Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? A Date With Lou Reed
Here’s my Lou Reed story. It’s long, but I’ve never written it down before, and so you’re getting the whole thing.
I loved Lou Reed the way lots of college kids did (and maybe even still do). I listened to his music, picked out his songs on guitar, sang the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” with my college band, wore a black leather jacket like his. I knew he was a rotten role model in many ways – ornery, substance-abusing, often loathed by his bandmates – but he was also a poet who spoke to me. His songs were literary enough to take seriously, funny enough to undercut that seriousness, and rocking enough to dance to. Not to mention that as a nerdy Jewish boy who cared too much about what other people thought, I couldn’t help looking up to a tough Jewish boy who didn’t care what anybody thought.
In 1985, a year out of college, I started working as an assistant at a New York TV production company run by a total mensch named John H. Williams. We made drama for PBS – you could still do that in those days – but we wanted to make movies. I was answering phones, typing letters, running errands, and dreaming of world conquest. At about this time, Lou Reed released New Sensations, which replaced his earlier recordThe Blue Mask on my personal non-stop rotation. Lou actually sounded happy on the record, which made him seem a bit more approachable rather than ferocious.
The new record had a song called “Doin’ the Things That We Want To,” about how much Lou loved the movies of Martin Scorsese and the plays of Sam Shepard. At the risk of sounding unbearably arty, this reminded me of a passage from Andre Malraux’s autobiography. At the end of World War II, Malraux and De Gaulle weren’t on speaking terms. One night, a messenger came to Malraux saying that De Gaulle apologized for everything, and wanted Malraux to serve as Minister of Information in the new French government. Simultaneously, a messenger visited De Gaulle to say that Malraux apologized for everything, and wanted to be Minister of Information. The two spoke, the appointment happened – and no one ever found out who sent the messengers.
So, I wondered, what if someone tried to get Reed, Scorsese, and Shepard to make a movie together? Someone like ... John Williams and me? I started with Reed, since he was clearly the linchpin, having just provided the excuse. Tracking down his people may actually have been easier in the days before the Internet; Reed thanked his manager on the record’s liner notes, and I just looked up the manager in the phone book and called him. Eric Kronfeld talked like a 1930s Warner Bros. tough guy. Trying to keep my voice from trembling, I told him I wanted to invite his client to dinner with Martin Scorsese and Sam Shepard, in honor of his song about them. Kronfeld told me he’d check with Lou, and asked me if Scorsese and Shepard were definitely coming. “Yes,” I lied.
In retrospect, I have no idea why I said dinner, and not a meeting, or a lunch. No idea whatsoever. I had met Scorsese a year earlier, through my great-uncle Max, who was the Scorsese family doctor. Although he was editing After Hours, Scorsese listened to my collegiate angst for half an hour, after which he advised me to go to USC if I wanted to make Hollywood movies, or to NYU if I wanted to make independent movies. I took his advice, and was somehow juggling NYU film school with my job at the production company. (Several months later, I dropped out. Now I teach there, and caution my students not to do what I did.) I still had the number for his assistant, who readily agreed to the dinner. Two down. Then I had to get in touch with Shepard, who was rehearsing his new play A Lie of the Mind at the Beacon Theatre on upper Broadway. I followed a telephone trail to his assistant director – Roxanne Rogers, his sister – who was also happy to acquiesce once I said that Reed and Scorsese were in. Suddenly, this actually seemed possible, because I was too green to know that it was impossible.
The next step was to go back and forth among all three representatives to nail down a time and place. “It can’t be a bar,” said Kronfeld. “Lou gets hassled by assholes every time he walks into a bar.” Roxanne Rogers suggested the Japanese restaurant next door to the Beacon Theatre, andthat was okay with Reed and Scorsese. Scorsese and Shepard would be coming solo; Reed would bring his wife, Sylvia, who had worked as a production assistant on Scorsese’s movie The King of Comedy a few years earlier. I was planning to attend with my boss, John Williams. That is, I was until Kronfeld shot that down. “No strangers,” he growled. “Lou will come to meet the guys he wants to meet, and the guy who invited him. That’s it.”
