Lou Reed, the perfect Jew?

Lou Reed, the perfect Jew?


norman lebrecht

October 28, 2013

Tributes to Lou Reed in Israeli media lead with a statement of his ancestry. Lou, who has died aged 71, is described in the leftwing daily Haaretz as the perfect counter-Jew, the one who broke all the rules, an iconoclasm that is, of itself, arguably Jewish.

I would not dispute that characterisation, except to aver that Lou’s most famous song, Perfect Day, has echoes of rabbinic and kabbalistic writings about the Sabbath, a theme I hope to pursue in my BBC series next year on music and the Jews. May Lou’s soul rest in the peace of the eternal sabbath.





  • Nancy E. says:

    Why is this man getting so many tributes? Yesterday even classical aficionados were getting in:

    “His music had depth, beauty and dark energy”

    Am I the only classical music and opera lover who has ZERO interest in his work?

    • Steve Foster says:

      Probably. He was quite influential across different musical genres.

      • sdReader says:

        It will be interesting to read how Alex Ross views this musician.

        His books have made a point of relating strands of contemporary (serious) music to each other, on the theory that our classifications of music — such as the one used by Nancy — are unhelpful.

    • Nancy E, you may have had little interest in his work. However the cultural significance of any musician is beyond the personal likes and dislikes of an individual. I may think that Morrissey’s artistic output is over-rated to put it politely. However his work with The Smiths did influence a lot of bands I do like such as Radiohead.

      I am ashamed to admit that my first encounter of Perfect Day was in the film Trainspotting. Nevertheless it seemed to capture the bittersweet nature of film perfectly. Songs like Venus in Furs are not what could be termed easy listening.

      My words are inadequate – the best tribute comes from the man himself:

      “I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful.”

      • phill says:

        I agree entirely Debashish – especially the point about Morissey (personal dislike) and his influence (enormous).

        I am rediscovering Lou Reed’s work and think his influence across genres is immense. RIP and I hope you found your man waiting in the sky…

  • I don’t think that’s his most famous song—probably “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” More famous in the U.S. anyway, and Reed was American. Looking forward to the BBC series, which ought to inform and inflame, and hope it makes it stateside asap.

  • Martin fischer says:

    He makes Music, that matters.

  • Cammy says:

    Can you please tell us how this song echoes or rabbinic and kabbalistic writings about the Sabbath? And unless we have membership we can’t read the article in Haaretz, so any portion of it you can share would be appreciated.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    You can register a free account with Haaretz which will allow you to read 10 stories a month.

  • pogo says:

    one of the most overrated hack musicians in the history of overrating, and how this made a site dedicated to real music is baffling.

  • Lauren says:

    Perfect Day was about his love of heroin. Both he and David Bowie (who produced it) said as much in various interviews. RIP Lou Reed.

  • stuart johnson says:

    Why is this youth marketing trash in the news everywhere?

    • MWnyc says:

      Youth marketing trash??

      Stuart, how old are you?

      The big Lou Reed fans I know are in their 50s and 60s.

    • Peter Allen says:

      Youth? Marketing? Perhaps you really do need to wonder why “the news” is everywhere! Lou was 71 and I am in my 7th decade. I started buying records around 1964.

      If I remember rightly I saw Joan Sutherland’s triumphal return home (with an unknown tenor named Pavarotti) the same year Sgt Pepper’s came out. It was a fantastic period – contemporary music that excited the mind and heart (and which has lasted); including the last decade of output from Britten and Shostakovitch; The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. European music from Penderecki et al. American music from Copland et al, the rise of the minimalists Reich, Riley et al, Velvet Underground et al leading on to Patti Smith. Morton Subotnik. Fear of a Black Planet through to Björk. Radiohead. The rise and rise of HIP, and folk music. The first Mahler popularity boom, and the current one! Death in Venice, Adelaide 1980. The first Ring cycle in Australia, Adelaide 1998; the Australian premiere of Parsifal, Adelaide 2002; the first indigenous Ring cycle production, Adelaide 2004; and f i n a l l y OA should manage its own production this month in Melbourne. Every Bob Dylan concert in Melbourne since 1990, and some. Never liked or owned the records but seeing The Wall live in Melbourne 2012 was a revelation; only exceeded by finally seeing Einstein On the Beach earlier this year…

      So what music works for you, Stuart?

  • cabbagejuice says:

    What is so great about Perfect Day? Iconoclasm becomes boring after the age of 20. So do ageing dopeheads.

  • tufluv says:

    What a bunch of pretentious blowhards there on on this site. So just because you haven’t heard of Lou Reed or you don’t like his music, he’s not worth your time? Does that mean if I don’t listen to Carl Orff and haven’t heard of Carmina Burana,I’m an idiot?

    • Nancy E. says:


      Why do you call us ‘pretentious blowhards’?

      I mean what exactly does Mr. Reed have to do with opera and classical music?

      Oh and Carmina Burana is mostly meretricious claptrap I’m sorry to say…. If you are looking for a great piece (with chorus) you should have picked something like Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        So you are saying if I like Gurrelieder that makes me a pretentious blowhard?

      • sdReader says:

        Eugen Jochum, René Clemencic, André Previn, James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Riccardo Chailly, Christian Thielemann, Joel Cohen and Daniel Harding haven’t agreed with you.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Hard to say since you obviously *have* heard of Carmina Burana.

  • Jon Critsbin says:

    I am Jewish turned Christian . I grew up enjoying classical as well as rock . As I matured I prefer peaceful , elegant , music more and more to the point I am sick and tired of most anything other than pleasant , spiritual , intelligent type music and God glorifying makes it even better . I just no longer appreciate the electric 4 piece band and banging I once did . I feel so much better letting go of this. It all seems like a bunch of violent , rebellious , immature , adolescent nonsense and a true waste. Peace , health , happiness to all . Thank God for Jesus . Amen

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      What music does Jesus listen to?

      • MWnyc says:

        Josquin, of course.

        • MWnyc says:

          I think his mom is more into some of the Spaniards and the pre-Reformation English guys. They really had a thing for her.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Does Jesus have an iPod?

          • MWnyc says:

            I wouldn’t imagine that Jesus needs an iPad. I would suppose that, what with being divinity and all, he’s like royalty and wealthy nobility of old and has celestial musicians available to him to provide live music whenever he wishes it.

            Incidentally, we have it from no less an authority than Anonymous 4 themselves that angels sing only equal-voice music, never SATB.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “Lou, who has died aged 71, is described in the leftwing daily Haaretz as the perfect counter-Jew, the one who broke all the rules, an iconoclasm that is, of itself, arguably Jewish.”

    How can you be the perfect thing and the perfect counter-thing at the same time? And why is iconoclasm a specific Jewish thing?

  • Perfect Day will be remembered more (and probably is objectively better) than Carmina Burana (ducks for cover…).

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      If it’s “objectively better”, can you then explain objectively why it is better? And how do you objectively compare two works of music which are so very different in every respect?