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FILE - Rolling Stone Reports Death of Rock Musician Lou Reed, at 71

So it’s just about three days since Lou Reed died and I admit I’m kind of holding my breath, waiting to see if he rises from the tomb on the morning of the third day. It’s hard to imagine him as anything other than transformed into a more perfect state.

A lot’s been said online and in print in the last couple days by a lot of people, many of whom knew Lou Reed the person or the vast corpus of Lou Reed’s work better than I do. I especially appreciated remembrances by Robert Christgau and Dave Hickey at Spin; our friend Caryn Rose, who came as close as anyone has to tapping into the vein of my own personal connection to Reed’s work; Sacha Frere-Jones. I laughed at Handsome Dick Manitoba’s account of Lou’s last public appearance and then was happy to find footage of the same event. (As a friend pointed out to me, it’s kind of great that pretty much the last lines Lou uttered to an audience through a mic were “Hey!! Shut! Up!”) I was really pleased to find a 1976 Voice essay by James Wolcott, one of my favorite on-the-scene writers from the period. I returned to Rob Sheffield’s appreciation of The Blue Mask, one of my favorite Reed records, on its 30th anniversary. I grieved in community with radio audiences via WFMU (10/27/13 show) and East Village Radio. I thought about the first time I listened to “Rock n Roll” and resonated with that heady mix of New York, rhythm guitar, and radio that really did feel like salvation to a perpetual outsider.

I was really moved when, in the middle of the night after Reed died, a recent student of mine — someone who’d been in my Andy Warhol seminar last semester — sent me a condolence email. I don’t have any stories about accidentally running into Reed on the street or meeting him at somebody’s party, but the music sits with me about as deep as anyone’s. Aside from my own private listening, which spans more than two decades at this point, my intimacy with Reed’s work really deepened in the classroom over the last dozen years. In 2002, the first honors thesis I advised at NYU, by Nicholas Taylor, was on Warhol and the Velvets (find a trimmed-down version of it here), even though my field of specialization was still, at that point, the eighteenth century. Cyrus and I taught The Velvet Underground and Nico for a decade in our Writing New York class, and I got to cover things with thicker strokes in the Downtown Scenes class that spun out of that WNY unit. I’ve read dozens of student papers analyzing Reed’s lyrics, screened documentary footage, and assigned accounts the Velvets’ history, from the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Warhol’s a: a novel and Popism to gossipy biographical accounts by Legs McNeil and Bockris and Malanga to the astute criticism of Ellen Willis and the temper tantrums of Lester Bangs. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the many faces and phases — and hairstyles — Reed went through and had occasion to consider his vast influence. Imagine! Without Reed (well, and Warhol, too) we wouldn’t have had David Bowie’s entire 70s corpus. It just wouldn’t have happened the same way. And sure, Reed owed an awful lot to Dylan, and to Jackie Curtis too, for that matter, but that influence folded back upon itself, the same way the Stones later said they were influenced by the Velvets. Once I was even moved to write a monologue in the voice of Rachel, Lou’s longtime lover, a former Club 82 drag queen whose story I became fascinated with while working on my Television book.

One of the big challenges to teaching The Velvet Underground and Nico is getting students to hear what’s radical about it. After all, most of what we call punk, post-punk, college rock, alternative, or indie is so indebted to the Velvets — and so many of those sounds have been so thoroughly disseminated throughout global pop culture by this point — that it’s sometimes hard to peel back those layers of influence and listen to the record fresh. To illustrate my point that the Velvets weren’t mainstream — and still aren’t by many standards — I used to tell a story in lecture about the days when I would write in a bar at the South Street Seaport, just before the Fulton Fish Market closed. The fish guys would come in on Friday mornings when their shifts ended for the week and start ordering beers around 8 am. They’d rhapsodize about the olden days, when their pops worked the market, and they’d request an awful lot of Sinatra from the bartender, who usually indulged. One morning she was playing the Velvets’ first record instead, and part way through “Black Angel’s Death Song” one of them finally had had enough. “What is this shit?” he shouted. The bartender replied, maybe a little defensively: “It’s the Velvet Underground. You don’t know them? This is classic rock!” To which the fish guy replied: “The Velvet Underground isn’t classic rock! It’s East Village junkie music! And it should stay in the East Village!”

