France Honors Lou Reed

October 24, 2011 | By French Culture

On Sunday, October 30, 2011, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, conferred the insignia of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters on Lou Reed, playwright, poet, musician, and photographer with the following speech.


Dear Lou Reed,

In the forward of Pass Thru Fire, the amazing book (or may I say the “Holy Bible”?) of your Collected Lyrics, you wrote: “My teacher Delmore Schwartz showed me the beauty of the simple phrase and I have tried to do that my whole writing life.”

The beauty of the simple phrase…

This is exactly the essence of your art: not only the art of a singer, a musician, a composer – but the art of one of the major American writers of our time.

And this is a big challenge for me: as a diplomat, even through I’m a Cultural Counselor, I’m not sure to be the world specialist of the “simple phrase”.

Anyways, I will try to do my best.  

I will try, first, as a fan.

For many of us (French or American, it makes no difference) you are, dear Lou Reed, a voice.

The sound of a guitar.

The magnetic beauty of a presence.

When I heard the first guitar chord of Sweet Jane, for example, and then the first words (“Standin’ on the corner/ Suitcase in my hand…”), with the vibration, so special, of your voice… it was a shock, and a real revelation.

And it was a chill.

When I hear it now, it happens again.

And I’m sure that all the people here feel exactly the same way.

The same chill.

Again and again.

There is actually a magic in your art: one that realizes the embodiment of words, through music. That’s how I understand the lyrics of The Summation, a song from one of your records I prefer, Magic and Loss:

“When you pass through fire licking at your lips/ You cannot remain the same.”

We cannot remain the same, after hearing your voice and your words.

The story of such a strange and delightful process of the spell began of course with The Velvet Underground, in the mid-sixties, but it went on through your whole career from Andy Warhol to Metallica-if you allow me this shortcut.

(I must confess that I’m very impressed to be with you tonight, and also very impatient for it to be tomorrow… because tomorrow your new album Lulu comes out!)

I talk about magic and spell, dear Lou Reed, but you’re not only a sorcerer: as an artist, you are truly an alchemist, who experienced many formulas and collaborations.

Was this a “simple phrase”?

Not sure of that.

What is sure, is that you’re not only a signer: you’re a researcher.

Examples of this research are plentiful:

  • your famous and provocative experimental 1975 double album Metal Machine Music;

  • and also your collaboration with Bob Wilson on Time Rocker, the original theatrical interpretation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, or more recently, on Lulu, with the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, a show that will be performed in Paris next month for the Festival d’Automne – it’s already the event of the season…;

  • and of course your concept album The Raven, which also became a beautiful book in collaboration with the artist Lorenzo Mattotti (published in France by your friend the editor Bernard Comment, who is with us tonight);

  • of course your important work as a photographer (may I mention –at least- your latest book, Romanticism, dedicated to the magnificent Laurie Anderson?)

  • … and even your creation of a very original and useful iPhone app (“Lou Zoom”)!

I could go on that way all night long, trying to quote your countless artistic adventures.

So, I would like to emphasize only one more point: you created, with your voice, your eye, your words, what we could call the “Lou Reed World”.

This exciting but sometimes dangerous world is often located here, in New York City, with its characters, its streets, its colours, its accents… In this regard, your 1989 album “New York” is a kind of Balzac-style masterpiece: you have invented a “comédie humaine”, describing a city that is, of course, a mirror of the human being…

I mention Balzac, but I could say Saul Bellow, Edgar Poe… or Delmore Schwarts. You often presented him as your mentor, and I do like the tribute song “My House” (he first of the Blue Mask album), in which you call him “a friend and teacher”.

I’m sure that today, through your works, even for people who never met your personally, you are the “friend and teacher”.

In another song that I’ve already mentioned, Magic and Loss- The Summation, you also wrote: “They say no one person can do it all/ But you want to in your head/ But you can’t be Shakespeare/ And you can’t be Joyce/ So what is left instead…”

What is left?

After William Shakespeare and James Joyce, you were able to become Lou Reed.

That’s why I’m especially proud, honoured, and moved, to confer on you the insignia of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters.

Cher Lou Reed, au nom du Gouvernement français, je vous fais Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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