I have at least three books on my bookshelf about "Jews in Rock." None of those books are great, but each seems to have an agenda to prove: that you can be cool, young, and Jewish, and that some Jews have been at the epicenter of everything fundamentally cool in the second half of the 20th Century. From my perspective, there's something a little desperate about that; after all, what's more uncool than trying to show how cool you are?
Lou Reed, who died last week, never had to establish his credentials in that department; he was often the coolest guy in the room. He started his writing career as the disciple of the legendary Delmore Schwartz ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," one of the greatest short stories in American literature) at Syracuse University, and went on to form the Velvet Underground under the tutelage of Andy Warhol. Suffice to say that the VU influenced just about every underground and punk rock band of the past forty years, even while they never particularly sold all that many records (and what could be cooler than that?).
In the 70s and 80s, Lou Reed was one of those cultural figures who seem important even though they are never overwhelmingly popular. Like many of my favorites, he had an ornery streak and thrived on confrontation with his fans; like Dylan, when you thought you could pigeonhole him as one thing, he bucked and came back as something different. With the album Transformer—the closest thing he ever had to a hit—he brought gay consciousness into the mainstream when it was still a cultural stigma. I mean, in 1972 "Walk on the Wild Side," was a top 40 hit, with the lyric "shaved her legs and then he was a she." How in the world did that happen? When I was a teenager, those sorts of gestures meant something: they implied that the world out there was a whole lot funkier than a stifling public high school in the suburbs would indicate. (And I wasn't even gay. For some, those gestures were positively liberating.)
But this is a Jewish blog, and author Steven Lee Beeber called Lou "the zeyde of punk." So is Lou Reed a Jewish rock star or a rock star who happened to be Jewish?
Certainly there is a Jewish trope in his biographical arc: growing up in the middle class suburbs of Long Island; heading off to Syracuse where he discovered new intellectual horizons; making a home in the avant garde scene of downtown New York and shedding the suburbs as much as he could; continuing to run away from his roots by embracing every outrageous image he could throughout the seventies. Then cleaning up, getting sober, and starting to revisit some Jewish themes in his writing. In "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim," from 1989's album New York, he called out Waldheim, Arafat, and Farrakhan for their anti-Semitism and maintained the rest of media were hypocrites when it came to anti-Jewish bigotry: "If I ran for president," he wrote in verse to Jesse Jackson, "and once was a member of the Klan/ wouldn't you call me on it / the way I call you on Farrakhan?"
He appeared in Israel on a handful of occasions, which also is a valuable gesture. In a world where pop figures occasionally buckle to racist boycott and divestment groups, Lou had no problem playing in Israel, which makes him in my book a figure of much greater integrity and honor than the likes of Elvis Costello or Roger Waters.
He certainly didn't show the biblical or Jewish literacy of, say, Dylan. But there is an outrageous scene in Beeber's book of Lou Reed reciting the Four Questions at a hipster "Downtown Seder" and in a heartfelt, not ironic, way.
For me, his most moving album was the follow-up to New York called Magic and Loss. It's a full-length meditation on the death of two friends (legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and Warhol Factory diva Rotten Rita). It follows the mourner through the stages of denial, melancholy, rage against the cosmos, and ultimately, a completely unsentimental sort of transcendence. In my 5th year of rabbinical school, I presented in class the climax song "Magic and Loss," as a valuable text for grappling with death and mourning. Here's part of that song; it is one exquisite hesped.
They say no one person can do it all But you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare
and you can't be Joyce
So what is left instead
You're stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment this wonderful fire
Started up again ....
When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
That let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
And there's a door up ahead not a wall
As you pass through fire as you pass through fire
Try to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
You cannot remain the same
And if the building's burning move towards that door
But don't put the flames out
There's a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out
'Bye Lou, and thanks for those words. Hope you're slugging it out with Lester Bangs in the olam ha-ba even as we speak.