Even before the sad news of his passing on Sunday, Lou Reed had been on my mind. John Cameron Mitchell and I are in the midst of preparing to bring our show Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Broadway for the first time, and I've been brushing up on the songs to start rehearsals with Neil Patrick Harris. Everyday brings a fresh reminder of the inspiration we drew from Reed as writers, and Hedwig as a character.
To say Lou Reed had an influence on the songs I wrote for the show is like saying Hedwig might wear a little make-up--it's so obvious and understated. From "Tear Me Down," which started as straight-up rip-off to the line "All the strange rock and rollers/ You know you're doing all right," the Hedwig score is in many ways just one big Lou Reed mash-up.
Reed's music was in heavy rotation when John and I were first writing the show: All the great Velvet Underground records, obviously, but also, and more-so, solo records like Berlin, Transformer, The Blue Mask, New York--which was pretty recent and a fresh reminder that he was the great American songwriter. I studied these records like jazz players study Charlie Parker solos, scrawling lyrics and chords on a legal pad and then singing and playing along until I got every phrase and intonation perfect. From him I learned that you could write a smart, literary, witty and still-cool song about pretty much anything and how to write thematically across a group of songs to make a song cycle/concept album.
I remember the night that he and Laurie Anderson came to see us perform Hedwig at the Jane Street Theatre. When I saw him in the audience, my reaction was to start crying, which I kept up until some time after "Wig In A Box." On the elevator ride up to the dressing room, he slipped his hand under my denim vest and felt me up, Laurie Anderson watching and smiling. It was surreal. People remember him as curmudgeonly, but he was generous and attentive to each of us backstage.
I saw him again when he invited me to sit next to him at a '60s tribute night at The Bottom Line. When he dropped his guard, he was just a warm-hearted mensch. At least that's what I remember.
I've been asked to pick five favorite Lou Reed songs...but I can't. So, just listen to Side One of The Blue Mask or the first six tracks off New York. They're all great.