Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson: Buddhist Power Couple

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are not only two of my favourite  musical artists, but my favourite Buddhist power couple. They were both students of Mingyur Rinpoche. Lou was an avid Tai Chi practitioner who practiced the 24-move Yang form with his last dying breath, Laurie faithfully at his side.

Laurie and Lou were married for many years as an ostensibly “heterosexual” couple, even though Laurie did male impersonation as part of her performance art and had female relationships; while Lou was notoriously paired with transsexuals. They were both as queer as a “het” couple could be.

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are two fine examples of a Buddhist-influenced practice that is wildly creative, avant grade, and radically anti-establishment. Laurie’s work in particular was very high concept and futuristic, the kind of avant garde that the Art Institute of Chicago is famous for.

The following, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s Three Rules for Living Well: A Short and Succinct Life Philosophy is a post from by Josh Jones on Open Culture.

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s Three Rules for Living Well: A Short and Succinct Life Philosophy

Regular readers of Open Culture know us to gush over our favorite celebrity couples now and then: John and YokoJean-Paul and SimoneFrida and Diego…. Not your usual tabloid fare, but the juicy details of these amorous partners’ lives also happen to intersect with some of our favorite art, music and literature. One cultural power couple we haven’t covered much, surprisingly, well deserves the “power” adjective: Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, two personalities whose influence on the art and music of the last several decades can hardly be overstated.

Has Reed’s reputation at times been inflated, and Anderson’s underplayed? Maybe. She doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the witty, profound, moving work she’s done, year after year (with one lengthy hiatus) since the 70s. Reed’s career since the 70s consisted of more misses than hits. But put them together (in 1992) and you get a harmonious meeting of Reed’s raw, gut-level assertions and Anderson’s curious, playful concepts. Witness their personal strength together in the Charlie Rose excerpt at the top of the post. Reed, who was often a difficult interview subject, to put it mildly, and who gained a reputation as a brutally unpleasant, abusive rock and roll diva (immortalized lovingly in Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”), comes off in this sit-down with Anderson as almost warm and fuzzy. Did she make him want to be a better person? I don’t know. But Anderson’s short obituary after his 2013 death remembered Reed as a “prince and fighter,” her longer obit as a “generous” soul who enjoyed butterfly hunting, meditation, and kayaking. No reason he wasn’t all those things too.

When it came to music, Reed could pull his partner into the orbit of his sweet R&B songcraft, as in their duet of “Hang on to Your Emotions,” further up, and she could pull him out of it—like John Cale and Nico had done in the Velvet Underground—and into the avant-garde drone of her experimental scene (as above in the pair’s collaboration with composer and saxophonist John Zorn). Just this past Spring, in one of the most touching musical tributes I’ve ever seen, Anderson recreated Reed’s abrasive screw-you to his record label, Metal Machine Music, as a conceptual art piece called Drones, leaning several of his guitars against several fully-cranked vintage amps, letting the feedback ring out for five days straight.

None of us can be Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson; every couple is happy, or unhappy, in their own way. But what, in the grand tradition of mining celebrity couple’s lives for advice, can we learn from them? I guess the overall message—as Anderson herself suggested in her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech for Reed (above, in shaky audience video)—is this: keep it simple. Kansas State English Professor Philip Nel points out Anderson’s “wise… thoughtful” words on the subject of living well, delivered in her speech at the 8:55 mark:

I’m reminded also of the three rules we came up with, rules to live by. And I’m just going to tell you what they are because they come in really handy. Because things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on.

And the first one is: One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.

Can you imagine Lou Reed as “really, really tender”? He certainly was in song, if not always in person. In any case, these three rules seem to me to encapsulate a personal philosophy built solidly on fearless integrity and compassion. Difficult to live by, but well worth the effort. And because I’m now feeling super warm and fuzzy about Lou and Laurie, I’ll leave you with the short WNYC interview clip below, in which she reveals her favorite Lou Reed song, which he happened to write about her.

via Nine Kinds of Pie

Related Content:

Laurie Anderson’s Top 10 Books to Take to a Desert Island      

An Animated Lou Reed Explains The Velvet Underground’s Artistic Goals, and Why The Beatles Were “Garbage”

Lou Reed, John Cale & Nico Reunite, Play Acoustic Velvet Underground Songs on French TV, 1972

