Joseph Arthur Remembers Lou Reed

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Videos by American Songwriter

Visual artist and poetic thinker Joseph Arthur has shared a lot of his free verse with us over the years. Here, the singer-songwriter behind The Ballad of Boogie Christ offers up a poem for the late Lou Reed, as well as a song he wrote entitled “Happy Birthday Lou.”

I don’t know where to start.
The first time I met him
We ended up eating ice cream
next to Dolly Parton.
Peter Gabriel brought him to my show
and it was overwhelming
meeting those guys,
playing for them.
He said,
“I like the song ‘King of Hide and Seek.’”
It wasn’t even called that but that was a line in it.
I can’t even remember what song it is now
but I was there chatting with my hero.
He brought DAT recorder (remember those?)
to record my show for Peter to bring back to the label and help decide if they should sign me.
He told me that night over dinner next to Dolly,
“Don’t ever sign away your publishing.”
Peter was offering me a publishing deal as well,
so it got awkward for a sec but then we all laughed it off.
I skipped home to my friend Jeremy’s place where I was crashing.
I had hung out with Lou Reed.
It seemed impossible
and my dreams were coming true.
Months and years passed.
I met him a few more times with Peter
and Annie O, publicist to both of them.
I think we went to some VH1 award thing together.
I was always just hanging on, not ever sure why I was invited or attending these things
but I just acted like I knew what I was doing and hung in there with ‘em.
(I remember once somebody who worked at Chelsea Piers was telling me what to do with my towel and then suddenly Lou was there and was chiming in with the employee.
I was using Peter’s guest pass.
I said, “Hey Lou, it’s me Joe, we met before.”
He seemed confused or surprised,
but then again, locker rooms are weird places)
and that’s how I would see Lou over the years,
from time to time
and always at a distance
and though I was privileged to know him,
we weren’t really friends
until a few years ago
when Jenni reintroduced us.
We exchanged numbers
and we began hanging out on a regular basis.
Every time, or most times I rode into the city
I would see if he wanted to hang
or go to a meeting or a movie.
I don’t know what changed
but there was an ease between us;
a love,
a real friendship.
And though I never lost sight of who he was, my hero,
he really did just become Lou to me.
A friend.
Sometimes a pain,
but mostly, just really great company.
Somebody I loved and could feel loved me back.
I remember riding bikes with him in the city–
not motorcycles but bicycles and his was a Brompton,
a fancy fold-up one.
We were looking around for a bike seat to replace the leather one on his bike.
It seems absurd riding bikes around the city with Lou Reed but these type of things
were actually surprisingly natural.
There was something father figure-ish about him for me
and I felt the need to look after him when we would hang,
even though he was always the smartest person in the room.
He would show up for you,
come see me play,
pick out certain things,
and give advice which was always deep and good.
“Play with this one,
don’t play with that one,” he would say.
“You played that one too fast on Letterman,”
he said about “Travel as Equals.”
I sent him the lyrics to that one and he congratulated me for it.
It was like getting a degree from a great college,
Lou Reed U.

Sometimes I would listen to his music
and text him about it because I could.
I would say something like,
“Sorry to fan-out, but the song ‘Coney Island Baby’ is the best song ever written.”
He would always answer nicely and graciously,
in spite of his curmudgeonly rep, he was really sweet and generous
and he would humor my hero worship and then allow for the friendship to return to a cool equilibrium.
He was really great that way.

He liked going to movies;
good ones
and bad ones,
art ones and blockbusters.
He loved tech and fancy headphones.
He played me some off his iPhone once and I was surprised to see that he was listening to or had a Van Halen one.
Lou likes Van Halen?
He was open minded, so nothing was a surprise.
We watched Dexter together at Jenni’s once
and he loved it.
He was just a dude
and we shared a lot of love.
We even named our little group
Family Love.
Two birthdays in a row him and Jenni sang me “Happy Birthday.”
I was blessed.