Now I started to panic. I was still an assistant, and had never attended a business meeting by myself. I told John what Kronfeld had said, wondering if maybe John should attend and say I had fallen ill at the last minute. But John – in a remarkable display of the calm integrity that was and is his hallmark – told me to relax, have a good time, and keep the receipt for reimbursement.
Naturally, I was the first to show up at the restaurant, by a full thirty minutes. I expected to stew in my own juices for the entire half-hour – but then, ten minutes early, Lou and Sylvia Reed arrived. I had forgotten that while Lou was my idol, Scorsese and Shepard were his idols. The first thing that threw me off about Lou Reed was his tallness. I had always imagined him as a short guy, scrappy and defensive. I was wrong about the height. He was taller than me, and I’m 5 foot 11. I found this unexpectedly intimidating; if I was wrong about this, what else might I be wrong about? (Fact-checking online, I see that there are any number of heights listed for him, including 5 foot 5 and 5 foot 8. Bullshit. He was a hair under six feet, as he himself confirmed in a 1966 interview I found on an Andy Warhol website. Where do these erroneous stats come from, anyway?
The second thing that threw me off was his open hostility. This wasn’t surprising, since Lou was famous for being hostile to interviewers, critics, record company executives, and Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale. So let’s call this one expectedly intimidating. “Where are Sam and Marty?” he asked, glowering at me with the clear implication that I was a fanboy who had lured him to dinner under false pretenses ... or maybe something worse. I reminded him that we were both early. He accepted this, but kept glowering. I had never been glowered at the way I was glowered at by Lou Reed, and it’s possible I never have been since. His eyes could burn holes in concrete.
Sylvia was considerably shorter than Lou, and much more pleasant – so instead of asking Lou all the fanboy questions I could have rolled out for days (“What is that strange recurring noise in ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’?”), I talked with Sylvia. She told me about working on King of Comedy, and how Lou would come to the set and act a little shy around Marty. She laughed. Lou glowered at her.
At 7 pm precisely, Sam Shepard entered the restaurant, tall and angular and striding like the cowboys he often played. I summoned up the courage to introduce myself, meeting his eyes – and learned that Sam Shepard, like many famously charismatic artists, appears to focus entirely on you when he talks to you. It’s both flattering and seductive. In a flash, I understood why, of all the great playwrights in American history, this one became a movie star too.
Suddenly, Lou Reed spoke up. “You mean you don’t know this guy?” he asked Shepard. “You mean you don’t know this guy like I don’t know this guy?” Sam agreed that he did not, and I added hastily that I did know Martin Scorsese. From that moment on, Lou’s demeanor changed entirely. He stopped glowering at me. On the contrary, he became positively solicitous, adopting the same amused, almost fatherly tenderness that he would display decades later on a YouTube interview with a clueless Swedish journalist who knew nothing about The Velvet Underground and asked all the wrong questions. Lou intuited – correctly – that I was a scared kid who had somehow managed to invite him to dinner with his own heroes, and that I was way out of my depth. Lou’s solicitousness took the form of ordering for me, annotating references I might be too young to catch, and even offering up the occasional fanboy trivia tidbit. (The strange recurring noise in “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is the sound of a metal folding chair being dragged over broken bottles. You won’t find that in Wikipedia, folks. To be fair, though, Scorsese asked the question.)
Scorsese showed up ten minutes late, and launched into a mile-a-minute aria about how he was finally going to get the chance to make his dream project, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” as soon as he finished paying the studio piper with “The Color of Money.” No one I have ever met talks faster than Martin Scorsese. Neither Lou or Sam could get a word in edgewise. As for me, I didn’t even try. We ordered a giant sushi platter and various appetizers, while I tried to ignore the fact that this was the most expensive meal I had ever paid for.
