In a galloping vignette in Tablet, writer Lee Smith manages to evoke the essences of both sentimental tough guy Lou Reed and his literary mentor and hero, “Brooklyn Jewish Troubadour” Delmore Schwartz. Although Schwartz’s “poetry is his real legacy,” Smith writes, that rich body of work is often obscured by the fact that “his most famous work is a short story,” the much-anthologized “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (1935) It’s a story written in prose as lyrical as can be—with sentences one wants to pause and linger over, reading again and again, out loud if possible. It’s also a story in which we see “a direct line… between Schwartz and Reed,” whose song “Perfect Day” performs similar kind of magical cataloguing of urban impermanence. For Reed, onetime student of Schwartz at Syracuse University, “Delmore Schwartz is everything.”
Reed dedicated the last song, “European Son,” on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and wrote an eloquent forward to a reissue of Schwartz’s first collection of stories and poems, also titled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. And just above, you can hear Reed himself read the story aloud, savoring those lyrical sentences in his Brooklyn deadpan. It’s easy to imagine Reed writing many of these sentences, such was Schwartz’s influence on him. They shared not only common origins, but also a common sensibility; in Reed’s songs we hear the echo of Schwartz’s voice, the satirical world-weariness and the lyricism and longing. In the biographical documentary Rock and Roll Heart, Reed says that Schwartz showed him how, “with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.” Reading, and listening to Schwartz’s astonishing “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” may help you understand just what he meant.
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