JPMS Exclusive: Lisa Jane Persky on Lou Reed

(Editor’s Note: We originally approached Lisa Jane Persky to write a memoriam piece about Lou Reed that was to run in Issue 26.1. That wasn’t able to happen but she was generous enough to initially allow us to run the piece on our website and that eventually evolved to what is above (in video form and below as an essay): a gorgeous, elegiac ode to not just Reed but the New York City of his and Persky’s youth. We’d like to thank Persky for all her work and we welcome our JPMS readers to take some time to listen/read and share. –O.W.)

Lisa Jane Persky was a founding member of the New York Rocker staff. Her work as journalist, photographer and artist has appeared in Mojo, Q, Uncut, The Los Angeles Times, L.A.Weekly and Fortean Times, among others. She is also a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction has appeared in Bomb and in the anthology Eclectica: Best Fiction. Lisa is also an actor. Currently, she is working on a memoir of growing up in Greenwich Village.

Lessons from Lou and the Village of Old New York 

By Lisa Jane Persky

I didn’t know Lou Reed. I was too young to get into what we called Max’s Can be Shitty in the days of The Velvet Underground. I knew of Lou but only because he was around. Because he looked cool, handsome, pretty, even.  And that’s how we “knew” a lot of people and how we held friend apart from foe. I lived in the world Lou reflected, did my stints at 15 Sheridan Square and 217 2nd Avenue, 87 Christopher Street. The neighborhood was a sleepy small-town burg if you were “street” and as much as I could, I lived on the streets. The freedom was addictive. The squalor had glamour, then. So, I’m just going to go ahead and say I knew Lou.  I know Lou in the way that that you do—because he let us all into his world—which I had previously thought of as mine—and he let us in through his heart.  

The old New York was our Mother. The old New York nurtured and supported play. It didn’t judge. The judging came later. You need time and freedom and garbage to play. Play is the way to discover your own idiosyncratic genius. Being okay with poverty gives you even more time to do it and you play hungry-which sometimes makes you better but also makes you worse. To play was the thing. We discovered, we struggled, we suffered. Because Lou was as he made himself out to be (which was one of us—but moreso), he made everyone want to tell their stories, and not only with music. 

 

We were affected by his original sound. We identified with it. We made more things from it. This was the spirit of Downtown New York City at the time, where all the living and the dead of our Village would coincide like roots from which new stories grew. Only a moment in time but the thing was, we the people of it, reveled in our play. And we played until we got old. 

 

If you live long enough, if you live somewhere long enough, you come to know that places have essence and personality just like people do. Essence is hard to explain, has to be experienced, known in the Gnostic sense. Personality is conspicuous. Both are hard to change. Geography is destiny and it’s always best to be in a position where you can choose where you live. I was and still am a product of Downtown. I grew up there and embraced it fully. Greenwich Village was once a safety net for unusuals. 

Lou made it clear that everything he’d wanted to say to us—all of us—he said with his sounds and his stories, as they occurred to him. And there were things about himself that he didn’t want to say and he made those things clear as well. One of the jobs he gave himself was illuminating negative space. In having his boundaries, he also taught us a thing or two about our own greed. Lou validated, verified and confirmed New York as our mother. And he always seemed so patient while waiting for others to get it, like he was waiting for the next Number 1 train where he was working out the beat listening to the tracks, the narrative wheels grinding against steel. “Every song to me is a highlight.”

He was a biographer, a reliable narrator who loved to tell us in his own rock ’n’ roll patois about the people who figured in and frequented his life. He said that if his works had been a novel instead, they wouldn’t be thought of as controversial at all.  When he made Songs for Drella, he wondered whether anyone had ever done a rock album that teaches you about the life of someone and was befuddled that he might be “an audience of one”(or maybe two, with John Cale) in the passion he had for the biographical rock records idea. But he would have gone right on teaching us—because Lou was a juggernaut.

Everything “new” is built upon what came before. In that sense, nothing is. I was lucky to have been around to see critical mass grow out of several Downtown New York scenes in my lifetime.  Without Dave Van Ronk, there wouldn’t have been the Bob Dylan that we know today, without Dylan, no Lou Reed, without Lou no New York Dolls, without The Dolls, no CBGB. The Ramones were fans of the Walker Brothers as was Lou. With his DNA apparent in Doo Wop, Drone, Minimalism, Pop, Metal, Glam, Neo, Industrial, Noise, Punk and Indie, Lou has only just begun to influence. In the future, I have no doubt that his scope will be wider as critical theorists begin to understand the experiments, and his work fans out into other hands and art forms. “There’s no reason not to have a wide palette” said Lou.  

Making a career of your youthful obsessions is impressive enough but Lou led the way in telling messy truths, harsh,  provocative, unpleasant, discouraging stuff with his music and lyrics. He told the saddest stories of all, and then there were worse ones.  He rendered a kind of musique noir, embracing the contradictions of human nature, the failures in his own. He described his terrors without weakening. He was a wit. He could be a girl. In the Warhol tradition, he was making high art of what were considered “low” themes. Reflecting the culture he lived in, he wrote better about it than some of the best known have about theirs, and probably surpasses Allen Ginsberg in his fearless, dynamic artistry and articulation. 

