Lou Reed: The last transgression

What turned 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?

By JONATHAN A. COHEN
November 4, 2013 22:38
3 minute read.
Lou Reed.

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.

What turned 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.”

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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.

The 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 1957.

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 homosexuality.

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 by.”

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.”

Lou wrote 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 regrets.

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 with pride.

Lou Reed’s legacy should be claimed as that of the quintessentially Jewish and New York artist and hero he was.

The writer, 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.


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