You would have thought emails are impersonal things: that they do not have any character. But they do. The last email I got from Lou Reed was as spindly and fragile as anything ever written with a quill pen. It said: “thanks so much love”. He sent it from his iPhone and signed it “Dr Oliver Hummingbird”. He liked his aliases, did Lou.
I had sent him good wishes when GQ magazine had made him one of its Men of the Year (he got the Inspiration award).
I have actually known him twice in my life. The first time was a solo effort on my part and consisted of my being glued to a record player for the entirety of my student career listening to the Velvet Underground & Nico. Because I knew that album so well, I was perfectly placed to impress him with my knowledge of his back catalogue when I finally found a way to inveigle myself into his actual presence.
I had just got a job at Channel 4 as head of arts and the first thing I commissioned was a television version of Songs for Drella, a musical tribute to Andy Warhol written by Lou Reed and his fellow ex-Velvet John Cale. Warhol had died suddenly in 1987. Drella — half Dracula, half Cinderella — was what they had called him at the Factory, his studio.
That a tiny television channel in Britain had gone to the trouble of filming the musical — when the big American TV companies had not — seemed to impress Lou mightily. From then on, through two further films and the stuff we put out on Channel 4 in a special evening devoted to the Velvets, he was never less than a pussycat to work with. And quite extraordinarily loyal.
He was also spectacularly straight. He had been on the 12 steps programme, taken up tai chi and would lecture me continuously on my diet and my drinking. “There’s too much butter on the fish, Waldemar,” he would drawl in that Lou Reed voice. “Send it back.”
At the time he was married to a fiery Latina called Sylvia. She was also his manager. They had been married since 1980 and it was clear from the start that Sylvia was the force behind Lou’s re-emergence after a decade of musical quietude.
Later on, when he met and married the beautiful performance artist Laurie Anderson, he undoubtedly found his soul mate. But the woman who got him back on track professionally, musically and psychologically was Sylvia in Manhattan. Put on that fine album New York, which he brought out in 1989 and which everyone agreed was his best work for years, and the Latino rhythms driving that record are Sylvia’s.
To get back to Lou Reed’s loyalty: in 1991, a year after Drella, I commissioned a Channel 4 documentary called Damned in the USA about the attacks on modern art that were taking place there.
An angry Methodist preacher called Donald Wildmon, who seemed to hate modern art in general and Robert Mapplethorpe in particular, was calling for funding to be withdrawn from the “guilty” art institutions. Wildmon had appeared in the documentary but did not like how he came across, so he set about having it banned and suing its distributors for $8m in damages.
In an effort to fight this ban the film’s director, Paul Yule, organised a benefit concert in New York and asked me if I knew anyone who might play. I said I would ask Lou Reed. The next thing I know, there was Lou on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music performing a special version of Walk on the Wild Side, with new words for the occasion: “Donald Wildmon was damned in the USA / Tried to get Channel 4 to pay and pay.”
By now I was nothing less than his London buddy. He would email when he was coming over and my task was to find him London restaurants to go to, people who could do shiatsu massage and once, disastrously, a hairdresser he could trust. I didn’t know any hairdressers except the Turkish guy from Hackney who did my hair, so I sent him over to Lou’s hotel where he was booked in, as usual, as Mr R Chandler. The haircut did not go down well. Neither did my restaurant suggestions. Once I took him to Khan’s curry house in Westbourne Grove (“too oily”). Another time I took him to the Ivy (“too buttery”).
In 1992 the Velvet Underground announced they were re-forming. Having insisted after Drella that they would never work together again, Lou and John Cale put aside their differences and worked together. Once, Lou muttered something about Sterling Morrison, his college buddy and Velvet Underground guitarist, not being well. It turned out later he was dying of cancer. My suspicion was that the reunion was Lou’s gift to him. As I said, he was extraordinarily loyal.
I did my bit by commissioning a couple of films to celebrate the reunion: a live concert from Paris and a road movie about the tour called Curious. The most important date on the tour was Prague where the new Czech president, Vaclav Havel, was a Velvet Underground fan. The band had been invited to the president’s castle for dinner and for the simple reason that I spoke Polish (I tried to explain, honest) I got roped into going to Prague and doing the interviews for the film.
The castle was surprisingly dingy. Havel was small and grumpy. But his weary face tried a smile when the Velvets walked in and the story he started to tell us was remarkable.
As a young playwright he had been invited to New York where he heard the Velvet Underground. He loved their music, bought one of their records and smuggled it back into Czechoslovakia, where some of his friends formed a Velvets sound-alike band called the Plastic People of the Universe.
With their long hair and Lou Reed shades, the Plastics were constantly in trouble with the authorities. A couple of band members were arrested, so Havel and his camp issued a manifesto supporting them which they called Charter 77.
By 1989, when the Velvet Revolution overthrew the communists, Charter 77 had grown into the most potent political force in Czechoslovakia and Havel became president. Thus Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground really did change the world.