Lou Reed: The Punk Soul of an Underground Jew

Image: getty images

Of all the tributes following the death this week of Lou Reed, the transgressive, subversive bard of the street-wild and deviant, one of the strangest is this celebration by British journalist Tom Gross, which appeared online in the National Review. Yes, that National Review—the conservative journal founded by the high priest of upper-crust propriety, William F. Buckley.

The evidence Gross offers consists mainly of the mockingly bitter song “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim,” from Reed’s 1989 album New York (video below, lyrics after the jump). But that’s actually plenty—only a handful of major American rockers have recorded even a single statement as proudly Jewish. (I think of Paul Simon’s “Silent Eyes,” Randy Newman’s “Dixie Flyer,” Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” — and, arguably, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Father of Night.” Others?)

At the same time, Gross is right to note that Reed appeared in Israel several times. He wasn’t quite the “frequent visitor to the country” that Gross makes him out to be, but he performed there repeatedly: he gave concerts in 1994 and 2000 and joined his wife Laurie Anderson on stage for a few numbers during her Tel Aviv concerts in 2008 (video after the jump). Not many American pop stars have appeared in Israel so frequently (though Dylan matched him—concerts in 1987, 1993 and 2011—and several private visits).

And though Gross doesn’t mention it, Reed involved himself in a public way in recent years in New York’s emerging downtown Jewish culture. That’s described lovingly in this appreciation in The Jewish Week by Reed’s friend, impresario Michael Dorf. Among other things, Dorf describes Reed’s appearances as the Wise Son at Dorf’s annual Passover Seder at the Knitting Factory.

What’s most curious about the National Review piece is how it’s captured imaginations on the right with its image of Reed the defiant battler against anti-Semitism. It’s been cited by several right-wing blogs, including the Breitbart-linked Big Hollywood and Islam-bashing arch-conservative Debbie Schlussel. Schlussel’s piece is particularly wacky — she seems delighted that Reed “defied” the boycotters to play Israel, though she’s dubious of what she presumes are his leftie leanings, wary of his countercultural ethos and judges him:

Lou Reed, “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim”:

Also of note is this piece in the Times of Israel that tries rather clumsily to get at Reed’s Jewish soul. It’s worth looking at if only because, lacking some key facts, it plays with a few available quotes, misunderstanding Reed’s deeply ironic side (not to mention the ironic character of Long Island baby-boom Jewish identity), and ends up getting him quite wrong:

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson play Tel Aviv, 2008:

Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim:

זכרונו לברכה

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Lou Reed: The Punk Soul of an Underground Jew

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