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As famous as he was, Lou Reed's unwavering (if sometimes faltering) art kept him just at the fringes.

A pint for Mr. Reed 

I knew that Lou Reed had been dead for about an hour, but the woman sitting behind me in the small Asheville bar seemed to have just found out. She had not taken the news so well. "Run, Run, Run!" she yelled suddenly, screaming the title of one of the "hits" on the band's debut album. With my Velvet Underground radar heightened by the news that, at 71, the singer had finally fallen to liver disease, I prepared to join her for the final two repetitions of "run" that end the beginning of the song's chorus.

But she stopped, so I kept silent. I swiveled on my bar stool and saw that she was wearing a football jersey, her eyes directed above the bar as the Cleveland Browns attempted to topple the Kansas City Chiefs. If she knew that Lou Reed was dead, or even cared, she worried more about making sure that the Chiefs received their first loss of the year. But the Chiefs won, and I hoped she somehow intuited that I was silently pulling for them, against her.

I suppose, though, that I shouldn't have been surprised; as famous as he was, Reed's unwavering (if sometimes faltering) art kept him just at the fringes, his influence often felt best through its osmotic effect on generations of people who called him both forebear and peer. Maybe your parents care about Reed, but as far as I've ever known, mine don't. Maybe the person drinking in your bar Sunday afternoon did shout out the lyrics to "Sweet Jane," but the football enthusiasts in mine did not.

Reed did his level best to aid that outsider status, too. Though he's an icon, he remained a risky sort until the end, given to some of the same self-genuflection as most any aging rock star, but also committed to the new. In his last decade, he was an avid collaborator, whether that meant his wonderful star turn with singer Antony Hegarty, his hilarious album with Metallica or the night he jammed with John Zorn and Laurie Anderson in the postage stamp-sized New York club The Stone. His oeuvre is expansive, challenging, a surprisingly amorphous body of work that suggests it can never be understood entirely by any one person.

Still, on the Sunday that Lou Reed died, I was in Asheville, on vacation at a music festival. Since then, celebrities and fans alike have offered condolences and eulogies, analyses and anecdotes about the rock 'n' roll animal. I expected to see sad people, to see people commiserating that someone who actually, undoubtedly, inarguably changed the sound of music would never do so again. (Maybe Lulu, that Metallica collaboration, was that damning, after all?) Instead, three guys at another watering hole, all wearing attendee wristbands for the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, greeted the news as though they were reading numbers from their smartphones' stock tickers: "Lou Reed is dead. The cream ale sounds good. Dude, tonight's lineup is stacked."

To be honest, I paid only slightly more respect: I talked with my wife, who'd first seen the news on the Internet, for a few minutes about his songs. I told her about the two times I'd briefly met him and the other time I'd seen him play just before watching soon-to-be-President Obama speak. Then we asked the bartender where we should head next on our brief beer tour of Asheville.

The troika who'd just deadpanned the dead-man news interjected excitedly, adding their recommendations. But they didn't mention Lou Reed, and neither did I. We went with the bartender's recommendation.

  • As famous as he was, Lou Reed's unwavering (if sometimes faltering) art kept him just at the fringes.

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