by Sylvie Simmons
The place is spotlessly clean; by rock standards preternaturally tidy. On the white walls, ranks of polished glass frames: gold and platinum discs; posters of Reed; articles about Reed; Reed’s magazine ad for Lou’s Views flip-up spectacles. There are photos of Reed – black-and-white mostly and almost exclusively alone (in the one that includes Warhol, Reed stands detached, fixing his lapel) – and photos by Reed, gothic shots of birds of prey and New York building tops. The view from Lou Reed’s office window is the snow-covered roof of an old, dark building across the street.
On a table someone has neatly arranged an assortment of objects, including black, sheepskin boots, size 7, and a yellow, 30lb medicine ball. These are what attract Reed’s attention when he strides in, late, a small, wiry 62-year-old in black leather trousers, grey sweatshirt, and a pair of white moonboots – remarkably white considering the quagmire of black, melting snow outside. He puts down his can of Diet Coke and picks up the black boots to examine them. Without picking it up, he examines the ball. There is discussion among his assistants as to how it might be moved to its intended location. Since Reed makes no suggestion, MOJO proposes they roll it along the floor. Reed looks appalled. It would get dirty, he says.
Staring hard at the journalist vetted and passed by his people, his expression turns to one of a bored lab assistant faced with another bacterial specimen to test. It’s time to start the interview – or as he calls it, “butchering” Though not MOJO’s agenda, it might have been Reed’s, judging by how he cut into questions and reshaped them into ones he could dismiss with suspicion, scorn or righteous anger. Except the one about his idol Ornette Coleman, which made him cry. Reed, for whatever reasons, does not like to show a human side to the press, but it is there.
And MOJO found it less in what he said than in the clues in his office – the toy-filled dog bed (for his rat terrier Lolabelle) in the corner; the overheard telephone conversation to a florist, making sure that the flowers he sends regularly to his partner Laurie Anderson, were on their way. And the contents of his bookshelf: not the rock books – Elvis, Bowie, John Cale’s autobiography – which appear unread, nor the American poetry books and Edgar Allen Poe. But a well-thumbed paperback, a self-help book. Its subject: Prozac and mood-swings.
In your interview with Kung Fu magazine about your Tai Chi studies you spoke of five-hour work-outs –
If you say ‘five hours workout’ it starts sounding like boot camp. The other way of thinking of it is five hours of fun. Yay!
(This last refers to the meal his assistant has just brought in: soup, noodles, spring rolls and various sauces. Reed arranges them on the desk in front of him and noisly tucks in, alone.)
What I’m trying to say to you is don’t make it sound like ‘oh shit we have to practice’. This isn’t school (sneered). This is something you would do 24 hours a day if your body would hold out. But mine doesn’t. But if I could I would, because it really makes you feel –. You make it sound like I’m doing a thousand push-ups or something stupid.
What I was going to ask was, if you’re spending such a large amount of time, the same sort of time that a guitarist, say, might spend playing guitar –
When you’re young.
Whether at this point in your life, when you have such a big back catalogue of songs that are being constatly revived – from the new Sattelite Of Love remix to the orchestral remake of Metal Machine Music –
Do you know how completely weird that is? Metal Machine Music practically ended my whole career. And now we’ve got an orchestra performing it, it’ll be a live version of it out, and it will then be 30 years old, go figure. Now tape loops aren’t that far out, noise is not so far out, but you at that point can you imagine? Can you imagine if you’re someone to whom this is obvious and you get savaged for it, what you might think? ‘ Wah! It’s noise.’ It was obvious to me. It can hold its own with anything out there right now, but at the time – -. I mean Metal Machine Music, speaking of people who like playing guitars 24 hours a day, that is exactly what one could do, and he did it. Aaagh!
(He flaps his mouth; the spring roll was hot.)
Anyway. They took Metal Machine Music off the market in three weeks and said they’d never carry a Lou Reed record again. I’m sure if you’d check some of the lower level music magazines like New Musical Express and the morons who work there you’ll find a review. But guess what, surprise surprise?
