Looking At Trees With Lou Reed: Reflections On Playing Guitar With a Master

I’ll never forget getting the call at 8 AM to come down to Lou’s to audition for the guitar slot in his band. They wanted me to come in an hour. I was dead tired, my first daughter having been born earlier that week, and I hadn’t expected the call. I also hadn’t worked on the tunes. Nonetheless, I jumped into a cab for his West Village studio, praying that we wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on the Queensborough Bridge. The first thing he said to me when I arrived was, “You’re not going to play any jazz are you? Because this is a rock band.” I found my way into that weird state that exists when you’re exhausted but also know you’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime. I killed the audition—I remember him smiling as we played.

A few weeks later we were listening to trumpeter Don Cherry with an intensity and appreciation that none of my college jazz professors could come close to. Lou picked up on every nuance of every note—and loved it.

When I tell people I played with Lou Reed, the first reaction is often, “I hear he’s difficult.” To which I reply, “Do you really want it to be easy? Do you think any great art comes out of having a nice relaxing time?”

Multi-instrumentalist Doug Weiselman once said to me that while Lou could rip someone to shreds he didn’t get enough credit for how passionate, enthusiastic and supportive he could be when he heard something that was ON. At a rehearsal once with the great saxophonist James Carter, James played these incredibly beautiful low notes—Lou and I just looked at each other. The gig was great too, but there was something about that rehearsal and how James played, the spirit that he invoked—it was so deep, Lou talked about it for weeks.

For Lou playing as if your life depended on it was all that mattered. He instantly knew if it was happening and he lived by that litmus test. When he ripped on people, it was only because he was trying to wake them up, to make their art alive and to make them play with this level of attention.

I once said to him, “Lou, it doesn’t bother me when you rip into me, because I know that you’re trying to teach me something, or that I’m being lazy.” And he said “You’re one of the few who gets it.”

Lou was always in the moment. He often said that if the iconic “Wild Side” solo had been recorded a few hours later it would have been different. On many occasions we would work on something for hours and play it that way the next day only to have Lou say, “No no no, that’s not it.” Inevitably someone would respond with, “Lou that’s what we came up with yesterday.”

“That was yesterday. Today is today.”

And it didn’t matter if he was at a rehearsal or at a festival in front of 40,000 people. Lou didn’t care. Or rather, he cared more than anyone I’ve ever met about making the music ALIVE and in the PRESENT. He didn’t stand on ceremony, regardless of the environment.

Our first festival show was in England. The other guitarist/violinist, Tony Diodore, and I had never played in front of 40,000 people. It’s an overwhelming amount of energy. And on top of that, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith were watching us from the side of the stage.

Tony was taking a violin solo on the song “Ecstasy.” We had rehearsed a certain length for the solo and when we came to the end he wound down as planned. Lou yelled, “keep going!” And again, “keep playing!” Lou wouldn’t let up. He shouted it over and over.

At first Tony noodled a bit, but then something flipped and he started wailing. And the crowd went nuts. Lou taught him how to really play that day.

I see so many bands today that seem dead, like they’re running through the motions, afraid to make mistakes. Everything is so perfect—even when they’re trying to be punk, it’s so calculated. And I see it because of Lou.

The other day I was talking to guitar tech Stewart Hurwood about the awesomeness of sound checks with Lou. Most of the time bands’ sound checks involve running through a song, making sure everything is working properly, maybe a little rehearsing on something. But with Lou they were marathons, going two or three hours. Usually right until the doors opened.

We’d get really into the songs, making them better and better. And then better.

I remember one time in Bordeaux when he decided the saxophone sounded too much like a saxophone. “Let’s make it sound like something we’ve never heard before,” he said. And out came the pedals. Fuzzes and harmonizers and such.

Lou was on the ground twiddling the knobs and he was like a teenager again, just loving exploring the sound until he found that perfect cacophony. It reminded me of that beautiful space you’re in when you get your first fuzz pedal. You just love the sound. Lou was in that space all the time.

And the beautiful thing is that he didn’t have to do it. He was already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was already famous and rich. And we only had a few shows left in the tour.

He could have just said, Ah it sounds fine. Or found one weird sound and have just gone with that. But he always kept pushing and pushing, constantly searching for the next level.

When Lou was 70 he did a record with Metallica. Think about how punk that is. Think about what you’ll be doing when you’re 70. It’s such a beautiful, moving record, but so few people took the time to dig into it. I’ve listened to it probably 100 times and played songs from it hundreds of times. I didn’t like it at first. It’s a very difficult record to listen to because it goes so deep into uncomfortable feelings we all spend so much time on the computer ignoring.

But if “Junior Dad” doesn’t move you to tears, well, you need to wake the fuck up. Check out the live version from Dresden and Lou improvising lyrics as fireworks go off. We were all surprised by the fireworks, and what he improvised spontaneously was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of. It was like God was speaking through him to us.

Our show in Lyon at the famous amphitheater on top of the hill is still my favorite gig of all time. On “Sunday Morning,” I took a guitar solo, and you can hear Lou whisper to me at the end, “Keep going. Show off.”

And then there was the time we played Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at the Highline Ballroom in NYC. After the show Michael Stipe came up to me and said “I don’t normally like guitar solos, but you moved me to tears tonight.” Lou was sitting on the steps and he looked up to me and said “You DO know who that is, don’t you? That’s a big deal.” When stuff like that happens, it’s such a strange thing, because it’s not really you that’s doing it. It’s some other thing. But it’s a thing Lou enabled night after night.

The second to last show we ever played at together was at Leamington Spa in England. It actually wasn’t a spa, that’s just the name of the town. It was a really cool old theatre that maybe held 1000 people. And it had a really small stage. Before Lou arrived at sound check, we were all worried—because of the small size of the stage, we were all on top of each other, and the bass amp was actually in front of the band. This makes it tough for the whole band to play, because you lose that punch and rumble you have when the bass amp is behind you. Lou really cared about the sound and the power of the sound, so we were worried this would bother him. But when he arrived and saw the setup, he said, “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we have fun.”

I think this was a turning point. Of course he still cared, but on these last shows we played together we got back to something that’s even more important than making mind-blowing art: having fun playing rock n’ roll.

I’ll say one more thing.

We were in France on a rainy day in a hotel lobby, all dead tired from an early morning flight. In a few hours we had to play a festival in the rain.

Lou looked and me and said, “Aram, say something positive.” He’d say this to me now and then.

I said “Lou, look at how beautiful the trees are in the rain. They’re so green.”

And he smiled and said “Yeah, they’re beautiful.”

And we sat and looked at them for a bit.

I miss you, Lou.