I first met Lou Reed at the Holiday Fundraiser Fair at Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights, the day after Thanksgiving, 1967.
I knew good.
I'd gone to church fair with several dollars, the idea being that I was gonna buy some Christmas presents early, while contributing to the church where I attended nursery school and in whose choir I sang for three years.
It was all typical white-bread bric-a-brac crap. Although I did find a 'still silver' proof set of the five U.S. coins in circulation at the time. That was a Christmas present for my sister to give me. Oh, and, yes, of course, a year later, I spent all 91 cents on candy and a 16 magazine.
As I listlessly strolled around the overheated room almost reeking of pine from at least 15 very large wreathes, I came to a table that had an unusual offering... In a small wicker basket, standing upright, were about a dozen sealed, hole punched, copies of the Velvet Underground's debut album featuring Nico, on Verve Records. I was hip to Andy Warhol. For the past two years or so, Pop had been my favorite kind of art. I had instantly 'got' Andy's soup cans. I don't know why. So, seeing this plain white album cover with a high-contrast peel-able banana and Andy's signature/logo, nice and big, stopped dead me in my tracks.
"Who the fuck are these guys?!" asked 14-year-old me to my 14-year-old self.
Taking the plunge and buying one, I lightened my funds by another buck.
That night, I put on side one of the Velvets' debut.
"What?! Man, this is crap! Oh my God, their lead guitar playing and feedback is so lame. They sound like me! The Who and Jimi destroy these guys! And what's with doing Bob Dylan with a Brooklyn hitter accent? Man, tons of these lyrics don't rhyme. Is this Nico in the band or not? Fuck this."
I took it off the turntable without bothering to put on side two. And for the next 18 months or so, it sat undisturbed under V in my record collection.
One night, late Spring 1969, my friend, Andy and I were high on pot and bored with my record collection. I spotted the spine for the Velvets album, pulled it out, and said to Andy, "I heard this only once. It was terrible. You wanna try it anyway?" High as a kite, Andy thought that was a fabulous recommendation and so, I slapped it on my AR turntable, the kind you could play backwards for "Paul is dead now. Miss him Miss him."
With a few minutes, Andy and I were sitting up straight, staring at my hi-fi's speakers, poring over the LP's cover. We kept looking at each other with delighted incredulity. This was the coolest wildest shit we'd heard in ages. "Genius!" Andy shouted! He went out and got the second album and soon my whole gang was 'waiting for the man.' Figuratively, of course. It would be another decade before any of us had a 'drug problem.'
When Lou died last week, the first thing I did was go back and listen to about 6 or 7 tracks from that album, something I hadn't done in, well, okay, decades. It sounded better than I'd remembered it in my mind's ears. Significantly better! And it turns out my 23-year-old daughter, Eleanor, has been an emphatic Lou Reed fan for a few years now. She dropped by and played me several tracks I hadn't heard in almost 40 years. All of them magical.
Lou Reed was a toxin that spread throughout popular culture over a period of almost half a century. That toxin was Unvarnished Truths. "Visionary" is bestowed willy-nilly. The fact is, there have been perhaps a dozen dictionary-definition visionaries in popular culture over the last 50 years or so. Lou is one of that dozen, a noble third behind Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry in the category of Most Groundbreaking and Influential Lyricists in Rock and post-Rock popular music.
The Hubert Selby Jr. of Pop Music.
My own interactions with Lou were oddly, for me, anyway, very low-key.
Contrary to his don't-care-ennui persona, Lou was, surprisingly, to me, very much a gear head. From the late 1970's through the early 1990's, seeing Lou Reed in a guitar store, talking intense shop-talk with a sales guy, became such a commonplace sight, it barely registered after the 8th or 9th sighting. He'd be so into discussing the guitar in his hands or the amp that guitar was going through (yes, I heard him strum E to A all over the city), that it felt like me saying anything would be outright intruding.
The one time we did speak to each other was in Roger Sadosky's shop in the early 1980's. Roger was building some of the very first ultra-hi-end Stratocaster-style one-of-a-kind guitars. This was exactly Lou's favorite type of instrument. Custom-built for HIM. Lou, Roger, and I were in a room no more than 15 feet square. I ventured a mild gear head style opinion about Roger's super fine guitars. Lou turned to me and said something like, "Yeah, man... exactly..."
But, yeah, over the years, I ignored Lou many many times.
Now my dear old friend, Charlie Messing, on the other hand, has a story that is much more intimate, even dream-like, frankly. A few days after Lou left us, I decided to interview Charlie about his wild night in New York City as Christmas, 1975 was fast approaching...
