I met Lou Reed for the first time at the restaurant at L’Ermitage Hotel in LA. I was a great admirer of his solo work, Street Hassle in particular (I came later to the Velvet Underground), so I went over and introduced myself. I was in Los Angeles working on the post-production of Raging Bull and I invited Lou to join us as we played back the final mix, the only time we actually screened the film on the west coast. When the lights came up, he seemed fairly overwhelmed. I remember that he was even impressed with the use of music, from Mascagni to Louis Prima.
After the screening, I happened to mention to Lou that I wanted to make a film out of a short story called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz, which I had read the year before when Bob De Niro and I were working on the script. I was amazed when he told me that he’d been a student of Schwartz’s at Syracuse University, and he was just as amazed that I knew this autobiographical story by his mentor, the man who gave him a foundation in poetry, and that it had resonated so deeply for me. Later, I thought about adapting In Dreams for my contribution to New York Stories. I’d still like to make that film one day.
Lou’s lyrics have two lives: as they are sung and heard, and as they are read on the printed page. And I think that they could only have come from someone who grew up in the New York area and came of age in Manhattan, who moved and wrote and sang from the pulse of life in this city. They describe the city as it was but they also incarnate it. You feel it in the rhythms (for instance, the driving rhythm of Street Hassle set by the string section, or the propulsive guitars on the live version of Sweet Jane, to name two favourites), you feel it in Lou’s voice, and you feel it in those words – really, they’re all one and the same. It’s essential New York speech, and it feels so close to what I was always trying to do in my own pictures, in the way the characters speak to each other and express themselves. You read or listen to the words and you see those people, hanging out or waiting or hustling on street corners or talking in tenement halls or going out on the boulevard.
Take this section of Street Hassle, about a woman who’s OD’d and the hustler she picked up who’s stuck trying to get rid of her body:
You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice
To talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing they see
That allows them the right to be
Why they follow it, you know, it’s called bad luck.
That is a movie.
Lou and I got to know each other over the years. I was so touched when he wrote a song about me and Sam Shepard on his 1984 album New Sensations – actually, it was about our work and how much it meant to him. In 1987, he auditioned for the role of Pontius Pilate in my film The Last Temptation of Christ, but his old friend David Bowie ended up playing the part. In the 90s, we tried to get a film made based on Dirty Boulevard from Lou’s album New York, from a script by Reinaldo Povod, who had written a play called Cuba and His Teddy Bear with Bob De Niro and who later passed away at a very young age. We were never able to get that picture into production.
When I got the news that Lou had died, I was absolutely shocked. We had lost touch and I had no idea that he had been so sick. He was a great singer, a great writer, a great New York artist … a great artist, period. He actually spoke and sang in the voice of the lowest of the low, the dregs, the “least among us” – the people looking to follow the first thing that gives them the right to be. He spoke the language of people with nothing but their own humanity, and he elevated them. His words and his music – sometimes as close to everyday life as breathing – inspired many, many people over the years. I’m one of them.
Taken from an updated edition of I’ll Be Your Mirror by Lou Reed, published 7 November by Faber.