The last time City Winery founder and CEO Michael Dorf had Lou Reed on stage was 7 months prior to his passing. It was the Winery’s annual Downtown Sedar, where Lou chose to read from Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” In a YouTube video of the event, he isn’t sounding fairly well–a fragility disparate from his usually distinct musky and sonorous spunk heard on every record and slam-book worthy interview. But once he’s gotten deep into the lyrics, it’s still the same ole’ Lou throwing in snarky commentary in between reading poetic lines that could have easily been off his own records, if he were more religious in the biblical sense:
Open your eyes and look within:
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
We know where we’re going;
We know where we’re from
We’re leaving Babylon
We’re going to our Father’s land
On a Wednesday night in July, 6 years forward, some of the ones who remember the way Manhattan once stood, stood for the final time at the Winery’s 10-year-old location off of Varick Street for a birthday celebration before its closing in August and relocation to Pier 57 in 2020.
Michael Dorf knows who he wants drinking his wine. Those are the people who keepsake old New York in their retrospective lockets for its blatant cultural impact and who also attend these sold-out commemorations. They are the avenue climbers who have never given up on Manhattan, even if they’re now taking an SUV or the Metro-North to see Patti Smith, Suzanne Vega and David Johansen perform their take of Lou Reed’s 5 decades in music.
Lenny Kaye, proto-rock n’ roll musician and curator (check out the Nuggets compilation, if you haven’t already) and fellow musician/bandmate Tony Shanahan were the house band featuring Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken and former David Bowie guitarist Gerry Leonard. Their interludes included a bubblegum sweet cover of “I Found A Reason,” sung by Shanahan, “Berlin,” and opening with “Sweet Jane” like a brawling old-school band that felt homely amid their professionalism.
Patti was the first guest of the night. She reacted modestly to Kaye announcing her as the “Wild Mustang of Rock n’ Roll” towards the sea of tables–all in agreement– followed by a reworked version of her eulogy written for Lou in The New Yorker–its solemn narrative painting the mournful portrait most in the room had felt on the day he died.
“He had black eyes, black T-shirt, pale skin. He was curious, sometimes suspicious, a voracious reader, and a sonic explorer. An obscure guitar pedal was for him another kind of poem.”
Smith’s performance is a rumbling trance; she spats on stage mid-performance in total disregard for the present, for she is now transported to a midtown studio in 1966 recording The Velvet Underground and Nico. She’s in the Max’s Kansas City admired with Robert Mapplethorpe in their days prior to acclaim, her hair now long and glowing in contrast–an almost purple via the stage lights and a definite snow white by time.
“Before I slept, I searched for the significance of the date—October 27th—and found it to be the birthday of both Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath. Lou had chosen the perfect day to set sail—the day of poets, on Sunday morning, the world behind him.”
She sang “Perfect Day,” then bursting into a version of “Heroin,” imitating Lou’s rumbling pummel into madness and choral abrasiveness while crumbling up her paper of notes and throwing it into oblivion. Smith has a knack for taking visions from the past and immaculately presenting them, sounding like a spot-on duplicate of her 1976 gig’s cover of “Pale Blue Eyes” and then segueing into The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” that she dedicated to Jim Carroll. She is a resilient preacher of the greats and a teacher of greatness herself. She has a sharp focus beyond her black-rimmed reading glasses for respected art. At heart, she is still the coy young woman who moved to New York with a vivid dream.
“I was singing a South Jersey version [of “Heroin”],” she remarks. But the crowd exclaims, for Jersey prevails as the musty twin brother across the road bringing a bandwagon of musical mayhem and history at the right time.
The rest of the night was like a rotating carousel cast of pleasantly suiting surprise guests, who all took Lou’s songs and made them their own. Craig Finn of The Hold Steady was a Midwestern fanboy who entered the music world after watching The Band’s The Last Waltz all while pinning a Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal poster onto his childhood bedroom wall, and long before his band formed in Brooklyn in 2003. Reed’s vocals are in the core of his throat; Finn can sing late solo stuff easily, a horn orchestra voice that emulated “Romeo Had Juliet” and “Viscous” while Marshall Crenshaw’s Roy Orbison-like power-pop grasped onto Lou’s High School band The Jades’ “Leave Her For Me” and his debut solo’s “Wild Child,” leaving Glen Mercer of The Feelies to roll in and shred against the monitor in an alarm clock rumble on “I Can’t Stand It.”
Former New York Doll’s singer David Johansen dressing down means entering the scene with a pair of purple leather pants and a pink shirt of a Hindu goddess on; his performance meant a soulfully sung “Oh! Sweet Nuthin,” the closing track off the final Lou Velvet Underground record Loaded. He grabs the exclamation point from the song title and transfers it through his microphone. “Do you believe in love?!?” he shouts. Lou did, apparently, in his “Rock Around The Clock”-esque, possibly sarcastic tune, turned new wave song, “I Believe In Love.” Mara Hennessey sings backing vocals, and the energy of the ensemble takes a blues rock shift.
“It’s a strange and moving evening.” expressed Suzanne Vega, the final act, softening the thunder that Johansen started. She tells us of how Lou at Columbia University was her first concert back in 1979. “I don’t count Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden,” she jokes, and from then on she had watched every live show of his in the city till 1984. They then became friends through her own successes. The vocalizing “doo doo doo’s” in her version of “Walk On The Wild Side” reflects her hit song “Tom’s Diner” another New York-centric tune. “Femme Fatale” was made for her, but in this rendition, she is more the minimalism of Laurie Anderson than the sterness of Nico.
Remembering Lou Reed reminded everything that Lou was loved, Lou was most certainly respected, and disparately interpreted by many as he constantly reinvented himself. Reed understood and held sacred the hanging skin of self-inflicted New York labors that city-dwellers have always endured, of equivocal and crooning emotion, tongue and cheek cheekiness that usually deserved a punch-up, of door-opening experimentation, and unorthodox songwriting commercialized through shoe-wear and scooters–then somehow thrown into your local radio’s mix-match of “oldies.” A Long Island doo-wop-boy, downtown It-Boy, future tai-chi master-man, journalist disdain-er, and wave-making gender bender that was certainly not the poster boy–but he surely thought himself to be.
Behind his caricature shades, past his electric shock brain of innovation, past Warholian habit, and antics, Reed was always crooning a soft anecdote into listeners minds–his lyrics of character name, mentioning filler street, and genuinely a sonic heart filler of sleek one-liners with underlying tenderness. That is why we convene to commemorate musicians like him who helped establish these pillars. In that musical community of ubiquity, everyone jumping out from their seats to dance together to the super-group of the night’s performers closing it out with the Velvet’s “Rock And Roll,” we are all the same age.
“‘Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.”