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Close Encounters of the Lou Reed Kind | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Close Encounters of the Lou Reed Kind




Lou Reed

The below ran originally on April 9, 2003 on MSNBC.com

I like Lou Reed the way most people I know like Lou Reed. I was intrigued and disquieted by “Walk on the Wild Side” in junior high, danced to “Sweet Jane and “Rock and Roll” in high school, and endured dark, devotional period in college which focused on The Blue Mask and Street Hassle. In grad school with lots of time to kill, I looked up his letters to the poet Delmore Schwartz, and made copies for my friends. But Lou has moved on and so have I. I still pick up his new albums sometimes but they almost always disappoint. His last concert at the Beacon Theater, a half-block from my apartment, was so awful I was relieved to go home while he was still onstage. Still, this is New York , so I have a story.

A few years ago I was in the Village Vanguard seeing the pianist Marcus Roberts when a beefy security guard who spoke no English blocked my path out of the men’s room. I was about to assert my God-given right as an American to leave any men’s room whenever I damn pleased, when I noticed the President of the Czech Republic (and a personal hero of mine) Vaclav Havel, leaving the club, trailed by Henry Kissinger and Lou. (What were they talking about before the set? NATO? The Velvets’ reunion? Henry’s fear of an international criminal tribunal?) Henry and Vaclav jumped into a limo, while Lou was stuck behind them in a jeep. I felt his pain, but I said nothing.

A few days later, I was telling this story to my close friend, Frank (not his real name) who lived out of town. He told me of the curse that Lou had cast on his life. I don’t remember all the details, but Frank was the Lou Reed fan to end all Lou Reed fans from the time he attended Columbia as an undergrad for about a decade and a half. That’s when Lou’s curse began to take effect. I forget the details but it was no joke. Frank would always put on one of Lou’s albums to mark the key moments of his life and something would always go horribly wrong. Girls would dump him; his wife had a miscarriage and I forget what else, but it was bad. He never listened to his favorite artist ever again. I tried to think of what life would be like if I felt forced to exile myself from Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. I couldn’t bear it.

A few weeks later I got invited to a benefit party where Lou was going to do a poetry reading at George Plimpton’s house. I told Frank. He asked me please to not even mention Lou ever again, no matter what the circumstances. I apologized. This was serious. Lou came to the reading, and I considered telling him about Frank but it sounded too crazy. Plus, he seemed to be in a really bad mood, even for Lou Reed. He read his songs at an inaudible level, visibly wincing whenever anyone tried to introduce him around. He left within seconds of finishing. Lou is not, apparently, a schmoozer.

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The next day Frank called me and asked if I had gotten “the unmentionable one” to lift the curse. “Whaddya mean?” I demanded. “You never told me to do that.” “I know,” he explained, “That’s part of the curse. I’m not allowed to ask.” “Shit,” I thought. I should have realized. I let my buddy down. I hate that.

But America, God bless her, is the land of second chances. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I went to the movies at Lincoln Plaza , twelve blocks from where I live. Walking up Broadway, right by the theater at 63rd street , I saw a woman I thought I recognized eating a late lunch at one of the café tables that rubs up right against the sidewalk. Then I remembered who she was: Laurie Anderson, Lou’s wife. And there he was, sitting across from her, wearing a black T-shirt, per usual.

First I panicked. My cell phone was charging back at home so I couldn’t call Frank and ask him what to do. I walked a few feet to the nearest pay phone which advertised calls for twenty-five cents a minute to anywhere, with a fifty-cent minimum. I had fifty cents, which was my change from the ten-dollar bill I gave the movie lady, and dialed Frank’s cell number, but the phone had lied. The minimum was seventy-five cents, which I didn’t have. So I tried to call him collect, but his cell did not accept collect calls, don’t ask me why. Then I remembered that last time, he said he could not personally ask for the curse to be lifted or else it would not work.

So I did it. Like the ultimate bridge-and-tunnel teenage nudnik, I walked back to the sidewalk café and excused myself, and said, “Mr. Reed, you probably don’t want to hear this whole story but…”

Lou: “Excuse me, I’m trying to have a meal here.”

Me: “Would you just do me a favor and lift the curse on my friend Frank?”

Lou (getting angry): “Listen, I’m trying to have a meal….”

Me: “Just say ‘Sure, I lift the curse on Frank’ and I’m outta here. I promise.”

Lou (exasperated and angry): “Sure. I lift the curse on Frank.”

Me: “Thanks. Bye.”

Is this a great city or what?

Read Altermans latest response to Max Blumenthal.

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