You were right, they were wrong?
There’s no right or wrong, it just is. When this German group Zeitkratzer got in touch with me they said, ‘We want to do this, we have the transcription’, I said, ‘No-one can perform it live’. I mean I did but with a whole series of amps feeding back and tape manipulation. Then they sent me this and they had done it, they had figured out a way to do it, so I said, ‘Wow, what an astonishing thought’. Then I played my guitar with it and I’m trying to do a solo version of what 20 guitars did before. There’s still no synthesisers on this thing. The trouble with the synthesiser is it only gets louder or softer and it’s not expressive like a guitar or a saxophone.
You can’t get the human element?
You can’t make it sing.
What was your original vision for Metal Machine Music in 1975?
I wanted something that didn’t have a steady tempo, that didn’t have a key and that wasn’t locked into a song format. Of course I heard Ornette (Coleman) do free jazz before that – isn’t it obvious?
It’s kind of like for me the ultimate rock guitar solo. There’s a part about two-thirds through the second part of it that just physically does this.
(He shudders dramatically).
That’s part of the fun of rock music, when it’s loud.
Does the continuing interest in your older material, like Metal Machine andSatellite, diminish or increase the sense of urgency to write new material?
I have a lot of interests.
Sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the noise outside. (It sounds like two amplified garbage trucks)
(Sneers) It’s New York. What am I going to do?
Would you find it uncomfortable if I prop the recorder on something closer to your mouth?
No, I’m a professional.
(On a side-table is what appears to be an upturned megaphone, which MOJO requisitions.)
That’s a Starck design, a radio.
Does music have to take its turn now among martial arts, photography, theatre?
Well they all don’t operate at once. I just follow it wherever it goes and I don’t have any point to prove particularly. I mean I’d like to maintain a purity about things, and I have.
I didn’t get in it for money in the first place, I didn’t get in it for certain things, and I’m the same way now. So. I do it when I can do it and if someone wants it and if they don’t that’s okay too, I do it for me. Because I like doing it. If we hadn’t had Warhol around in the first place, I’m sure they would have changed everything they could lay their hands on, being tasteless music industry people.
They would have cleaned it up. These people are really stupid, they’ve always been stupid, they continue to be stupid, and the fact that they’re all going out of business is delightful because they are so painfully stupid they will never get it. What are they doing out there? (The question refers to the noise).
I like a lot of the new mixes better than mine, You know? A lot of my mixes were defensive mix.
To keep the engineer away. To make sure it didn’t get slicked up.
When you were first writing songs professionally in the early ’60s at that Brill Building sort of set-up at Pickwick –
Well it was the poor man’s Brill Building. It was just write imitations of other people’s hits. They’d say, we want to do a bunch of surfing songs, because The Beach Boys or Jan & Dean would have come out with something, and they would sell the albums – vinyl – for 99 cents each, recorded it in two hours or something. They’re junk. I can’t even imagine who bought them. I can’t imagine why. It was, ‘Write surfing songs’, ‘write car racing songs’. Someone wanted a song where they get killed in the last 30 seconds in a car wreck.
Did you write one?
Sure. It was called Let The Wedding Bells Ring.
Was it recorded?
Sure. It’s on a budget album out there somewhere.
What did you learn – and have to unlearn – from being a writer for hire?
I always go back to what Andy would say: ‘I love doing these commercial jobs where they tell you what to do, because I have absolutely no opinion about it at all, and if they want to make a left-hand turn that’s great, because I don’t care one way or another.’
How and why did you end up with this job?
Because it had to do with music. Because I wasn’t in a band. It’s like you, you probably have no talent in any musical area but you like music so you went into it by doing this, and you’re still there and a lot of the musicians aren’t. (Slowly and sarcastically) Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.
The industry has changed in any number of ways, one of which is the obsolesence of that kind of songwriting operation
What’s kind of great now is the technology’s made it possible for people to make really competent records for almost nothing and get it online, get it out there. It’s fantastic. They don’t need the record company at all for that.
Yet you’ve just signed a worldwide deal with Sanctuary Records.
