Lou Reed, Lewis Allen Reed, Levi ben Yossef z”l
It’s always the same story. Take some creative and influential kind of people. Entrepreneurs. Psycho-therapists. Writers. Musicians. You name it, and there you go, most of them are Jewish. We take it for granted but we shouldn’t. Because we are a very tiny lot of the world population. And despite this, we produce a huge amount of clever and creative people.
The fact that Lou Reed was Jewish was never particularly surprising to me. He had been one of the geniuses of rock music, one of the most influential artists of his kind; and he was Jewish, obviously –at least to me.
Lou Reed was Lewis Allen Reed, Levi ben Yossef, as he is recorded in the registers of the synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah. Because indeed, Lou Reed had his bar mitzvah like all the Jewish boys of his generation. He even began working as an accountant, in his father’s firm.
Then life took another route. And now it would be certainly difficult to think at Lou Reed as the average nice Jewish boy. Rather, the opposite is true. Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman from Jerusalem, who used to meet with him regularly, has written that Lou Reed “represented a counter Jew […]. The Jewish tradition presents clear boundaries; Lou liked to blur boundaries. He rebelled against authority and charted a unique path for himself”.
The life of Lou Reed had been outrageous and transgressive. In his life, Lou Reed had experimented every possible addiction. To call his sexual life promiscuous would be an understatement. But even if Lou Reed has never been truly a nice Jewish boy, and certainly did not fulfil the expectations of his Jewish parents, his Judaism was deeply felt. Being Jewish was an important part of his personality.
Lou Reed had been one of the pioneers of the punk movement. Which was a very Jewish movement, from the very start. Notoriously, punk (which is not dead, by the way) was born in a shmatta business in London, in King’s Road, the property of a Sephardi guy called Malcolm Mc Laren Then punk moved to the States, in a small basement flat called the CBGB, which was a place where several Jewish teens used to hang out on their Friday nights. People called Lenny Kaye, Chris Stein, Jeffrey Hyman etc.
As you can guess, most of them were Jewish. It was the generation of Jewish artists who then produced their first works after the Six Days War. It was the first generation not to hide their Jewishness. That was the Jewish milieu of Lou Reed.
Besides belonging to such a generation, Lou Reed came from a large Jewish family. Two of his aunties have emigrated to then Palestine, Eretz Israel, in the 20s. Another auntie was Shirley Novick, a powerful labour organizer in the Yiddish speaking trade unions of New York. In 2010 Lou Reed himself produced a movie “Red Shirley” to honour her, on the eve of her 100th birthday. It is a long interview and it’s worth viewing, as it is an interesting slice of Jewish history.
But probably the most Jewish moment of Lou Reed’s career is his song Good Evening Mr Waldheim, recorded in 1989.
In such a song Lou Reed imagines a meeting between Kurt Waldheim, Jesse Jackson and the pope.
Kurt Waldheim, as you probably recall, was an Austrian politician and diplomat, whose Nazi past had come into the surface in the 80s. Jesse Jackson was an Afro-American Democrat, who in the same time was building a political alliance (called “Common ground”) with some weird personalities, like the well known anti-Semitic preacher Louis Farrakhan.
As you can imagine, Lewis Allen Reed, Lou Reed, does not mince words in addressing the imaginary meeting between a Polish pope, a WWII German military officer and an Afro-American politician with debatable tastes. And it goes this way:
“Good evening Mr. Waldheim, and Pontiff how are you? You have so much in common in the things you do … Jesse, you say “Common ground”: Does that include the PLO? … Oh, oh, Common ground… Remember those civil rights workers buried in the ground
Those civil right workers have names, obviously: Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. They are two Jewish young men who in 1964 have come down from New York to Mississippi, to encourage Afro Americans to register and to vote in elections. And they had been lynched by a Ku Klux Klan mob. They worked for a better world. And they were Jewish (I was about to say: obviously).
The song then goes on: “If I ran for president and once was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Wouldn’t you call me on it, The way I call you on Farrakhan?
Now, this rhyme between Ku Klux Klan and the name of the Muslim preacher Louis Farrakhan is probably the bluntest paragraph of the whole song. Not to mention the charge of antisemitism against the Palestinian leadership, which to my mind is well-grounded. It is a long affaire indeed. Quite a few white suprematist leaders have recently visited Iran, and/or expressed support for Hezbollah. Like in the past they were fond of Yasser Arafat. White racist and anti-Zionists are bedfellows. Guess why.
That song of Lou Reed is included in one of his best album, “New York”, recorded in 1989. It’s a good album. What I really like about that song, is that there are no words such as Jew, Jews, Judaism, Israel. No Jewish name, either. Rather, the anti-semites are named, labelled and mocked.
Good evening Mr Waldheim is a deeply Jewish song, visceral, that truly comes from the Jewish kishkes of a New York artist, who never kept into darkness his sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
Writing that lyric, without mentioning the J-word is, in itself, a blunt statement, in the very face of those who spend so much time in hair-splitting exercises, like the distinction between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism. As if there was such a big difference between an Arab terror attack and a Ku Klux Klan lynching.
I would not recommend Lou Reed as a role model for our teens; mainly because there is nothing less effective than an adult pointing at a transgressive role model. Rather, I admire the readiness of Lou Reed to embrace Judaism, in such a visceral, uncompromising way.
And I think we all can learn from that.
May the memory -and the courage- of Lou Reed, Levis Allen Reed, Levi ben Yosef ve Tova be a blessing and an inspiration for all of us.
[9 November 2013]