On December 16 2013 under a full moon, in about 30 degrees wind, at 6:30 PM, about 250 people were already waiting in line at the Apollo in Harlem. There was no VIP access, so recognizable faces and music industry insiders and friends and neighbors were all in one line waiting for the doors to open. A private memorial service for one of the most complicated and productive Rock ‘n’ Roll musicians who had died 50 days before after exhausting all interventions to keep him alive.
It was a ticketed event so no scrambling for the “best” seats took place. At 7:15 PM, Laurie Anderson, the wife of Lou Reed and his creative companion, walked on stage. She stood silent in a solo spot light, dressed in a deep, dark red pants suit before a small electric piano and slowly began to play in her signature fingering soft prolonged notes as she spoke over them. She told us tonight we were gathered to celebrate the life of her husband Lou Reed. She told us tonight was a part of a Buddhist process called Bardo that helps the deceased spirit leave this world and enter into the cosmos. She explained that for the last 49 days, she and Lou’s closest friends had been gathering daily to share memories of Lou and be with each other as a process of release. Other traditions have similar grief clearing rituals. The Irish wake and sitting Shiva come to mind. Bardo is a process that takes 49 days for the spirit to pass from here into the cosmos. One that must be finished in order for reincarnation to be possible. December 15 was the final day of Bardo and this is why we were gathered together this night. She reminded us not to cry; she said that Lou had finally left the world. He was finally gone, she said, so no tears. You are his friends and fellow artists gathered to honor his creative energy and life force and path.
She then spoke of his last days when he was told there was nothing more that could be done. How she took him as he requested to their home in the Hamptons. She told us he was very weak and very much alive in the moment, practicing the Tai Chi moves that had become for him a daily practice 20 years ago. This time, he did them with his fingers as he looked out of the window at the beauty of a late fall landscape. Friends came and said their good byes. Some he let hold him. Laurie said he was at peace and looking forward to the journey. The stage lights were slowly coming up in a luminous red glow highlighting the hundreds of candles burning revealing the homey, make-shift band instrument setup and a row of chairs and a couple of worn couches. Laurie stop speaking but kept playing the soothing centering notes as Lou’s close friends came on to the stage and took their seats.
We saw multi-media pictures and video clips of the Lou the world had known from the Warhol Velvet Underground days, all black clad, to the post VU period, the platinum haired Bowie Berlin nights and his emergence as a solo artist. A young rabbi all dressed in white spoke in an almost ecstatic style of the meaning of death. His sister Bunny began to speak of her brother Lou, their childhood, and a lifelong relationship. One could feel a tearing beginning in the public image he had so carefully created and the media had hammered him in; the bad boy, the nasty, press-taunting sneer, the substance abuser. All masks he wore in public to cover over the Lou the night was honoring: the poet, the iconoclast, the artist relentlessly exploring and reinventing himself, not dependent on critical approval.
Then they came, the Rock ‘n’ Roll royalty, including Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Paul Simon, Antony Hegarty, John Zorn, Jenny Muldaur, and Marc Ribot, to pay homage in performance to the poetry of his lyrics. Friends, including the producer Hal Willner, and Lou’s liver doctor, revealed the fiercely tender, if sometimes combative, Lou. Hal joined in reading Kaddish as Phillip Glass played; his Tai Chi teacher spoke and demonstrated a long form exercise dedicated to Lou. Laurie returned and played a song on her violin that she had given to Lou on his birthday and shared almost in a shaman way what being coupled, both as lovers and partners in creativity, taught her. It was deeply personal and deeply enlightening.
The evening closed in what I would think was the best kind of whoosh to help Lou fly into the cosmos. The stage filled with all the performers and family and friends, including for me a moment of true compassion when Laurie went off stage and pulled Sylvia Reed back on with her. It was a beautiful visual bonding moment for the two women Lou had loved and had loved him back. Sylvia was the wife who saved his life and his career and brought him to the point where Laurie could fall in love with him. Patti Smith leading in song along with the Tai Chi students demonstrating filled the Apollo with light and energy and sent us off into the night with the memory a man who continued to artistically challenge himself; one who worked hard to transform his sense of self, and despite popular myth to his friends, was indeed a tender, generous person and artist
Riding downtown on the subway, I sat and talked with the writer Lynn Tillman, the art critic and New York Times art blogger Linda Yablonsky, and transgressive musician and performance artist Kembra Pfahler. It was our own Bardo moment as we shared stories. Whoosh Lou!