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Remembering Lou Reed: Tributes From Friends and Followers

Mick Jagger, David Byrne, Debbie Harry and more honor a rock icon

musician, Lou Reed, artist, Julian Schnabel, 'Berlin'

Musician Lou Reed (L) and artist Julian Schnabel after the screening of their film 'Berlin' on September 27th, 2007.


He had style – that attitudinal New York hipster style. He was quite rude in interviews, but in person he was actually quite friendly – just not over-effusive. He wasn't a schmoozer, which was good. Everyone talks about punk, but to me he was the Johnny Cash of New York rock; he was always the man in black. I used to have him over occasionally in New York, and later he used to come and visit Mustique [in the West Indies], which is not the most obvious place for Lou Reed to go on vacation. Lots of posh English people. But when I would see him there, he still had that style going on.

The surprise for me was "Walk on the Wild Side." It was melodic, really good, very original, with the background singing and acoustic bass – an original way of presenting him. But "I'm Waiting for the Man" was my first big Lou Reed tune. I liked it because it was so minimalist in the arrangement and the chords – and the guitar sound on it was grunge before there was grunge, way back in 1967.

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Sam Shephard

In the Sixties, I was in a band called the Holy Modal Rounders, and we opened for the Velvet Underground in Boston. Nico was there. They had that incredible sound with Cale fucking up the viola over the top. Remember that first album, with the shattering glass coming down in "European Son"? It sounds like a windowpane crashing. The Rolling Stones didn't do anything like that! That was a hell of a band. My band's drug of choice was crystal meth, but the Velvets were talking about heroin!

Lou was an extraordinary lyricist. His lyrics were an incredible combination of imagery and hieroglyphics. "The people all call her Alaska/Between worlds because the people ask her/'Cause it's all in her mind" – one of the great lines. Or that line in "Sweet Jane": "Everyone who ever had a heart/Oh, they wouldn't turn around and break it/And anyone who ever played a part/Oh, they wouldn't turn around and hate it." Wow! He was writing in the present, from his own experience, sort of like David Foster Wallace, the kind of writer who comes from an angle no one else would think of.

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Julian Schnabel

I think he never felt quite satisfied. He felt vindicated by the 2006 live revival of Berlin a few years ago, but a few days before his death we were watching the movie we made of that, and he said, "Does anybody know?" He never felt like people really got it. He always felt, in a way, unappreciated, which is crazy. He wrote lyrics and talked about things that just were so specific, and of a world of emotions that hadn't really been included in rock & roll songs.

Somebody said the Velvet Underground had only a few thousand fans, but they all started bands. When you really hear Lou's voice and you think of punk-rock music and you think of what happened – he opened up the floodgates, the door where that gritty reality could be displayed.

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Salman Rushdie

When I was at college at Cambridge in the mid-Sixties, my favorite bands were the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart. I had a friend whose father was very involved in radio stations in England, and he would come back from London with all the latest kind of weirdo fringe records. I thought the Velvets were so badass. They were evil, in a good way. They didn't give a damn about anything, and they were talking about forbidden stuff, and that New York underground world seemed very glamorous to me as a British-based college student. I think the volume sometimes bugged my roommates. I really liked the collaboration with Nico, especially "I'll Be Your Mirror"; I thought that version was kind of magical and I fell in love with that.

I got to know Laurie Anderson in the early Eighties, and she was in England and friends of mine knew her and I was introduced to her and we became friends. We were having dinner at a friend's house, and I don't know how the subject of Lou came up, but I said something along the lines of how much his music has meant to me, and she said, "Well, that's good because I'm seeing him now." And I thought, A, it was a surprise and, B, thank goodness I said the right thing. She called him from this dinner in London and put us on the phone together. She said, "I've got someone here and he really likes your music, you should say hello." So, we said hello. And not a whole lot more, but I think I was stammering incoherently at the time. It was like having God's unlisted cell phone number.

A lot of Lou's stuff stands up very well with words without the music because his imagination is so genuinely strange. He never reaches for an obvious simile, he never says anything banal, and yet the language is not particularly complex. And that's a remarkable skill, to be able to be fresh and vivid and alive without going into linguistic complexity. I was listening to  "New York Telephone Conversation" from Transformer. It's kind of slightly camp, and his voice, the way in which he delivers it, is done in a very kind of gossipy, kind of couple of old bitches talking to each other cattily almost. He characterizes in his own voice. I love that conversational thing — it's very hard to do.

