Lou Reed & Elvis Costello - Perfect Day
Lou Reed & Me: A Lesson in Artistic Authenticity
There is a unique euphoria that comes from discovering and then falling for an extraordinary work of art. Not just a catchy ditty you like to hum along to or something that makes you laugh, but a song or film or comedy bit that reveals a new truth about life. It's a lightning strike that electrifies you right down to your component molecules.
I felt it when I first heard I Will Follow blast out of our family stereo's speakers as an 8 year-old, and when I first saw George Carlin on TV a few years later. It happened when I heard the album Purple Rain, and again when I watched Do The Right Thing. I'd just uncovered what I believed were genuine truths and I simply had to share them.
Nothing curdles that youthful elation quite so quickly as the bleak vacuum of indifference.
So it was in 1980s suburban Toronto, an unforgiving landscape for a kid whose cultural tastes extended beyond the mainstream.
In that disconnected world that seems both so long and yet not so long ago — a place with no internet or mobile phones or even answering machines — everything that mattered seemed so distant. So connecting with anyone or anything about a mutual cultural passion felt as if the universe had magically revealed to you another who was in on the same deep, amazing secret.
In that culturally isolated existence, it was nearly impossible to imagine this future — an implausible life that intersects with so many of the artists whose works thoroughly defined my adolescent experiences, relationships and, really, so much of my worldview.
I was not a Velvet Underground or Lou Reed fan growing up. They seemed too historical and I was emphatically anti-nostalgia. But sometime in the mid-80s, I saw Daniel Richler interview Lou Reed on the excellent music program The New Music. They sat on a slope in a park and bantered about until Lou suddenly got up and walked off. I'd never seen anything like it. It was so rude and petulant. And yet amazing. It was just pure rock n roll.
That moment crystallized my understanding of what it meant to be an authentic artist and galvanized my interest in his music. Lou Reed was just being real. There was no artifice or pretense. This was a true artist. It was a realization that, for me, was electric.
About 25 years later, Lou was the 4th guest we taped for a TV series I co-developed and executive produced called Spectacle: Elvis Costello with… It was April of 2008 and, once we confirmed Lou as a guest, I immediately thought back to that incident with Richler. Given that one failed taping would blow our budget and sink the whole series before it even really began, I was pretty terrified of a repeat. So we had Lou's best friend, the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, in the audience at SNL's studio in Rockefeller Plaza as a possible stand-in, just in case.
Lou started off a bit cool with Elvis but soon warmed up and really opened up. By about 40 minutes into the taping I began to feel we were witnessing something magical: the single greatest Lou Reed interview ever. Just then Lou stood up, pulled off his mic, and walked out the side door of Studio 8H. No explanation or hesitation. He was gone.
I ran out the door and down the hall after him, my heart in my mouth and my mind on the years of effort it took to get the series off the ground, and also on the guarantee I had given the bank that was almost certainly going to call our loan.
That SNL hallway is maybe 50 feet long. Although I was sprinting, it felt like a marathon distance. Eventually I turned the corner and ran into Lou's manager, Tom Sarig. Lou was nowhere to be seen.
Me: Tom, what happened? Where is he?!?
Tom (completely matter of factly): It's fine Jordan. He just went to the bathroom.
Never has a trip to the loo given me such relief.
Of course he returned and finished the interview. It was brilliant. Stunningly open and genuinely heartfelt. Lou then performed a number of tracks, including this simple, beautiful duet with Elvis of Perfect Day, with piano accompaniment by Steve Nieve and Kevin Hearn. The entire experience was raw and honest and terrifying and magnificent.
After the taping, Lou left before I had a chance to thank him. A few months later, before the show aired, I ran into Lou in a hotel foyer in Toronto. When I called out his name he turned, startled. I went up, re-introduced myself and thanked him for appearing on Spectacle. In my mind I was also thanking him for setting the example of what it means to be an artist.
I was so glad to have had that opportunity because watching Elvis interview Lou reminded me that, beyond his enormous influence on music, Lou Reed set the standard for artistic authenticity, answering only to his own muse.