Hand over that Pioneer Medal, please.
A thumbnail gallery of Wire Images from the event here.
“Who would’ve believed this one?”
Lou Reed’s rhetorical question was the opening line for his speech accepting the George Arents Pioneer Medal (“for excellence in the arts”) from his alma mater, Syracuse University. He was addressing Bono, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, poet/S.U. professor Mary Karr, Pulitzer-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos and the 75 or so friends, alums, academians, donors and old-school music-biz execs in the audience. But most of all, he was probably speaking to himself.
Held last Thursday night at the Schrager-iffic W Hotel in Union Square, just a block from the site of Max’s Kansas City, where Lou played his last show with the Velvet Underground 36-and-change years before, the induction ceremony was surreal in its normalcy. During the cocktail reception beforehand, Lou — clad in a rust-colored jacket, green slacks and gold shoes — worked a room filled with grey hair, business suits, tweed, bifocals and balding heads while a pianist played standards, an attempt at a jazz interpretation of “Walk on the Wild Side” and a lovely version of “Satellite of Love.” (Asked why he didn’t play more Lou songs, the pianist said they’re very difficult to interpret for solo piano because, well, Reed doesn’t really sing in a conventional way.) If the evening had been colder, there probably would have been fur coats.
Sure, Lou hit the legal retirement age last month and this is his peer group. And sure, these are different times. But 15 years ago the scene could have been a “Saturday Night Live” skit; 30 years ago, Lou probably — hopefully — would have told everyone in the room to go fuck themselves.
Amid the many tributes, Karr spoke of Lou’s ability to detect “vibes too delicate for most to pick up,” his ability to see that “if it’s sexy for Nico to sing like a man, it’s sexy for a man to dress like a woman,” and talked of the university’s affection for “crazy poet outlaws” like fellow alums Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff and George Saunders. Hijuelos compared Lou’s guitar playing to William Burroughs’ writing and noted, “If you have any legal concerns, Lou’s been there.” Anderson read two Delmore Schwartz poems; several speakers made reference to Lou’s enthusiasm for martial arts. With signature bombast, Bono compared Lou to James Joyce, but closed with a nice dedication: “May your brain stay a squeaky wheel, and may your dirty boulevards never be squeaky clean.”
As he’s often done in the past, Lou managed to make the event as much about his mentor and professor, Delmore Schwartz, as himself (both of their names are on an S.U. creative-writing scholarship that begins this fall). Lou dedicated the bulk of his short speech to Schwartz, recalling him saying, “Lou, if you ever write for money, I will haunt you if at all possible.” He also said there is “no greater honor than to be linked in spirit” with Schwartz, whom he hopes someday to join in the “part of heaven reserved for Brooklyn poets.”
The evening ended with an after-party hosted by fellow alum Schrager at the sprawling private rooftop club of his Gramercy Park Hotel, where expensive liquor was served gratis by a waitstaff dressed like members of Interpol. Lou’s manager was overheard telling the chancellor that the honoree was “very happy.” As we left, Lou was demonstrating tai chi moves to a pair of either rapt or sycophantic bald young men while Laurie looked on patiently.
Lou can now count himself among the 231 alumni who have won the award since its inception in 1939 — a motley crew that includes Senator Joe Biden ’68, William Safire ’51, Ted Koppel ’60, Dick Clark ’51, Vanessa Williams ’85 and many educators, artists, businesspeople, scientists and others. And if the evening was more like a walk on the Upper West Side than a walk on any wild side of anything, well, who’s to blame Lewis Allen Reed ’64 for stopping to smell some roses during these golden years that many — including, probably, him — thought he’d never see.
Tonight, Lou Reed headlines the Highline Ballroom with Okkervil River. The event is officially sold out.