By Devon Wendell
Lou Reed; the King of New York, is dead. This information still doesn’t compute with me. And at the same time, Lou’s death symbolizes the end of an era for this fellow native New Yorker.
About a week before Lou’s death, I learned that the historic Roseland Ballroom in NYC will be closing its doors forever after being a part of New York’s rich cultural heritage for 94 years. Lou Reed’s death was the final blow for me. Both Lou and The Roseland symbolized a New York that no longer exists due to mass gentrification and corporate consumerism. Masses of hipster trust fund kids (Who may one day turn Central Park into another Urban Apparel, tall sky scraper, or overpriced, trendy coffee shop) own the City now.
The grit and soul that Lou Reed, Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs, and John Rechy wrote about has been polished away. This is why I left and moved to Los Angeles in 2008. I’m too poor for the new New York City.
I had known Lou Reed off and on for most of my life. I first met him at Matt Umanov’s Guitar shop on Bleeker Street when I was purchasing my first electric guitar. I was ten or eleven. My mother was buying me a cheap Japanese knock-off of a Fender Stratocaster.
I already knew some of Lou’s songs like “Take A Walk On The Wild Side,” “No Money Down” and “Satellite Of Love.” But that didn’t matter to me. He was trying out some amplifiers and effects and I just wanted to know what they were so I asked, “How are you getting that sound?” At first he laughed and looked at the shop owner and turned to me and said dryly, “Years of bad playing.” He and the shop owner both laughed.
My mother whispered in my ear; “Don’t talk to Lou Reed, he’s mean.” My mother has never been great at whispering at a silent level and Lou heard this and said “Listen to your mother and I’ll listen to mine” and laughed.
About ten years later when I was a student at NYU, I would see Lou all over the place. In guitar shops, pizza parlors, at poetry festivals, or grabbing an egg cream at a news stand called The Gem Spa on 2nd Avenue near Saint Marks Place. For years I would just nod my head and keep walking, fearing my mother’s advice. One morning before my first class of the day, I decided to stop for breakfast at Pamela’s Coffee Shop on Broadway, just down the Street from NYU. I sat alone and I saw Lou sitting alone reading a newspaper, wearing his signature leather jacket and dark shades.
I had been studying the great Jewish American poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz with whom Lou studied with when he attended College at Syracuse University.
I was very excited and decided to engage Lou about this. I expected him to chew me up and spit me out into the far reaches of the Bronx but instead his eyes lit up.
“You’re reading Delmore huh?” He replied. “He was the greatest man I ever knew.”
We then had an hour long conversation about Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” as well as James Joyce, Yeats, William Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr. and Raymond Chandler. We also talked about electric guitars which we would continue to do every time I’d see him after that. He knew more about guitars and gear than any musician I have ever known. We were both gear geeks and proud of it. Lou also invited me to do tai-chi with him very early in the morning in Washington Square Park many times, which I kindly declined.
To me Lou Reed was more than just the godfather of punk, goth, and alternative music, he was a permanent fixture of New York City like The Brooklyn Bridge or the Boardwalk in Coney Island. I was always guaranteed to run into Lou and have a true New York conversation with him. I never asked him about The Velvet Underground, Warhol, or his own career and I think he respected that.
As kind as Lou was, there was a “Fuck you” attitude when it came to fans or lunatics on the street approaching him and invading his personal space.
Lou was no ass kissing, people pleaser, which I could identify with, but which has made personal and professional relationships a struggle for me here in L.A. Sometimes a good “fuck you” is necessary and as honest as you can get. Lou was all about honesty. His music could be painfully honest but there was always a vulnerability to Lou’s lyrics and how he sung or read them. Whether he sang about domestic violence, death, drugs, sex, disease, alcoholism, or fear, it felt as if he were holding your hand through these realities. And New York City was the most prominent character in just about all of his songs and poems.
Lou was the poet of New York’s gritty streets but those streets are far from gritty anymore and the colorfully eccentric and intelligent characters that Lou spoke about are all gone. Now Lou has joined them as a sea of automaton hipsters flock the streets, too cool for school, and dressed like consumer shills. As I say goodbye to the Roseland Ballroom and Lou Reed, I realize that you really can’t go home again.
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