Friends, colleagues, poets, sometime label mates and full-time figureheads (and survivors) of one of New York City’s most vibrant and violent eras, Patti Smith and Lou Reed occupied a similar stratum of rock history. But Smith — who first met Reed during the Velvet Underground’s legendary 1970 stand at Max’s Kansas City — always made it clear that she looked up to him.
“So many of us have benefited from the work he has done,” she told USA Today, shortly after Reed’s 2013 death. “We all owe him a debt. Most of us that owe a debt are not very happy to own up to it. Sometimes you like to imagine that you did everything on your own. But I think with Lou that everyone will stand in line to say, ‘Thank you,’ in their own way.”
Smith — who inducted the Velvet Underground into the Hall in 1996 — once again proffered her thanks at Saturday night’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where she gave an eloquent benediction on behalf of Reed, who was posthumously inducted into the Hall as a solo performer.
Reed, who was previously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as a member of the Velvet Underground, was part of a stellar Class of 2015 that also included Bill Withers, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Green Day, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The “5” Royales were inducted in the Early Influence category, while Ringo Starr was given the Hall’s Award for Musical Excellence.
Hello everybody. On October 27th, 2013, I was at Rockaway Beach, and I got the message that Lou Reed had passed. It was a solitary moment. I was by myself, and I thought of him by the ocean, and I got on the subway back to New York City. It was a 55-minute ride, and in that 55 minutes, when I returned to New York City, it was as if the whole city had transformed. People were crying on the streets. I could hear Lou’s voice coming from every café. Everyone was playing his music. Everyone was walking around dumbfounded. Strangers came up to me and hugged me. The boy who made me coffee was crying. It was the whole city. It was more [Pauses] Sorry. I realized, at that moment, that I had forgotten, when I was on the subway, that he was not only my friend, he was the friend of New York City.
I made my first eye contact with Lou dancing to the Velvet Underground when they were playing upstairs at Max’s Kansas City in the summer of 1970. The Velvet Underground were great to dance to because they had this sort of transformative, like a surf beat. Like a dissonant surf beat. They were just fantastic to dance to. And then somewhere along the line, Lou and I became friends. It was a complex friendship, sometimes antagonistic and sometimes sweet. Lou would sometimes emerge from the shadows at CBGBs. If I did something good, he would praise me. If I made a false move, he would break it down.
One night, when we were touring, separately, we wound up in the same hotel, and I got a call from him, and he asked me to come to his room. He sounded a little dark, so I was a little nervous. But I went up, and the door was open, and I found him in the bathtub dressed in black. So I sat on the toilet and listened to him talk. It seemed like he talked for hours, and he talked about, well, all kinds of things. He spoke compassionately about the struggles of those who fall between genders. He spoke of pre-CBS Fender amplifiers and political corruption. But most of all, he talked about poetry. He recited the great poets — Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara. He spoke of the poets’ loneliness and of the poets’ dedication to the highest muses. When he fell into silence, I said, “Please, take care of yourself, so the world can have you as long as it can.” And Lou actually smiled.
Everything that Lou taught me, I remember. He was a humanist, heralding and raising the downtrodden. His subjects were his royalty that he crowned in lyrics without judgment or irony. He gave us, beyond the Velvet Underground, Transformer and “Walk on the Wild Side,” Berlin, meditations to New York, homages to Poe and his mentor Andy Warhol and Magic and Loss.
His consciousness infiltrated and illuminated our cultural voice. Lou was a poet, able to fold his poetry within his music in the most poignant and plainspoken manner. Oh, such a perfect day. Sorry. [Crying] Such a perfect day. I’m glad I spent it with you. You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good. You were good, Lou. You are good.
True poets must often stand alone. As a poet, he must be counted as a solitary artist. And so, Lou, thank you for brutally and benevolently injecting your poetry into music. And for this, we welcome you, Lou Reed, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.