They have their office here – in the meat market. I met them and I was very surprised. Like the guy who heads it here loves music. ‘Have you heard this record?’, that kind of thing. I haven’t heard that in so long,
To defend the honour of music journalists, we’re all about ‘Have you heard this record.’
I can’t imagine.
Which is why you put that ‘Editorial Asshole Of The Month’ department on your website?
I’ve dropped that. That venture in Iraq made it impossible to keep something like that going, because the asshole of the month was forever. Anyway. Music.
The trajectory between writing surf songs for soundalike albums and founding one of the most original, avant-garde –)
For most people it’s really the first album. I mean they just found an acetate, you know, things done acoustically, and they’re saying, ‘Hah! Aha! They weren’t really electric, that came later! This was this, this was that.’ (Shouts) Stupid! So stupid!
I don’t undertand. You’re saying music journalists heard the demos, which are often acoustic, and interpreted it as –
This was before a tape recorder and a microphone that would have been able to withstand an electric guitar. So what do you do? Throw those things down on a tape acoustically. (Adopts a weedy rock critic voice), ‘Oh they’re really bogus’. But I kind of like what Bowie says: it’s much more fun to let them believe everything.
Bob Dylan certainly subscribed to that for a while. Interestingly, your website recommendeds his autobiography, Chronicles.
Oh it’s fabulous. I loved every word of it. It’s beyond hilarious.
Dylan is suddenly talking about his life and work, as if he wants people to understand –
What’s to understand? Who actually cares about anything about that –. You? Me? Anything?
When you were a young kid and into rock ‘n’ roll and doowop –
I still am into doowop. When I can find it. I was amazed, we were in a restaurant the other day and they were playing this Billy Joel thing, where he does all the voices as acapella doowop, it was really good, I wish he’d do a lot more like that.
What I was going to ask was, when you were a kid into music –
(Sneers) As opposed to an adult into music?
Actually yes, there’s a different mindset for most young people when they first get turned onto music. There are so few other meaningful things in their life that when this thing comes along and moves them like nothing else, they want to understand everything about it.
If you want to understand music, you have to play. To find out that the songwriter actually beat his wife, sodomised his dog and is in jail for fucking 99 years doesn’t help you appreciate the song. Doesn’t! That applies to somebody trying to figure out Ulysses.
The book you mean?
The book. And Finnegans Wake. Almost out of the question. Are you going to tell me you read Finnegans Wake?
From beginning to end?
And you understood it?
I wouldn’t say that, but I try to, and when I don’t I love the sound of it.
That’s another story. If you read it out loud, it’s singing, it’s incredible. Delmore Schwartz, my great teacher (of poetry at Syracuse University) used to read Finnegans Wake out loud to me, which is the only way I could understand it, and when he does that the book’s hilarious. He had annotated every word – cross-referenced not every page, every word, through Ulysses, through The Dubliners, through this, through that. He thought, you could very well spend the rest of your life doing this and that could be a good thing.
(He picks up my tape recorder).
Do you know how many albums I wrote on this? A lot. Because it’s so fast. Because the ideas come really quickly and they go really quickly, you know what I’m saying, and they never come back.
Do you carry one everywhere with you, like a notebook?
I used to. I used to have a notebook and keep it by the bed and then I started getting a little more confident with the fact that while many ideas came and went, they would be replaced by other ones, and we didn’t have to put down every single one of them all the time: ‘Wow, this is like having a radio station in your head and it’s always on.’
Yes. But then there’s some other things going on and I’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s a tributary’. (He stops and says each syllable separately, as if dictating to a bimbo.)
(Laughs) So you really do think journalists are stupid.
You’d be surprised….Since I said I hated journalists, particularly English journalists, every English journalist starts an interview with, ‘Hate journalists, do we?’.
What music have you heard recently that’s really moved you?
I love satellite radio. If you like a song they’re playing, you go over to the radio and it tells you what song it is while it’s being played, then off to iTunes and download it. The downside of this is I have all these singles by groups that I can’t remember. I mean I just discovered this English classical musician named (Alex) Solomon. His Chopin is a revelation of how to play Chopin.
Wow, better than Rubinstein?
(Sarcastally) Well I’m not a critic. That’s a typical journalist question. (Mimics my voice), ‘Is it better than Rubinstein?’ Immediately grading. (Adopts a macho, boorish voice and shouts) ‘Puts Rubinstein to shame! Fucking buries him’! (Solicitously) Would that do it for you? ‘Okay, I’ll go out and get the motherfucker?’
The first song you played John Cale when you met him, I believe, was Do The Ostrich, a song you’d written at Pickwick
I have no idea. It’s a long time ago. I didn’t play anything for him. This guy at Pickwick had this idea that I appropriated, because it was such a great idea, which was to tune all the strings on the guitar to the same note. It sounded fantastic. And I was kidding around and I wrote a song doing that, and they decided they were going to be a real record company and put out an original song that wasn’t going to be a budget line thing, but try to actually do it as a single. And they pressed copies of this thing. And I overloaded the amp and record stations sent it back and thought that there was something wrong with the recording because it was distorted. Can you imagine? (Louder) Can you imagine? I mean this is all for real. This is not made up.
You recorded this with The Primitives?
It was already recorded – by me. Meanwhile these guys are running around trying to find other people with long hair to be in a make-believe band that does this record and it was Tony Conrad, Walter DeMaria, John (Cale), me and we were the quote ‘Primitives’. So that was that. It’s absurd. It’s like a fucking movie, literally. And then eventually Cale and I get together and we’re doing whatever, and we run into Stirling on the subway – Stirling I knew from college – and then we have Angus McLise as a drummer, he quits the first day he’s told you have to turn up at a certain time to play and a certain time to stop – ‘No-one’s going to tell me when I have to play or can’t play’ – so we had another friend James Tucker, and his sister Maureen. Mo was an air drummer, so she became a real drummer. That was that. (Sarcastic) Right out of The Partridge Family, isn’t it?
And this is the group that I was listening to as a young girl in England and, while doing so, imagined New York –
Well you should. Written in, recorded in, lived through. If that wasn’t New York what would be? Me, Mo, Stirl, all from Long Island, New York, Cale comes over here on scholarship so there’s not like his Welsh influence, I mean he’s a fucking violist. The rock was laid down and then he brought in this other very interesting overlay. You know, Cale’s one of these people who can play anything; leave him alone in a room with it and he’ll come back playing it. But these days, as far as I can tell, doesn’t like playing the viola. Sees himself as a keyboard player. My interest in him was as a violist. Especially an electric violist.
And there was the sound?
There was the sound to end all sounds. A staggering combination. Whoah! We just fell into the chasm of gold. Listen to this bunch of harmonies rubbing together, it’s astonishing. Put a drum under that – she can’t play a trap set and that’s a big advantage, you’re escaping that whole dreary set-up that they have till this day.
(Reed’s assistant comes in with a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, an ashtray and a lighter. Without offering one, he lights up)
Mo would play the snare standing up, you could have the full pedal, bass drum turned on like this (from above bearing down) intead of like this (side on). They would sound like (Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s) Drums of Passion, so it broke through that cliché immediately. It had to. So right off the bat you’ve got two things that are completely out – an electric viola and stand-up drummer. It’s not that she was female, it’s the way the drums were set up. That was the thing. And she loved rock, she would play along to Bo Diddley for hours. What he was doing with reverb – oh man! No-one to this day can do the Bo Diddley beat the way he did it. Wow. Those records. I went to see him at BB King’s Bar & Grill on 42nd and he had borrowed amps, he was old, out of tune, but for a while it was pretty good just to see him do it in public over again. And then he decided to do a rap song and I had to leave.
I saw him in London with a dreadful band, two women; but I did get to dance with Bo Diddley
(Staring) Are you telling the truth? The band he had was so strange – a blues guitarist playing these cliched solos and these two women who looked like they stepped out of Conservative Religious Weekly magazine. It was like a nightmare. I would have given anything to get that off the stage, just to hear him play. But the guitar was humming, the amp was humming. And I got the feeling from him, because it was a white audience, that he still thought that there is the one music for blacks and this for them. I did a show with him when he was — more upright. It was me, Dave Stewart, all these guitar players. Some kind of stupid awards show, but when I saw Bo Diddley was going to be on it I said ‘Yes, I want to meet Bo Diddley, he’s an idol’. I worship at the altar of Bo Diddley and I could never do it the way he did it. I cried during his first number, it was amazing to hear him do Mona. I said, ‘This is going to be one of the levitating experiences’ but no no. So I left. I didn’t want to see where that was heading.
So you still have those epiphany moments.
Ornette. Oh! And I got to play with him. Don Cherry – and I got to play with him. Do you know my album The Raven? There’s a track on that, Guilty, with me and Ornette? (He calls to his assistant to put it on.) You want to hear about epiphanies? When I was going to college I would go down into New York and I would trail Ornette’s quartet around – Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, Don and Ornette. I would follow where they went, I couldn’t afford to go in so I would listen through the window and I heard Lonely Woman, and that changed my life. The harmonies. That was it. There’s not a day goes by when I’m not humming Lonely Woman. Or Rambling was the other one I was in love with – because he could play rock. Oh my God. I thought, you put Hubert Selby with Burroughs or Ginsburg lyrics against some rock with these kind of harmonic going in…. wouldn’t you have something? So the viola, there’s a chance of a different kind of sound, like the harmonies of Ornette. My my. I don’t know about John, I’m just saying for me. The minute you hear it you just go ‘Wow’. There’s that harmonic thing going on. Put a heavy guitar on it – and anybody blew up an amp and played through it, I said, ‘This sounds better this way.’ Sounded like a saxopohone section. And you don’t have that stupid trap set. And we’re not trying to keep perfect time; I liked that it speeds up sometimes. And then, and then — let’s forward 25 years or whatever and I’m in with Ornette doing this track. Let’s hear it.
Do you want me to leave the tape recorder running or stop and listen?
You can do two things at once can’t you? He did seven versions for us and they were all different. You can’t edit him, because it’s a long, complete thing, and we had these seven versions of the same thing and they’re all genius. This is how stupid I am!
(He jumps up, rolls up his sleeve and shoves a lean arm in front of my eyes. There are goosepimples.)
You understand? I don’t have to think, ‘Do I like something?’ I’m not a thinker. can show you. How can I tell if a mix is good? (He shows the goosepimples again). And no-one can say shit to me. I’ll die before I let you change it. He’s so – oh, it makes me cry. Jesus! (His eyes have teared up) This is what it’s all about. Youre right. I can’t talk through that. (He gets up and turns the record off). I haven’t heard that for a while, it’s so –. I’m an idiot. I just love that music.
In 1967, when the Velvet Underground’s first album came out, most of the focus was on the psychedelic West Coast bands – -
The Velvet Underground went ignored during that.
Did you ignore it, or were you –
We existed alongside it. We were like the anti. We were thrown into the position of being the anti when we were just one more arm of music during a revolutionary time in rock music, when rock music was all of a sudden starting to relate–. We wanted – I wanted – to write songs, the lyric part of it, that related to real life as opposed to all the shit that was out there. But that’s because all of the people I was reading as an English major – you know, the useless degree? Preparing you for zero. Qualified for nothing.
Didn’t you take a journalism course?
For a week. When they taught journalism in those days they said, ‘We do not want the opinion of the writer, just the facts’. I went, ‘Not for me’. Obviously I was in the wrong place. I just thought that anything to do with writing was good for me because that’s what I liked to do. And meanwhile I was always in rock bands in bars to support myself. Since I was 14 I’ve been in bars playing rock n roll.
You mentioned Ginsburg. How much did your lyric writing owe to literature, the Beats
None of us were part of that. Alan (Ginsberg), William Burroughs — We did a thing at the old Village Gate, we did the song Heroin and Alan was dancing around to it with bells and all the rest of it. But were we actually involved with them? No, though there were a lot of cross-currents, between movie people and writers and playrights and music makers at that point. It was a real blending of these different kinds of artistic endeavours, and for the first time music – rock music – could be on an equal footing with them.
The street-life, the hustlers and romantic low-lives –
Are you crazy? You’re talking about people who were sleeping on the floor. We were sleeping in subways. In movie theatres. It’s a good thing to do that when you’re young, your body can take it. Because there are subway lines here you can just get on and ride round and round and just sleep there. Now they roust you out; then they didn’t. And they had all-night movie theatres, assuming you didn’t get stabbed. And lot of times the Chelsea Hotel would let you sit in a chair in the lobby and go to sleep. And that has an effect on you. A lot of people got hurt, never came out of there. That wasn’t great. There’s no romanticism about freezing. There’s nothing good to be said about it. At all. And then we got lucky and met Andy.
Tell me about Andy
He was a great guy. Besides telling me the writing was really okay and to leave it alone – which was really a boon for a young writer, to have somebody like Warhol say that – he would take us out to dinner every night so we could eat every night. Not in the morning or at noon but at night.
The downside I imagine was the Velvets being considered an Andy Warhol project?
It was. He wanted music. To be involved with the movies. He thought of it. He had a week at the Cinematheque (now the Film Anthology Archives) and they would have filmmakers have a week and he had his week coming up. He saw us in this dive where we were being paid in food and got fired, with a big fight – there were sailors and they said, ‘Play one more song like that and we’ll beat the shit out of you’. So of course we played another song like that, and all hell broke loose. And then Warhol said, ‘You should come to the Factory. I have a week at the Cinemateque, why don’t you play your songs and I’ll show movies on you.’ He used us as a screen. And that was the beginning of that.
What was the end of it?
Who knows why things don’t last. I don’t know. Everything changes – which is one of my songs on The Raven, called Change.
The difficult relationship between you and Cale –
Do you think someone would tell you their personal reasons for whatever, assuming they could remember them, for you to go tell the world? No. Private is private.
Some people want to be understood
Not this people. I don’t care about being understood. I care about the music, like if people don’t key into the Ornette track that’s really a shame. I don’t read reviews. I don’t read these things. I watched what they did to Andy. You learn a lot from being around people who are really talented and smart.
But Warhol was a success.
Andy was vilified constantly by quote ‘critics’. Andy did a great thing. He had this movie called The Chelsea Girls. It was shown on two screens and it was eight hours long. Lo and behold it ends up in a real movie theatre and then another one downtown. So me and John go down there to see it. We go to the one downtown, and it’s in a completely different order, not paying attention at all to what Andy’s order was. We go back to the Factory and say, ‘Andy Andy, they’ve fucked it up, they’re showing it in a completely different order’, and Andy said, ‘Oh, the projectionist is being creative. That’s great. I bet it’s better than ours’. ‘Uh-huh, okay.’ It taught me appreciating other ways of looking at it. You have one last question.
We had hoped to talk about your entire career. But if one had to sum it up, can it be divided into phases, and are there any phases you’re happier with than others?
A dark phase, a light phase –
(Sarcastic) A drug phase, a non-drug phase, a longhair phase, a near-sighted phase, a Prozac phase, a non-Prozac phase, don’t you think that’s a really boring way of looking at it? Why would you want to pigeonhole things like that when what it’s really about is the technology, the things that are available that weren’t available, or ideas of things you want to do that weren’t. The Raven would have been impossible to do years ago because the editing is so integral a part and ProTools – they’re called Slow Tools, but you can get it done, where with a razorblade and tape it would have been impossible.
You talked about The Raven as “the culmination of everything I’ve ever done, all the ideas from the other records”. Since this is the point where it has all come together, does that pose problems as far as doing anything more?)
Some of the other phases, I’m doing a thing of music for meditation, for instance – I don’t know if that will be for another label or whether it’ll just be for my website – and different kinds of electronic things, Tibetan music, my version, a New York version.
Has there been a consistent vision in your music from beginning to end, no deviation?