Okay, here's my interview with Charlie...
Binky: "We go back many years, Charlie. A few hours after I'd heard the news about Lou Reed's passing, it struck me that you'd once told me a story about him and a pair of sunglasses. That's the extent of my memory, though. This is true, right? What happened?"
Charlie: "It's true. It was very late in 1975. Peter Stampfel and I had gone to a poetry reading by an old friend, Camille, down on Reade Street. Camille had been in our band, the Unholy Modal Rounders. Anyway, besides her reading, Camille's paintings lined the walls of a big loft. They were these huge tarot cards. She was definitely talented but, it was kind of a warped talent. All her pictures sort of showcased beautiful skinny almost-nude bodies, in torment, like, run through with swords. Very Catholic. It seemed like most of the audience were wearing black leather, including Camille. To my surprise, the reading was great. Camille had a S & M following, a cult hero, and it was actually easy to see why. Her poetry was really good, and she had great stage presence."
Binky: "Sounds like a Kubrick scene or an Emma Peel Avengers episode. Ummmm, Lou?"
Charlie: "Lou Reed showed up for the reading. I was impressed."
Binky: "Okay, now I'm impressed, too."
Charlie: "He dug Camille's work. A year or two later, I saw her open for him at the Bottom Line. Again, I was impressed. I think that was around the time of the Rock and Roll Heart album, when Michael Fonfara and Don Cherry were in his band."
Binky: "Whoa! Don't be goin' 'a year or two later' on me, Charles... Back to this night with the monolithic Lou Reed..."
Charlie: "Okay. After the reading, Lou was hanging around, sitting on the floor with maybe a dozen other people. Lou was an idol of mine, big time. I was just frozen and wide-eyed. Peter turned to me and said, 'I know Lou from a long time ago in the Village. Let's go say hello!'
We got up and I followed him, concentrating on not tripping over my feet. We walked up as this chubby black leather/black guy was offering his ass to Lou, extolling its virtues. Lou was not taking him seriously. Peter managed to butt in, so to speak, and I got introduced to Lou Reed. After a little small talk, Lou said that he was interested in hearing Peter's views on the long range effects of speed. Lou sort of confided that he was doing a study on this. So, Peter and Lou made a date to get together at Lou's house a few weeks later. And, just because I was there, I got included in the invitation. Golly. That's how we got invited to Lou Reed's house."
Binky: "Okay. Wait... Wow. I told you I remembered some kind of Lou story. But, you went to his home?!"
Charlie: "It was just before Christmas. Lou lived on East 52nd Street, in the block that dead-ended at the FDR Drive, overlooking the East River, and we..."
Binky: "Oh man, that's crazy! Paul Stanley's first ever really nice apartment was on that very same block, same year, maybe the same building. Sorry."
Charlie: "We walked up this lonely block of giant luxury apartment buildings and found the address. We went up and Lou was out. But, we were let in by his roommate Rachel, who said we could wait, that he was expected shortly. I honestly could not tell if Rachel was a man or a woman. Low voice, long hair, long fingernails, certain way of walking and sitting... Rachel was a lot like a woman. And yet... Anyway, he/she was gracious but carefully noncommittal, and so we sat and waited together."
Binky: "Oh, Charlie, you have to describe this scene for us. You're in Lou Reed's apartment! This is crazy!"
Charlie: "We took off our shoes, left them by the door. Spotless polished maple floor. Slippery. I was sock shuffling so I didn't fall on my head. The apartment was oddly furnished. Kind of sparse, too. They had a tiny dog and they'd put up a Christmas tree that touched the ceiling. I thought, 'Yep, it's Christmas here, too.' Filling the windowsill over this big futon on a low platform, was a row of new hardcover books, all related to Warhol or the Beats, probably gifts from friends. The last book was a huge Physician's Desk Reference, always called a PDR back then. It was the bible for pill-heads. It had a photo of, and told the effects of, every pill in existence. There was a table and chairs next to a bookcase full of papers. We sat at the table. There was a tripod by the tree with a new RCA video camera, by an RCA TV, an RCA VCR, and an RCA stereo. Everywhere you looked there was an RCA digital clock with numbers an inch tall. Perks from his recently renegotiated contract with RCA, right. No one I knew had a video camera or a VCR. Even digital clocks were new."
Binky: "Wow, yeah, in 1975 that would've been an outrageous sight!"
Charlie: "Oh, and the front record in what seemed to be Lou's to-listen pile of albums by the RCA stereo was Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic, their newest release at the time. That made me blink."
