The inaugural FOJAM takes a walk on the wild side with its Lou Reed tribute show

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The inaugural FOJAM takes a walk on the wild side with its Lou Reed tribute show

Gabriella Cohen
Gabriella Cohen
Words by Augustus Welby

The inaugural Festival of Jewish Arts and Music presents 12-and-a-half hours of entertainment under the theme “Walk on the Wild Side”. The theme directly corresponds with the program’s headline event, Transformer: A Tribute to Lou Reed.

An ensemble cast will perform Lou Reed’s landmark 1972 release from start to finish under the direction of Gabriella Cohen and Kate “Babyshakes” Dillon.

“I love how brash it is, and unapologetic,” says Cohen. “The house band and I are getting together and getting all the songs down, so I have to pretend to be singer of every song, so I’m getting to embody Lou’s bravado and I love it. “

Transformer was Reed’s second solo album, but although he’d established himself with The Velvet Underground in the mid-1960s, he wasn’t a pop superstar in 1972. David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Transformer hot on the heels of their 1972 release, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. By virtue of Bowie’s burgeoning profile and the trio’s synergy, Reed was not only able to reach a bigger audience, but reclaim his artistic integrity.

“Bowie resurrected him,” says Cohen. “The album that Lou put out before [Lou Reed (1972)] was a complete flop.”

One wonders what might’ve become of Reed’s career if Bowie hadn’t been such an eager fan. “It would’ve been Metal Machine forever,” suggests Cohen, a reference to Reed’s experimental noise record from 1975.

“I read that Thurston Moore reckons he’s the only one in the world to have listened to the whole [of Metal Machine Music],” Cohen says. “And he listens to it regularly.”

Transformer is a long way from Metal Machine Music. In fact, despite being a noted ally of outsider artists, it’s an impeccably crafted piece of work that contains Reed’s biggest hit, ‘Walk On the Wild Side’. Even to regular listeners, it retains a sense of novelty – it’s funny, brazen and musically energising.

“I love how clearly he paints the scenes around him and the characters,” Cohen says. “He wanted to be a writer when he was a teenager. I only recently found out that his parents gave him electroshock therapy when he was like 14. I think it was a couple of times that he got it, to cure him of his gayness.”

As a Jewish person who loves and is dedicated to music, you’d imagine Reed’s influence to be particularly resonant for Cohen. However, the details of the New Yorker’s background didn’t occur to her until after his death in 2013.

“There was that piece in The Guardian and it talked about him being Jewish,” she says. “But he was just like a symbol of rock’n’roll and the underground. I never thought of him as like, ‘Oh this Jewish man.’ Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan? Sure, but Lou Reed? No. He definitely didn’t identify that much with it, I don’t think.”

Cohen and Dillon are overseeing an ensemble cast of local and international musicians, all of Jewish backgrounds. Along with Chris Cohen (USA) and Vivien Goldman (UK), the roster includes Alex Gow (Oh Mercy), Deborah Conway, Spike Fuck, Ryan Downey, Emily Lubitz (Tinpan Orange) and Bella Venuti (IV League).

“There’s 27 humans involved in the production,” Cohen says. “There’s going to be more when you include the engineers. It’s super exciting. I can’t wait for the rehearsals to begin and watch all these singers do their thing.”

The aim is to honour a classic album, celebrate an iconic Jewish musician and involve non-Jewish audience members in that celebration.

“I don’t think of it as a tribute. I definitely think of it as a celebration,” Cohen says. I hope he’s going to like it. He’s not going to roll in his grave. He’s going to like it.”

Transformer is happening on Sunday September 8 at Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the Festival of Jewish Arts and Music. For tickets and more information, head to