I’ve been slightly horrified by the onslaught of Lou Reed listicles over the last couple days, as if any one list could identify his twenty best songs or snippets from his lyrics. The thing I’ve noticed, though, is that aside from obligatory inclusion of “Satellite of Love,” “Walk On the Wild Side,” “Coney Island Baby,” and “Street Hassle,” any consensus in these lists breaks down. It’s clear which writers haven’t listened to anything later than New York (1989) and which know the Velvets much better than even the 70s solo records. There’s hardly any mention of the “New York Trilogy” — New York, Songs for Drella (1990), and Magic and Loss (1992) — as such. (I have to admit my own knowledge of Reed’s music tapers off after Drella, and one of the pleasures of the last few days has been listening to some of the later records: Magic and Loss, especially, but also Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) and Ecstasy (2000), which is the record Christgau says he’d been playing since he heard Lou was ailing late last week.) What’s clear about all this is that we’re dealing with one of the most prolific artists of the last 50 years, someone whose output, musically and lyrically, competes with the likes of Irving Berlin or even Dylan. We simply won’t have a handle on it or its impact for a long, long time. So many of these songs are songs that could be — and should be — kept a live for a long, long time, not just in Reed’s recordings, but in other people’s voices as well.

What follows isn’t a listicle, I promise. It’s just a collection of clips I’ve enjoyed the most over the last couple days, in roughly chronological order. Some I’d seen before, many times. Some were new to me. Do you have favorites that aren’t here? Lemme know in the comments.

Lou Reed, “Your Love,” 1962 demo recorded while he was a Syracuse student.

Warhol’s 1966 film, The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound.

The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On?” Live, 1969, set to a montage of Warhol footage.

lou reed paris 72

Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico in Paris, 1972. Reed sings “Berlin” a few minutes in. (Embedding disabled on YouTube) ht Tim Wager

“Sweet Jane,” live in Paris, 1974.

“Street Hassle,” 1978, set to Warhol film, including Lou’s Screen Test.

“Coney Island Baby” and “White Light/White Heat,” with Robert Quine, in New Jersey, 1984.

The tail end of the video for “I Love You Suzanne,” also 1984, in which Mr. Reed really cuts the rug. ht Michael Daddino and Caryn Rose.

Patti Smith inducts the Velvets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996.

Lou Reed and John Cale, performing “Small Town,” from Songs for Drella.

“Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” from Magic and Loss, 1992. ht Jody Rosen

“Sweet Jane,” from the closing credits of Berlin, dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007.

 

One of the great delights of the decade Cyrus and I spent teaching our Writing New York class was the repeated opportunity to screen clips from Ric Burns’s monumental New York: A Documentary Film. Without a doubt, the highlight of that film is — for me, at least — the series of appearances by the philosopher and social critic Marshall Berman. The interview was clearly done in one long sitting, and over the course of it Berman begins to tire, to slouch a little, to nod his grizzled head to one side, almost coming to rest on his shoulder. And then, in a flash, he’ll animate, lean forward, offer a stinging indictment of Robert Moses or wax poetic about the fact that New York offers the possibility of living car-free. In the clip above he concludes his commentary on the lasting devastation of Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway with a lecturette on the birth of subway graffiti and hip hop among ruins in the South Bronx. “We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined,” Berman says, offering the story as a parable of the ways in which urban life can foster thrillingly creative moments even among the destructive forces of modernity.