Binky: "I love it! Aerosmith! Whatta great detail to dredge up, Charlie! So, Mr. Reed obviously made you wait long enough for you to get a good look around it sounds like..."
Charlie: "At some point, I asked Rachel if there was anything to drink. He/she wasn't sure what they had. 'Take a look.' So, I shuffled into their totally clean kitchen and opened the fridge. Sparkling clean inside too. And the only contents were a package of bacon, a quart of milk, and an almost-empty quart of Tropicana. I had never seen anything like that before. I couldn't see drinking the last of their OJ. As I shuffled back to sit down, through the doorway next to the futon, I was able to peek into the master bedroom. Absolutely bare except for yet another digital clock."
Binky: "So, Lou did eventually show up, right?"
Charlie: "Yeah, finally, Lou knocked. Rachel let him in. He walked through the foyer into the living room, wearing aviator sunglasses and carrying shopping bags. He nodded to Peter, then to me. He turned to Peter and said, 'You should've called to confirm the appointment.', a bit chilly."
Charlie: "Well, It turned out Lou had a little time but not enough to get into the real talk he wanted to have with Peter. The dog had welcomed him home in a big way. Lou baby-talked to it. He reached into one of his grocery bags and pulled out a little rawhide bow, a present for the cute little dog. We all watched the dog run around with his new toy for awhile. Then Lou reached in the bag and took out another purchase -- a brand new pair of aviator sunglasses. He grinned, took the ones off his face and tossed them in the wastebasket by the door, and put on the new ones. He liked them a lot better."
Binky: "Jeeeez, you were almost kinda living in a Warhol movie, Charlie Messing! What an odd domestic scene for the Great and Terrible Lou! Did he talk about casseroles?"
Charlie: [laughs] "I think he figured we were interested in him, and basically, he just talked about himself. It turned out the bookcase by the desk was filled with clippings and professional career stuff, and he sat down and showed us some. Peter and I were well behaved. We listened intently and saw what we were shown. Peter sat between Lou and I."
Binky: "What about any specific discussions or rants about his music?"
Charlie: "Lou cackled in glee at the way Metal Machine Music was already a collector's item only a few years after its release. He said, 'You know, a Lou Reed album that isn't a hit sells more copies than a lot of other people's albums.' He was chatty about how happy he was with his new RCA contract. Then, sort of out of the blue, he said he wanted to play us something, and walked over to the record player. He had two test pressings of Coney Island Baby, his album which was about to be released."
Binky: "He played you unreleased music?!"
Charlie: "Peter and I were doing nothing to break the spell. On the song "Charlie's Girl", he showed us how one of the pressing plants had put the vocals out of phase at one point. He'd had to call his guy at RCA and get them to stop that plant's production till they fixed the problem. He boasted a bit, saying it was lucky he had such good ears, because if he hadn't noticed the mistake, nobody else would have, and it would have sounded like that in the final copies. We then listened to it a few more times. I did hear what he pointed out and we nodded in agreement."
Binky: "Man, it sounds like you were there for over an hour, easy."
Charlie: "Well, very soon after that, Peter announced that he had meet someone and left. But, I got to stay a little longer. There was a transitional scene as other people showed up while Peter was leaving. I don't remember much about the people who came in, but they were a couple, and the woman wore a short fur coat. Everyone was neat and hip.
Binky: "Did you and Lou ever talk?"
Charlie: "The only conversation between Lou and me was...
'What do you do?', Lou asked.
I said, 'Play guitar.'
'So does everybody.', he muttered, turning away.
I was awestruck and shy. I sure didn't tell him I was great. I didn't even tell him he was great. I didn't say any of the things I wish I had said."
Binky: "I sense we're coming to a punchline, Charlie..."
Charlie: "They had all decided it was time to go out and eat. It was now dark out. They were off to the Carnegie Deli. I had about two dollars in my pocket, so I said I couldn't go. We all got our coats (and shoes), and walked out single-file. I was at the end of the line. I looked down as I passed the wastebasket. There were Lou Reed's sunglasses.
I thought, 'That's not garbage, that's an artifact.'
My hand swooped down and they were now in my pocket. Nobody saw.
We walked up the street to First Avenue, and I bid them farewell as they went to find a taxi. I walked for miles, all the way home to Renwick Street, down by the Holland Tunnel."
Binky: "Dare I ask, Charlie?"
Charlie: [sighs] "30 years later, Christmas 2005, I sold them on Ebay. They're in Toronto now. Yeah, needed money."