I was saddened with much of the world at the death of Lou Reed last Sunday. A daughter of Long Island (Massapequa Park) by way of Brooklyn mourning one of its sons (Freeport) via ditto.
I was not an intimate fan of the rocker outside of his classics that are ingrained in the soundtrack to life of my age eschalon.
But two things brought me a little closer to this distinct voice, this rocker talking to my generation.
One is that he came to the Museum of Television & Radio in January 1994 when we had the US premiere of the TV documentary, Curious: The Velvet Underground Live in Europe.
I didn't get to talk to the man, but I had some conversation with his entourage, including Peter Gabriel. He had the bluest eyes this side of Paul Newman, and we talked about the English choir tradition, he being of the Ralph Vaughan Williams school, where I prefer the slightly lesser loved Herbert Howells.
I went out to dinner with the entourage, I think Penn Jillette was at my table, because as it was breaking up, Laurie Anderson and Lou came over to our table, and he was zipping up her parka. It was a very cold evening and they were bundling against it. They looked like little kids getting ready to go out and play in the snow. A friend commented that there was an inner youth about them, that they would never seem old. I don't know why that struck him then, but it did and he was right.
With Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall
Several years later, December 13, 2006, to be exact, I went to The Wainwright Family & Friends Christmas Show at Carnegie Hall. It was a magical evening that I wrote about in the early days of this blog:
The Christmas Show is unique because it included Rufus Wainwright's sisters Martha and Lily and Aunt Sloan, and guests Jimmy Fallon, Teddy Thompson, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed.
How can you describe the Rufus voice? It is wildly distinct. It’s a clear, pointed sound, with a nasal but not unappealing undertone. He swells note to note in well controlled verbal scoops. His sound has a sexiness that pretty much defies gender categories.
He sang What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, channeling Rosemary Clooney. If he had been in a black strapless dress, it would have seemed perfectly natural. His Cantique de Noel, with a beautiful piano accompaniment, was elegant and very moving.
There were other great numbers: Martha and Jimmy Fallon singing Baby It’s Cold Outside; Laurie Anderson droning a hurdy-gurdy to all verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, which she graced with the O Superman inflection; and Sloan singing a knockout, uplifting, joyous rendition of Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas.
And then there was Lou.
He comes out wearing a bright yellow, wild jacket—must be his idea of festive—and sings White Christmas with Rufus. It's campy and sweet at the same time, with Lou giving his version of a crooning bass. He was born in 1942, the year that Holiday Inn, which gave us Irving Berlin's White Christmas, came out. So there's a wonderful connection there.
And then he sang a solo Silent Night that was poignantly hallowed, in its way. He gave it his driving rock beat under a jagged—jarring semi shout of SILENT NIGHT. And yet there was a sense of respect for the words, and . . . all 3 verses. Not even Bing Crosby did that. The third verse usually makes me cry, and this was no different:
“Son of God, Love’s pure light. Radiant beams from they holy face; with the dawn of redeeming Grace. Jesus Lord at thy birth. Jesus Lord at they birth.”
All with.----The Reed rhyyyyth-mnic----phrasing.That----we know---and love.
He is our aural e. e. cummings. This rocker, this drug addict, this malcontent, offering the classic hymn, during Advent, in Carnegie Hall. Nunc dimittis.
Someone at that December 13 concert filmed the White Christmas duet. The video is very blurry, but the audio is good enough to capture the moment. No one has posted the Silent Night.
Reed would later go on to sing at the Jubilee concert in Rome for JP11, and the Vatican's pop cultural guru in the curia, Gianfranco Ravasi, tweeted words to Perfect Day when Reed died. Clearly because he speaks to the true humanity in us.
Good night sweet prince (as Laurie has called you). And flights of rockin' angels sing you to your rest. The life of a rocker, it's a bitch on the body. May your soul rest in peace.
(Top photo: From the Kate and Anna McGarrigle: A Not So Silent Night DVD, backstage at the Knitting Factory, 2009, similar to the Carnegie Hall concert.)