New York lost one of its intellectual giants yesterday, when Berman passed away, and this morning I’m treasuring all the more the chances we had not simply to learn from him and to let him teach our students, but also to collaborate with him over the last few years, to count him a partner in our projects on the city’s literary and cultural history. From the first, when we taught Ginsberg’s Howl in our course, we structured the lectures using Burns’s treatment of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and the urban renewal movement at mid-century. Burns relies in those segments on the story Berman tells in the final chapters of his classic text All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). After a few years of listening to Berman sum up this historical episode in Burns’s film, we began assigning the chapters from Solid along with Ginsberg’s poem. Berman’s triangulation of Moses-Jacobs-Ginsberg isn’t the only way to read Howl, of course, but it became a very compelling reading for us and, I think, for our students.

Imagine my delight one day in 2007, then, when I found myself in line at Tekserve, in Chelsea, behind Berman, who was there with his son in an attempt to diagnose a damaged laptop. (I’m pretty sure the kid said he’d whacked it for running too slowly.) I wanted to introduce myself, but instead became a fly on the wall as I observed one of my heroes engaged in parenting. I blogged about it later, not imagining I’d ever get to know him personally. Berman was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Marx brothers above the text: “Why yes, I am a Marxist,” or something like that. He and his son were engaged in a conversation about ecology:

“I don’t get it,” the kid said. He seemed genuinely thoughtful, a bit abashed for his violence toward the pokey laptop, and not at all aware that his pop was one of the smartest people on earth. “There’s a lot of open space on the planet that doesn’t get used at all,” the kid said. “Why don’t people just spread out?” Berman gave a thumbnail overview of the forces behind early urbanization and explained that it was a good thing some land was yet unused. “Imagine a society where global warming has made living in some cities impossible,” he said. “People may have to return to farming.” Besides, he explained, not all of the empty space was amenable to habitation or agriculture. Deserts, for instance would have to be irrigated, “and irrigation is expensive,” he said. “Fantastically expensive. Spec-TAC-ularly expensive.” The conversation turned to the history of L.A. right about the time my number was called.

When I finally met him a couple years later, I had trouble toning down my fan-boy excitement. It turns out his son and my daughter ended up attending the same high school on the Upper West Side. I realized this at a parent meeting for a Paris study abroad trip during my daughter’s freshman year. Catching sight of Berman across the crowded high school library, I passed my daughter a note, asking if any of her classmates had the last name Berman. “Yeah, Danny,” she wrote back. I passed another note: “His dad is one of my great intellectual heroes!” She’s never let me live that down. A few weeks later at the airport, putting our kids on a plane to France, I finally had a chance to introduce myself. He invited us to ride back into the city with him and his wife (“Cab? No, we’re subway people”) and we talked with him about his own first trip to Paris, by steamer, when he was 20. It changed his life, he said.

Berman was delighted that we taught his material and never failed to offer suggestions for things we should include in our histories of New York lit. “You need a chapter on mothers and playgrounds,” he said once. “It’s one of the most overlooked scenes of cultural life in the city. Read Grace Paley.” When we hosted our Lost New York conference in 2009, he agreed to keynote it in conversation with David Freeland. We’d originally invited David Byrne as well, and though he couldn’t make it, his publicist wondered if Marshall would appear with Byrne at a Barnes and Noble reading instead. “Not if it means just showing up as a fan,” Marshall said. “Has he read my books?” During the planning of that conference I realized that Berman preferred phone to email, but I still loved the way he signed his emails with an exuberant “Shalom!” When I last saw him, at a conference on Modernist Manhattan in early 2012, he buzzed with excitement when he talked about the underground circulation in Iran of an unauthorized Farsi translation of All That Is Solid. (He also wrote about this in a new 2010 Afterword to the book.)

