The Little Giant: Actor/Director John Cameron Mitchell Remembers His Neighbor, Lou Reed
The legend and his music accompanies the author through life's challenging stages
I live on the same street Lou did. He always looked like a little old Jewish lady with that tiny dog. I once followed him into an optician’s and pretended to try on enormous women’s glasses to get a good look. He glanced over. I feigned recognition, “Oh, hi! I was just listening to The Blue Mask (which I was).” “That’s my best,” he rumbled. “I know,” I stammered. “It’s my boyfriend’s favorite. He said it helped him quit drinking (which it didn’t).” Jack was trying to quit, but hadn’t. Once I came home, and he was drunk, playing double bass and singing along to Lou’s “Heavenly Arms.” I don’t remember him looking more beautiful. Like Lou, Jack was a smart, sexy, Semitic sicko from two hours out of the city. Only difference was that Lou was a musical genius and Jack was a pretty good bassist who hated himself for no good reason. Maybe Lou did too. Heavenly arms come to my rescue. In a world of ill will, the dancers are still.
Back at the optician’s, Lou nodded and turned to pick up a pair of thousand-dollar steel-rims.
Later, Jack worked for Lou. He was a bass tech and also ran the teleprompter – the lyrics were getting hard to remember. Lou once sent Jack out on a run: “Pick me up an E string and a box of Tucks.”
Next time I met Lou was after a performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the rock musical I wrote with Stephen Trask. Mr. Reed climbed six floors to the dressing room at the top of the flophouse hotel that housed the theater. We all near passed out. The Velvets were my favorite band. I knew that “Oh, Jim” on Berlin used to be a outtake called “Oh, Gin.” I was to be crushed when Moe Tucker called Obama a socialist. Stephen and Jack and I were incalculably changed by Lou’s weird mix of old-school pop, timeless riffs, fuck-you experimentalism, and gnawed-bone-dry poetry. We were shocked by the homoerotic itch of “Waiting for the Man,” cradled and rocked by “After Hours,” reduced to tears by “Halloween Parade,” inexplicably comforted by “Waves of Fear.” Stephen’s first song for Hedwig, “The Origin of Love,” found its origin in the structure of “The Last Great American Whale”…
…and suddenly the little giant is standing in our dressing room, winded from the climb, taking in our melted glitter faces. He trains his basilisk stare upon me. “You were beautiful.” There will never be another compliment.
Five years later, Jack died of his addictions in a Camden squat. He was with strangers. They left his body where it lay. Stephen and I sang “Satellite of Love” at his memorial. Later, I saw Lou play the Berlin album and I wept from beginning to end. I wanted to go backstage to tell him about Jack, but he might have not remembered him, which would’ve been bad. Some people said Lou was a prick. But he always made me feel better. He never left his characters where they lay, perhaps because they were based on people he knew. So what if he was nicer to them after they went into a song? Think of the songs. Goodbye Lou. Life is too short, and so were you. But if you’d been tall, you’d never have written a song.