Lou Reed dies at 71: New York mourns a rock curmudgeon
While others sang of love and flower power, Reed took the subway uptown to score more heroin
"HE WAS a curmudgeon but he was our curmudgeon. A terrible loss." Of all the tributes, obituaries and memories aired in the few hours since the death of Lou Reed at the age of 71, no words ring truer for me than these.
They appeared on my Facebook page in a message with accompanying photograph of the old rocker from my friend Laura Levine.
Like Reed, Levine is a New Yorker born and bred. She is a photographer who forged her career in the demi-monde of rock 'n' roll in the late 1960s and 1970s - Lou Reed's world - and her pictures hang in the Rock and Roll hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Museum.
Reed was a terrible curmudgeon. Not a nice fellow. We should not speak ill of the dead, but in this case Levine has it just right.
He was a curmudgeon in the way of the old-style taxi drivers, of the waiters in the diners, the superintendent of the apartment block, the ticket clerk at Grand Central Station, the cop who has better things to do than give direction to some goddamned out-of-towner, the woman crashing the check-out queue, the tabloid news editor.
In New York we have no time to waste making nice, pretending the sun is out on a rainy day. Life is gritty and we are all trying to get ahead against the odds.
Lou Reed was New York's quintessential rock 'n' roll star from the beginning. It is a nod to the genius of Andy Warhol that he recognised this when he brought the Velvet Underground, Reed's nascent band with John Cale, into his Factory and bankrolled their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
For a start, Warhol liked the way they looked, all in black and not a smile in sight. In Swinging London, the Beatles sang that "love is all you need". In San Francisco, the refrain for the Summer of Love was "Don't forget to wear flowers in your hair". In New York, Lou Reed was taking the subway uptown to score heroin and singing, "I'm waiting for my man… he's never early, he's always late…"
Real life being real life, it is fitting that Reed died from liver failure. He had had a liver transplant in May this year. He was not pretending to be a junkie for all those years until he went sober in the 1980s. He was a heroin addict, and took a lot of amphetamines too.
Last week he had been rushed back to the hospital in Ohio where the liver transplant was performed, but surgeon Charles Miller said there was nothing more they could do. Reed came back to his town to die. "He really wanted to be at home," said Miller. "He died peacefully, with his loved ones around him."
Rolling Stone called him "a massively influential songwriter" and wrote: "With the Velvet Underground in the late Sixties, Reed fused street-level urgency with elements of European avant-garde music, marrying beauty and noise, while bringing a whole new lyrical honesty to rock & roll poetry. As a restlessly inventive solo artist, from the Seventies into the 2010s, he was chameleonic, thorny and unpredictable, challenging his fans at every turn. Glam, punk and alternative rock are all unthinkable without his revelatory example."
Roxy Music's Brian Eno summed up the Velvets when he said that if their first record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band".
Reed quit the Velvet Underground as early as 1970 and had his only mainstream hit, Walk on the Wild Side, after going solo. David Bowie produced the song and they were close friends ever after.
As befits a curmudgeon, Reed took himself very seriously. There was never much evidence of a sense of humour, unless you include his pleasure in making other people uncomfortable.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1989, he explained that like Bob Dylan he had always intended to marry rock and roll to 'literature'.
"All through this," he said, "I've always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They're all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there's my Great American Novel."
Reed became one of those characters, like Woody Allen or former Mayor Ed Koch, who was around town and with whom an aspiring New Yorker could hope for an encounter. It could be a bruising experience.
I had seen him in bars and clubs, and once on the street in Greenwich Village, his blocky oversized head, bulging eyes and hollowed cheeks making him more-or-less unmistakable.
And then one evening I stepped into a lift in a midtown building full of music studios and found myself face to face with him. I was with a pretty woman who had a band which had played a few gigs at the legendary CBGBs club, a temple to the punk rock he helped create, and he was moved to say "hi" to her.
She introduced me, and I held out my hand. He ignored me completely. There was not so much as a blink of recognition of my being on the same planet, let alone in the same lift. It was a long ride down. I was miserable all evening. But I think I caught a hint of a smile of self-satisfaction as he stepped, rather stiffly, into the lobby.
Reed is survived by his wife, the composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson.