Having attended most years of the first decade of the Coachella festival, I now feel like I can skip a year every now and again. 2013 was maybe going to be one of those years, as I had seen most of the bands that I cared to see already.
The exception was Lou Reed, who I had never seen before, and his presence alone was almost enough to convince me to go.
But then it was announced that he was going to perform his own solo show at the Orpheum in between the two Coachella weekends, and that sounded perfect to me – a full set from Reed in one of my favorite LA venues – so I bought tickets.
Unfortunately, just a week or two before Coachella, Reed was announced as a cancellation, which also meant the Orpheum show was off too. We found out later that it was due to an emergency liver transplant, and although initial reports were that he was responding well, it seems clear that the situation was ultimately devastating, as we learned today of Lou Reed’s passing at the age of 71.
Although his record sales may not compare with the titans of the pop music world, Reed must truly be considered one of the most influential musicians of all time.
His leadership in the ground-breaking band the Velvet Underground, his risk-taking solo work and his poetic, earthy songwriting throughout his career made him an idol and a model for future generations of musicians, possibly second only to Bob Dylan in the rock world.
His songs have been performed by as diverse a range of artists as anyone I can think of, from David Bowie (who also co-produced Reed’s most iconic album, 1972’s “Transformer”) and R.E.M., to Metallica and Susan Boyle.
Even his abrasive experimental electronic album, “Metal Machine Music“ (which some reviewers described, not unfairly, as “unlistenable”), was transcribed for performance by the Berlin-based chamber group, Zeitkratzer Ensemble.
For the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he has been both an inductor (of his idol from his doo-wop days, Dion) and as an inductee (as a member of the Velvet Underground).
Reed’s involvement in the arts transcended rock music.
He worked with artist Andy Warhol, poet Delmore Schwartz, jazz legend Ornette Coleman, and theatre director Robert Wilson.
He appeared in a number of films, often as himself (twice in films by Wim Wenders). Reed was married to performance artist Laurie Anderson, a frequent collaborator, at the time of his death. He was also a noted photographer, with a number of books released over the past decade, including one celebrating his lifelong inspiration: his hometown of New York.
There are numerous musicians I regret never getting to see live before their passing, but Reed’s sudden absence stings pretty good at the moment.
His music is certainly confrontational and his reputation suggested he could be like that in person too (as exemplified by the banter on his live album, “Take No Prisoners“).
But I’ve always felt the best art ought to be confrontational, that you should be confronted with something prickly that you couldn’t just let wash over you.
With a musician’s passing it is easy to say “at least we have their music,” and in Reed’s case because so much of his music was confessional and from his “street’s-eye” view, his songs may feel like offering a clearer window to knowing his life than most.
But the personal loss is still strongly felt and hard to fully assess.
I am left thinking about a line from his 1972 song, “Perfect Day”, a song that has had something of a revival recently, in part due to its being used for a 1997 BBC charity single: “It’s such a perfect day / I’m glad I spent it with you.” To which I say, “Me too, Lou – me too.”
ERIC J. LAWRENCE