When Indiana University rock history professor Glenn Gass heard the news of Lou Reed's death Sunday, he remembered the day in 1987 that the leather-and-sunglasses wearing icon visited his class.
It was one of the teacher's proudest moments since he founded the course Z201, the History of Rock Music, 30 years ago.
"That has to be my favorite teaching memory," Gass said during a telephone interview from his family home in Kauai, where he is on sabbatical this semester.
Reed, a groundbreaking rocker who rose to fame with his 1960s and 1970s band The Velvet Underground and was immortalized by iconic pop artist Andy Warhol, died Sunday of complications from liver disease. He was 71.
Reed virtually invented punk rock and the whole concept of alternative music, according to Gass.
"We've lost a giant. When I think of truly American musicians, (Reed) doesn't leap to mind like Johnny Cash, but he is just as American," said Gass. "(Reed) is a lot like James Brown and without (Brown) we wouldn't have funk, rap."
Later, Gass added: "Very few artists have that type of impact."
Sunday, the professor was thinking of the day in 1987 when he answered a telephone call from drummer Kenny Aronoff, who was a member of Hoosier rocker John Mellencamp's band then. Aronoff told Gass to hurry down to the Bloomington nightclub, the Bluebird, that night because the drummer was planning a spur-of-the-moment appearance with Mellencamp, the rest of Mellencamp's band and Reed.
The contingent of rock stars were in town practicing for a Farm Aid performance when they decided to head to the Bluebird to play for a stunned audience that was there to see that night's advertised band, Bloomington's Ragin' Texans. In the mid '80s, Mellencamp, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, co-founded Farm Aid, which raises money to help American farmers.
"The last place you'd expect to see (Lou Reed) is the Bluebird in Bloomington," said Gass. "Everybody was having a terrific time. It was just amazing. It was a legendary Bloomington night."
The Ragin' Texans played the first set and announced a break. Next, to the amazement of the crowd, Mellencamp and his band walked on stage and played a set. Following that performance, Reed came out and performed his classics "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," and "I Love You Suzanne," with Mellencamp playing backup instruments, said Gass.
"Mellencamp was in a great mood," said Gass. "You could tell he loved Lou Reed."
American country and folk singer-songwriter John Prine, who apparently was also with Mellencamp that night, went on stage after Reed. But Gass missed that performance because he followed Reed into the alley behind the nightclub. Gass' mission: convince Reed to visit his class.
At first, Reed didn't believe Gass when he told the rocker that he taught his college students about the Velvet Underground. But, standing in the alley, Mellencamp helped convince him. Gass wrote his telephone number on a matchbook for Reed, who called the next day.
As Gass drove Reed to his class in IU's Musical Arts Center, they were both concerned that Gass' 180 students might not recognize Reed. But, thanks partly to a Honda scooter commercial featuring Reed and his song, "Walk on the Wide Side," they did.
"We walked in and the place exploded. He stayed an hour and a half," said Gass. "His guard was completely down."
Reed answered questions about his appearance in the commercial, telling the students that Honda was supporting him more then he was supporting the brand, and Bob Dylan, saying that everyone was lucky to be alive on earth with Dylan, among others, recalled Gass.
"(Reed) kept saying, 'this is the weirdest thing I've ever done,'" remembered Gass, who says he thinks that comment is funny given Reed's notorious exploits with drugs and sex.
Then, after class, Gass and Reed went to find Reed's rental car in an IU parking lot. Reed, a native New Yorker, didn't know what the vehicle looked like, so he and Gass walked through the lot putting the key into different car door locks until they found it, said Gass. That, Gass said, was one of the best moments of all.
The days Reed came to town in 1987 were good for Bloomington's Bluebird nighclub, too. Enlarged photos from the night still hang on the venue's walls.
"That looms large in Bluebird legend," Gass said.
As for Gass, he uses the story of Reed's appearance to keep students from skipping class. One woman, who regularly wore Velvet Underground and Lou Reed t-shirts to class, missed Gass' class the day Reed showed up and wound up weeping, he remembers.
"I came in and she was in tears on the floor. She said, 'please tell me it isn't true.' She was just sobbing hysterically," said Gass, who added that the episode was sad. "That was a good lesson. I tell my students, 'don't skip class.'"