Words & Music

Lou Reed – The Other Man In Black

The last time I saw Lou Reed was a chance encounter in New York City in 1996. My band were staying downtown, enjoying a few days off between shows. We had scoured Manhattan in search of rock ‘n’ roll landmarks like Max’s Kansas City, the legendary playground of Andy Warhol’s factory scene and home to Reed’s first group, The Velvet Underground. As I explored streets and locations name-checked in his lyrics, it felt, rather wonderfully, like I was living in a Lou Reed song.

So it was that one afternoon, with great surprise and perfect logic, I came across the unmistakable figure of Lou Reed himself, dressed in black and ambling towards me with the bowed gait of a cowboy. With him was a larger man in a business suit, the two of them tight in conversation. I tried to affect a manner both casual and familiar as I raised my arm and called out “Hey Lou”. He looked up momentarily and fixed me with a slightly puzzled expression of ‘Do I know you or not?’ “Hey,” he drawled back. 

Of course, he didn’t know me – but I sure felt like I knew him. It was already over twenty years since, as an impressionable 14-year-old, I had first seen him at the Perth Concert Hall in 1975. Local glam band Supernaut (of I Like It Both Ways fame) had opened the evening in suitably gender-bending fashion and then… nothing. With the stage set and the roadies long gone we waited impatiently until the group finally appeared – and proceeded to tune up. Reed ignored us. We loved it. Sweet Jane.

Standing on the corner
Suitcase in my hand
Jack is in his corset and Jane is in her vest
And me I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band 

Reed’s disdain for the audience was dazzling. “Get funky!” someone heckled. “Get fucked,” Reed replied. I had seen him on TV looking bored and irritated, taunting journalists with outrageous statements about how people should take drugs because ‘it’s better than Monopoly.’ To be on the receiving end of such awful treatment was thrilling. So this was rock ‘n’ roll, I thought.

Ooh isn’t it nice
When your heart is made out of ice?

Reed may have closed down in interviews but he opened up in song. Beneath the gruff exterior was a vulnerability and tenderness that drew the listener in. David Bowie dominated the turntables of the mid 70s, but as a person he remained aloof. To my friends and me, he was always Bowie but Reed we knew as Lou. His candid songs were a window to his world; a mysterious and dangerous world, populated by outsiders, where the sex was easy and the drugs were hard.

That Reed felt like an outsider was understandable. As a teenager his parents had authorised electro-shock therapy in a bid to cure him of his homosexual tendencies. It didn’t work. Now his defiant, wounded songs gave voice to the marginalised, like an urban Johnny Cash. Yet, where Cash operated within a traditional Christian paradigm of right and wrong, Reed – the other man in black, stood apart. Those old morals had lost their meaning. For a Coney Island Baby only the redemptive power of love remained.

Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer
And just remember different people have peculiar tastes
And the glory of love might see you through

That night in 1975 a little of Manhattan came to Perth, changing me forever. Now here I was on a Greenwich Village street watching Lou Reed disappear into the crowd. Later, when I caught up with Susans’ guitarist Dan Luscombe, I paid little attention to his unusually agitated state. “I just had a definitive New York experience,” I declared, “Lou Reed just passed me in the street!”

“So did l,” he replied. “I just got mugged.”

 That’s the story of my life
That’s the difference between wrong and right
But Billy said that both those words are dead
That’s the story of my life



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