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Monday, November 11, 2013

King of New York—Remembering Lou Reed at BAM

by Susan Yung
Lou Reed during Songs for 'Drella (1989).
Photo: BAM Hamm Archives

"Ordered sound is music," Lou Reed said in his last video interview, at Reed, who died recently at 71, had a way of reducing complex thoughts and feelings to their essence, as he did so eloquently in his songs. In The New Yorker, Patti Smith remembers him as "a complicated man." Lou, whose name was both a cheer and a loving jeer, has been tagged as "the poet of New York," and by David Bowie as no less than "the king of New York." He was famous for never sugarcoating, neither his lyrics nor in interviews. "He was curious, sometimes suspicious, a voracious reader, and a sonic explorer," Smith wrote.

In three productions at BAM—Songs for 'Drella, Time Rocker, and POEtry—Reed expanded on his core body of rock music, from the Velvet Underground through solo projects, that had gained him a huge following. Songs for 'Drella (1989) reunited Reed with fellow VU co-founder John Cale, and was a paean to Andy Warhol, who had died two years earlier. Even in such a short span, Reed's frank perspective found its way into his fond, sometimes sardonic lyrics in tribute to the wigged artist. It was a powerful, intimate song-cycle performed movingly by Cale and Reed—part-time conspirators, but mostly wry observers, of Warhol's Factory.

Time Rocker (1997) and POEtry (2001) were grand-scale theatrical collaborations at BAM with director Robert Wilson, inspired by literature—respectively, by HG Wells' Time Machine and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Like many providential joint projects, at the outset the pairing seemed unlikely—Reed's growling, metal riffs versus Wilson's dream-like visions, by turns slapstick or static—but their styles complemented one another, ramping up and down in volume or dynamic to achieve moments of bliss. Reed included some heavy duty rock anthems, including Time Rocker's "Future Farmers of America," but showed his tender side in beautifully haunting songs such as "Talking Book" and "Turning Time Around." His humor emerged in "The Balloon," sung by Klaus Schreiber in POEtry:

His uncompromising side emerged in tech rehearsals. Carl Wurzbach, longtime sound engineer in the Opera House who worked on all of Reed's BAM productions, recounts that during POEtry, Wilson would spend the days working on his famously sublime lighting, and Reed would take the evenings to hone the sound, which was complicated by the fact that the mixing console being used was the visiting Thalia Theater's, and ran on 220 volts, which caused a hum. Wurzbach recounts the process:
We finally reached the land of hum-free the day before the dress rehearsal. We were so happy and proud of ourselves to have beaten the dragon. Now we could focus on getting the band and the mix just right.

The evening of that last rehearsal Lou asked for the show to be louder. We pushed the faders up. Lou listened, and then asked for still more level. We pushed the faders up again. To our blossoming horror, Lou asked for still more again. We all looked at one another in disbelief... We pushed the fader yet again. Lou seemed pleased with this level, but he was a singular majority.

We played the dress rehearsal at those settings only to have Lou come by the console to ask if we could 'go to 11.' I don't know if ask is quite the accurate word.
Lou Reed, standing, 5th from left, at the 25th Next Wave Festival celebration in 1998. Others include Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, Pina Bausch, and, at far right, BAM's Harvey Lichtenstein (seated) and Joseph V. Melillo (standing). 
Photo by Joanne Savio, courtesy BAM Hamm Archives.
He performed a short set at a 1999 farewell gala for BAM's outgoing president and executive producer, Harvey Lichtenstein, including the song "Small Town" from 'Drella. The photo above was taken at a gathering marking the Next Wave's 25th Anniversary, which included BAM artists Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, John Kelly, and Mark Morris.

In 2008, Reed married Laurie Anderson, another longtime BAM artist. Patti Smith notes of Laurie, "She was his mirror; in her eyes you can see his kindness, sincerity, and empathy." In a moving piece in this week's Rolling Stone, Anderson says, "When you marry your best friend of many years, there should be another name for it." They were seen constantly around the city and at BAM—a sort of royal couple of the avant-garde—often in the audience, taking in the work of other artists.

Reed was an avid photographer, coming off of a recent European trip. He came up with an app called Lou Zoom that made using contacts on phone simpler, and easier for weakening eyes. Even though he was a private person, he shared his musical finds on Sirius (playlists here). Laurie Anderson says that when he passed away, his hands were still moving through a tai chi passage, a form to which he was devoted, and which no doubt helped keep him fighting trim. He never stopped innovating and discovering, leaving us his diamond-like lyrics with which to remember him by.
My time is your time when you're in love
and time is what you never have enough of
You can't see or hold it, it's exactly like love.

(From "Turning Time Around," Time Rocker)

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