The Corner

Lou Reed’s Stand for Israel and against Anti-Semitism

Perhaps even more than other American-Jewish rock stars such as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed was fiercely proud of being Jewish — and included lyrics on behalf of Israel and against anti-Semitism in some of his songs.

I mention Reed’s Jewishness because not a single obituary I have read of him in the mainstream press mentions it, when for Reed it was an important factor.

Reed, who died yesterday of liver failure at the age of 71, was born Lewis Allan Reed to a Jewish family in Brooklyn. He said that while “he had no god apart from rock ‘n’ roll” his Jewish roots and standing up for Israel meant a lot to him. He was a frequent visitor to the country, last performing in Tel Aviv in 2008, and his aunt and many cousins live in Haifa and other Israeli towns.

Reed even had an Israeli spider named after him to thank him for his support for the country.

His connection to Israel and his distaste for anti-Semitism can be heard in his lyrics from the song “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” on his 1989 solo album New York:

Good evening Mr. Waldheim [1]

and Pontiff how are you?

You have so much in common

in the things you do

And here comes Jesse Jackson

He talks of Common Ground

Does that Common Ground include me

or is it just a sound

A sound that shakes

Oh Jesse, you must watch the sounds you make

A sound that quakes

There are fears that still reverberate

Jesse you say Common Ground [2]

Does that include the PLO?

What about people right here right now 

who fought for you not so long ago? [3]

The words that flow so freely

falling dancing from your lips

I hope that you don’t cheapen them

with a racist slip

Oh Common Ground

Is Common Ground a word or just a sound

Common Ground—remember those civil rights workers buried in the ground

If I ran for president and once was a member of the Klan

Wouldn’t you call me on it

The way I call you on Farrakhan [4]

And Pontiff, pretty Pontiff

Can anyone shake your hand?

Or is it just that you like uniforms

and someone kissing your hand

Or is it true

The Common Ground for me includes you too

Oh is it true the Common Ground for me includes you too

Good evening Mr. Waldheim

Pontiff how are you

As you both stroll through the woods at night

I’m thinking thoughts of you

And Jesse you’re inside my thoughts

As the rhythmic words subside

My Common Ground invites you in

or do you prefer to wait outside

Or is it true

The Common Ground for me is without you

Or is it true

The Common Ground for me is without you

Oh is it true

There’s no Ground Common enough for me and you

For younger readers, just in case you need an explanation as to the events in the 1980s:

[1] This is a reference to Kurt Waldheim, the Nazi SS officer, who went on to become U.N. secretary general, and was then elected president of Austria, even after he was proven to have helped kill tens of thousands of Jews from Greece and elsewhere.

[2] A reference to Jesse Jackson who at the time had made many anti-Semitic remarks including referring to New York as “Hymietown” and appeared to have sympathy for PLO terrorism.

[3] A reference to American Jews who had helped stand up for the civil rights of African Americans (and in some cases been killed for doing so).

[4] Louis Farrakhan is the notoriously anti-Semitic leader of the so-called Nation of Islam.

You can listen here to Lou Reed’s “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”:

You can listen to my favorite Lou Reed track, “Walk on the Wild Side,” here:

In his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, Steven Lee Beeber argued that there was a key Jewish element to the New York punk-rock movement that Reed was central to; other Jewish-born artists included Joey and Tommy Ramone, Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Jonathan Richman, and Blondie’s guitarist Chris Stein — not to mention Malcolm McLaren (who was fully Jewish but whose family changed their name to escape anti-Semitism) and who created the Sex Pistols.

Saul Austerlitz in a review of the book wrote, “The new punk Jew was inspired in equal parts by the warriors of the Israel Defense Forces, the comic-book superheroes scripted by an earlier generation of Jewish artists, and an instinctive revulsion at the musical excesses of contemporaries.”

Tom GrossTom Gross is a former Middle East correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News.

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