Outside of his music and myth, not many people knew Lou Reed.
After all, “he ate journalists for lunch,” as his eternally kid sister Merrill (he always called her “Bunny”) said of her tough-on-the-outside brother at his invite-only memorial Monday night at the Apollo Theater. Yet it was also noted that Andy Warhol, “Mr. Interview [Magazine],” was drawn to “I Hate Interviews” Reed.
And again, he did call his sister Bunny.
She also recalled how when she was 12 and he 17, and she frantically begged him to come to her bedroom and exterminate a spider “as big as an aircraft carrier,” he backed off on the grounds that it was too big. He never, ever compromised, either, she said (“even if he was wrong”), and as Susan Feldman, founding artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, where Reed’s concert film/album Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse was produced, noted, he “never went to the other side—until now.”
The memorial, organized by Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson and producer Hal Willner, took place, Anderson noted, on the 50th day after his death, ending the Tibetan Buddhist bardo transition from physical death to pure energy. It began with tape of Reed singing “Vanishing Act” from his 2002 album The Raven, with its now pointed first line “It must be nice to disappear,” followed by a rabbi’s traditional prayer of mourning and Anderson’s moving account of Reed’s last days--within the context of their intensive practice of tai chi and Buddhist meditation.
“The day he died he knew exactly what was happening,” she said, reenacting her husband’s facial expression of both “wonder and incredible joy.” With his hands he performed best he could the water-flowing "21" form of tai chi, and with his last words, before noon, uttered, “Take me out into the light.”
As she spoke, Anderson played beautiful, meditative passages on the piano, also describing Reed as a “master of friendship,” whose friends had gathered on the Sundays following his death to relate stories of his great kindness and generosity, and how he changed their lives. And such was the beauty of the occasion that the ever-outwardly dour Reed was softened and humanized by family and friends.
The Apollo setting was significant, as Reed loved the R&B sounds that came out of it. Willner noted Reed's excitement at participating in a benefit there (as well as his support of jazz and R&B on Lou Reed’s New York Shuffle With Hal Willner SiriusXM radio program); R&B a cappella group The Persuasions performed in appreciation of his taking them to Europe—for the first time--as his opening act.
There were plenty of other musical highlights. Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye performed “A Perfect Day,” Smith citing its “Just a perfect day/You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else, someone good” as Reed’s most poignant lyric. Antony Hegarty, who sang that song on The Raven, sang “Candy Says,” backed by Marc Ribot’s spellbinding guitarwork. Metric’s Emily Haines was perfect on “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Reed having guested on the band’s last album.
Debbie Harry, accompanied by Reed’s backup singer Jenni Muldaur, sang “White Light, White Heat,” after which Muldaur soloed on "Jesus." John Zorn expanded the saxophone vocabulary with shrieks, squawks, and balloon-shaped notes, and Reed’s tai chi master Ren Guangyi executed the "21" form to a metallic music bed.
Following a clip from Paul Simon’s 1980 movie One-Trick Pony, in which Reed played a record producer, Simon emerged to sing “Pale Blue Eyes,” noting how he and Reed, just months apart in age, grew up with the same music and tastes. Phillip Glass played piano while Bob Ezrin, who produced Berlin, and Willner read the Hebrew Kaddish mourning prayer.
Friends and family flanked both sides of the stage, instruments and mics standing on rugs and surrounded by hundreds of candles in various-sized glasses. Perhaps the most revealing moment came with the testimony of Charlie Miller, Reed’s doctor in Cleveland, who performed his liver transplant in May: He said it was the first time he’d ever sewn in a liver to his patient’s music, namely, “Walk On The Wild Side.”
“This operation takes the measure of a man,” Miller said, adding that no matter how difficult or complicated their phone conversations—and they spoke all the time—they all ended with Reed saying, “I love you, Charlie,” and Miller responding in kind.
And in the end, Reed’s life was marked by love and beauty. “I’m so susceptible to beauty right now!” he told Willner during a visit a week before he died, when Willner and Muldaur came over to play records. Anderson and others noted that he would cry openly when he heard or saw something beautiful, that the hairs on his arms would visibly stand.
And Bunny said that in Anderson, her brother found the love of his life, who gave him as much contentment and happiness as he was capable of having.
“I learned more in the last 50 days than in my entire life,” Anderson said, referring to the concepts of time, transformation, life and death. “It’s like the world is suddenly open and transparent.”
She said that in her 21 years with Reed, they “spoke nonstop about everything conceivable.”
Recognizing his anger, she said that with Reed, anger and apology existed “on top of each other” to where they almost became the same thing, and that his anger was “part of his beauty.”
With Reed, she said, she was “never for one second bored.” And she summed him up in three life teachings: Never be afraid of anyone, have a great bulls—t detector, and always be tender.
In the end, the evening became testament to a most wondrous love story between two of the most creative individuals in modern music. Anderson consecrated it with a performance of a glistening violin piece she wrote for Reed's birthday, and the unforgettable event closed with film of Reed performing “Sweet Jane” solo, followed by Patti Smith singing “Sister Ray” while everyone on stage danced or watched, except for a dozen or so following Anderson’s lead in a tai chi form.
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