For those who still view Lou Reed primarily as Rock’s Transgressor-in-Chief, it would be easy to pooh-pooh the idea of a Reed tribute at Lincoln Center, that bastion of New York City high-culture propriety. But the setting for “The Bells: A Daylong Celebration of Lou Reed,” which took place Saturday, couldn’t have been more fitting. As a stalwart New York arts lover, Reed frequented the place, and it hosted a remarkable public memorial for him after his passing in 2013. Reed shared a stage there with Ornette Coleman, one of his great musical heroes, in 1997. In fact, Reed made his solo debut there in 1973, at Lincoln Center’s fairly new Alice Tully Hall. Reviewing that show, Village Voice critic Richard Nusser called him “a remarkable writer and one of the most gifted artists of our generation.” That remains the truth, and “The Bells,” curated by Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson with producer and close friend Hal Willner, was testimony to it.
Things began around 10 a.m. with Reed’s tai chi teacher Master Ren Guang Yi, another major figure in his life, leading a free class soundtracked by Reed’s quietly droning 2007 album Hudson River Wind Meditations. The sequence Reed studied, 21 form, combines delicate beauty and fierce power; watching dozens practice it under a sunny summer sky on Lincoln Center’s main plaza, it was easy to see what drew Reed to it. As an artist, he was all about that duality.
The program showcased it, too, with a pair of concerts focusing respectively on Reed’s rock & roll and love songs. Counter-intuitively and a bit perversely (and maybe to appease wealthy neighbors with early bedtimes), rock came first, beginning with a group of very young women from the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls who announced themselves as “Unidentified,” then lurched into a charming cover of “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” pitched somewhere between the Shaggs and Bikini Kill. Like most elements of the day-long program, it raised the question “what would Lou have thought?” and answered affirmatively.
Yo La Tengo, shaped by the Velvet Underground as much as any artists on the bill, ratcheted the noise up fast with “I Heard Her Call My Name.” Though they’re technically New Jersey (as was Reed for some years, proving it’s really just a large Manhattan outpost), the lineup was New York to the max. Reunited post-punk stalwarts Bush Tetras brought more noise on “Run, Run, Run.” Punk classicist and Lower East Side bar owner Jesse Malin nailed “Rock & Roll.” Post-punk avant-scuzz-rock classicist Jon Spencer, rocking shades and dressed head to toe in black, was a dead ringer for 1966 Lou, capping a perfect “Venus in Furs” by laying his guitar on the stage, removing his black leather belt, and flogging it while the amps howled. “That’s how it’s done,” said MC and producer Don Fleming glowingly.
Fleming soon followed with “Temptation Inside of Your Heart,” recreating Reed’s studio chatter from the Velvets rarity as only an archivist would. Given the intensity of Reed and VU fandom, it was appreciated knowingly, since plenty in the audience, some of whom flew in for the event, were de facto archivists themselves. In a glimpse of her hilariously moving one-woman Nico show, Tammy Faye Starlite covered the Reed-penned “Chelsea Girls,” complete with strings and the flute arrangement that Nico famously loathed. “Here comes the instrumental … with the flooooot,” she deadpanned in a studied stoned-German accent, a perfect Nico doppelganger.
Remarkable for this sort of thing, there were virtually no duff moments. Sonic Youth vet Lee Ranaldo, helming a sharp house band with comrade Steve Shelley, ubiquitous guitar ace Matt Sweeney, and others, did a gorgeous “Ocean,” imagining its shape as a Velvets improv vehicle if the band had lasted long enough to evolve it. The show ended with “Sister Ray,” the group’s ultimate improv vehicle, the stage crowded with four guitars in various degrees of freak-out plus a gyrating pair of half-naked, body-painted, gender-blurred singer-dancers from Kembra Pfahler’s troupe, who enlivened an earlier cover of Reed’s 1979 deep cut “Disco Mystic.” Surveying this 20-minute celebration of depravity in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera house, one fan noted, “This is like a Lou Reed fever dream.”
Meanwhile, in the Morgan Stanley lobby of Alice Tully Hall, the ghost of Metal Machine Music was alive and well, as Reed’s longtime tech Stewart Hurwood manipulated a semicircle of guitars and amplifiers feeding-back at bone-rattling volume – it was so loud, construction-site-caliber earplugs were issued at the door. Supplicants also had to pass through a bag search and metal detector, testimony to post-9/11 New York realities and, perhaps, Metal Machine Music‘s history of spurring fan anger. The Lou Reed DRONES installation, which has toured with Anderson and ran uninterrupted here for five hours, wasn’t an exact duplicate of Reed’s notorious 1975 LP, but it was close enough to make its reception remarkable: Listeners sat or stood in apparently placid trances, evidently pondering how the extreme sound waves rearranged their insides. Indeed, the experience was strangely relaxing, which may have been partly due context, given that the New York City streets churned outside. Forty-three years after his first performance in the building, Reed again made his mark on it – this time, conceivably, structural.
Other events included a martial arts display featuring Master Ren, and a reading of Reed’s poetry and lyrics (which work surprisingly well as poetry) by a cast of friends including Steve Buscemi, Kim Cattrall, Julian Schnabel and Anne Waldman. The evening concert began with John Zorn’s sax and Anderson’s violin dueting over the drone installation, moved over from Alice Tully. “We’re stretching the definition of ‘love songs,'” announced Anderson impishly, adding, “Love is complicated.”
The next two-plus hours demonstrated that, enhanced by steady rain that deterred none of the faithful. Anderson sang Reed’s tender “Sunday Morning.” Anohni, whose signature cover of “Candy Says” rivals the original, skipped that song, instead illuminating “Perfect Day” and, later, a rave-up “New Age,” in her ravishingly androgynous croon – one could have listened to her sing Reed’s whole damn songbook. Lucinda Williams, who has made “Pale Blue Eyes” a signature over the past few years, owned it tonight, Matt Sweeney adding elegant faux-pedal steel touches. Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a. Doveman, steered the large ensemble, adding colors on processed Fender Rhodes and a piano, which he sometimes reached inside to manipulate strings. Jenny Muldaur, Victoria Williams, Joan “As Policewoman” Wasser, John Cameron Mitchell, Maxim Moston, and Felice Rosser handled lead and backing vocals handsomely throughout.
As Anderson pointed out, the evening was played and programmed almost entirely by friends of Reed’s, and was dedicated to longtime Reed bass collaborator Rob Wasserman, who died in June. So love songs were inevitably tinged with loss, as good love songs generally are. Garland Jeffreys did a stirring “My House,” the 1982 tribute to poet and Reed mentor Delmore Schwartz, a drinking buddy of Reed and Jeffreys’ when they were Syracuse University students in the early Sixties. (It also pays tribute to Reed’s second wife, Sylvia, and his motorcycle.)
The evening ended with Anderson leading a radical reimagining of the poignant “Junior Dad,” the highlight of Reed’s Metallica-backed swan song Lulu, complete with his pre-recorded vocals, followed by an all-in sing-along of “Sweet Jane” led by New York rock’s musical dean Lenny Kaye. “Lou!” he shouted to the sky. “This is a night of love songs! And we love rock & roll!” People danced in the rain, almost forgetting that the day’s five-hour-plus program had relegated Reed’s most famous song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” to a spoken reading by Buscemi – a perfectly contrarian choice that conjured his unmasterable spirit, too.