Rolling Stone pays tribute to Lou Reed, the outsider who changed the course of rock & roll, on the cover of our new issue. In an exclusive essay for RS, Laurie Anderson reflects on her 21-year relationship with Reed and his final moments.
I met Lou in Munich, not New York. It was 1992, and we were both playing in John Zorn’s Kristallnacht festival commemorating the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, which marked the beginning of the Holocaust. I remember looking at the rattled expressions on the customs officials’ faces as a constant stream of Zorn’s musicians came through customs all wearing bright red RHYTHM AND JEWS! T-shirts.
John wanted us all to meet one another and play with one another, as opposed to the usual “move-’em-in-and-out” festival mode. That was why Lou asked me to read something with his band. I did, and it was loud and intense and lots of fun. After the show, Lou said, “You did that exactly the way I do it!” Why he needed me to do what he could easily do was unclear, but this was definitely meant as a compliment.
I liked him right away, but I was surprised he didn’t have an English accent. For some reason I thought the Velvet Underground were British, and I had only a vague idea what they did. (I know, I know.) I was from a different world. And all the worlds in New York around then – the fashion world, the art world, the literary world, the rock world, the financial world – were pretty provincial. Somewhat disdainful. Not yet wired together.
As it turned out, Lou and I didn’t live far from each other in New York, and after the festival Lou suggested getting together. I think he liked it when I said, “Yes! Absolutely! I’m on tour, but when I get back – let’s see, about four months from now – let’s definitely get together.” This went on for a while, and finally he asked if I wanted to go to the Audio Engineering Society Convention. I said I was going anyway and would meet him in Microphones. The AES Convention is the greatest and biggest place to geek out on new equipment, and we spent a happy afternoon looking at amps and cables and shop-talking electronics. I had no idea this was meant to be a date, but when we went for coffee after that, he said, “Would you like to see a movie?” Sure. “And then after that, dinner?” OK. “And then we can take a walk?” “Um . . .” From then on we were never really apart.
Lou and I played music together, became best friends and then soul mates, traveled, listened to and criticized each other’s work, studied things together (butterfly hunting, meditation, kayaking). We made up ridiculous jokes; stopped smoking 20 times; fought; learned to hold our breath underwater; went to Africa; sang opera in elevators; made friends with unlikely people; followed each other on tour when we could; got a sweet piano-playing dog; shared a house that was separate from our own places; protected and loved each other. We were always seeing a lot of art and music and plays and shows, and I watched as he loved and appreciated other artists and musicians. He was always so generous. He knew how hard it was to do. We loved our life in the West Village and our friends; and in all, we did the best we could do.
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou. (Musicians being married is sort of like lawyers being married. When you say, “Gee, I have to work in the studio till three tonight” – or cancel all your plans to finish the case – you pretty much know what that means and you don’t necessarily hit the ceiling.)
I guess there are lots of ways to get married. Some people marry someone they hardly know – which can work out, too. When you marry your best friend of many years, there should be another name for it. But the thing that surprised me about getting married was the way it altered time. And also the way it added a tenderness that was somehow completely new. To paraphrase the great Willie Nelson: “Ninety percent of the people in the world end up with the wrong person. And that’s what makes the jukebox spin.” Lou’s jukebox spun for love and many other things, too – beauty, pain, history, courage, mystery.
Lou was sick for the last couple of years, first from treatments of interferon, a vile but sometimes effective series of injections that treats hepatitis C and comes with lots of nasty side effects. Then he developed liver cancer, topped off with advancing diabetes. We got good at hospitals. He learned everything about the diseases, and treatments. He kept doing tai chi every day for two hours, plus photography, books, recordings, his radio show with Hal Willner and many other projects. He loved his friends, and called, texted, e-mailed when he couldn’t be with them. We tried to understand and apply things our teacher Mingyur Rinpoche said – especially hard ones like, “You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad.”
Last spring, at the last minute, he received a liver transplant, which seemed to work perfectly, and he almost instantly regained his health and energy. Then that, too, began to fail, and there was no way out. But when the doctor said, “That’s it. We have no more options,” the only part of that Lou heard was “options” – he didn’t give up until the last half-hour of his life, when he suddenly accepted it – all at once and completely. We were at home – I’d gotten him out of the hospital a few days before – and even though he was extremely weak, he insisted on going out into the bright morning light.
As meditators, we had prepared for this – how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life – so beautiful, painful and dazzling – does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.
At the moment, I have only the greatest happiness and I am so proud of the way he lived and died, of his incredible power and grace.
I’m sure he will come to me in my dreams and will seem to be alive again. And I am suddenly standing here by myself stunned and grateful. How strange, exciting and miraculous that we can change each other so much, love each other so much through our words and music and our real lives.
This story is from the November 21st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.