Lou Reed’s paradoxical Jewishness

The iconic musician, who died Sunday, once mused that ‘all the best people’ are members of the tribe; but he also said his god was rock ‘n’ roll

Lou Reed performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Danny Norton / Wikipedia Commons)
Lou Reed performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Danny Norton / Wikipedia Commons)

The songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed, who died Sunday at 71, was born Lewis Allan Reed to a middle class Jewish family in Brooklyn, but said that he had no god apart from rock ‘n’ roll.

The principal songwriter and a key member of the influential band Velvet Underground, who went on to a long, resonant, and intermittently successful solo career and was most widely known for songs like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day,” Reed made contradictory remarks about his Jewishness.

He once reportedly told journalist Lester Bangs that he didn’t know any Jewish people. But, on another occasion, asked whether he was Jewish, he was said to have responded, “Of course, aren’t all the best people?”

Reed last came to Israel in 2008, when he appeared as a “guest artist” at his wife Laurie Anderson’s concert in Tel Aviv.

He had a more recent Israel connection, though: Last year, a new genus of velvet spider found living underground in Israel’s south was named after him. A team of researchers from the US and Europe named the spider Loureedia annulipes after finding the species in sand dunes near Halukim and Nitzana in the Negev desert.

Lou Reed (right) on stage with wife Laurie Anderson (standing) in Tel Aviv in November 2008 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Lou Reed (right) on stage with wife Laurie Anderson (standing) in Tel Aviv in November 2008 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Reed’s 1982 song “My House” was dedicated to his Jewish Syracuse University friend and mentor Delmore Schwartz, and contained the lyrics “My friend and teacher occupies a spare room / He’s dead, at peace at last the wandering Jew / Other friends had put stones on his grave / He was the first great man that I had ever met.”

Author Steven Lee Beeber posited, in the book “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s,” that there was a key Jewish element to the New York punk rock movement that Reed helped foster, along with artistes of similar backgrounds such as Joey and Tommy Ramone, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, and Blondie’s guitarist Chris Stein. Writing of the phenomenon, author Saul Austerlitz suggested that “The new punk Jew was inspired in equal parts by the warriors of the Israel Defense Forces, the comic-book superheroes scripted by an earlier generation of Jewish artists, and an instinctive revulsion at the musical excesses of contemporaries.”

But if his faith was a factor in his music, Reed himself played it down: “My God is rock ’n’ roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life,” he was once quoted as saying. “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.”

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