It seems like the end and the beginning of every year I draw birds. I always told myself that rather than do anything stupid like retiring, my idea of retirement would be drawing birds and naked women. I don’t mean “nudes.” I mean NAKED WOMEN. There is a difference. I also decided I would just make up some birds. Rather than draw the many existing species, I’d just make up my own. This is one of those. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a “snow wren.” There could be; I haven’t looked it up. There are snow buntings, snowy owls, and snow geese; so it stands to reason that there could be such a thing as a “snow wren.” I don’t care if there is or not. This little bird came to me as I watched my feeder on Xmas morning. All of the colors in this bird were present at the feeder that morning. On a blanket of snow ; the colors of each bird were sharp and lovely and alive with the exigence of a winter feeding and I realized I could distinguish the different kinds of birds because of the high relief of the white ground. I could suddenly tell a purple finch from a red-headed house finch. . .and this is harder than it sounds. The different sparrows, of which there are many kinds, now are distinctive to me. Does it mean I am a better bird watcher? Probably not. It just means I’m still learning how to see; and for this, I am grateful.
There was a memorial held for Lou Reed last night in New York City at the Apollo, which Lou would have loved. In its heyday, the Apollo was THE showcase for artists of color. All of the greats passed through there at one time or another; James Brown, Little Richard, Etta James, and all of the great doo-wop groups. Growing up, Lou loved Dion. Later in life, the two men became good friends through Doc Pomus. Last night, according to Penn Jillette’s and Salman Rushdie’s posts ; some of those old lights were relit.
It may seem hard to understand at first that Lou started his career writing doo-wop songs, but if you think about it, this glorious street corner music echoes though out Lou’s work, particularly in Walk on the Wild Side, where this idiomatic American sound becomes an earthy, gritty rock and roll aria.
In the “Doo-do-do-do-do” chorus there are precisely 64 “doo’s.”
It is like a driving lullaby; an incantation, an urgent come-hither invitation to the other side.
About two years ago, I hosted a dinner at Les Halles in New York, the night before my show was to open in Brooklyn at Pierogi. I usually invited about 30 of my friends and crew because opening night is too much of a madhouse to figure anything like this out.
I brought my assistant Jesse Sioux Achramowicz. She is a big Lou Reed fan, particularly the Velvet Underground. She was born in 1988 and having gone through a total identity transformation entering high school, she discovered punk rock, like all young artists seem to do. The writings of Lou and Patti Smith became beacons of light to her, poetry of rebellion which spoke to her in loud, bold strokes. It gave her a floor to dance upon. Lou, in particular, resonated with a young artist searching for her own voice.
Jesse Sioux is a unique human being. She’s the best assistant I’ve ever had and the most unusual. She dresses in a very different outfit every day. One day she will have bangs and a florescent orange matching bag and shoes, the next she will have a pile of blue, green, and lavender dreadlocks with Malcom X glasses and jewels in her teeth. She is only like herself; and one of the kindest human beings I know.
She was sat directly across from Lou and she was freaked, with her hero sitting eyeball to eyeball across from her. They talked all night; Lou, the kindly punk-rock uncle telling stories and discussing dogs, iPhones, technology (Lou loved gadgets and so does Jesse) and you’d have thought they’d known each other their whole lives. It was the Lou I knew–kind, intelligent and generous of spirit.
Jesse was over the moon to have had a conversation with Lou. I chose to make a portrait of her for this chorus of the song because I suspect Lou knew that Jesse, and young people like her, were exactly who he wrote that song to set free.
In the marvelous documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, the career trajectory of a great many female back up singers is traced, including Merry Clayton, whose hair-raising vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter still induce awe and chills with each listening. She remarks that she was a girl trained in the church, and that when the call came very late at night to sing the Stones song, she was appalled by the lyrics, “…rape, murder, it’s just a shot away…”, but this was her job and at the time, she was pregnant and had mouths to feed.
It is not possible to overestimate the soul-rending beauty these women added to rock and roll music right from the beginning.
Many of our leading female stars started out singing behind lesser talented male singers. Sheryl Crow started behind Don Henley and Michael Jackson, as did Lisa Fischer. Bette Midler sang behind many stars and in bathhouses before breaking out on her own. Detroit’s luminous Bettye LaVette was a back-up singer on Motown songs. The list goes on and on.
Lou Reed, who loved doo-wop. pays homage to these women in Walk on the Wild Side with what now sounds like a very Un-P.C. lyric: “…And the colored girls go, ‘Doo-Do-do-do-do-Doo-do-do-do-do-do-do’,” which I’m sure was written with the utmost empathy and, in fact, written to shed a light on the very often unappreciated and underpaid women who gave rock and roll its grace notes.
The New York City of 1972 was a desperate, narcotic haze of failed urban planning, poverty and criminality. Mayor John Lindsay had inherited a city teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, rife with racial and social unrest, and hobbled by strikes of every kind by city workers and other labor unions–as well as a blackout; in which the power grid went down and made the city doubly terrifying. New York City, for a time, resembled the Gomorrah that the rest of America thought it was.
Lindsay was considered presidential timber, and briefly abandoned office to run for president in the 1972 primaries. He dropped out soon enough after a few poor showings. His opponents, quickly pointed out what they considered the ruinous condition of New York City. Lindsay became an easily assailable candidate.
John Lindsay was an odd duck in New York politics. He was Kennedy-handsome, liberal (but not too liberal) and in any other environment, an attractive prospect for the presidency. Though, with New York as the backdrop for his ambitions, the foundation of his political structure, an example of his leadership…he was fucked.
John Lindsay started out in politics as a Republican. It’s thought that civil rights is what led him to jump to the Democratic party, though it was probably more to better his chances in New York City as a pol.
While every news outlet in the country was writing New York City’s obit; the city’s cultural zeitgeist roared forward. Its artistic activity manifested itself in one of the richest periods in the city’s history. A cursory look around the landscape found Warhol, The Velvets, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns, Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse. . .this list goes on and on. The New York of 1972 was affordable. The city of disrepair was a place artists of every stripe could find a way to survive, create, and thrive. All they had to do was hustle.