When Backstage Was No Big Deal

The Lou I knew liked speed and cheap Scotch. Had short hair and wore weird shoes. Just as he could write something as harrowing as “Rock Minuet” or as tender as “Perfect Day,” he could also be frightening, the surliest of misanthropes, or the most gentle person imaginable.

The songs he wrote for the Velvet Underground, back when I knew him, did as much as anything else in the ’60s to change my whole system of values. Even more than Bob Dylan’s, because they dealt with more complex issues and real taboos, Lou Reed’s songs taught me about many things, from why one always should try to be compassionate to the idea that a writer should shy away from nothing.

But this isn’t about that. This is about the days when rock ’n’ roll was still a people’s art, and the walls between an artist and his audience hadn’t yet been built.

Those were different times.

I met Lou — who died a week ago today, at 71 — because it was so easy to. In 1967, after a falling out with their mentor Andy Warhol, the Velvets moved their music to Boston, where they would play a hall on Berkeley Street called the Boston Tea Party. They’d do a few nights a week every couple months or so. You’d pay three bucks and hear them play two long sets. And almost no one came. There’d be maybe 40 people on a good night. And generally the same 40 people night after night, including one girl who always showed up in a wedding dress.

The first time we saw them, my cousin Richard and I, two third-generation Italian-American kids who had driven up from Providence, R.I., walked in to find them setting up their own equipment and launching into “What Goes On,” one of many songs they hadn’t yet recorded (others we’d hear before the rest of the world included “Sweet Jane,” “Pale Blue Eyes” and “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”).

We’d played their first two albums to death, but live, they were like nothing we’d ever heard. Propulsive and explosive, totally engulfing, so dark as to be almost scary; my kid brother joined us one night, couldn’t handle it and ended up taking a bus back home. Compared with the flower-power marijuana we’d smoke in a parking lot before the show, this stuff was heroin, which the Velvets would evoke in what became their signature song. The first set might include a dozen numbers; the second usually was just two: a black magic chant called “Sweet Rock and Roll” that segued into “Sister Ray,” still, to my ears, the most deeply disturbing piece of music ever written.

And then they’d go backstage, except there wasn’t a backstage. It was just a room off the rear of the hall, with no doorman to prevent anyone from entering. So, why not? In we went and there they were. Sterling Morrison, the other guitarist, was the first band member we met, a totally openhearted guy who was always more than happy to chat. We were a little intimidated by Lou, not because he seemed frosty — not yet, anyway — but because we couldn’t imagine what we could possibly say to this person who had written the totally awe-evoking music we’d just heard.

But the atmosphere was so loose. At one point I used the bathroom and found myself standing at a urinal next to the band member John Cale. After that, anything seemed possible. Sterling offered to introduce us to the rest of the Velvets, and before we knew it we were asking Lou all kinds of stupid questions, like, “Where’s Nico?” — the singer who had left the band around the time of the breakup with Warhol. But Lou was gracious and kind, talking about everything from a weird diet he was thinking about — eating nothing but lettuce — to his love of Dion and his total dislike of Frank Zappa.

We’d talk a lot about music, who he was listening to, and he’d ask us what other bands we thought were good (the Jeff Beck Group, we told him, and he nodded knowingly). But we’d talk about other stuff, too: New York, where he still lived; Boston, which he liked because he’d found an attentive audience. He could be very easy to talk to, a good listener, as interested in us as we were in him, or at least polite enough to pretend to be.

He wouldn’t always be so nice. Over the next few years, he’d go from sharing a joint with us one night to making it very clear on the next that he had no interest in talking to anyone, us especially. One time, we brought him a bottle of Clan MacGregor Scotch, real bottom-shelf stuff but his favorite, and he was flat-out rude, didn’t want to let us into the room to give it to him.

Still, even after the Tea Party moved to a bigger place near Fenway Park, where the bandroom was behind a door and up a flight of stairs and there actually was some separation between the musicians and the fans, there were nights when Lou would spot us as he came offstage and invite us up for a smoke and a talk. One night, after they played, he and Sterling went to a bar with me. After another show, though, when Sterling came with me to a friend’s apartment to listen to “Otis Redding Live in Europe,” Lou didn’t want to join in. And a few years later, when I found myself sitting behind him at a concert at Madison Square Garden and introduced myself by reminding him of the Tea Party days, he shook hands with me but seemed to have no idea who I was.

That was the last time I saw him, other than from a seat in a theater. What made me sad wasn’t so much that my own days of hanging with him were over, but that those days seemed to be over, period, when a kid like me and a genius from whom he had learned so much still had a chance of having a real good time together.

Tony Lioce is a bartender in San Francisco.

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