou Reed was the prototypical New Yorker as the prototypical New Yorker was Lou Reed.
The last time I saw Reed, he didn’t look good. It was earlier this year, at the annual Community Seder at the City Winery. We were both on the bill as performers, and I was practically eating my own skin off with nervousness as soon as I saw him, sitting at a prominently central table with Laurie Anderson (also performing) and a couple of other friends, everyone staring at him. He looking at no one. It was just a few weeks before his liver transplant (although he was drinking red wine; why not, when you’re about to start over from scratch—right?), and he was painfully, worryingly thin; you could almost hear his bones grinding together as he grimly accepted help to climb the three short steps to the stage, where he read a poem in a voice that scarcely rose above a whisper. He wasn’t totally off form, though; despite his frailty, or perhaps because of it, he still managed to get off a caustic quip at the expense of Judy Gold, the comedian who had preceded him, and I was beyond relieved when he and his party shuffled out the door for parts unknown well before I was scheduled to take the stage.
I had somehow managed to get through 15 years in New York City without Lou Reed being pointedly unpleasant to me. I was moving to Los Angeles that summer—although at this point in time, nobody knew this except my husband and me. It would be nice to graduate with a perfect record.
It’s not that I knew Lou personally, no more than however many thousands of arty kids, past and present, who happened to bump into him over his nearly five decades as downtown legend. I, like so many (at least, those who have Tweeted their eulogies over the past few days), had the traditional Lou Reed welcome-wagon experience shortly after I got off the plane (so much less evocative than a boat, but such are the times we live in) from Omaha in 1998. I was standing on the corner (suitcase not in hand, having been deposited at my dorm some days earlier) of Bowery and Delancey, waiting for some old guy in a leather jacket to finish an interminably long call at the single working payphone on the block. I stood there for ages, and when he turned around, of course, it was Lou Reed, high-school fantasy boyfriend, a huge reason why I had chosen to move to New York in the first place, blah blah blah. He was weathered, but still handsome, wearing sunglasses even though it was—as I remember it—already getting dark. I was too astonished to give any verbal indication that I knew who he was, and he gave me a tight, not-quite smile in return: “Sorry you had to wait.”
A few years later, freshly graduated, I was in a play downtown that he came to see. The director—something of a legend himself—had a signature habit of leaving the house lights up in the audience, so throughout the show you were free to observe from the stage the reactions of all the famous people who came to see the show. Richard Serra, I remember, started out looking hostile until about 20 minutes in, when his granite face broke into a broad appreciative grin that didn’t leave it until curtain call. Isaac Mizrahi looked bewildered, then frightened, then annoyed.
Reed fell asleep. We were all watching, everyone in the audience was watching. He didn’t move a muscle, and I wondered if he was dead, until he started snoring. Loudly.
Afterward, once he had been roused, the director—who I was gratified to see looking nervous, as he could be quite a bastard himself when the mood struck—made a cursory introduction of the cast to the Great Man, and in the years after that, when I saw him around at parties and shows and movies at Film Forum, and our eyes would occasionally meet, I like to think he usually gave me a nod. Not a hello, not a smile, but a tacit acknowledgement, a sort of “I don’t know who you are, but I know I’ve seen you around, so I guess you’re one of us, whoever we are.” It was all I could ask for, and it was more than enough.
Now he’s gone. And so am I. And that New York is just as much a memory as it ever was.
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