He loved the literary as much as he did rock ’n’ roll and he intended to write something urban. “…wanted to put Burroughs or Ginsberg, Hubert Selby, Delmore (Schwartz) into a song.”  He gave credit to his mentors, acknowledged that it couldn’t have happened for him without Andy W. who kept asking him why he didn’t write more, telling him he should be writing all the time. It’s okay to skip out on the Academy. The experiment is the thing. Poets are born. They’re fed by the joy of their passions. Understanding comes from hard work. Hard work is done by the body, the head and the heart. Lou was, at first unconsciously but later with sober intensity, intent upon bringing these parts together. And this voice from whom all those parts and pieces form a persuasive, original body of work, speak for and to so many in a glorious multitude of ways. 

There’s a responsibility that comes with having all the time to play that all of time will allow, and that’s to leave a legacy, maps with directions and recipes with instructions and pictures that no one has to follow. If there’s any greater legacy to be had from Lou and the time and place that he and I came up in, by example there’s this: Live outside of convention. Listen to your instincts. Don’t trust your impulses. Go where the conditions are right to create you. Trust that the words, music and the art are inside and will come out in the playing. Give credit to others. Coalesce. Promote one another. Make it stick. Go on to your solo effort. 

(How many times do I have to tell you kids that you don’t have to be able to sing? But you’ve gotta have a voice and that voice must be credible if not completely true.) Be humble. Do it your way. Presumed failure can be a success if you wait. And remember what Delmore Schwartz wrote: “They say time is a fire in which we burn.”

When I first heard of Lou’s passing, I was thirty-two thousand feet above the ground on my way back to our Village. Inflight Wi-Fi sank my heart—and then my favorite underrated Lou song hit me like a flower, lit up my head: Fly Into the Sun from New Sensations. It was more than analgesic.

A week later, I read Laurie Anderson’s description of his passing. She said this: “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.”  

“I would not run from the holocaust
I would not run from the bomb
I’d welcome the chance to meet my maker
and fly into the sun”

He meant what he said and he said what he meant: “I never cared about credibility except from me.”

Lou got New York; first downtown and then the whole of it. He got it and it fit him like his leather. And New York eventually put her big hairy arms around Lou. The world at large, as it so often does, caught up to what he was reflecting just as it was sliding away. But it did get him. So many of the things people say about New York can also be said about Lou. Any sighting of him was always electrifying, regardless of his health or psychic temperature. 

He was one of the last people left who made living downtown seem like the greatest luck imaginable. Later as he ached and aged, he seemed to become the streets of his love and his hassle. He took on the look of concrete, asphalt and cobblestone and then he gracefully exited into the essence. If you’re particularly sensitive, as he was, to all the parts of the music and the story, you’ll still feel him around you. You’ll hear him in the street, in your favorite band, in your vacuum cleaner. 

Often I’ve thought the same thousands keep coming back here to Downtown Manhattan; restless ghosts in some dance of eternal recurrence, and we’ll see each other again in this place, but maybe in a different time or configuration. If that’s the case and we do, I know for certain that I’ll recognize Lou.

We played until we got old. And this is not to say that we didn’t work.

Fly Into the Sun / © METAL MACHINE MUSIC

I would not run from the holocaust
I would not run from the bomb
I’d welcome the chance to meet my maker
and fly into the sun

Fly into the sun
fly into the sun
I’d break up into million pieces
and fly into the sun

I would not run from the blazing light
I would not run from its rain
I’d see it as an end to misery
as an end to worldly pain

An end to worldly pain
an end to worldly pain
I’d shine by the light of the unknown moment
to end this worldly pain

And fly into the sun
fly into the sun
I’d shine by the light of the unknown moment
and fly into the sun

The earth is weeping, the sky is shaking
the stars split to their core
And every proton and unnamed neutron
is fusing in my bones

And an unnamed mammal is darkly rising
as man burns from his tomb
And I look at this as a blissful moment
to fly into the sun

Fly into the sun
fly into the sun
I’d burn up into a million pieces
and fly into the sun

To end this mystery
answer my mystery
I’d look at this as a wondrous moment
to end this mystery

Fly into the sun
fly into the sun
I’d break up into a million pieces
and fly into the sun

5 thoughts on “JPMS Exclusive: Lisa Jane Persky on Lou Reed

  1. Thank you Lisa for the journey back to Christopher Street and Old New York Village. We were there together and I much older yet Yes! Play! and I’m still playing. Much Love always to you. Jimmy

  2. What a wonderful piece! A memoir that not only a mother could love, but a lovely and loving account of an extraordinary time in an enviable envirornment with an exotic populace that was light-hearted, intellectually deep and open to all possibilities. I hope Lisa is glad we were there, in spite of struggles and pain.

  3. Lisa darling–this is so gorgeously written that I shuddered with some deep combo of angst and ecstasy. And it wasn’t only about LR–my quaking was about you and the rest of us.

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