Alongside being a founder member of the Velvet Underground, one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, a pioneering champion of trans culture with his 1972 masterpiece Transformer and an interviewee difficult enough to strike fear into the hearts of journalists the world over, Lou Reed was a dedicated Tai Chi practitioner. It is this aspect of the quintessential New Yorker’s checkered life that his widow, the artist and experimental musician Laurie Anderson, is shining a light on.
“Twice a year, we do events in the so-called Louniverse,” Anderson says in a book-lined room in her New York apartment in a gentle, hesitating tone. “This week we’re doing a Louniverse event with a free Tai Chi class, a weapons demonstration from [Reed’s former teacher] Master Ren, and I’ll be doing a few Tai Chi moves. Lou and I didn’t share Tai Chi sessions — it is better if couples don’t do everything together — but we both understood how it can change your life. That’s why he was such a missionary for it. He thought everybody needed it.”
It seems strange to be talking to Anderson about Reed’s approach to standing mountain pose, eagle claw and other ways of harnessing the qi. After all, this is the man who gifted the world such enduring classics as “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” But Anderson suggests that in Reed’s final years the ancient Chinese martial art was more important to him than songwriting; certainly more important than gold discs, entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or any of the other music career pats on the back.
That’s why she has spent the past six years putting together The Art of the Straight Line, a book on Tai Chi that Reed began but didn’t complete. Anderson fleshes out his words with interviews with everyone from his sister Merrill to Iggy Pop to other martial arts enthusiasts like the Sopranos and White Lotus actor Michael Imperioli, and offers her own reflections along the way. The resulting book reads as an introduction to Tai Chi and an insight into a complex, contradictory man. Even the title comes out of Reed’s abstruse way of thinking. Tai Chi is built on circular movements.
“Tai chi brought to Lou a sense of rootedness, balance and confidence, as it does to everyone,” Anderson says. “I’ve had moments in Tai Chi and meditation that feel like opening your eyes for the first time, and Lou would practice for four hours a day. It appealed to his sense of duality. There was a photograph in The New York Times today of nuns in Nepal with palms slicing through the air. It looks so graceful. You would have to know about Tai Chi to know the move they are doing represents decapitation. Tai Chi is an art form about killing people — ritually, of course.”
Reading The Art of the Straight Line makes you wonder if Reed, celebrated for his street-level storytelling and wise-guy wit, was a religious person. “Lou defined himself as a Buddhist, as do I. To be part of a belief system with no one in charge is appealing to artists. It means that you’re in charge.”
In Reed’s final years the ancient Chinese martial art was more important to him than songwriting.
Not that the Buddhist message of non-violence was always at the forefront of Reed’s mind. A couple of times in the book he is quoted as saying he could kill a person with a single move. Speaking as someone who knows nothing about it, I think there seem to be two aspects going on concurrently in Tai Chi: inner peace and outer violence.
“At least two aspects,” Anderson says. “Tai Chi also appealed to Lou because he wanted a sense of direction, of improving his life. That is why he thought of it as a straight line, even though you are doing it in circles. He liked the combination of balance and action it involved.”
Reed combined his musical and martial arts lives; not always successfully. During a 2008 stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, Texas, for that year’s South by Southwest festival he requested an extra large room so he could practice swinging swords around, much to the concierge’s displeasure. He wrote a song about Tai Chi called “Open Invitation,” which is being released for the first time in conjunction with the book. For a tour of his 2003 concept album The Raven, he had Master Ren performing Tai Chi in red pajamas at the front of the stage. The 2007 album Hudson River Wind Meditations was designed as an accompaniment to Tai Chi; for a forthcoming reissue Anderson has designed a poster illustrating the 21 movements of the practice.
Anderson states that “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” one of the Velvet Underground’s most beloved songs, written by Reed for the icy German chanteuse Nico to make her feel better about herself, bears comparison with a Tai Chi move called push hands, which is about tapping into your opponent’s essential being. What she didn’t want the book to do — although I would argue that it does do this — is give an insight into Reed’s personality.
