Live from Ljubljana, Lou Reed

lou_reed_ticketI never met Uncle Lou. Thus, unlike several of my friends and acquaintances, I have no personal anecdotes to relate about my encounters with the late and widely lamented ex-Velvet and punk godfather of godfathers (sorry, Iggy; sorry, guys in the New York Dolls and MC5). Many others are currently retailing those stories elsewhere to good effect. Suffice it to say, who else do you know that, when he died, people were simultaneously: 1) amazed that he could die at all, 2) that he hadn’t died 30 years earlier, and 3) found no contradiction between those two statements? For a coda, see my card on someecards.com: “When you die, may people be so upset that they argue for three hours on Facebook about whether or not it’s a hoax.”

Depending on who’s doing the anecdoting, Reed appears to have been capable of being everything from a generous, sensitive and kind soul to a snarky, gratuitously cruel misanthrope. In general he appears to have been nicer to his fellow musicians than to those pesky journalists, with a few exceptions in either case. I never interviewed him (probably just as well), although his artistic vision certainly made as large of an impression on me as on most of my writing-art-and-music-making contemporaries in love with alternative views and ways of making noise. He may not have been the nicest guy in the world, but how different would the world be now had he not been?

The only time I saw Lou Reed play live was on August 1, 2000 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was living at the time. Ljubljana was probably as good a place as any to see him go to work, given that I was rather too young to have made the scene when the Velvet Underground played Max’s Kansas City in 1970, let alone prior to that.  As you can see from the ticket stub, in 2000 Lou was on the Ecstasy Tour, named for his then-current album; you can find the setlist here, although for me the concert was equally as memorable for the setting as the performance. It was held at the picturesque Križanke outdoor theatre in the Old City, on the premises of a gorgeously atmospheric former monastery (originally dating from the 13th century) “nationalized” after Tito took power and redesigned by the ubiquitous king of Slovene architecture in the second quarter of the 20th century, Jože Plečnik. All cobblestones, climbing vines and artistically poured concrete, it’s still very much in use for festivals and concerts; I would see Patti Smith for the first time at Križanke in July of 2001, in her first appearance in Slovenia, where she gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen performed by any artist anywhere.

I saw quite a few other Western musicians and bands during my time in Ljubljana, including Bob Dylan and Blondie, and the fact that they were performing somewhat out of their element — geographically if not spiritually — added something to my enjoyment of them; they related to the European audiences differently than they would have to a home crowd, and may have felt more inspired in relatively unfamiliar territory. (That certainly seemed to be the case with Patti, as well as when I witnessed Bob Dylan tearing through “Masters of War” in the Hala Tivoli basketball arena on April 28, 1999, during the height of the Kosovo War.) The well-known truism about non-mainstream artists being more appreciated abroad than at home certainly applied here. (Back in 2010 I wrote about foreigners performing and in some cases relocating to Slovenia for the Adria Airways inflight magazine, which expounds more on the subject.) If the former Bloc wasn’t punk rock’s only spiritual home it was certainly one of its major adopted ones, and in some cases became the actual home of Western punks, alt-rockers and alt-poets searching for their True Place.

Reed was 58 when he played Ljubljana. Ecstasy had received generally excellent reviews, not that whatever his latest album was mattered much to the Slovenes who packed the house that night.  To them and to most people born after 1940 in ex-Yugoslavia and in Central and Eastern Europe in general, Reed was a leather-jacketed god who had descended from the heavens to walk among them for one enchanted night.  The whole region was balm to the dark, poetic, sooty-concrete-building, grimy-street-loving soul; of course, Reed’s and the VU’s vision would resonate there more than anywhere else this side of the West Village. (Read this piece about how the Velvets may have played a crucial part in eventually sparking the 1989 governmental upheaval in Czechoslovakia; “Why do you think we called it the Velvet Revolution?” Vaclav Havel told Salman Rushdie a decade later.)

Križanke is indeed an outdoor theater, with open sides, but as this photo shows, it’s fit with a metal roof and isn’t open to the stars (or the rain) and is flanked by buildings on one side, walls on the other side and the back and the stage in front, and thus feels pretty much enclosed. Low concrete steps slope gently backwards from the stage. For most performances the audience sits on folding chairs, but on the first night of August, 2000, whoever was promoting the event decided to — the hell with it — do away with the chairs and just pack in as many live bodies as could cough up the 5000-tolar admission fee (roughly $25 USD). It ended up being as crowded in there as a New York City subway car at rush hour; you could literally not turn around when standing up, and everyone stood up for the entire show. It was a potentially dangerous situation — I don’t know what would have happened if we’d all had to rush for the exit at once — but most people in the audience didn’t seem to mind the real-time sardine analogy. After all, they were getting to see Lou.

What do I remember of the show itself? It was a solid, very loud performance. Loud noise, and lots of it, both from feedback from the amps and roars from the Lou-lovin’ audience. There was good interplay between the frontman and his band.  I wasn’t reviewing the show and didn’t take notes, and from the vantage point of 13 years later it all seems a bit of a blur. A loud blur with many flashing lights. Among his people, Lou seemed to be in a good, even gracious, mood, enjoying himself as far as I could tell; early on he said “Hvala lepa” (in Slovene, “thank you very much”) to general gasps from the crowd. Better-known material was in short supply, save for “Sweet Jane” and “Vicious” and the last encore, “Perfect Day.” Nobody much cared. Lou then said, with feeling, “Thank you so much” and vanished into the night.

Relieved we’d survived, we wiped our brows and knew we’d had a visitation we wouldn’t soon forget.

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