The Wire

In Writing

Lou Reed 1942–2013: Oren Ambarchi: A Night At The Opera

November 2013

In 1997 I was on the subway in New York, proudly wearing my Merzbow Rainbow Electronics II T-shirt. While I was sitting there daydreaming, the train stopped at the next station and Lou Reed got on and sat right opposite me. My heart started racing. I was trying to muster up the courage to talk to him about his noise masterpiece Metal Machine Music, what he thought of Merzbow and other practitioners of Japanese noise, but he was busy reading the newspaper and, well, I’d heard he could be difficult. By the time I felt brave enough to bother him he got up quickly and got off the train. Ah well. In any case I was thrilled.

Earlier, in 1993, I had a memorable dim sum brunch with John Zorn, Marc Ribot and one of my guitar heroes, Robert Quine. I pestered Quine about the recording of The Blue Mask (still one of Lou’s best in my opinion – the combination of Lou Reed and Robert Quine was a match made in heaven). Quine told me many tales of his trip to Australia with Lou circa 84, which blew my mind.

Years later I received some congratulation emails from friends when Lou Reed’s Invisible Jukebox came out in October 2009 (The Wire 308). Alan Licht had played Lou my live release Triste and he seemed into it. This led to me being invited to play the Lou Reed/Laurie Anderson curated Vivid festival at the Sydney Opera House in May 2010. I flew into Sydney and arrived at the Opera House around midday, struggling to carry all my heavy gear towards the elevator. When the door opened Lou and his producer Hal Willner were the only other people inside, which was pretty overwhelming. Lou was very gracious right off the bat, making me feel completely comfortable and asking me about what equipment/effect pedals I use, amp preferences, my work with Sunn 0))) etc. I was relieved. Mr Willner then asked me if I’d like to join them on their radio show New York Shuffle, which they were broadcasting from Sydney. An hour later I was sitting in the studio with Hal playing various blues and pop tracks from my iPod. I was about to play a cheesy Fleetwood Mac track when Lou walked in and looked over my shoulder to see what I was cueing up. I got nervous, so before he could see my selection I quickly jumped to a track from Fushitsusha’s Pathetique. “Ah, Haino,” said Lou, after a few seconds.

The following night was the noise night curated by Lou at the Opera House. He had assembled a huge line-up including Melt Banana, Boris, Bardo Pond, Rice Corpse, Zond, Marc Ribot, Night Terrors etc. We were all supposed to set up and somehow fit onstage at once, which was almost impossible. Lou wanted the acts to cross fade without stopping to encourage people to improvise with each other.

But the Opera House staff seemed underprepared/understaffed and totally out of their depth. It didn’t matter to Lou – he wanted to make this happen and the staff just had to work it out. Both he and Laurie offered to be on standby and play between the acts if someone wasn’t ready to go.

I was down to follow Melt Banana and the crew had to drag my gear onto the stage in front of the audience while Lou played some noise guitar. The crew turned my amps on but they weren’t working. Lou, thinking I was ready, started to fade out. With none of my stuff ready, I turned to Lou and said, “Keep playing!" He didn’t hear me, so I yelled, “Keep fucking playing!” He smiled and carried on. As I started my set, I thought, I just yelled at rock god Lou Reed! Sheesh!

For the evening’s final encore a bunch of us played together, with Lou at the front leading the way. What an end to a whirlwind day! During the brief interaction I had with him, it struck me how gracious, generous and genuinely interested Lou was in what younger artists were up to.

I am very thankful to have known him for those brief few days in Sydney. The impact of his myriad projects and the depth of his work will live on for generations to come. Lou Reed was a rock god and a mensch. May he rest in peace.

Comments

In peace indeed. The rage, and then the peace.
And the thing about menschlichkeit is that a mensch brings out the mensch in others that they touch.
And perhaps that is the most durable of Lou Reed's many effects.

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