What I appreciate most about Berman’s thinking is his ability to remain optimistic about modernity even as he theorizes its devastating effects. Skyscrapers might remove community from the street, I heard him say once, but people love to live in skyscrapers for the views. Mass culture, for Berman, wasn’t something to bemoan, but to celebrate, not only for its “global reach,” but for its potential to convey “emotional depth and power.” (That quote from his stunning reading of the Kol Nidre sequence in The Jazz Singer.) In support of this optimism, Post-War New York again serves him as a parable. The transformations under Robert Moses in the 1950s and 1960s, he writes, created a new New York not necessarily hospitable to writers and artists. Some retreated to the universities. Some left the city. Some holed up in new countercultural enclaves downtown: SoHo and the East Village, which would begin to foster new art scenes during the years in which Berman wrote Solid. He refers to the split between the city and its artists as a “split between the modern spirit and a modernized environment.” For him, the opportunity to be modern always mitigated the darker forces modernity carried in its train. That’s not the only lesson I hope I’ve learned from him over the years, but it’s an important one. Again from All That Is Solid:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.

… To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Indeed. Our thoughts are with your family, Marshall. Thanks for sharing part of your journey with us.

 

Joe Brainard at work. My office is perilously close to looking like this right now.

p.s. You know about this, right?

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Frank O’Hara at frankohara.org & at poetryfoundation.org.

Frank O’Hara

By Ted Berrigan

Winter in the country, Southampton, pale horse
as the soot rises, then settles, over the pictures
The birds that were singing this morning have shut up
I thought I saw a couple kissing, but Larry said no
It’s a strange bird. He should know. & I think now
“Grandmother divided by monkey equals outer space.” Ron
put me in that picture. In another picture, a good-
looking poet is thinking it over, nevertheless, he will
never speak of that it. But, his face is open, his eyes
are clear, and, leaning lightly on an elbow, fist below
his ear, he will never be less than perfectly frank,
listening, completely interested in whatever there may
be to hear. Attentive to me alone here. Between friends,
nothing would seem stranger to me than true intimacy.
What seems genuine, truly real, is thinking of you, how
that makes me feel. You are dead. And you’ll never
write again about the country, that’s true.
But the people in the sky really love
to have dinner & to take a walk with you.

Ted Berrigan, “Frank O’Hara” from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Copyright © 2005 by University of California Press. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press. [via]

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Fab 5 Freddy posted this to Twitter. Filmed in NYC in the early 70s:

Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011, died just a year after releasing the stunning record I’m New Here, his first album in 16 years. Here’s an riveting profile by Alec Wilkinson published by The New Yorker last fall. From I’m New Here, the track “New York Is Killing Me”:

Bryan Wagner posted this one to Twitter:

And of course, the piece for which he has been best known for forty years:

Rest in peace, revolutionary.

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Dylan at 24, on Ginsberg’s typewriter.

Happy birthday to a great American poet. I wish I time for more than just providing a few links, but there will be no shortage of Dylan commentary today.

Here are a few Dylan-related things we’ve done over the last few years: A post noting the death of William Zantzinger; a pointer toward my thoughts on Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. I thought I had posted about the New York Times discussion in December 1965 of whether Dylan was America’s Public writer no. 1? [subs req], but I guess I never managed to.

Some stuff on the Web and around town in honor of this auspicious occasion: Rolling Stone has a bundle of goodies, including Rob Sheffield’s list of overlooked classics; HuffPo readers are compiling their favorite tunes as a digital birthday card; Radio Free Europe is playing Dylan in multiple languages; WBAI will air 23 hours of Dylan material, including rare recordings; Film Forum is screening two classic films this week.

Plenty more to be had out there. Do you have links to suggest? The song that’s stuck in my mind for this occasion is, perhaps, a little perverse, considering it comes from Born Again Bob. But it’s a gospel gem from an underappreciated album. Since Dylan’s literally not there when you look for his music on YouTube, I’ll use Christian Bale lip-synching to John Doe’s rendition:

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This afternoon my Downtown Scenes class was fortunate enough to take a walking tour of the East Village (or a portion of the Lower East Side, as he would have it) with Cary Abrams, a long-time teacher, friend of PWHNY, and affiliate of the Lower East Side History Project.

