So let me tell you about the time Lou Reed roughed me up — a little.
It was in 2004 or so.
A colleague, who’d worked in the music biz, happened to mention that he took a regular Tai Chi class and that the rock-and-roll superstar was a regular attendee.
“Excuse me? Repeat that?”
“Yeah, he’s a Tai Chi expert, been taking the class for years. You should try it sometime…”
Um, where do I sign up?
I feigned interest in the martial art of Tai Chi; I’d seen the older Chinese women practicing in the basketball court near my apartment — it looked way too slow for my impatient monkey mind. But the idea of sweating aside one of my rock and roll heroes seemed like either the coolest or strangest thing in the world.
I had to do it.
Lou Reed and his first band, the Velvet Underground, were the soundtrack to my college years. My roommate dragging on a cigarette on a “Sunday Morning”; dancing with 20 sweaty people in a dorm room to “Cool it Down”; spinning records at WPSU, on a “Coney Island Steeplechase.” V.U. was the coolest possible band, ever.
I came to appreciate the grander oeuvre of Lou when a boyfriend compiled a mixtape called “Lou Reed Doesn’t Suck.” He introduced me to the luminous “Satellite of Love,” the urgently funk-filled “Follow the Leader,” and, of course, the unlistenable Metal Machine Music. Sure there were the hits, “Walk on the Wild Side” and “I Love You Suzanne,” but I always preferred the seedier, drug-induced moods from this Brooklyn-born songwriter. And as he got older, his voice got grittier, even ugly at times, and his lyrics a little cornier (“Egg Cream” anyone?), his side projects a little stranger (Metallica?) — but it made this longtime fan love him even more.It always reminded me what a great town NYC is when the guy who sings “Vicious” is your neighbor.
Living in New York, Lou Reed was omnipresent, part of the fabric of the city. I’d seen him in the audience at the Knitting Factory twice. I’d eaten next to him and his wife Laurie Anderson at E.J.’s diner in the Village (they both ordered the Mexican breakfast special while Laurie scribbled on her placemat). One friend remembers him in the late ’90s doing yoga at her gym in his jeans. I know few people who live here who hadn’t had at least one sighting.
It always reminded me what a great town NYC is when the guy who sings “Vicious” is your neighbor.
On balance I was more star-gawker than fitness seeker, but I played it off, studying up on the martial art of “Chen Taijiquan,” watching the prerequisite VHS tape of teacher Master Ren. It looked a lot more intense than a few slow, graceful movements, and I was a bit nervous.
So on the Tuesday night when I walked into the small, non-descript studio off Astor Place, I was warmly greeted by the cheerful Ren, sporting a “Got Qi” t-shirt. I quickly scanned the room for any sign of glam-rockers, and breathed a sigh of relief — no one. I suddenly realized that maybe I didn’t want to see Lou Reed, just as I was getting the hang of this practice. Maybe I’d like it?
I stood in the back of the small class of 10 or so. My work friend was in the class too, stretching and moving like a well-trained cat in sweatpants. He assured me I’d be fine. “You’ll get it. Patience butterfly.”
I smirked at him. “Hilarious.”
As Ren started the class, we began with a standing pose. I struggled to keep my balance for what felt like 15 minutes and just as we were ending, I peeled one eye open. In walked Lou. Slighter than I’d imagined, with ropey muscles winding down his arms, he sauntered over and stood, right. next. to. me. Hello. Hi. Did I even speak? I think I mumbled something.
I WAS FREAKING OUT.
Outwardly I think I kept my cool, played the New York, “Oh, uh, do I know you?” attitude and tried to keep from falling on my face. Then Ren moved into one of his “Forms” and after showing us the basics, said he wanted the newbies to partner with the old-timers, “So let’s see, Margit you go with Lou, and…”
I didn’t hear anything else, I just slowly turned to face the man next to me. He was wrinkled and ragged and then I heard a familiar gruff Long Island-bred accent…
“What are you doing, alright, no, you’re not standing right at all.”
He seemed almost angry.
He put two hands on my waist and adjusted my stance.
Yes, LOU REED ADJUSTED MY STANCE. What world was I in.
“Alright go ahead do it,” he said, urging me to get started with my “Moves.”
I’d half-learned Ren’s basic “Form 21” from watching the tape, and as I was moving my wrists in, what I thought was a synchronized fashion, Lou grabbed my arms with a rough shake.
“No, not like that, that shit’s wrong.” He moved my arms up, down and then to the side in one brisk movement.
“This is about strength, not limp-wristed shit.”
Lou Reed just said shit to me. Twice.
I think he swore at me maybe five different times.
But he did show me how to do it right, even if he kinda beat me up in the process.
After our two or three minute encounter I told him thank you, mustering as much coolness as I could.
“Sure,” he said, and imparted a bit of advice with a sneer, “Just work.”
He took this one million times more seriously than I did, and I felt shamed. He was trying to help me find my chi, in his own curmudgeonly way.
For the remainder of the class we continued to work, side by side and I’d occasionally see him looking at me askance, like, “What the hell is she doing?”
I can now say Lou Reed was semi-annoyed by me.
I went back to the class twice after that and, while I did gain a new appreciation for the intensity of Tai Chi, I decided it wasn’t really for me. I’d rather be jumping around the room to the V.U. song “Rock and Roll” than finding my zen in a standing pose for 10 minutes. Oh the irony.
It’s always a dicey thing to meet your heroes. For a long time that encounter bugged me; Lou was a bit of a dick. He was also a real, cranky, human being. But what I love about his music isn’t the prettier side of things, not that there was ever anything pretty about Lou. So in fact, our encounter kept things true to form.
According to a report from The New York Times, his doctor said he was doing Tai Chi until the very end. “His physician Charles Miller noted… he was doing his Tai Chi exercises within an hour of his death, trying to keep strong and keep fighting.”
Lou was a persevering, strong son-of-a-gun. I saw that first hand.
Now that he’s gone, I’m incredibly sad. His music meant the world to me.
I’m also sad that I won’t have another New York City Lou Reed run-in. But I know I’ll always have his incredible rock and roll, and I’ll always remember that Lou Reed once tried to wrestle me into finding my chi.
I’ll miss you Lou.