Happy Birthday Lou

Lou ReedIt is March 2 and some interesting people were born on this day. The wonderful Alvin Youngblood Hart is 50 today. John Irving is 71 today. The genuinely great Mikhail Gorbachev is 82. John Cullum, the fine musical theater actor, is 83. Theodor Seuss Geisel — Dr Seuss — would have been 109 today, but he died at a reasonable age. And Kurt Weill would have been 113. All of these men are or were greater than the man I want to discuss.

When I was younger, I loved Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Like many people, I was inspired by Reed. I remember Iggy Pop claiming he got into music after seeing the Velvets because he realized that like Reed, he too was ugly with limited talent. I don’t mean to rag on the man. He’s a pretty good songwriter and what’s more important, he has written about interesting things. The real problem with him is his pretense to be a real poet. He’s at his best when he lets his id fly. When he overthinks something, it means disaster because Reed isn’t a great thinker.

Another aspect of Reed is that he’s an asshole. When I first got into him, I researched him, which is SOP for me. And in those few interviews that he did, he always came off as a total dick. I remember him ranting about how he was a published poet and how people ought to respect him more. (I too am a published poet, and in better journals than he was in 1972.) Then I read Diana Clapton’s biography of him, which was no kind of hit job — she was a fan. One of the most detailed chapters was an interview with a young guitarist who toured with Reed. His treatment of the young man was absolutely terrible. And then there was the whole thing about Reed not allowing Doug Yule to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (I think that Yule is the real hero of Loaded.)

So while I loved Reed’s music, I was well aware that he was no kind of decent human being. And as I wrote and performed music, I had recurring dreams in which he would appear and abuse me in various ways. This mostly took the form of telling me that I was a no-talent and that I should give up. And that was doubtless good advice!

After a couple of years during which Reed basically never performed (once at the Bottom Line, as I recall), he came to California. He was performing at the Great America theme park. So my friend Will and I went. We are wandering around the park waiting for the concert and we come upon Reed, surrounded by four beefy men. They are all looking up at the Edge, a free-fall ride. So I walk right up to him. I have this ability. I am literally as threatening as a mosquito, so bodyguards don’t even seem to notice me. Lou looks down at me. He is not pleased. He looks at his bodyguards like, “What the fuck?!” I absolutely don’t know what to say so I ask for an autograph. He frowns and sighs almost hard enough to blow me over. “You got a pen?” he asks. I pat my pants. He shrugs, turns, and walks away.

It was a wonderful moment because it was the same dynamic in my dream: dismissive and bothered. This isn’t surprising, given that I knew the kind of guy he was. Some artists love fans because it makes them feel valid, but artists like Reed need to trivialize fans because they make them feel less valid — like teen idols or something. Of course, Reed isn’t that famous. I doubt that 1% of the people in the country would recognize his face. Perhaps 5% would recognize “Walk on the Wild Side,” and frankly, that’s because of David Bowie and Mick Ronson.

The other important performer from that time was Jonathan Richman, who was also a huge Velvet Underground fan. Admittedly, Richman has on average been a disappointment. He has a very poor work ethic. But his best work is better than Reed’s best. Plus, he never tortured me in my dreams. And I’ve met him many times and he is a very friendly guy. That isn’t to say that he’s an angel — just that his particular demons don’t require him to dump on everyone around him.

But given that it is Reed’s 71st birthday, here’s hoping it is a Perfect Day.[1] I’m sure this article will help.


I always thought that Wikipedia had a mechanism that automatically updated the ages of people. But this isn’t the case. People apparently have to do it manually. Justin Bieber’s age was updated at midnight East Coast time. Lou Reed’s birthday got updated during the writing of this. John Irving’s birthday hasn’t been updated.

Antoine-Frederic Gresnick lived at the same time as Mozart and composed pieces that can easily be mistaken for him. He was born today in 1755. Here is his Symphonie Concertante in B-flat Major. It is delightful:

[1] I still love this song, but I can have a hard time listening to it now. How could they allow some of the notes to be so out of tune?! I don’t care that much about pitch and I don’t have that great an ear, but jeez!

See also: Lou Reed Sowed and Reaped for 71 Years.

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Lou

  1. Yeah, I saw him on a plane once in New York. We had significant pre-taxi delays, so I considered going up and saying something. But he just exuded that superior vibe. Not an "I’ve got my own shit bugging me right now and don’t want to be disturbed," just very dismissive and arrogant. I wasn’t sure I read it correctly, and anyhoo I didn’t say anything. Guess I was right not to!

    That’s one of my three lifetime celebrity-sighting stories. #2 was Chuck Heston, at a bookstore in Century City, signing copies of something. This was before he became NRA president, and nobody was there. (I just strolled into the bookstore because I was waiting for a movie to start.) I asked him "are you Mr. Heston?" "Yessss," he responded magisterially. "Thanks," I said, and fled the store, feeling bad for the guy. (Now I wish I’d bought the book; it might be unintentionally funny in a wackadoodle way.)