Lou was really just a friend
but our friendship was rooted in sobriety
and a little over a year ago,
I started taking pills here and there.
At first, just the occasional Valium but soon that turned into Vicodin
and I was enjoying getting high again.
Soon after that I was in Paris and I started to drink.
News travelled thru our circle and soon I got a text from Lou saying,
“Don’t throw it all away.”
I was lost then and angry
and stayed drunk for a few months
and lost touch with Lou and others in my circle.
After a few months of being way out in the wilderness of substance abuse,
I sobered up
but I was somewhat embarrassed and ashamed and felt I let Lou and others down.
I wanted to really get strong again before I approached Lou and the group.
I had to prove to myself that I was serious about sobriety again
so it took awhile for me to reach back out
and when I did,
there was more distance than there had been,
and being an addict, I took all that really personally.
I didn’t realize what he was going thru with his liver.
I thought he was mad at me for relapsing
then I found out thru the news he had had a liver transplant.
I reached out and he reached back,
and soon after, he said he was doing great
and by now so was I.
I started texting him again trying to make plans to meet up.
The last one was in July.
I said, “Want to meet up?”
He said,
“I’m in Cleveland my friend”
I said,
“I’m sorry to hear that : ) ”
He said,
I said,

And that’s it.

I had no idea
he was gonna leave for good.
I regret not trying harder to see him sooner
but in my mind,
there was time for us to reconnect.
I’m trying now
to focus on the fact that I had him in my life;
that I loved him,
and he loved me,
and not think about the lost opportunity to see him again
and talk about what happened.
I would have loved to let him know that I was doing really well
and I would have loved to see him one more time
but that’s the final wall of death.
We can’t cross over
and we can’t come back
and those that go before us become one with the mystery of everything.
Lou was already and always of that mystery.

I remember
walking down the street with him at night in the city
and I asked him if he was ever gonna write an autobiography.
He said,
“Not a chance.
I don’t owe them a single thing more than what I’ve already given.”
And he was so right.


I was lucky enough to celebrate his 70th birthday with him and relatively small group of his friends and colleagues. There was a small theater-like room in the city and we all got to present something,
tell a story.Jenni Muldaur and I sang a song I wrote for him called “Happy Birthday Lou.”

The lyrics go:

For our dear Lou
You rock n roll saint
Who painted the world
With rock n roll paint
Who plugged in the streets
And made the squares faint
Immortalities waiting for you

For our dear Lou
Our rock n roll brother
Whose song will be sung forever and forever
Whose dream will be passed from here to another
They said it could never come true

Family love
We love you
Family love
We love you
Happy birthday Lou

For our dear Lou
You rock n roll sage
If love was a book
You’d be on the page
That people ripped out
To free them from the cage
The boredom that life puts them thru

Family love
We love you
Family love we love you
Happy birthday Lou

(That’s where I ended the song but here were the other lyrics I left out:

For our dear brother Lou
The rock n roll cure
Which came from your vision
Both twisted and pure
Whose reason was all on its own

And still you’re ahead
Still they don’t know
How you take them on
And make a new show
Which they fight and cannot understand
But when they do
They praise you’ve been brave
Your body and song
Avoiding the grave
As you give the young
A roadmap of where they might go
If they follow no one
If they listen within
If they ignore critics
And purveyors of skin
If they go in deeper
Than those who have come before

For our dear Lou
You are the best
From an angel of mercy
Down to a pest
For our dear Lou
There will not be another
You are the daddy
And rock n roll brother

Lou is seventy
But infinity never gets old
Lou is seventy)

I got to sit next to him as friends and family celebrated his life
thru film
poems and songs
his sister talked about how he was an amazing brother
and handed him a photo of him as a teenager with the family dog.
Just a goofy kid really.
When I looked over the old man’s shoulder to see the young version of himself looking up at both of us, I wondered who could have known that he would change the course of rock n roll and invent it for so many of us.

That was another night when I skipped home,
not really believing how I came to be there.

As I mourn his death in sleepless hotel room at the base of a mountain in Austria,
memories are flooding me;
invitations I turned down for being busy (never be busy for those you love).

Another story I have to share is walking with a group of us
including Lou in NYC
in the early evening
and passing an apartment where
I heard them playing “Pale Blue Eyes” on the stereo thru the window.

I stopped Lou and said, “Come here and listen”
We stood outside and listened to his, and perhaps anyone’s, most beautiful song.

Then I urged him to knock on the window
I said, “How funny would it be if you did that?”
He smiled
a smile that said,
“Not a chance”
and kept walking.


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