At the outset Cary shared a quote from Alfred Leslie, who moved to the Lower East Side following WWII and took up a career as an artist. Tomorrow we’ll watch the famous film he made with the photographer Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy (1959), and think about it alongside the poetry of the Beat icons who feature as actors in the film. For today, Cary wanted us to think about people who walked these same streets in past eras. To that end he quoted Leslie:

There’s an essay at the end of Thoreau’s Walden on the pleasure of walking. I can’t recall it exactly, but it went something like this: “I wish to speak a word for walking and for wildness, for taking little walks along unmapped paths, like the saunterers of old….” After the war, the wild was no longer nature, it was the city. You had the feeling that you were starting out on a journey that had no end in sight, and from which you’d never return. There was an element of danger in it, and of psychic and primitive power…… Everything was accessible, if you went after it…. And it was particularly so on the Lower East Side which was like an abandoned part of the city.

We’re not sure where the quote comes from. (Does anyone out there recognize it?) I tried finding it on Google Books to no avail. Cary says he took it from the placards attached to the fence on the Second Avenue side of St. Mark’s Church, which we passed today on our walking tour. Wherever it comes from, it’s a terrific quote, encapsulating the thrill of walking in the city in a particular moment of time whose echoes are barely audible to us.

Photo of Alfred Leslie, 1960, by John Cohen, from Artnet.com.

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Speed Levitch at Bethesda Fountain, Central Park. Sunday, 8 May 2011.

One of my favorite people, one of my favorite places. Can’t think of much else I’d rather have done on a sunny spring afternoon in New York.

Previously on PWHNY. And elsewhere.

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As we wrap up our discussion of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in today’s Writing New York lecture, we’ll be talking in part about what Kushner gets out of incorporating historical figures such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg into his play. Readers who want to get a handle on what Cohn meant in 1988, right about the time Kushner’s play begins to gestate, might check out Cohn’s Life magazine obit. In terms of New York City cultural history, the play situates Cohn most closely within the story of the Rosenberg executions; another place to turn is Cohn’s close association, in the 70s, with the owners of Studio 54 (pictured above). Certainly an individual full of contradictions.

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A guide to posts we’ve written in past years about Ginsberg’s Howl and the history of hipsters in New York:

In last year’s roundup post, I offered additional thoughts on some contexts I’d brought up in lecture but hadn’t explored fully: Diana Trilling’s famous reflections on her attendance at a 1959 Beat poetry reading at Columbia University, boycotted by several faculty members, including her husband, Lionel — in spite of the fact that he had been Ginsberg’s teacher. Last year’s post also includes some discussion of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (also 1959), in which he defines the hipster as born from the confrontation of young white intellectuals in the Village (many of whom were raised Jewish) with black American culture. Both pieces are worth thinking about for their discussions of race and their competing desires for assimilates “whiteness” and for the freedom to cross racial lines. I suggested in that post that Mailer’s essay may be considered a forerunner of Patti Smith’s use of cross-racial fantasy in “Rock & Roll Nigger,” but it should also be seen as a forerunner of this famous photo of Smith’s contemporary, Lester Bangs.

Since then we’ve considered a variety of other Howl-related material, from Eric Drooker’s illustrated edition of the poem (drawn from his animation sequences for the recent film) to my initial take on the film itself. I also posted some thoughts about Ginsberg in relation to the intensive seminar I taught last summer, “The Downtown Scene, 1960-1980.” As part of that course we watched the early Beat film “Pull My Daisy,” and my post about it elicited comments from one of its actors, the musician David Amram. (I’m teaching that course again this May if anyone’s up for it.)

Part of our consideration of Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters” (and Mailer’s “White Negro”) has included lighthearted looks at hipster history here at PWHNY. My favorite has always been our consideration of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog’s role in this cultural formation. We’ve also noted a contemporary graffiti writer called “White Negro” take to the streets. We wish we had been able to attend this panel, which is now published as this book, which we wish we’d had the time yet to read. We’ve pondered whether contemporary Williambsburg attire is indebted to Mose and the Bowery B’hoys, but I’ve also wondered whether or not Sesame Street might have had something to do with it:

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