SXSW: Lou Reed Was the First One
photo by Nate Dorr
Lou Reed Tribute
Thursday, March 13
Hello from the gutters of Austin, which are filled with promo flyers, vomit, stale beer, and pizza crusts. Hello from the sewers of Austin, which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the very young. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of Austin, and from the transplanted scenesters that dwell in these cracks, and feed on the dried hype of the dead that have settled into these cracks.
This is after four hours in the heat, drinking free imported beer and whiskey. After listening to Yo La Tengo, Mark Kozelek, Thurston Moore, and a smattering of other bands play Lou Reed songs in a tribute to Lou Reed 2-song-a-piece show. After knowing there were a million other bands to see in Austin as the day shows turn into night, the crowd stays. He was in town. “He has to show up, right?” we all thought collectively. Hundreds of us skewing slightly older, maybe a thousand. Seven bald spots in the pit. One ponytail offset by a white Axl bandana. A camerman wearing a John Deere trucker. White sunglasses. Retro T-shirts and other relics of "alternative" yesteryears. If it were 30 degrees colder, flannel would have been broken out.
All that converging under one tent to see a tribute and--maybe, hopefully--one song from the original. The guy we all point to when asked who was the first. Who showed us how to play without knowing how to play. Who taught us all about Lexington and 125. All sitting through songs that should never be played acoustically (“Venus in Furs”), songs that can be played acoustically if the singer is willing to have a pulse (“Heroin”), and songs that just don’t sound right when they are not sung by a meek-voiced woman (“If You Close the Door.”)
After Thurston Moore’s unimpressive romp, Moby comes on for one song with one of his buxom blondes singing, and you spied Lou offstage. More shriveled than ever. Watching the buxom blonde do a mediocre impression of Nico.
The observation that Lou looks like the walking dead is not unfair. He should have been dead a million times over. He was gaunt in 1976. And to look at him now, compared to a picture of him tooling in Berlin they're silkscreening on T-shirts inside the Fader/Levi's maze, you would think the son-of-a-bitch aged pretty damn well. Mostly cause the lines and creases had nowhere to go.
Lou was afforded the opportunity to kill his legacy a million times over, something so many of his late '60s, early '70s compatriots were not privy to. Metal Machine Music in hindsight is one of the classic middle fingers in music history, but there is also Sally Can’t Dance.
But there is Lou. The survivor. He came back swinging in the early '90s, and along with Neil Young, can show the scars of living through disco phases. And as we trot him out to induct Leonard Cohen into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or suffer through this opera or that, we show the respect. The reverence. The original sewer dweller. The man who consistently showed you could be both full of shit and genuine at the same time.
As the blonde closes up “Femme Fatale,” Lou shuffles onto the stage. And the cross-generation scensters love it. A roadie puts the guitar over Lou’s head, Lou accepting it slowly and deliberately. You can hear the crowd say to ourselves. “Man, he looks old. And weak.”
He starts the chords. Two of them. Slowly. After four hours of free beer, it could go either way. “Heroin” or “Walk on the Wild Side.” But the three women on stage give up the jig.
“Holly came from Miami, F.L.A…”
He trades verses with Moby. The three women are not “colored,” as the story goes, but the crowd has its fill of authenticity to worry about it and we all sing along. More often than not, Lou’s songs live are never better than the originals. It’s hard to capture the sparseness and desperation of “Heroin” amidst hundreds of drunks. They are acceptable imitations--until he gets to the end. When he goes batshit. Like on that live versions of “Coney Island Baby” or “Berlin” when he stretches out the two chords, turns up his fuzz, and the walking dead starts to live.
He does that here.
He bangs out his chords, at one point going face to face with Moby, trading a stare from his big round glasses into Melville Jr.'s chunky black frames. They bang for a few measures. Moby leans over and pecks Lou on the check as the chords still pound. Lou gives him a genuine smile. The other Lou Reed you know. The never-meet-your-idols Lou Reed, comes out in the middle. As he tries to teach the drummer mid-song which beats to emphasize. But you let it slide. Cause it’s Lou. And he’s only doing one song, so fuck it, make it perfect.
And it is. But it can’t last all night. Lou looks to the drummer again, gives the kill sign. And in two thumps—Dant!......DANT!—it’s over.
Lou goes to the center of the stage, and raises his arms above his head. Self-satisfied. Then he walks over to the microphone.
“I. Love. Punk. Rock.”
We the crowd. In Austin. Skewed slightly older. Retro T-shirts and bald spots and ironic t-shirts and white sunglasses, smile in unison.
“And I was the first one.”