Everyone who lived in downtown New York City has a Lou Reed story. If you love music, you have a Lou Reed story.
Some people did drugs with him.
Some people sold him drugs.
Some people were ripped off by him so he could buy drugs.
Some people had violent fist fights with him. He had an explosive temper, which could detonate at any time.
Many people were ridiculed and demeaned by him. He was a prickly, judgmental motherfucker.
Too many to count never met him but saw him perform.
And some have had their lives thrown irrevocably off course after seeing one of these performances.
I’m in that last category.
I was 15 when an older friend smuggled me into the Bottom Line to see Lou Reed perform.
The Bottom Line, like so many other iconic rock venues in New York City clubs, no longer exists.
Massive. Heart. Squeeze.
My first night at the Bottom Line I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings, because as soon as we got there, David nodded towards a table near the postage sized stage and said, “There he is.”
Lou Reed had an aura of steel gray electricity. You don’t develop or manufacture that kind of presence; it just is.
He was dressed in a black leather jacket. Under it, a tight sleeveless black tee shirt revealed gorgeous muscular arms. Black jeans. Craggy handsome face. Close cropped curly black hair. Angrily set jaw.
He frightened me.
He turned me on immensely.
This night is memorable, not just for the music. It was the night I realized I did not want, nor would I have, a chance at a “normal” life. I remember the smell of liquor and perfume and pot and sweat; the crowd and its slavish devotion, the relentless screeches of feedback.
Lou Reed’s voice.
He crooned and drawled; half spoke, half sang. He was a poet who layered words on top of music. The effect was mesmerizing and dramatic but without affectation.
His songs were of transvestites, prostitutes, drug addicts, sadomasochists and utter madness. No romantic despair or adolescent misogyny for this rock-and-roller.
He was the Primal Prince of Fearlessness. An escapee from the dark, dangerous, sexually ambiguous New York underworld who had managed to live to tell the tales.
His music was pure/impure New York City.
“I’m Waiting for the Man.” A junkie on a drug buy in Harlem.
And the lyrics, so simple.
“I’m waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I’m waiting for my man”
It was a street map to score heroin. It was that specific.
At one point in the evening, someone in the audience called out for “Heroin,” Lou Reed’s love song to addiction. It’s the musical equivalent of a heroin high, just as your brain implodes.
Lou Reed became agitated; then angry. He had kicked heroin years ago and no longer performed this song live. Other members of the audience started calling for it. He got angrier; vicious. He would not satisfy the audience’s vicarious drug habit.
He ended the night in a brutal verbal fight with several of the audience members; shouting obscenities at them, finally storming off and turning a table over on his way off stage.
His behavior was unscripted, raw, sexual and human.
It was tragic.
It was fucking beautiful.
Patti Smith had already laid eggs in my brain years before. But just as I fell in worship/love with her, the GodMother of punk retired to raise her children near Detroit. I wasn’t able to see her live at that time. But her male counterpart- the GodFather of punk – was very much still a part of the downtown New York scene.
After that, I had zero interest in going to college; graduating, getting a good job, getting married, moving to the suburbs and having 2.3 kids.
I wanted nothing of that. I wanted Reed’s world. The seamy underworld he sang of and denounced and loved and judged and accepted and rejected and forgave.
I HAD to have that life.
I would stay in New York and be a writer. An actress. A musician. It didn’t matter that I didn’t play an instrument well. Lou Reed played guitar for shit.
In the end, I was a coward. At 16, I lacked Reed’s fearlessness. I did as I was told, and I was told you don’t turn down a full ride to an Ivy League school.
So I went.
And wasted my time. I was Ivy Leaguer in name only – but a junkie rebel leather queen in my heart. As soon as those 4 years were over, I headed back to my home town and spent the next 15 years on the Wild Side.
I moved into the East Village, the artsy funky punk rock East Village, and was finally home.
I no longer live there, but my apartment on 2nd avenue will always be my home. Period.
I squandered those 15 years when I could have been capitalizing off my fancy education. I’m paying for that now.
I pursued various artistic endeavors, but mostly I lived on the edge. I took ridiculous chances; did unspeakable things; hung out with sordid musicians, made terrible choices.
I had the time of my life.
I regret nothing.
Sometimes I wish I had died a junkie’s quick and painless overdose of a death, a poetic swan song in a blaze of glory. Instead of this slow drip of moribund that seeps into my blood, a day at a time.
I’m restless and bored and yearn for adventure. But where do you go when you’ve been there and done that?
I’m too old to keep up with the relentless pace of the life I once knew. Too young to be buried alive in the suburbs.
I’m in limbo. Not fit for either the life I once lived, or the one I live now.
Yes, I’m in disguise so I can I pass amongst the normals here, but that’s just a ninja stealth strategy.
I bake for the PTO. But my Halloween cupcakes sported tiny edible knives and leaked blood red icing and sold out immediately.
I’m raising a 10-year-old kid who dressed in all black on the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death last month.
I live life my way, on my terms.
The night I found out Lou Reed died, Sunday, October 27, 2013, I was on the telephone with my best friend of 27 years.
We were stunned. And immediately – in our respective homes and without consulting the other – started playing the same song.
An 11 minute tour de force in 3 movements, considered by many to be Lou Reed’s masterpiece.
Lou Reed didn’t really influence me to squander my life. He thrust me beyond the secure and ordinary allure of the mundane. He gave me an early glimpse of another world that existed beyond the safe and colorless margins in which I had felt trapped.
I saw hope that I could live a life not scripted by, and for, the rest of the world.
It does not have to exist only in the demimonde of druggie nihilism, but simply by living with an uncompromising allegiance to the truth of who I am.
Like Lou Reed, I am a deeply flawed mass of contradictions. Lost, but found. Tragic, but magnificent.
I find humanity in the people that society condemns.
RIP, Lou. I’ll continue walking on the Wild Side.
Til the day I die.
This is an audio collage of three urban scenes connected by a memorable, elegant riff, first on cello and then on guitar. Bonus points if you recognize the voice after the second part.
In the third part, Lou Reed’s voice, an elegy for a lost lover, is one of the most painfully grief-stricken vocals in rock history.
Have you ever had a seemingly innocent event throw your life off course?
Has any musical artist ever had a strong impact on you?
Talk to me. I’m listening.