Word of Lou Reed walking beyond the wild side, never to return, reached me as I was leaving campus, having just finished teaching a class on Modern Jewish Philosophy. As I recovered my copy of Take No Prisoners on my i-Phone and flicking to his 1978 strung-out rendition of “Sweet Jane”, I wondered why Lou Reed (né March 2, 1942, Brooklyn, as Lewis Allan Rabinowitz, later changed to Reed,) was not included on my syllabus for the study of Modern Jewish philosophers! After all, Lou Reed was probably the greatest abiding influence in my life’s journey that lead me to the rabbinate.
Lewis Allan Reed was my “Satellite of Love”, leading me time and again back to New York from Toronto on a never-ending pilgrimage to CBGB’s in what was then a frightening trip in the Bowery and Bleeker Bob’s in the West Village from my high school days onwards. This renegade rocker, the punk zeyde I never had, inspired me to the point of teaching about him in one of my year-long men’s groups, strategically nestled off site from my synagogue, once Beeber’s The Heebie Jeebie’s at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk Rock (2006) was finally released.
Perhaps Lou Reed—who sang so poignantly about “make-believe love” on that 1978 live recording from the no longer extant legendary West Village watering hole, The Bottom Line—was not included as a Jewish philosopher for the same reason that I had subconsciously excluded Gillian Rose. After all, in the final year of her life, she gave an extraordinary lecture in 1994 with an intense reading of the Rilke sonnet that begins Sei allem Abschied voran or “Be ahead of all departures”.
In that same live recording from 1978, decades before his own actual death—even if every moment of his music was always Sein-zum-Todt or “being-towards-death”—Lou quoted Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming” (1919), while attempting to keep hecklers at bay in his inimitable way, when he retorted:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity’—so you try and figure out where I’m at right now!
At that ever-recurring moment of confronting one’s own death, with less than a year to live, in Rose’s last masterpiece, Love’s Work (1996), she confirmed that studying philosophy at Oxford almost destroyed her passion of the mind, and furthermore “the earnest stupidity of her schooling” was succeeded by “the deeper stupidity of reading philosophy at university.”
What Lou Reed, and to a lesser degree Gillian Rose, have taught me is that life is a laboratory and that university should never get in the way of your education about love’s work in life. That struck me the first time I heard “Walk on the Wild Side”—I was fifteen and in love for the first time with Kaza in art school. Something about crossing the lines, and walking on the other side together–the wild side that Kaza took me to–was transformational. Years later, Lou Reed remained that abiding force of embracing the role of the real ‘ivri or Hebrew, which I later learned is how Hasidic master, Reb Nahman of Bratzlav defined the Jew as epitomizing the ‘boundary-crosser’.
I came to appreciate this again years later at one of Lou Reed’s “last suppers” at the Downtown Seder that he haunted with his third wife, Laurie Anderson. Last year, Laurie was the Tam or “simple child” intoning “The Dream Before” while Lou was always called upon as the resident Hakham or “wise child” doing his riff on Bob Marley’s “Exodus”. I recall another Downtown Seder in 2004 when Lou was called on again to occupy his seat as the Hakham when he chose to incorporate his recent project of setting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” to music at an SRO room full of New York Jews reciting his re-writing of the classic in these words:
Sometimes I wonder who am I?
Who made the trees?
Who made the sky?
Who made the storms?
Who made a heart break?
I wonder how much life I can take?
Lou Reed was that “Wild Child” he sang about on his debut album in 1972. He troubled his Jewish parents— accountant, Sidney Reed and his wife and former beauty queen, Toby Futterman Reed— to the point where they sent him for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens. Not such a usual chapter for an all-American Jew growing up in Freeport, Long Island. That was only the beginning of Lou Reed’s descent into his decades long inferno, so that even in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment.
Reed’s transfer to Syracuse University brought him momentary solace inside the circle surrounding American Jewish poet, writer, and English professor, Delmore Schwartz. When Reed met Schwartz, the latter was only six years away from his death in a Bowery room flophouse (doors away from what would later become the renowned punk club, CBGBs). While Lou would ride around on his motorcycle, clad in leather with his guitar slung over his shoulder, never to be caught dead in any frat—much less a Jewish one—he did allow himself to become the mascot for the Jewish “Sammies” of Sigma Alpha Mu, given they were the most progressive of the lot and served as one of his most receptive audiences throughout his career. Unsurprisingly though, Lou skipped classes frequently to play in black bars with his band, LA and Eldorados (for Lewis, his given name, and Allen the first name of childhood friend, Allen Hyman).
Although Syracuse University was a time when Lou flourished, the scars of his electrified, broken heart would never fully mend. By the time Blue Mask (1982) was released— a partial eulogy to his all-American Jewish mentor, Delmore Schwarz , referred to explicitly in “My House” as:
My friend and teacher [who] occupies a spare room
He’s dead—at peace at last the Wandering Jew
Reed’s scars erupted as he decried:
Take the blue mask down from my face/and look me in the eye
…Don’t take death away.
By daring to stare death in the face and continue to embrace life as a Jew, Lou Reed defined his own rock n’ roll path as a uniquely Jewish path. Daring to do more than “walk on the wild side” but enter into the realm the Jewish mystics call the Sitra Ahra or the “Other Side” and then return to the Sitra de’Kedusha or the “Sacred Side” was something I only experienced in his music.
This musical journey of Lou Reed—one that in 1965 accompanied Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable—is what inspired me along my path to the rabbinate. Through his music as life, Lou Reed reminded me of that annual obligation of crossing all boundaries with the utter seriousness of carnivale that Jews still call Purim—that “Halloween Parade”. That same album New York from 1989 is where Lou confronts the Nazi fugitives like Kurt Waldheim and anti-Semitic candidates like Jesse Jackson, so that with “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” Lou dares to remove the mask! Reed saw the absurdity of life surrounding him and despite it all—following Fackenheim’s call for the 614th commandment not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory—he embraced life! May the memory of rock n’ roll animal, Louis Rabinowitz—Lou Reed, be a blessing, and in the final words of the Warsaw Ghetto rebbe in 1943: Es zol zich zingen a shira —“So shall the song sing itself.”