October 31, 2013 3:40 pm

My silent night with Lou Reed

A 1979 concert by rock music’s bad boy, who died this week, revealed another side to his character
Lou Reed Reads Excerpts From "Pass Thru Fire"©Getty

I saw Lou Reed perform in person just once, and things didn’t go quite the way I expected. I fell asleep and he turned into Bing Crosby.

This happened on Christmas night in 1979. Reed, the legendary New York rock ‘n’ roller who died this week aged 71, was playing the old Bottom Line nightclub in Greenwich Village, and I went to the show with a couple of my college friends.

I was taking Reed very seriously at that point in my life. My parents had parted ways a few months before, and I didn’t know just where I was going. Listening to the records that Reed had made with The Velvet Underground, his old group, made my deliberations a little less lonely.

I met my friends at Penn Station and the decision was made to go straight to The Bottom Line. We wanted to get good seats, so we figured that we would queue up early outside the club and knock back some beers on the street while we waited (Rudolph Giuliani hadn’t become mayor yet so you could get away with that sort of thing then).

Banx cartoon

It wasn’t the coldest Christmas in the history of New York, but we remained outside for a pretty long time; I recall several trips being made to a nearby liquor store to procure additional six packs. And when the doors of the club finally opened, the contrast in temperatures was just overwhelming. There was an energy crisis going on in the US at the time but no one seemed to have informed the staff of The Bottom Line. They had turned the heat way up. We secured seats with a clear view of the stage, and I just melted into mine. With all that beer in me, I guess I looked like a pat of butter hitting a hot frying pan.

I was young enough to have rallied, and I suspect that everything would have been all right if the Reed on my turntable had been the Reed on stage. But I was left with the older of the two, the Reed remnant if you will, and he didn’t do much for me. I got the feeling Reed had spent too much of the 1970s listening to jazz-rock (and in fact, the late critic Lester Bangs revealed in his classic homage to Reed, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves”, that his mixed blessing of a hero had a thing for synthesiser noodlings).

My eyes closed. But when they reopened I saw something that night that reminded me of why I was there – and why Reed’s best work matters to me now, all these years after he put me to sleep (pretty much for good – I didn’t like his post-1970s stuff).

He sang “White Christmas” – the standard written by Irving Berlin and made popular by Crosby. I didn’t think Reed sang “White Christmas” particularly well because I didn’t think he sang anything well during that show. But what got me was that the guy who, as Bangs wrote, “gave dignity and poetry and rock ’n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide”, also had a place in his heart for the old songs – the yearning, romantic ones sung around pianos and on the street corners of doo-wop New York.

When Rolling Stone magazine asked Reed to name his top 10 songs, he included “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis. “If there is a better bar song, I’d like to know what it is,” Reed said. Whatever the answer, I don’t know of a song that is any more sentimental. “Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to shore?” it begins. “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world, ’cause you don’t love me any more?”

Reed was that kind of rock ’n’ roll animal – the kind who cried in his beer to Skeeter’s heartbreak and dared to dream of a white Christmas in front of a downtown audience dressed in the usual black.

If you have read any of the Reed obituaries in recent days, you have heard all about the drugs and the drag queens and the depravity. But what made Reed more than just a run-of-the-mill bad boy – more than just a thrill seeker – was that he had a foundation, a starting point for his explorations. He had those old songs in his head – and when he looked at the world around him and found it wanting in comparison, he said so.

On the night that I saw him, he even brought the festivities to a close with an old-style show business flourish worthy of one of these Perry Como or Crosby Christmas specials we grew up watching on TV. I wasn’t taking notes so I don’t remember the exact words, but I recall Reed pausing before his exit and graciously thanking all of us in the audience for spending the holiday with him and his band.

When I heard the news about Lou this week, I thought of his farewell and I realised I had never gotten a chance to thank him for having me.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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