“What people always get wrong about Lou is to think his music was about self-expression,” she says. “He didn’t care if you knew him or not, so the last thing I wanted to do was provide a portrait. Many journalists would go: ‘You said this, you said that, it is all about your life.’ His answer was: ‘It is called writing.’ That’s why I get irritated when people try to analyze Lou’s work, because you can never really know a person’s motivation. Music critics like to be amateur psychoanalysts … At least the ones who gravitated toward Lou did.”
Talking of which, Reed’s disdain for the press was legendary. In 2000 he told a Swedish journalist, “Journalists are the lowest form of life. Mainly the English. They’re pigs.” The root of this antipathy, which crumbled once the defensive barrier was broken and friendship established, was in part because throughout his life so much of his best work was released to commercial disappointment and critical disdain, only to be hailed as a masterpiece further down the line.
I interviewed Reed twice. The first time, in Prague in 2012, he remained behind mirrored shades and a snarl of simmering rage. “That’s a rather pubescent question, don’t you think?” was one memorable answer. On our second encounter, shortly before he died in October 2013 aged 71, he was very sweet. I wonder what was going on there. “Well, was your question pubescent?” asks Anderson, her hackles rising ever so slightly. “Lou got asked the dumbest things. He wasn’t afraid to call people out on that kind of stuff. And he didn’t care if you liked him. That is always refreshing.”
Anderson says Reed was on an eternal quest to improve himself and the world around him, however difficult that may have made him. “He always wanted the best bag, the best teacher, the best everything. He wanted a better sound on his guitar, a better camera lens. Even if things looked bleak he tried to improve them, which made him an optimist in some sense. Nobody can prove things are getting better or worse at any point in history, so the most you can aim for is a better life.”
Since his death, Anderson has dedicated much of her time to preserving her husband’s legacy. Last year she oversaw the release of Words & Music, May 1965, an album of folk and blues-styled prototypes for Velvet Underground classics, like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin,” which Reed had recorded on five-inch tape and posted to himself as an early form of copyright. The tape had languished in an unopened envelope in his office for decades. She bequeathed Reed’s archive to the New York Public Library for “Caught Between the Twisted Stars,” an exhibition containing everything from original song lyrics to photography to Tai Chi studies. All of this has gone alongside a spiritually informed approach to dealing with the death of the love of her life.
He requested an extra large room so he could practice swinging swords around, much to the concierge’s displeasure.
In The Art of the Straight Line, Anderson describes observing the bardo rituals, connected to the Tibetan Buddhist belief in a 49-day period between the death of a person and the reincarnation of their consciousness into a new body. “One of the things disallowed during this period is grief, because it brings the person back,” she explains. “So instead we focused on aspects of Lou’s life: friendship, design, music, photography, meditation and martial arts. Each Sunday a group of us would meet to talk about him. Ten years later, we are still doing it twice a year. It is a wonderful way of continuing to have a relationship with someone who put so many things out into the world.”
This, then, is the Louniverse. “It is a cult. And I’m the cult leader.”
How is Anderson’s life now, ten years after Reed’s death? “I’m a lot more anxious these days. Much more than I was during the pandemic, even though I had friends who died in it.” Reed’s best friend, the arranger Hal Willner, was an early victim of coronavirus, dying in April 2020 aged 64. “Now we’re dealing with the unreality of TikTok, or constantly being either sold, or sold to, by Google, or the egos of men like Putin who want to own everything. But in my worldview we’re here to have a good time, so I try to remember that.”
Reed’s final words were: “I need light.” It sounds like a glimpse of a journey to the other side; the “White Light/White Heat” that Reed sang of in the Velvet Underground’s 1968 song of that name. Perhaps we shouldn’t get too transcendental about it, though.
“I would be an amateur psychiatrist, just like the many journalists who talk about him have decided to be, if I surmised where that came from,” Anderson concludes. “But as you are dying your sight goes, and it turns out that ‘I need light’ are a lot of people’s final words for that reason.” That’s Lou Reed: balancing between everyday reality and sacred mystery to the very end.
The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi, by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, will be published on March 14 by HarperOne
Will Hodgkinson is the chief rock-and-pop critic for The Times of London and contributes to Mojo magazine