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

6 comments on “Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson: Buddhist Power Couple

  1. Dorje Shedong

    Very nice piece on Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson! Interesting to learn they both were/are students of Mingyur Rinpoche, an excellent Dzogchen/Maha Ati teacher. I’ve been on the verge of contacting Laurie Anderson for quite some time–maybe since that Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction–about what I’m about to tell you: in 1974, when I set up 12-13 benefit poetry readings in New York to raise money for the Karmapa’s first visit to the US, under the auspicious of the New York Dharmadhatu, one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s communities (one reading was “The Return of the Beats to Columbia University,” with Burroughs taking Kerouac’s place), John Giorno suggested I contact Lou Reed about reading/performing, and gave me Reed’s snail mail address (all there was back then). I wrote, but never heard back from him–and poets all over New York were clamoring to read. I say that in the context of “shit detector”! Maybe Reed sniffed it out, early on? If you happen to have Laurie Anderson’s e-address, feel free to Forward this on to her.


    • Dorje Shedong

      Hmmm…”auspicious”–an interesting slip of the brain!

  2. Shaun Bartone

    Hey Dorje: nice to hear from you again. Glad you’re still reading the blog. It’s long-overdue time for a rebirth of Buddhist Beat. Chogyam Trungpa said that he thought Buddhism in the West would revolutionize the arts. But I believe that will only happen when Buddhists rebel against the mind-numbing schlock that has come to represent Buddhism in the west, what I call “idiot Buddhism.” I added a paragraph on “idiot Buddhism” to the prior post “Thinking as a Tantric Practice, just to drive the point home. Incidentally, I’m working on a collection of poems called “The Beat Punk Abhidharma.”

    • Dorje Shedong

      Yes, Shaun, still out here bumping around in space. Well, I’m not so sure a “return” to the Beats is such a good idea, though it’s always good to be immersed in the tradition. Anne Waldman, quite a few years ago, saw the handwriting on the wall with the arrival of so-called “Language Poetry”–the “Linguistic Turn” in poetry–and starting calling what they’re doing at the KEROUAC SCHOOL “Postmodern Poetry,” with an emphasis on Deleuze’s rhizomatic metaphor for understanding the world, as opposed to the tree metaphor. (Personally, I continue to prefer the good ole tree metaphor, but this isn’t the time or place to explain why.) Perhaps the most important thing the Language Poets accomplished–aside from a 50/50 division between men and women in leadership roles, unlike the Surrealists (or Beats, for that matter), whom they–as a community–otherwise resemble in certain respects: you know, with Andre Breton in the center of the Surrealist Boys–the Language Poets brought a more radical politics and economics into the picture than the “romantic anti-capitalism” of Ginsberg, for example. (Allen always blamed the fact his mother joined the Communist Party for her mental illness.) Several of the key figures in the Language Poetry community are Trotskyists, as you may know. But then there followed Flarf, wild collaging off the internet, and who knows what else–I haven’t kept up. As I recall, you were pretty well versed in Critical Theory, am I right? Here’s an interesting quote I recently ran into in an anthology on the work of Walter Benjamin, by Howard Caygill, on the subject of history: “Both Heidegger and Benjamin opposed the progressive view of history which regarded the present as the untroubled heir of the past. This view was shared by both the Enlightenment liberal and Counter-enlightenment conservative understandings of the relation between past and present. It assumed tradition to be a neutral medium, whether for the unfolding of reason in history or for the bestowal of the accumulated wisdom of the past upon the present. For Heidegger and Benjamin, however, tradition was not the smooth and uninterrupted transmission of the past to the present but a handing over of tradition fraught with danger and risk.” (WALTER BENJAMIN’S PHILOSOPHY: Destruction and Experience, edited by Andrew Benjamin and and Peter Osborne, p. 12.) Expect a tasty little article to come your way on the “Dissent Memo” momentarily. Think of it as an anteater you could drop in the Shambhala Center antheap, if you wanted to.

    • don socha

      I appreciate your concept of Idiot Buddhism. Reminds me of the Buddhism (and whatnot) for Dummies books. Wonder if the form of Buddhism you do advocate isn’t too complex for that format. And would it be inaccurate to say you advocate a Para-Buddhist orientation?

      • Shaun Bartone

        ‘Para-Buddhist.’ Interesting term. Yes you could call it that. I call it post-Buddhism

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