"O Delmore how I miss you. You inspired me to write. You were the greatest man I ever met. You could capture the deepest emotions in the simplest language. Your titles were more than enough to raise the muse of fire on my neck. You were a genius. Doomed.”
I was a Lou Reed fan. I posted a favorite tune when I heard he died -- Walk on the Wild Side -- because he did, and we walked with him.
His death was personal. Lou Reed was New York. He was my New York, and it's hard to talk about and I don't want to. But New York died a little with his passing. He was a poet, and a lot of his noise was the soundtrack of my tween and teen years. He was always there in the background -- not just the Velvet Underground, but in the huge influence he had on people I loved (David Bowie, John Lennon, Ramones -- hell, the whole NY punk scene). And the people I loved loved him.
I don't want to talk about how cool he was or what a stand up guy he was, or how he inspired my peers and me.
So why I am writing about it now? Because I didn't know he was a proud Jew. “Of course, aren’t all the best people?”
Rock and roll iconoclast Lou Reed died Sunday, aged 71, of an undisclosed cause, and while many of the obituaries dedicated to him have mentioned his Judaism, few delved into how central it was to his identity.
Born Lewis Allan Reed to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, he was once asked by a journalist if he was Jewish, replying, “Of course, aren’t all the best people?”
Tom Gross, of the National Review, writes of his connection to Israel: “He was a frequent visitor to the country, last performing in Tel Aviv in 2008, and his aunt and many cousins live in Haifa and other Israeli towns.”
Recently, a team of researchers named a spider native to Israel after him.
Though much has been made of his statement to journalist Lester Bangs that he didn’t know any Jewish people, with some claiming it was an anti-Semitic comment, it could hardly be taken as literal. In fact, many of his greatest influences were Jews.
Writing of Delmore Schwartz, the acclaimed Jewish poet, who taught Reed while an undergrad at Syracuse University, he wrote: “O Delmore how I miss you. You inspired me to write. You were the greatest man I ever met. You could capture the deepest emotions in the simplest language. Your titles were more than enough to raise the muse of fire on my neck. You were a genius. Doomed.”
Gross also notes that Reed was a central figure of what author Steven Lee Beeber, in his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, argued was a key Jewish element to the New York punk-rock movement of the 1970s. Crypto punk rock Jews included Joey Ramone (nee Jeffrey Ross Hyman), Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell (Richard Lester Meyers), Jonathan Richman, and Blondie’s guitarist Chris Stein.
Though perhaps reticent to embrace his Judaism in public, keeping with his motto that “rock and roll is my God,” that didn’t stop Reed later in life from a public embrace of his heritage. In the Passover 2004 Downtown Seder, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Reed performed his own rendition of the traditional Four Questions.
Watch a video of Lou Reed reciting the Four Questions below: