UPDATE: In the wake of Lou Reed's death, do not be fooled into thinking he was a man whose genius was a result of being cool, or of simple recalcitrance. He sang, often from behind impenetrable black sunglasses (which hid indecipherable eyes) about dirty sex and holy drugs when it wasn't yet clear that rock could handle that. He did it anyway. He wrote a song called "I Wanna Be Black." He put out a full-length LP of screeching guitar distortion. He crafted some of our softest and prettiest songs and some of our darkest and toughest. He made Lulu. All of which is to say he did whatever he wanted.
The thing was, though, he gave a shit. He's gone now, but he gave more than most people could handle or were willing to admit. I learned that when I interviewed him in 2008, back when he was promoting a live version of his funereal Berlin album. I asked questions and he said they were dumb. I brought up subjects that he thought were lazy. It's possible that no matter what questions I'd asked or subjects I'd raised I would've elicited the same responses from Reed, but talking to him in person, I realized that the reason he did what he did, and acted the way he acted, was because he cared so much — about music, about his ideas, about communicating. If there's one thing that came through in this interview, it's that, and that is all you need to know. He belittled and berated me, but I say thank god Lou Reed was here.
He tried for the kingdom.
With the Velvet Underground, he was the epitome of downtown cool. As a solo artist, he played the part of glam god, noise provocateur, and critics' bête noire. Still, Lou Reed insists, "There's nothing complicated about me." Kind sir, we beg to differ.
Lou Reed does not abide. Nor should he. Not when the lifelong New Yorker exploded rock's borders with the Velvet Underground and invited cross-dressers and speed freaks onto the charts with "Walk on the Wild Side." Sure, Reed's restless muse often leads to the likes of 1973's sepulchral concept album about suicidal lovers, Berlin, and 1975's feedback opus Metal Machine Music, but he doesn't care what you think anyway. "Do I feel vindicated?" he snaps over artichoke salad at a chic West Village café, as he discusses those albums' recent critical reevaluation. "For what? I always liked Berlin." Reed's 2006 live performances of that album are out now on DVD and CD.
Testy moments aside, Reed has aged well, being feted at this year's South by Southwest and, last April, finally marrying performance artist Laurie Anderson.
Despite his iconic status, he, like mentor Andy Warhol, was never one for nostalgia and, as always, brooks no bullshit. The implication, as with so much of his work, is this: Take nothing for granted.
You're so closely associated with New York. But you haven't written explicitly about the city since —
I wrote a song for Cartier that you can download from my website. Have you heard that?
Yeah. "Power of the Heart."
I did two songs for [2007's] Nanking documentary: "Gravity" and "Safety Zone." Have you heard those?
Research, research, research. It means everything. [Sighs] You were saying?
Has the fact that the city has been cleaned up made it a less interesting subject for you?
I would hope to write about more than just the city. Raymond Chandler managed to write about L.A. his whole career. Should I keep going writing about New York? Is that what I should be doing? Songwriting doesn't work that way.
How does it work?
I write whatever shows up. That's good enough for me. I'm part of the first generation that wants to still do original material and not tour around as an oldies act. You know, Chuck Berry is still out there playing. No one can play his music like he does. My stuff's the same way. [His phone rings] Sorry, I have to take this. [A minute passes] That was my 99-year-old aunt. You know how it is. Someone will say, ‘Have you heard that so-and-so sounds like you?' Why? Because they sing out of key?
You put together the track list for 2003's NYC Man career-spanning anthology. As someone who doesn't listen to his own music much, did you hear anything in your old songs that surprised you?
I heard the same things wrong that were wrong the first time. The first generation of CDs sounded terrible. Any chance to remaster would make the music sound better than what was already out there. People at the record company do not give a shit. They don't care if the tapes are sitting on a warehouse floor somewhere. When they say music is disposable, they're not kidding.
Aside from sonic issues, did the songs mean anything different after hearing them again?
Sound quality was the reason I listened to those songs. That's it. They sound better now. They're not vinyl, but they can be killer. The Berlin DVD, I'll match that up against anything. The sound is murderous. Murderous.
Okay, let's talk about Berlin. It was pretty poorly received when it came out. Then, in 2006, you were approached to make the album into a concert film directed by Julian Schnabel. Did you get a sense that people's feelings about the album had changed over time?
You know, it's funny. It's making me think, like, if you were talking to Bill Burroughs, would you have said, "Now, Bill, they put together the new version of Naked Lunch. What do you think? Do you still feel the same way, Bill?" Can you imagine being put in a position where you're trying to justify Naked Lunch? How are we supposed to answer that? You gotta be kidding me. Berlin, you know, we tried. It's such a simple idea that it barely qualifies as an idea: Instead of all the songs having different characters, why not have the characters come back and deal with each other? How much simpler can it get?
Does it matter to you that the album has been given a second life?
I mean, I'm glad people get to hear it. People never really got to hear Berlin because of the critics. Then critics ask you if you feel vindicated by other critics. I didn't like critics then, and I don't like them now. There you go. I've always been outside the mainstream, and it stayed that way.
The year before Berlin came out, you released "Walk on the —
I followed up my one big hit with Berlin; Berlinhas got this rap that it's depressing. Are you joking me? You can't handle it? You ever read Hamlet? Who are you talking to that's so stupid? Are you joking? You're kidding me.
When you were touring behind Berlin in the mid-'70s, you were doing some risqué stuff onstage. [Reed would feign injecting drugs during concerts.] You were singing about domestic abuse. And people clapped. Did you ever wonder if they were clapping for the wrong reasons?
I have no control over the audience. I have no idea what they think. My heart's pure. I can't do anything. I really can't do anything. I don't know what goes on in the crowd. I've had them show up and throw beer cans at me. I caused riots in most of the major cities. What can I do?
Singing about gay life on albums like [1972's] Transformer was definitely transgressive at the time. But now, playing with sexuality and gender is part of the mainstream. Do you feel like the center has come to you?
That's truly a critic's kind of question. I have absolutely no idea about anything.
Is that really true, though? Do you think your music has been something of a guide for people to learn about behavior they might not otherwise encounter?
[Reed stares and remains silent]
Is there a moral aspect to a song like "Heroin"?
I don't know what to think about something like that. I don't think anybody is anybody else's moral compass. Maybe listening to my music is not the best idea if you live a very constricted life. Or maybe it is. I'm writing about real things. Real people. Real characters. You have to believe what I write about is true or you wouldn't pay any attention at all. Sometimes it's me, or a composite of me and other people. Sometimes it's not me at all.
Does that confuse people?
You know, I wanted to be an actor. That was my real goal. But I wasn't any good at it, so I wrote my own material and acted through that. That's my idea of fun. I get to be all these things in the songs. But I present it to you like: This is how it is. Simple. But a guide to doing things that are wrong and right? I mean, Othello murders Desdemona. Is that a guide to what you can do? The guy in Berlin beats up his girlfriend. Is that a guide to what you can do? Is that what you walk away with? I don't think so. Maybe they should sticker my albums and say, "Stay away if you have no moral compass."
Let's talk about the earliest days. In the early '60s, you started out in what was essentially a bar band, right?
It was a bar band. A really bad bar band. My first regular gig was factory songwriting for [budget label] Pickwick Records. It was real cheap, hack stuff. Whatever was popular, I'd write an imitation. Ten racing songs. Ten surfing songs. Some of them weren't bad. Kids find this stuff now and then sell it online. Go figure.
Given that you cut your teeth writing to order and playing covers, was it difficult to develop your own songwriting style?
That happened when I was in college [at Syracuse] and starting to write the stuff that ended up on the first Velvet Underground record. That was me trying to write myself. I don't remember if it was the first song I wrote, but "Heroin" was the first one where I remember saying, "I'll leave that one alone." This is 1963, '64.
Syracuse is where you met [Velvet Underground guitarist] Sterling Morrison?
Yeah, Sterling was up there. Then we moved to New York. I met [VU multi-instrumentalist John] Cale in New York when Pickwick needed people with long hair to be a make-believe rock group and play a song I wrote called "The Ostrich." Cale was one of them.
Did you meet Andy Warhol soon after?
That was a little later. I first met Andy when he came down to hear the Velvet Underground when we were playing on West Third Street in New York at a place called the Café Bizarre.
How important was Warhol's support?
To have Andy Warhol say you're on the right track…it meant a lot to me that he liked the material. It was everything.
It's easy to think of New York as this great incubator of bands. But that wasn't the case for the Velvet Underground, was it?
Is this going to be all about the Velvet Underground now?
No. Did it hurt or help that you guys developed apart from a scene of bands?
The Velvet Underground was part of Andy's group, and Andy wasn't part of anything. I suppose you could say he was part of Pop Art, but he was really off on his own thing. I don't know what things would've been like if he hadn't been there to support us.
Did the confidence you got from Warhol help you decide to go solo?
I've never been superconfident about anything. The work is never as good as it could be.
How does an unconfident person put out Metal Machine Music?
I've thought a lot about that question. If something of mine ever got popular, maybe I could've stuck with that. But that was never the point. I had other goals.
Hubert Selby. William Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg. Delmore Schwartz. To be able to achieve what they did, in such little space, using such simple words. I thought if you could do what those writers did and put it to drums and guitar, you'd have the greatest thing on earth. You'd have the whole pie. It's a simple thought. There's nothing complicated about me. I'm as straight as you can get.
Your popularity sort of waxed and waned in the '70s. Then, in the '80s, you did some film acting, you were on the Amnesty International tour with U2 and Sting, you did an ad for Honda that used "Walk on the Wild Side." Were you making a concerted effort to enter the mainstream, like David Bowie?
Those were projects that came up at the time. Warhol used to do all kinds of ads to fund projects. I thought I could do the same thing, but people got really upset, so I didn't do it anymore. Now people have their music in ads all the time and no one seems to care. It's very strange. This has nothing to do with music, so I don't know why you're asking, but fine.
Tell me about having folks like Moby and My Morning Jacket play at your tribute concert at South by Southwest.
That was amazing. Dr. Dog played, too. And they were all songs I wrote. It was astonishing to see. I couldn't believe all those songs.
It's funny, you can tell which bands are into White Light/White Heat and which ones are into The Velvet Underground. What's interesting to you about the influence you've had?
My work goes from "Pale Blue Eyes" to "White Light/White Heat" and all stops in between. Generally speaking, you wouldn't figure that one person is going to write both those songs. But I haven't a clue about my influence. I mean, I really don't. Someone will say, "Have you heard that so-and-so sounds like you?" Why? Because they sing out of key?
How did collaborating with the Killers on the 2007 track "Tranquilize" come about?
They asked me. It was a good song. I liked the singer. I did it.
What other younger bands do you like?
I'm not gonna list bands for you. I mean, I could look at my iPod. Battles. Holy Fuck. Melt-Banana.
Tai chi training inspired your most recent album of new material [2007's Hudson River Wind Meditations]. Has studying martial arts affected your approach to music?
Everything affects the way I make music. I don't understand what you want to know. I could say "yes." Would that be better?
From what I understand, tai chi has a spiritual component as well as a physical one. Has that spiritual component found its way into your music?
It's a really profound study. I couldn't possibly sum it up for you. The problem is that I don't think you know what you're asking about. When you say tai chi, you're just saying a generic thing like yoga. If you want to ask a question, you should know what you're asking about, don't you think?
It's hard to find a story about you that doesn't mention your reputation as a difficult interview. Does that perception bother you?
You could judge for yourself, can't you? You want me to comment about other critics as though they matter. You save this question for last? I don't know why you brought it up, seeing as we got along fine. Unless I'm mistaken. What answer do you want?
I want to know how you feel about the way you might be perceived.
You're talking about critics and journalists. Listen, you're not talking about music. I don't want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn't have. We had a good conversation, and now we're done. You feel better now? Did you find your angle? Do you think you did a good job?
The question wasn't a trick.
I didn't think you were trying to trick anybody. This is the kind of shit you wanted all along, and you saved it for last. What should I say?
I'm not looking for any particular answer.
You could've talked music, but this is what you wanted.
Haven't I been asking about music this whole time?You're not interested in music. We're done talking.