A conversation with author Aidan Levy
By Cindy Mindell and Judie Jacobson
Musician Lou Reed went out of his way to rub people the wrong way, from the noise rock he produced with the group the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s to his chaotic work with Metallica that would prove to be his swan song. On a personal level, too, he seemed to take pleasure in insulting everyone who crossed his path.
How did this Jewish boy from Long Island, an adolescent doo-wop singer, rise to the status of Godfather of Punk? And how did he maintain that status for decades? Dirty Blvd., the first new biography of Reed since his death in 2013 digs deep to answer those questions.
Written by West Hartford native Aidan Levy, Dirty Blvd. not only covers the highlights of Reed’s career but also explores lesser-known facets of his work, such as the impact of Judaism upon his work and his engagement with the LGBT movement.
Drawing from new interviews with many of his artistic collaborators, friends, and romantic partners, as well as from archival material, concert footage, and unreleased bootlegs of live performances, Levy paints an intimate portrait of the notoriously uncompromising rock poet who wrote “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Street Hassle” – songs that transcended their genre and established Lou Reed as one of the most influential and enigmatic American artists of the past half-century.
Dirty Blvd. is the first book authored by Levy, who lives in New York City and has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, JazzTimes, and the Daily Forward, among others. An accomplished musician, Levy plays baritone saxophone in the Stan Rubin Orchestra and is a doctoral student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He holds an M.F.A. from Long Island University, Brooklyn, a B.A. from Brown University, and is a proud member of IATSE Local 52.
Growing up, Levy was a member of Congregation Beth Israel, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah and played in the synagogue’s klezmer band, and where his family are still members.
Aidan Levy will celebrate the launch of his new book at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford on Sunday, Oct. 18 at 2:15 p.m.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Levy about his new book and his career as a musician and a journalist.
Q: Tell us about the evolution of your career as a jazz musician.
A: Growing up in West Hartford, I always wanted to be in the Hall High School Concert Jazz Band. Most schools have a spring musical, but at Hall High School, we have Pops ’n’ Jazz, and as a kid, I was blown away. When I was nine years old, I started taking alto saxophone lessons at the Hartt School of Music, and when I began at King Philip Middle School, I attended an after-school jazz improvisation workshop and joined the jazz band, led by Joe Ganci. For my bar mitzvah, I received a two-disc collection of Charlie Parker, and that cemented my love of bebop.
In high school, I joined the junior jazz band, where I was asked to switch to tenor saxophone and gladly made the move. Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps? Forget about it. In my junior year, I was accepted into the Concert Jazz Band. The baritone saxophone chair was open and someone had to fill it. When I started out, the baritone was bigger than me, but at 16, I could go toe to toe with the unwieldy instrument. I avidly listened to Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams and began studying with Larry Dvorin, a local lawyer and jazz saxophonist who helped me develop a foundation in jazz theory.
I was an English major at Brown University, but I continued performing in jazz groups and studying with Bill Vint, the saxophone faculty member in the university’s jazz performance program. On weekends, I played funk and soul music all over Rhode Island with the Soul Ambition Band.
After graduating, I moved to New York City and got the opportunity to sit in with the Stan Rubin Orchestra, a big band that plays the hits of the swing era – Count Basie, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw, among others. An earlier incarnation of the band was invited to play at Grace Kelly’s wedding in Monaco. I also played in Irv Irving, a rock band that was influenced by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Steely Dan. That group has since disbanded, but I continue to perform with the Stan Rubin Orchestra every Wednesday at Swing 46 in New York.
Q: How did you get into writing about jazz?
A: I had a parallel trajectory as a journalist. At King Philip, I wrote several articles for the West Hartford News about middle school activities and developments as a sort of student liaison to the newspaper. I then wrote for Hall Highlights, the Hall High School newspaper. When I was 15, my family took a vacation to Venice, Italy, and I wrote an article for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger on a night we spent having an outdoor Shabbat dinner on the banks of the canals as guests of the Venice Chabad house. In college, I wrote for the Brown Daily Herald, reporting on a wide array of university issues and cultural events. After graduating in 2008, I moved to New York and began working in film production, in addition to freelancing for the Village Voice music section. Since then, I have written for JazzTimes, The New York Times, the Daily Forward, and other publications. In 2014, I began a PhD program at Columbia University in the Department of English and Comparative Literature with a focus on Jazz Studies.
Q: What sparked your interest in Lou Reed?
