In 2007, I staged an exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Velvet Underground and Nico album. I felt that this needed celebrating in New York City, and as no one else was staging an event, I did. It took place at a very snazzy and upscale upper east side antiquarian book gallery. It was an amazing night. Lou was there, and Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule, and Sterling Morrison's wife Martha. It was the first time they'd been in the same room since the Max's Kansas City gigs in 1970. Everyone was happy. Lou invited us all to a late night Chinatown supper. A crowd of 20-odd people. Fans, members of Maureen's extended family, friends and family of Lou's.
Moments before we were all set to leave a shadowy figure slithered up to Lou who was standing in the main room looking at the exhibit. Dressed in black, mid-forties, smacky vibe. I was close enough to eavesdrop. "I've been emailing you through your website, why haven't you written back?" I sensed a lost soul, a deranged fan. I saw Lou's shoulders hunch, as if sadness weighed down. He said something non-committal and rolled away from her like mercury on a marble floor. In that odd manner that the very famous can when people too demanding get too close.
It was a sad and epiphanous moment for me. I realized that this sort of person had haunted Lou with their shadow for most of his life. I also realized that this was how Lou probably felt when hunted and gathered and interviewed by journalists. We left for the late supper. Lou Reed was a charming and delightful host swapping bon mots with people around the table, being attentive and kindly towards the kids and the relatives and the Tuckers' and everybody. The next insight washed over me: the core tool in Lou Reeds' survival kit was the almost uncanny ability to make split-second assessments of the spiritual and psychological make-up of the person in front of him, like a life-long New York City cop or a brilliant shrink. Like Mr. T, he was tender to some and tough to others.
His superb ability as an observer of the human condition as exemplified over and over in his lyrics and poetry, was also a skill set he could utilize to protect himself from parasites, psychic vampires and all-around bummers. And since a large proportion of music journalists he'd swiftly identify as such, well, they'd certainly tell the world in no uncertain terms how mean and grumpy they found Lou Reed. Which he wasn't, unless he'd identified you as someone who wanted a piece of him. Sort of like Mr T, and to further that analogy, Lou did pity us fools. Hence the sublime, deeply humanistic grace and valor of his poetry.
Maybe it is time to start talking about the power of his poetry and the permanence of the sublime in the songs and word-smithery of Lou Reed. The great democratic stance of Lou as an eternal writer can now be discussed and examined as he has left us, and since his work no longer can be overshadowed by the bad news people who seem more interested in a perpetuated fiction of a dark prince of the seedy New York City underbelly than the immersion into the powerful work of a man who stayed at the top of his game for decades. Generating masterpieces, oh, every few years. Ultimately, it is the work, not the worker that is eternal, and Lou created eternal work.
Following the Chinatown dinner I spent a couple of years putting together an artists' monograph on the Velvet Underground for Rizzoli Books. The reason was simple: The new century needed the first ever artists' monograph devoted to a rock & roll group, a big thick coffee table book that could sit next to a book on Matisse or the history of surrealism. The Velvet Underground were the only possible subject.
Following its publication in 2009 we staged some readings, exhibitions and events to celebrate the band. Lou was amused and kindly toward all this, but would often remind me that the continuing work and the work not yet done was of the highest importance, and that the past was the past and that it had already happened.
As a historian and an archivist, that is my favorite stance of a living artist, how past laurels aren't to be rested upon, but for continued utilization. When I got the news of Lou Reeds' death, in my sadness, and in my repeated listening to Renee Flemings and Lou performing 'Perfect Day' in Prag in 2009 honoring Vaclav Havel, I realized that we now will have to bookend the work of this great American poet, artist and rock & roller.
When it comes to Lou Reed, it becomes more complex than the singer and the song, or the private self, the public self or the medial self. I feel as if his death has marked another point of departure from the 20th century, and that said departure slowly brings a sequence of epiphanies in relation to the stratification of culture. High-brow and Low-brow doesn't work anymore, the old axiomatic triangle of art - popular - folk - music doesn't ring true either. A major American artist, singer and poet who chose to work in a popular idiom, and who simultaneously created work of immense complexity and tunes whistled by the postman, when bookended, was a great American artist, a peer of Whistler, of Hubert Selby, of Ornette Coleman, of Little Richard. A few years ago, among the papers of Delmore Schwartz, at the Beinecke Library at Yale, a letter Lou Reed wrote Delmore in 1964 was found. In the letter, Lou Reed discusses writing, making music and his future in a piece of candid writing to his literary mentor. It is a heartbreaking and dignified piece of writing by a 22-year old who has but commenced the assembly of a lifelong body of work, work that is now eternal.