Lou Reed 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lou Reed transgressed rock and roll as its first street-smart poet who
confronted sex and drugs, harnessed and controlled feedback, and embodied New
York cool – he epitomized a new, strong Jewish American anti-hero, afraid of
nothing, willing to explore and cross any artistic boundary.
a nice Jewish boy into a rock and roll icon who broke taboos and unleashed songs
that influenced every generation that followed up to and beyond his recent
death? The context of Lou Reed can be best understood as standing on the outside
looking out – the focus that would embody his most famous and career-defining
song, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
The Jewish immigrant desire to be American
and live in a freedom unimaginable to what was left behind led to Louis Allan
Reed being born March 2, 1942, at Beth El Hospital in Brooklyn, and then moving
with his family to Long Island’s idealized suburban existence.
attendant assimilationist rigidity of the 1950s resulted in Reed finding
salvation, his calling, and guitar playing from early rock and roll radio. The
15-yearold Reed recorded his first single as a member of the band The Shades in
Finding his voice meant running afoul of what was considered normal
behavior for the time, and to correct that Lou Reed was subjected to
electroconvulsive shock therapy as a teenager to “treat” his
Lou Reed’s Jewish lineage may have been passed on from his
parents, but he would claim it – as with everything else, on his own terms. By
the latter stages of life Lou would make a movie about a 99-year-old cousin
called Red Shirley to preserve and pass on the story of how she survived the
Holocaust and fought for the American dream in sweathshops as a seamstress. He
took the film to festivals around the globe.
Reed’s lyrics made clear to
anybody who listened to the records over the years how he felt – the opening
line of the 1984 track “Fly Into the Sun” declared “I would not run from the
Holocaust.” Then there was 1989’s New York album and the song “Busload of
Faith,” which laid bare where reality and religion meet – “You can’t depend on
the goodly-hearted, The goodly- hearted made lampshades and soap, ...You can
depend on the worst always happening, You need a busload of faith to get
The same record called out the highest levels of global leadership
that had wronged the Jewish people in the cut “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” about
the greatest Nazi cleansing in history of former United Nations
secretary-general Kurt Waldheim.
Artists worried about reaching the top
of the charts don’t write lyrics like that.
The humor could also be
searing. The aptly titled double live recording Take No Prisoners featured the
memorable line “I don’t want to be a f***ed-up, middle class Jewish college
student anymore,” and a feigned protestation to the chorus he wrote about
messing with the Jews – “HEY, you’re talkin’ about my people.”
of personal spiritual quests, but he was not a joiner or organized religion type
– he once claimed rock and roll was his religion, but that didn’t stop him from
participating in a series of New York alternative seders starting in the
mid-1990s and reading as the Wise Child, performing in Israel, and making
pilgrimage to the Western Wall.
Lou Reed engenders fierce loyalty from
fans and the respect of the rock and roll world he helped create because he was
never afraid to walk right through the front door to the spaces in the darkest
reaches of listener’s minds – the questions about life’s existence, purpose,
struggles, injustices – and speak his truth to what it all meant, without
The world around Lou Reed at death looked a lot more like him
than it did in the beginning. He created the space for the outsiders who
explored and crossed artistic boundaries – whether they be Jewish, gay,
transsexual, or others that would not be mentioned, to be celebrated openly and
Lou Reed’s legacy should be claimed as that of the
quintessentially Jewish and New York artist and hero he was.
known as 'Mellish' DJ’d in New York City on WBAI, 99.5 FM, and profiled
musicians – including the only Jewish Joey Ramone tribute – for an expressly
Jewish radio show for seven years, and has written for rock and roll magazines
in New York as well as London.