A: When I got my driver’s license, I always had the radio tuned to WRTC-FM, the station at Trinity College where I eventually became a volunteer jazz host, WWUH at the University of Hartford, or any of the classic rock stations in the Hartford area. There was rarely overlap between the jazz and rock programming. Yet one day, while listening to a rock station, I heard a baritone sax solo drift gently over the air. It was Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” with the insouciant Ronnie Ross saxophone solo as the song fades out. From there, I got into the Velvet Underground, a sort of rite of passage for any disaffected teen growing up in the suburbs, and then slowly worked my way through the rest of the Reed catalogue. I was always a huge fan of Lou Reed, and had contemplated writing a book about his music starting about five years ago. I began full-fledged research for the project in early 2013, and wrote the proposal that year. My sister, jazz vocalist Allegra Levy, and I had the opportunity to see him read at the annual Downtown Seder in New York City, hosted by impresario Michel Dorf at City Winery. After he passed, I considered abandoning the project, but ultimately decided to write it as a tribute to an artist whose music changed my life.
Q: How did you choose the book’s title?
A: The title comes from a track on Lou Reed’s New York, a seminal 1989 album by the ultimate New York artist that embodies the city and captures that tumultuous period.
Q: In the book, you write about the Jewish influences on Lou Reed’s art and life. Such as?
A: Lou Reed grew up as a Conservative Jew in Freeport, Long Island in New York, attending Sunday school and having a bar mitzvah. So, Judaism undoubtedly had an impact on his artistic oeuvre. I even spoke to one of his Sunday school classmates for the book. He was not religious for most of his adult life, but in 1992, avant-garde saxophonist and composer John Zorn invited him to be a part of the first Radical Jewish Culture Festival in Munich. Organized only several years after the Berlin Wall fell, it was the first Jewish cultural festival in Munich since Kristallnacht. It was there that Lou Reed met Laurie Anderson, his partner for the last 20 years of his life. I discuss his Jewish roots in the book in much greater detail.
Q: Are there any Jewish overtones or nuances in any of his songs?
A: The song “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” also from the New York album, is a polemic responding to Austrian political leader Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past and antisemitic remarks made by Rev. Jesse Jackson during the ’80s. Reed certainly identified as a Jew, and I would situate him in the long tradition of Jewish-American artists, intellectuals, and iconoclasts influenced by the diasporic experience. During his memorial service at the Apollo Theater in 2013, past collaborators Bob Ezrin and Hal Willner recited “The Mourner’s Kaddish” accompanied by Philip Glass on piano, and Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman chanted “El Maleh Rachamim.”
Q: What did you learn about Lou Reed that was particularly surprising or interesting to you?
A: As a student of literature, I was fascinated by Lou Reed’s literary side. He was an accomplished poet and had work published in the Harvard Advocate, Poetry, and the Paris Review. I would argue that his greatest contribution is infusing the rock idiom with the modernist sensibility he had internalized and made his own. For Reed, high and low art in their popular conception were not mutually exclusive, and did not constitute a legitimate dichotomy.
I knew of Reed’s connection to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, but I had not delved deeply into his relationship with Delmore Schwartz. Schwartz was a brilliant poet and short story writer, immortalized by Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a roman a clef that features a thinly veiled Schwartz as the eponymous protagonist. Schwartz’s most commonly read and anthologized work is In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a short story that typifies the disillusionment of young adulthood and is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s pivotal examples of the form.
Schwartz, who was also Jewish, became Reed’s mentor at Syracuse University, where he held a teaching post coterminous with Reed’s undergraduate years. Schwartz inspired Reed to devote his life to the craft of poetry, and after his untimely death in 1966, Reed dedicated the Velvet Underground song “European Son” to his memory.
Yet perhaps what fascinated me most was my journey into the Syracuse University Archives to read the three volumes of the Lonely Woman Quarterly, a literary journal Reed and his artistic collaborators founded in college, written with the indomitable spirit of Schwartz.
Q: Your parents are both journalists. Have they influenced your work?
A: My parents heavily influenced my decision to pursue journalism. My mother, Patricia Weiss Levy, has written for New York, USA Today, The Hartford Courant, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, and The New York Times. She blogs at nicejewishmom.com. My father, Harlan Levy, worked in radio at WGTR-AM in the Boston area, as a TV news reporter at WXEX-TV in Richmond, VA, WCIX-TV in Miami, FL, and WVIT-TV in West Hartford. As a print journalist, he has written for The Commercial Record, The New York Times, and the Journal Inquirer, where he currently writes on business and consumer affairs. They are members of Congregation Beth Israel, where my mother writes the annual Purim spiel.
Q: Have you performed with your sister, Allegra, who is an accomplished jazz vocalist?
A: My sister and I perform together periodically. We most recently performed this past December at Black Eyed Sally’s to celebrate the release of her debut album, Lonely City (SteepleChase LookOut). I am very proud of her achievements as a vocalist and composer, and strongly recommend that anyone who hasn’t heard Lonely City buy it immediately.
Dirty Blvd. Book Launch Party with author Aidan Levy, moderated by Bob Parzych of WRTC-FM at Trinity College; Sunday, Oct. 18, 2:15 p.m., followed by a reception and book signing with the author: Noah Webster Library, 20 South Main St., West Hartford. RSVP to Patti and Harlan Levy, (860) 231-7234, firstname.lastname@example.org.