My Lou Reed Halloween: "Too soon" jokes only work if someone gets them
Whenever someone lays the "I find that joke offensive" line on me, I always silently wonder: Do you really? Or do you just want people to know that you do? Nowhere does this happen more often than in comedy clubs, and it's no surprise that comedians love to find and slap those buttons like lab monkeys because it ultimately forces people to stop and question their social politics. Should I be laughing at this? Is my laughter an endorsement of the comedian's joke? Should cross my arms in silent protest?
My Lou Reed with bloody liver costume, accompanied by a friend as Edie Sedgwick.
This quandary was on my mind last Thursday when I chose the recently deceased Lou Reed as my Halloween costume. Other than the fake bloody liver hanging from my T-shirt, the costume was mostly a lazy attempt at wearing my usual tight-jeans and leather-jacket uniform, but I was also curious to find out if hipsters could experience outrage when their herowas irreverently parodied "too soon" after his death.
It's not integral to my argument, but I feel I should mention that I am a very, very big fan of Lou Reed. I deliberately use the present tense with because I don't feel that I lost Lou Reed as a hero when he succumbed to liver failure last week; his death was only mildly interesting to me, because I didn't know him personally. I've experienced the earth-shattering devastation of losing a close friend to an early and tragic death, but I'd only experienced Reed through his music -- and his music wasn't going anywhere.
In the documentary Gonzo, Hunter Thompson's bereaved wife Anita says, "Imagine in a twisted universe where when Hunter died he took all of his writing with him." In the face of such a tragedy -- in the case of Thompson's writings lost, too, or Reed's music -- you would see me in a state of severe mourning, because there would be real loss there. But to pretend I'm experiencing grief alongside those who actually knew and loved Lou Reed would be one of the most offensive things imaginable.
I didn't always feel this way. Faced with the breaking news of Joe Strummer's death on NPR in 2002, twenty-year-old Josiah drove out to a cornfield and (inexplicably) set an acoustic guitar on fire. When Johnny Cash died a year later, I locked myself in the bathroom for half a day, crying hysterically as I dyed my hair black and listened to "Give My Love to Rose" over and over.
If I'd been honest with myself then, I would have admitted that my grief was totally spurious, and my exhibitions were mostly for the sake of others. I wanted them to know what a big fan I was, that my passion for The Clash and a baritone-singing amphetamine enthusiast was more pure than theirs. It was a childish attempt at proving that I was more in touch with rock mythology than anyone else. And today I often suspect that something similar is going on when someone is offended by a joke told "too soon."
True, sometimes people are genuinely offended. Last summer I attended Elliot Woolsey's now-defunct open mic at Barricuda's, and a comic I won't name made a jab at certain costumed attendees at the Aurora Theater shooting. "There were all these people dressed as Batman, and when an actual villain showed up, they all ran away; and I was like 'that was your big chance!'" You can imagine how well this went over. I actually laughed at the joke -- because I'm a sucker for the sociological tension of a "too soon" punchline -- but I would understand if there was someone in the audience who was personally affected by that tragedy, and found that joke to be offensive. That wouldn't have been a case of moral posturing, but a real emotional reaction to something that had directly impacted them.
But when I donned my Lou Reed costume last week, there was a 99 percent certainty that I wouldn't encounter anyone who had a personal relationship with the songwriter and had experienced the loss of a close friend, lover or family member with his passing.