Patti Smith can be counted on to give good speech. Not only is she quipped with the language and cadence of a poet, but she paid attention to the gifted people and strange situations around her in the 1970s, helped by the fact that, while others indulged in excess, she chose to remain more or less sober. She can remember New York’s rock heyday.
Lou Reed was one of those gifted people around her. The two were colleagues and friends, but not too close, affording her an objective take on his triumphs and struggles, kind advice and gruff foibles. Her thoughtful, poignant, emotional speech last night to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (this is his first induction as a solo artist, following a group induction as the Velvet Underground in 1996, also with a speech by Smith), makes their mutual admiration abundantly clear…
“Hello, everybody. On October 27th, 2013, I was at Rockaway Beach and I got the message that Lou Reed had passed. It was a solitary moment. I was by myself and I thought of him by the ocean, and I got on the subway back to New York City. It was a 55-minute ride, and in that 55 minutes, when I returned to New York City, it was as if the whole city had transformed. People were crying on the streets. I could hear Lou’s voice coming from every cafe. Everyone was playing his music. Everyone was walking around dumbfounded. Strangers came up to me and hugged me. The boy who made me coffee was crying. It was the whole city. It was more [pauses and tears up]… Sorry. I realized, at that moment, that I had forgotten, when I was on the subway, that he was not only my friend, he was the friend of New York City.
I made my first eye contact with Lou dancing to the Velvet Underground when they were playing upstairs at Max’s Kansas City in the summer of 1970. The Velvet Underground were great to dance to because they had this sort of transformative, like a surf beat, like a dissonant surf beat. They were just fantastic to dance to. And then somewhere along the line, Lou and I became friends. It was a complex friendship, sometimes antagonistic, and sometimes sweet. Lou would sometimes emerge from the shadows at CBGBs. If I did something good, he would praise me. If I made a false move, he would break it down.
One night when we were touring, separately, we wound up in the same hotel, and I got a call from him. He asked me to come to his room. He sounded a little dark, so I was a little nervous. But I went up, and the door was open. I found him in the bathtub dressed in black. So I sat on the toilet and listened to him talk. It seemed like he talked for hours, and he talked about, well, all kinds of things. He spoke compassionately about the struggles of those who fall between genders. He spoke of pre-CBS Fender amplifiers and political corruption. But most of all, he talked about poetry. He recited the great poets — Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara. He spoke of the poets’ loneliness and of the poets’ dedication to the highest muses. When he fell into silence, I said, ‘Please, take care of yourself so the world can have you as long as it can.’ And Lou actually smiled.
Everything that Lou taught me, I remember. He was a humanist, heralding and raising the downtrodden. His subjects were his royalty that he crowned in lyrics without judgment or irony. He gave us, beyond the Velvet Underground, Transformer and ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ Berlin, meditations to New York, homages to Poe and his mentor Andy Warhol and Magic and Loss. His consciousness infiltrated and illuminated our cultural voice. Lou was a poet, able to fold his poetry within his music in the most poignant and plainspoken manner.
Oh, such a perfect day [cries]… Sorry. Such a perfect day. I’m glad I spent it with you. You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good. You were good, Lou. You are good. True poets must often stand alone. As a poet, he must be counted as a solitary artist. And so, Lou, thank you for brutally and benevolently injecting your poetry into music. And for this, we welcome you, Lou Reed, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”