My memories of Lou are these very kind of eccentric, non-Lou Reed kind of memories. He was very enjoyable company, one of the people I most liked hanging out with. We just did crazy things. I got a call from a mutual friend who said, "Lou wants to go see Pee Wee Herman's show on Broadway for a Christmas treat." We all went to see it, and Lou just had a ball. He really enjoyed it and went back afterwards and had pictures taken with Pee-Wee. I don't know who was the bigger fan, but I guess they were both fans of each other. One night in Brooklyn, Lou and Laurie and my artist friend Tony Fitzpatrick had one of the funniest dinners of my life at Peter Luger's restaurant, where Lou revealed an almost bottomless well of dirty jokes. He spent the evening telling them, and they were really very good. And I thought, "Who knew? I'm sitting with Lou Reed and he's got blue material."

The Lou Reed of these later years was doing Tai Chai and being a vegan and was very different from that early Lou Reed. Despite this ferocious exterior, in his private life amongst the people he cared about, Lou was really sweet and had a real gentleness. It got to the point where if we didn't speak to each other for a few weeks, he'd complain. He'd say, "So you don't like me anymore, you don't write, you don't call." And I thought, "Who would ever think that Lou Reed was like that, so caring of his friends, so wanting to be in touch with them that if they didn't call every week, he was upset?" The stuff people say about Lou, there was that side to him. But there was also this much quieter, more reflective or thoughtful side.

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Martin Scorsese

Lou Reed was the sound of New York from the Sixties through the Eighties, and if you want to know what it was like to live here during those years, just listen to his records with the Velvet Underground and on his own — songs like "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Sweet Jane" and "Coney Island Baby" and "Street Hassle" and "Dirty Boulevard" will give you a more vivid picture of this city than all the articles in all the daily papers. And in his greatest songs, like "Heroin" or "Ocean," he touched on the eternal. He was a great, great artist, and a true prince of the city. His work had a big influence on me.

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Bryan Ferry

I have long admired Lou Reed as a writer, singer and consummate musician. A pioneer as much as a perfectionist, his work with the Velvet Underground was a significant influence on early Roxy Music — bringing together the worlds of rock & roll and avant garde art in a way that we all admired, and which seemed so modern, uncompromising and cool. As a solo artist, too, I think that Reed had a wonderful talent for combining the energy of rock music with a truly literary sensibility. His best lyrics had the impact of great fiction, telling a story in a wry, sharp yet deeply-felt way — very much a New York City voice. Like all major artists, he was also totally fearless in exploring new and challenging forms and ideas, regardless of critical or public expectations. He ranks with Hendrix and Dylan as an artist who has shaped the course of modern music and social attitudes in a profound way.

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Phoenix’s Thomas Mars

Lou Reed is a huge deal in France. There was a freedom in his behavior and his music that was appealing to French people – and especially to a teenager. When I was growing up in Versailles, I identified with him even more than I did with Iggy Pop or David Bowie. His songs were like little jewels, perfect for a kid to digest. They had everything: all the anxiety and darkness, and all the sweetness, too. That's what I loved. I started listening to the sweet songs first: "Pale Blue Eyes," "Ocean," "New Age." Later, I discovered "Street Hustle," and it was like a miracle. I'd play it over and over, and I never got bored. He created this universe that I wanted to be part of.

One of my favorite quotes is from the painter Ed Ruscha: "Good art should elicit a response of 'Huh?. . .Wow!'" That's what I got from the Velvet Underground, from the first time I saw the banana on their record cover when I was a kid. And that's what Lou Reed's live shows were like. They were art projects. Each time he came onstage, it was a real gamble, you know? He wasn't scared of not giving a crowd what they wanted. You had to pass that first question – that first "Huh?" – to be part of the club. I was so amazed by that. He was a tremendous guitar player, but he didn't show it; he made it feel like it was nothing. He broke all the codes, everything that a rock band was supposed to do. You felt like he could do anything, and it would be right.

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Albert Hammond Jr.

I remember listening to Loaded with Julian Casablancas at our apartment on 18th Street over and over again. It was the spark that started the Strokes. We wanted to get that warm sound, that vibe. Lou was talking about reality in a way that made us think we could too. He was talking about sex and drugs and real life; it had a huge effect on Julian's lyrics.

In our early days, we kept running into Lou. Once he was doing a book signing at Barnes & Noble, and Julian and I went. We argued about who would go up to him; finally, Julian asked, "Can I get this signed?" Lou looked around, and there was no pen, and he said, "What, am I going to do it with my own blood?" – it was condescending, but it was so awesome.