I wish I had taken notes. I wish I had recorded the whole evening on cassette tape. At the very least, I wish I had written down everything later that night, while I still remembered it all. But I did none of those things, and 28 years later, I have to admit that much of the conversation has vanished from my mind like high school trigonometry. I do know that the subjects included:
- Dr. Gene Scott, the cigar-smoking TV evangelist who turned out to be an object of fascination for all three men. “Jesus never said anything about cigars,” said Shepard, imitating Dr. Scott in mid-
puff. “He said a lot about a lot of things, but nothing about cigars.”
- The joy of riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles. (Scorsese joined me as an agnostic on this subject.) Lou and Sam both belonged to a club that would arrange for them to be met at any airport with a Harley rather than a rental car. Lou had already appeared in a famous TV ad for Honda scooters, but it was clear he wouldn’t be caught dead riding one in real life.
- Old blues, doo-wop, and R&B records. This took up a large portion of the evening. All three men were obsessive collectors, discussing individual labels – by which I mean the actual physical label at the center of a 45 rpm record – with Talmudic specificity. (Sam: “That one was on Okeh Records, with the blue label and the Indian head in the O.” Marty: “No, it was on King – similar blue, but with the crown on top.”)
At some point, remembering why I was there in the first place, I suggested feebly that perhaps all three of them might collaborate on a movie together. They agreed that it was a good idea, although they were of course just humoring me. I took a deep breath, and pitched a film adaptation of Lou’s classic single “Walk on the Wild Side,” about Andy Warhol's Factory in the mid-Sixties. Sam could write it, Marty could direct it, and Lou could do the music – Reed cut me off in mid-sentence. “Only three people know the truth about those days,” he said ominously. “I’m one of them, and I’m not telling.” So much for that idea. (I assume the other two were Warhol himself – who was still alive – and John Cale, with whom Lou would later record the heartbreaking Warhol tribute Songs for Drella. Or maybe it was Brigid Berlin? Billy Name? Gerard Malanga? Now we’ll never know.)
I rallied, and pivoted to a Plan B I’d come up with while listening to the evening’s conversation. It would be a movie about the young record collectors who went South in the early Sixties to track down the legendary blues musicians they’d only heard on ancient 78 rpm records, like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. “I live for the blues,” said Martin Scorsese. “Everyone in the Velvets loved the blues,” said Lou Reed. This set the three of them off on another Talmudic discussion about old records, and allowed me to delude myself into thinking that John Williams and I might actually end up producing the movie. That delusion lasted until the next morning, when I reviewed the conversation in my mind and realized that no one had said anything to suggest this, including me.
Finally, after a few hours, the check arrived. Shepard took me aside and said softly, “Let me pick this up.” I thanked him, but insisted that I had it, and I did. I hoped John wouldn’t fire me on the spot when he saw the amount. (He didn’t.) Lou Reed said goodbye to me with that same paternal amusement, and seemed sincere when he thanked me for a very enjoyable night. Before everyone left, the manager asked them all to sign a placemat the restaurant would frame for its wall. They complied, graciously. (Don’t look for it; the establishment is long gone.) Then they went their separate ways, and – after calling John – I ran to the nearby apartment of my friends Nina and Mark to pour out the whole story. I had to tell someone immediately, because it seemed unlikely that anyone else would ever believe me in the future. I can still barely believe it myself.
What I remember most strongly from the whole evening are the looks on Lou Reed’s face – first the deadly glower, and then the surprising tenderness. He couldn't help rooting for the underdog in any situation; and once he realized it was me, he rooted for me. I’m sorry that many people never got the chance to go from the first look to the second with him – and that just as many who did, ended up right back at the first. But that night, his acceptance felt like a benediction from a hero, and gave me the courage to keep trying to make impossible things happen.
Despite all the reasons why he shouldn’t be, he’s still my hero. R.I.P., Lou – and thanks.
* Jack Lechner is a professor at New York University and has produced such TV shows and movies as Mad Men and The Fog Of War. He sent this out to friends the night Lou died and has graciously allowed us to publish it.