    #3 was Al Franken at the Minnesota State Fair outside some animal barn; that may not count because he was running for senator at the time. It was, like, 7AM and he looked miserable (probably dreading having to press flesh all day at his campaign booth not far away.) But he took a photo and signed a button for a disabled gentleman I’d brought who is a political addict and lifelong Democrat, which made my friend very happy. He still shows the photo to people.

    A few weeks ago I saw a documentary, "Hot Coffee," about how corporations are trying to end lawsuits for their flagrant misdeeds. (Good movie, BTW.) In one part, Halliburton is up in front of a Senate panel, explaining how an employee raped in Iraq after repeatedly asking for help with sexual harassment is not eligible to sue, because she signed some stupid contract that had this stuff in the fine print nobody reads. Franken is shown ripping the Halliburton guy an absolute new asshole, and I smiled watching it.

    He hasn’t gotten much passed, but along with Keith Ellison, he’s one of the pols I just personally am glad come from my adopted state. (Helps make up for Bachmann a little.)

    PS: No MST3k fan can not still adore "Satellite Of Love," even if that’s best for Bowie’s backing vocals.)

  2. @JMF – I’ve written about [i]Hot Coffee[/i] twice, but never in depth. It speaks for itself. I own it.

    I don’t exactly think Reed was wrong. He’s a dick and he shows it a lot. I’ve had a lot of run ins with celebrities and they have all been fairly pleasant, perhaps because I’m polite and brief. It isn’t how Reed reacted to me, but how it illustrates him generally. I tend to think if you spoke to him on the plane he would have been upset. People like him miss an important fact: they are performers who depend upon the good will of fans. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I never again bought a Lou Reed album.

    I’ve seen this from the other side. My wife used to be Bruce Cockburn’s girlfriend and they are still good friends. I have watched him after shows listen patiently to fans for over an hour. Some of them are really annoying. But he just sees it as part of the job. Of course: he’s not a dick.

    There are still a number of Reed songs that I like. [i]Waves of Fear[/i] is great. The whole of [i]Rock n Roll Animal[/i] is great. I’m very fond of parts of [i]Berlin[/i], especially "The Kids." Much of the wrongly maligned [i]Growing Up In Public[/i] is good. [i]Street Hassle[/i] is quite listenable. The song "Coney Island Baby" is sweet. And a whole lot of the Velvets is great. But much of his career is just painful; I do not turn to Reed when I want to hear serious music.

    It’s interesting that you mention "Satellite of Love." It is a sweet song, very typical of what Ronson and Bowie got out of Reed. But the song was used in a recent coming of age film where this kid works a carnival for the summer. There is a guy there whose claim to fame is that he once played with Lou Reed. It turns out that the guy is lying. This is hardly surprising; in coming of age stories, some authority figure is always shown to be living a lie. (What a pathetic lie: I played once with a minor celebrity!) But the way they showed that he was lying was that he thought the title of the song was something like "Show a little love" or some such. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve played with plenty of guys who had no idea what I was singing. Knowing the lyrics is something that fans do. We aren’t talking "Sweet Jane" or "I’m Waiting for My Man"!

    I do have a problem with "Satellite" though: the bridge doesn’t work. The production finesses it, but the writing is weak.

    Speaking of MST3K: I have spent years trying to find out if Crow is named after the Jim Carroll Band song "Crow" that is about Patti Smith. They say the name the same way during the opening. Plus, it is the kind of music that those guys would know.


  3. Hilarious "Crow" connection! That is exactly the kind of stunt those guys might pull . . . or just something one person thought of for a second, tried it, everyone else liked it, and no-one remembers where it came from.

    There was such a basic decency to that program. I remember the "Oregonian"’s film critic commenting that while the MST movie probably wouldn’t appeal to non-fans, in a way he wished America was the kind of country where MST would be a huge hit. And so did (do) I. There’s a place for the pompously "edgy," hipper-than-thou Lou Reeds of this world. There’s also a place for the ponderously forced geniality of stuff like "A Prairie Home Companion." Right in the middle was MST, neither too saccharine nor too bitter. It’s almost impossible to watch today, because that tone is so out-of-place with our culture.

    Once in a blue moon, though, I’ll grab a DVD of MST off the library shelf. I’ll watch it after midnight when I have nothing else to do (just like when it aired on Comedy Central.) And just like in the old days, even if most of the jokes don’t work, something about it makes me smile.

  4. @JMF – I figure it happened that way. Joel named the character Crow and then the music guy said, "You know, there’s this Jim Carroll Band song…"

    I’m still a big MST3K fan. Andrea and I went through a period only a few years ago when we hardly watched anything else. Unfortunately, we were 3K miles apart. It is best to watch with friends. That way, I can explain who Lee Sklar is. (I am very in tune with those guys on music, so I usually get their obscure music references.)

    But what I most like about it are the hosted segments. That is: the stuff kids love it for. And my scripts for "Post Postmodern Comedy Hour" are very much homages to MST3K. I’m not sure other people would see that, however.

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