A walk on the wild side with a legend

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An American icon: Lou Reed.

By Nick Tsui

I’m a firm believer that life’s biggest adventures unfold when we take risks and chance going after what we want. For me, what began as a little music project to collect signatures from my guitar heroes has led to some crazy and amazing times, and made for some of my own best memories to date. 

Some of you may have heard me tell this story before. Because of all the famous musicians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, my unexpected brush with the legendary Lou Reed is, in my humble opinion, one of the best celebrity-encounter tales I have up my sleeve.

The first time I heard The Velvet Underground was on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors. There’s no mistaking Jim Morrison’s dark lyrics and deep vocals. I listened to a jumpy live version of “Roadhouse Blues” but wasn’t prepared for the song that transitioned after. It started off droning and ambient, and I immediately sensed this was probably not The Doors. The track was called “Heroin” and it oozed addiction and excess. It caught me by surprise and I had to replay it. I also thought it was fascinating when I found out the drum take by Moe Tucker, that had the sonic rhythm of a pounding heartbeat, had a timing mistake. But Lou liked how it sounded, and kept it.

I wanted to hear more and thus began my entry into the discography of Lou Reed, who famously said if you take all his works together, stack them and listen to it in order, “there’s my Great American Novel.”

Little did I know at the time, years later I’d pick up a vinyl copy of Lou’s Street Hassle during a swanky Boston affair and smile back on the memories of sitting in my room with a stereo, and discovering something new and different that added to the soundtrack of my life.

On May 1, 2009, I was planning to see my friend’s band play at UMass Lowell’s Fox Hall, but after picking up a copy of The Boston Phoenix (RIP dear Phoenix), plans changed when I spotted an event listing in a corner of one of the pages: ex-Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed, along with his wife, musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, were playing a benefit show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston that same night.

Tickets prices were out of reach for a college student like me, about the cost equivalent of a month’s rent. But I wanted to take a chance and see if I could add Lou to my music project. For years, I’ve been collecting signatures of my music heroes on a Takamine acoustic. Getting Reed’s John Hancock would be nothing short of amazing, so naturally, I had to try.   

The event was held in the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater inside the ICA, on the wharf. Like the master works that pass through its doors, the building itself is truly a work of art. I had never been there before but after going down early in the afternoon, I spied an entrance that I thought Lou might use. 

A woman named Susie Allen was running the event, so I attempted to track her down. That didn’t happen, but some security personnel and Lou’s manager happened to notice me. Not that I looked at all conspicuous standing there alone, casing the classy joint with guitar case in hand. 

Lou’s manager approached me and I told him I was interested in having Lou sign my guitar. After taking a few pictures of it on his cell phone, he told me to be back in the area at 8 p.m.

Lou arrived early, in a black car that dropped him off along with his entourage. I watched as he stepped out, dressed head to toe in black.

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Lou Reed. A classic pose.

It’s no wonder Rolling Stone magazine chose him to model “The Look” for their American Icons issue. “The Look” is basically a three piece suit for badasses — Aviator sunglasses, white T-shirt and leather jacket. Even early on, Lou’s signature style screamed mystery, rebellion and freedom. Nobody can stare you down in a pair of shades and anywhere you can’t go dressed like this, is nowhere you want to be.

I remember looking at the swagger on Lou and thinking to myself, ” damn, if you can’t be James Bond, might as well be Lou Reed.”

Aside from his people, it was just me and Lou. He happily signed my acoustic and a Greatest Hits album I got from my school’s newspaper office. When all was said and done, I thanked him, packed up my stuff and started to leave. Just as I was heading out, I happened to hear Lou say something: “Does he have his ticket?” 

I didn’t think anything of it.

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Lou Reed’s signature in black Sharpie on Nick Tsui’s guitar.

“Don’t go,” a girl at the door called out to me. “Just wait two minutes.”

Before I could really say anything back to her, she was already running inside. A few minutes later she reappeared and handed me a ticket to the event. 

“Lou made it happen,” she said. I was shocked.

That was not the first time I was lucky enough to receive a ticket to a show, but it was the first time I’d ever been given access to a show of that caliber — at a starting price of $750 — all because of the divine intervention of an extremely kind and generous Lou Reed.

Looking around, I’m pretty sure I was the youngest person in the audience when I found my seat in the back of the theater. The room was so intimate I felt I wasn’t more than 100 feet from Lou and Laurie on stage. 

The majority of songs from their set list were new, or collaborative numbers  that I didn’t recognize. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying every moment as the power couple sang songs about Greenland and computer chips.

Before the show was over, I was told there would be music, dancing and an open bar downstairs after the last song. Making my way down to the after party, I felt like I was on a movie set. They had catering by Wolfgang Puck for God’s sake. Sometimes taking risks can land you in the best of places. I may or may not have indulged in a few Captain and Cokes before making my way to the dance floor.

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Nick’s generous gift from Lou Reed.

When it was over, everyone else hurried to their limos and other private transports while I made my way back to the Silver Line thinking, “did THAT really just happen?”

It did, and it was all because of Lou. 

When I learned of Lou’s passing, on Oct. 27, 2013, I mourned along with the rest of the world over losing a massively influential songwriter, guitarist and outstanding human being who helped shape almost five decades of rock and roll. 

I was also thankful for all that he left behind — ostrich tuning, blending noise and melody, an avant-garde approach to music, and his never-ending drive to take risks in art and life.  And I’m especially grateful and humbled for the gift of music he so generously gave to me during the small walk on the wild side I got to experience with him.

Nick Tsui eats, sleeps and breathes music. With his acoustic Takamine in tow, over the past eight years he has traveled the country in search of some of the greatest guitar legends of all time including Bo Diddley, Les Paul, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and BB King — just to name a few. Today, Nick’s guitar is tattooed with the signatures of more than two dozen of his guitar heroes. He lives in Dracut and attended school at UMass Lowell, where he studied psychology. Besides collecting music and interviewing the players, Nick provides  food for the music-lover’s soul at Howl and also writes for The Blues Audience Newsletter. Give him a shout at nick@howlmag.com

 

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