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Beyond the Call: A Memory of Lou Reed

I met Lou Reed and his wife, Laurie Anderson, through a mutual friend. Over the last three years of his life, my girlfriend Vera and I got to spend a little time with them, dining together and going to the theater. It was a double pleasure for me and...

by Gary Lippman
Nov 8 2013, 2:11pm

Photo courtesy of EPA/Peter Foley

I met Lou Reed and his wife, Laurie Anderson, through a mutual friend. Over the last three years of his life, my girlfriend Vera and I got to spend a little time with them, dining together and going to the theater. It was a double pleasure for me and Vera, since in addition to being long-time fans of Lou and Laurie's music, we found them to be terrific company, accessible and fun.

One night in the spring of 2011, Lou, Laurie, Vera and I went to see the play Jerusalem on Broadway, which had arrived in New York amid lots of buzz after a successful London run. Its nearly four-hour length seemed daunting, however, and the opening act bored us. Lou, during the first intermission (out of two), seemed particularly unhappy. About the drama's protagonist, a drunken ex-motorcycle stuntman named Rooster Byron, Lou snarled, "If that idiot considers himself a Harley beast, he's got another thing coming."

Uh-oh, I thought. Here was Lou's infamously truculent side, the scourge of music journalists the planet over. (Asked in the November 2013 issue of MOJO Magazine if he planned to join the current bandwagon and pen a rock-star memoir, Lou snapped back, "Why would I? Write about myself? I don't think so. Set what record straight? There's not a record to keep straight. I am what I am, it is what it is, and fuck you.") Because I was the one who'd suggested we see Jerusalem, I felt responsible now for Lou's displeasure. This anxiety was foolish, of course—you win some, and you lose some when it comes to choosing plays, as with all else—yet I wanted Lou to like me. Who wouldn't want Lou Reed to like him? And while I felt certain that Laurie wouldn't blame me for my inferior aesthetic choice, I wasn't so sure about Lou.

As the houselights blinked for the audience to return to their seats, the four of us discussed whether we should leave before the play resumed or tough it out. If we did go, we could grab a taxi downtown to a restaurant where they served this strudel Lou had been raving about all night.

We decided to sit through the next act and hope the play improved. And it did improve—a lot. In one memorable scene, Rooster Byron's son, a boy of five or six, showed up unexpectedly, and alone, outside the protagonist's filthy trailer in the forest where he lived. Rooster called for the boy to step forward to embrace him. "Come hug your father," he implored. The child hardly knew the man, though, and was afraid of him, so he wouldn't move.

I was touched by this scene, and by the thoughts it evoked in me about my own father, who had died a few months earlier. Wondering how Lou felt about it, I glanced over at him, but in the darkness of the orchestra pit, I couldn't make out the expression on his face. What's more, the stage lights were throwing a glare onto the clear lenses of his wire-framed glasses. What if Lou still hated the play? Now that I'd started enjoying it, I didn't want to leave.

Once the houselights came up, I realized that I hadn't needed to worry. Not only did Lou share my revised opinion about Jerusalem, labeling it "fantastic, the best thing I've been to in a long time" (Laurie and Vera agreed), but I could finally see Lou's eyes behind his glasses. His eyes were filled with tears.

"Did you see that?" he asked me in an almost lost-sounding voice. "Did you see when that father asked his son for a hug and the boy wouldn't go to him? Didn't that break your heart?"

"Yes," I said. "It did."

Before Jerusalem, Vera and I had already gleaned what a caring person Lou could be. While he didn't seem too patient with strangers (or with those music journalists), he was a grouch with a sweet core—obviously crazy about Laurie, devoted to their dog, Lolabelle, and ultrasupportive of the friends and colleagues and artists he admired. Still, tonight's Lou, moved to tears by a scene in a play, was one I'd never encountered. This Lou was more than just sensitive to others; he was vulnerable, cracked-open emotionally, deeply empathic. This was the man, I realized, who'd created "Coney Island Baby," "Pale Blue Eyes," "Perfect Day," "Femme Fatale," "Sunday Morning," "New Age," "Stephanie Says," "Candy Says," "I Found A Reason," "I'll Be Your Mirror," the whimsical "I'm Sticking With You," the underrated "I Love You"—those gentle hymns which nevertheless cut just as deeply as do his songs with sharper edges.

Rising from our seats again, I wondered if that wrenching father-son moment we'd witnessed had struck in Lou, as it had in me, a personal chord. Did Lou identify with the boy in the scene, the one who spurned his father? To judge by some of his lyrics, Lou hadn't gotten along well with his old man. Or did Lou, childless yet having reached the typical age of a grandparent, view himself in the spurned father's place?

I didn't know the answers, didn't ask, and we never discussed it again. Still, I thought about Lou's strong reaction to the Jerusalem scene a few months ago, when we met for what turned out to be the last time.

Gathered on the patio of a friend's house in the Hamptons, a group including Lou watched the summer sun descend over a marsh. That evening, Lou appeared weakened—he was still recovering from his liver transplant—but in a fairly buoyant mood. Sipping from a cup of water, he recalled how he loved to listen to doo-wop and R&B and early rock 'n' roll during his teen years in Long Island—songs like the Excellents' original "Coney Island Baby." Among his favorite radio programs, he said, was Alan Freed's Moondog show. With a breeze ruffling his silver hair, he corrected me about where the show was broadcast: I'd assumed New York, but it was Cleveland. Lou blinked a few times behind his wire-framed glasses, finished his water, and then, unprompted, he launched into a spirited impersonation of Freed's kooky on-air routine.

For an instant he sounded like a kid. He looked like a kid, too. And for that instant, I envisioned Lou this way, no longer as an ailing man of 70, but a pop-music-crazy kid, living only for his radio and his record player and the songs that poured from them, beyond the call of fathers and of mothers, as he listened—beyond the call of everyone but the people who made the songs or took those songs to heart and lived through them.

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The VICE Reader is a series in which we publish original fiction—mostly. We also feature the occasional poem, essay, book review, diary entry, Graham Greene-style dream-diary entry, Zemblan fable, letter to the editor, letter to a fictional character, and anything else that is so good we feel it must be shared among the literary-minded and the internet at large.

More Lou Reed on VICE:

My Dear Friend Lou Reed by Mick Rock

What Lou Reed Taught Me by Legs McNeil

Lou Reed Reviews Things Other than 'Yeezus' by Drew Millard