PRINT May 1998


Lou Reed

WISELY, LOU REED: ROCK AND ROLL HEART, a documentary airing on PBS, turns the spotlight away from Reed’s influence (“hegemony” might not be too hyperbolic) on rock ‘n’ roll after punk. Instead, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, better known for his photo portraits of art-world luminaries, troops out some oddball testimonials (Sonic Youth, sure, but Suzanne Vega? Who “wanted to be Lou Reed”?) and says “ecce homo.” But what a man: Reed is the hardest-core New Yorker in the rock pantheon, and New Yorkers make good copy. “As soon as we crossed the Hudson,” Reed relates of a 1968 trip to San Francisco, “it was very bad.” He fell in with the art crowd at the Factory in 1965, when the Velvet Underground began appearing in Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. (Not much of an art world in your real rock ‘n’ roll towns, your Memphis, your Seattle.) There Reed met other misfits: Holly Woodlawn, Joe Dallesandro. In the film’s sweetest moment, Holly and Joe, now middle-aged and Jerseyish, mumble along to “Walk on the Wild Side,” exulting in their fifteen minutes (“Little Joe never once gave it away/ Everbody had to pay and pay”). “I’d hear [that song] in restaurants, in bus stations,” comments David Byrne. “And I’d wonder, Do any of these people have any idea what’s being talked about?” If Reed's career-long relish of decadence smacks of the suburban kid mythologizing the big city, he is unfailingly true to the pain and cruelty of that milieu. Rock and Roll Heart treads lightly over Reed’s slide into bombast, but to be fair, writing opera with Robert Wilson is a lot cooler than what some of his peers have managed. And God bless him, he still has that hair like your brother-in-law from the Island.