Later, we heard Lou liked our music; we did "Walk on the Wild Side" with him at Rolling Stone's 1,000th-issue party in 2006. We walked offstage, he was getting emotional; he was very moved by it. It was such a great feeling. It gives me goose bumps talking about it now.

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Billy Idol

In punk rock, we were disaffected from everything, but we felt a connection with Lou. Rock 'n' Roll Animal really showed me you could be a punk rock singer — just make sure you have a fantastic guitar player! And a lot of his songs they weren't those Beatles jazz chords. They were accessible to someone like me. I'm not the greatest musician and certainly not the greatest guitar player or singer either. But I could play "Sweet Jane" or "I'm Set Free." When Generation X was coming together, the first song Tony James and I played together at my house was "Coney Island Baby." Just two chords! 

In 1981, I was in New York looking around for people to write with. I wasn't quite sure what I was doing, but I had a meeting with Lou at John's Pizza on Bleecker Street, his favorite pizza place. It was lunch time and it was very dark and he was sitting there in a corner booth and he said, "Well, how are you gettin' along in New York?"

He didn't have to give me that time at all; he probably vague knew who I was. Later I did a dance music cover of "Heroin" — why, I don't know, it could have been the ecstasy. And Lou was really nice and cut his rate for me. And I thought, "Well, that's a bit of a sign that he enjoyed meeting me." He had that tough exterior, but you knew there was a heart of gold there.

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Tony Visconti

The Velvet Underground just blew me away.

There was so much myth attached to the band. I heard if you peeled the banana off there was LSD under it. I guess that you'd call it now a buzz band, but there was nothing like it in those days. Nobody was buzzing about any band until the Velvet Underground came around.

When I went to London and met David Bowie, he was a bigger Velvet Underground fan than I was. David's biggest homage to Lou was when he found Lou. He literally searched for him and found him and made Transformer. It was one of the most wonderful things to happen to the both of them at the time.

I wasn't surprised at all that "Walk on the Wild Side" got so big. When I heard it I thought it was a smash hit. I never heard anything like it. What was funny is that he's talking about transvestites and giving head and changing clothes on the bus, and they're playing this for kids on BBC radio. I thought it was hilarious. Like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, we were getting away with murder.

He borrowed David's sound for "Walk on the Wild Side." David is very much responsible for that and anything else that came off that album. David had the hit song mentality, which Lou never really cared about in a big way. Lou always considered himself a very serious poet, a very serious artist. I don't think that wealth was his goal, or worldwide popularity. He just wanted to do what he did. His output from that point on was extremely diverse. Like the Beatles, he kept changing styles. He experimented with a lot of forms of music that wasn't very commercial. 

I had seen Lou hundreds of times in the past 10 years, mainly almost every Sunday in New York City at our Sunday tai chi class. We had people from all walks of life in our class, a banker, a plumber, a construction worker, a Japanese translator . . . all these varied people from all walks of life, and Lou was just one of us. Afterward sometimes as many of 12 of us went out for brunch right after class and Lou was right there sitting in the middle of it. It was wonderful. To know him on that level was just incredible. I can't tell you how serious he was about it. He was one of the most serious people I know about studying some arcane subject like that.

Lou was very social and went out a lot. He had a lot of very close friends, like Julian Schnabel and Richard Belzer from Law and Order. They were his very serious friends, and he saw David Bowie from time to time, and myself. I went over to Lou's house quite a bit. We'd go to shows together and I'd see him quite a bit at gallery openings and the openings of Broadway shows. He didn't just stay at home and do nothing. He was very active. 

I last saw him three weeks ago at a Mick Rock book signing at the CBGB place, the John Varvatos store. I wrote to Lou the night before and said, "Can you let me in?" His last e-mail to me, was, "I try." It was a joke. Instead of "I'll try" it was "I try." There was nothing wrong with his grammar, believe me. He got me in and we were very close to the front. I waved to him. It was the last time I saw him.

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Chris Stein

I opened up for Lou in 1967 with my little band from Brooklyn. It was a place on the Upper West Side called the Gymnasium, which was a gym in like a high school or an apartment building or something like that. I'd only seen a handful of electric bands at that time and we're in this big echoey fucking gymnasium and those guys came on and they used echoes and feedback and the reverb of the room was part of their sound. And that was a big clicking moment for me.

The first album coming in the midst of flower power the way it did was phenomenal. Here's this dark brooding thing in the midst of all this cheery shit. How many people had that much impact on popular music? Dylan and Lou and Bowie maybe. He shaped a whole generation of popular music. I went to dinner with him a couple of times, went to a pizza place with him and he was very funny. He was always really super nice to me. The guy was just a shaper of so much music.

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