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Lou Reed Didn’t Care What Chicago Thought of Him

Or anyone else, for that matter. Here’s the legend the performer left this city.

Lou Reed performing at Lollapalooza in 2009   Photo: Ray Whitehouse

Since learning of Lou Reed’s departure on Sunday, due to complications from an April liver transplant, I dug deep enough in my Velvet Underground and Reed collection to find the Transformer cassette I purchased at a Coconuts store in Evansville, Indiana in 1995, one of the only sources for music in my hometown.

I’ve also watched many Youtube clips and have read even more of the tributes now flooding the Internet—some “10 Best Moments” click-bait and some pretty great live performances, including this one.

In all these posts, one writer, Tom Maxwell (a former member of ‘90s swing revival act Squirrel Nut Zippers, of all people) has written a piece in Al Jazeera America that recalls Reed as I had understood him to be: not the precious and beloved “father of punk rock,” but a cantankerous visionary who terrified journalists and genuinely did not care what anyone thought of him. This is the man who penned the genius and grating Metal Machine Music, after all. Geeta Dayal’s remembrance for Slate beautifully explores that here.

These stories sounded like the Lou Reed that I encountered at Lollapalooza in 2009, the only time I saw the man perform live. It was an exhibition of contradictions. His anti-establishment snarls criticized the corporate behemoth setting; his series of odes to street culture barked at a middle-class sea who paid top dollar for wristbands; and his set, with extended drone after extended drone, was a sharp contrast to the clouds of pop hooks coursing through Grant Park.

To some, it was a disaster, especially to Band of Horses, whose set was cut short due to Reed’s total and no-doubt intentional disregard for set times. At one point, he instructed the audience to bark like dogs (some obliged). Par for the course, some critics called it a triumph, but to me, it was a half success. I enjoyed his sax-and-sass-laced rendition of “Dirty Boulevard,” for example. Its muscle beefed up the somewhat puny studio recording. But overall, the man seemed like a shell of what I imagined his former self to be. He was defiant and agitated to little effect. Entitled music blogs dubbed him an “entitled old man.”

Not that Reed cared. See for yourself. Through the magic of Youtube, here’s a near complete look at the entire set:

While piecing that together, I stumbled on another unexpected and pretty incredible Chicago connection—Lou Reed loved Yeezus, and penned this enthusiastic review just months before he passed.

But here’s the real gem I unearthed during this research: a live recording of Reed performing at Park West in 1978. It’s all pomp and style, with a narrative grit, ascending from wailing guitars and fabulous backup singers. This is how I wish I could have remembered him in Chicago.

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