Lou Reed: an indelible, if unpleasant, star

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When Lou Reed's "New York" came out in 1989, I was immediately won over by its primal and inventive sound, though I had never really been one of his most adoring fans.

There was no denying that "New York" was a complex album with lyrics as jagged and uncompromising as real life. As a former New Yorker transplanted to Pittsburgh in 1987, I found the album's politics dubious, but its bluntness invigorating.

In 1990, I was the last local rock critic scheduled to interview Reed at the Metropol, where he was in town to promote "Songs for Drella," an album he recorded with former Velvet Underground band mate John Cale. "Drella," which was Reed's nickname for Andy Warhol, was a tribute to their former mentor and one-time band manager who died in 1987.

Colleagues warned me that Reed would be a prickly interview and that it would be best to skip the flattery and unctuousness and cut to the chase. I was prepared to do that, but the cold, limp, fish-like handshake he offered discombobulated me, and that was before his assistant informed me that "Mr. Reed is finished doing interviews for the day."

End of story. Fast forward to May 15, 1992. As far as I was concerned, Lou Reed was the biggest jerk in rock 'n' roll, but I was still a fan, albeit a reluctant one.

As much as his previous snub rankled me, I made the trip to Cleveland's Music Hall with a buddy to see him perform "New York" and "Songs for Drella" live. It was a magnificent performance. Reed himself was in an uncharacteristically chatty mood and managed to stay on the audience's good side most of the evening.

After the show, my buddy and I somehow found ourselves backstage mingling with the band and Cleveland's rock 'n' roll literati over a sumptuous spread. Feasting on salmon went a long way in mitigating hurt feelings still lingering from our prior encounter.

Dressed completely in black, Reed drifted around the room, nodding but eschewing handshakes. He had the forced, wan smile of a guy trying to suppress a burp or something ruder at a wedding. Mingling was not his forte. Still, I was curious to see if he still had the clammy handshake that had so repulsed me years earlier.

Perhaps it was because he didn't remember me and that we didn't have to deal with each other in a formal capacity that he finally shook my hand as if I were a human being. He even graciously accepted my compliment about the show, but he moved on before I could engage him in an actual conversation.

While I felt I'd managed an invisible detente with the man himself, Lou Reed's music became far less compelling to me after 1992's "Magic and Loss" and 1996's "Set the Twilight Reeling." I loved the Christmas nativity single he did with Bruce Cockburn called "Cry of a Little Baby," though.

For 20 years, Reed failed to record an album that warranted more than one or two spins, in my opinion. That included a truly dreadful Velvet Underground live reunion CD. "Lulu," the CD he recorded with Metallica in 2011, was panned by nearly everyone with a set of functioning ears.

Even so, Reed had the kind of residual street cred that two decades of indifferent recordings couldn't entirely erase. He authored three anthems of urban despair and dissipation that every intellectually curious person coming of age since 1964 knows -- "Sweet Jane," "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Walk on the Wild Side."

My iPhone contains 160 albums and thousands of songs spanning every genre, but curiously, none by Lou Reed. In that regard, I'm like most people. Still, there's no reason for anyone to feel like a philistine. We're all carrying around artists Reed has influenced over nearly five decades from Patti Smith and My Bloody Valentine to Yo La Tengo and Arcade Fire. His influence is inescapable.

I wish I could say only laudatory things about Lou Reed, who shuffled from this mortal coil after 71 years over the weekend, but that would be lying. His public persona was that of a sour and embittered man, but for all we know, that was just an act; he could have been the complete opposite among friends and loved ones -- and probably was. He was married to the brilliant Laurie Anderson, so he couldn't have been a pill all of the time.

I'm glad we had him for as long as we did, even though he seemed to despise us. Reed was the first rock star to give us permission to "hate" rock stars. It didn't diminish our appreciation for their art in the least.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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