Six years ago, the late Lou Reed was South By Southwest’s keynote speaker — a slot which generally involves a famous rock icon giving words of encouragement. Reed, on the other hand, did pretty much exactly what you’d expect, alternating between bad-mouthing his own back catalog and berating the audience for not buying more of it. It was kind of jerky, kind of charming, and very, very funny; pretty much a perfect display for one of the rock era’s most famously grumpy giants.
Reed departed this dimension last October at age 71, leaving behind a wealth of similar stories. So this year’s model of South By Southwest offered up “Lou Reed: A Rock & Roll Heart,” a war-stories panel in which folks who knew the Velvet Underground co-founder told some tales. Moderator Bill Bentley (Reed’s record-company publicist for many years) told the audience he envisioned the panel as something along the lines of “Sister Ray” – “It starts, goes crazy and ends, and everything in the middle is just interesting.”
It was, however, well short of crazy, starting with the opening benediction for the previous night’s horrific drunk-driving deaths. Bentley called for 10 seconds of silence so everybody in the room “could just close their eyes and think good thoughts.” That set a tone of subdued melancholia, like a quiet wake.
Nevertheless, singer/poet Garland Jeffreys did what he could to perk up the energy level, recalling his first meeting with Reed 53 (!) years ago in Syracuse, New York, and about how one time Reed gave him an I’m-not-worthy bow at a show. Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison read some of Reed’s poetry. Rock critic David Fricke recalled Reed giving him a 20-minute lecture on journalistic ethics, and Reed’s incredulous response upon learning that a stereo store had given out a copy of “The Velvet Underground and Nico” as a stereo-demonstration record (“Are you fucking kidding me?!”). And Reed’s ex-wife and onetime manager Sylvia Reed praised his honesty, saying that he “wouldn’t have known how to do a phony thing in his life.”
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All pleasant enough, although one suspects that Reed himself would have snickered, scoffed at the tributes and wise-cracked some smack about the proceedings. During the brief question-and answer session, someone asked Sylvia why Reed had appeared in a Honda commercial featuring his signature hit “Walk on the Wild Side.”
“For the money,” she said, leaving the “duh” silent to laughter from the audience. And as the panel ended and dispersed, “Walk on the Wild Side” began playing over the speakers. Had that been up to Reed, it probably would have been the aforementioned “Sister Ray.”