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Lou Reed, High Priest of Rock: 1942-2013 | reviews, news & interviews

Lou Reed, High Priest of Rock: 1942-2013

Lou Reed, High Priest of Rock: 1942-2013

One of rock's greatest songwriters and visionaries has left the building

Lou Reed on Warhol: 'People hated him, but now he's dead he's maybe the greatest American artist'

We had heard he was ill, and had a recent liver transplant, but then he always seemed to be off colour. When Lester Bangs interviewed him in 1973 for Let It Rock he seemed ill then. When Bangs met him he had just had his greatest hit album Transformer, and seemed to be immediately blowing his new-found fame. Bangs talked of a “vaguely unpleasant fat man” who said  "I can create a vibe without saying anything, just by being in the room." 

But if rock music from the time of Elvis’ first records was a religion with Elvis a Messiah, Lou Reed became a High Priest. In the late sixties, when rock was becoming hippy, fey and prog, Lou Reed brought rock back to its trangressive, sexually expressive roots, writing about drag queens and heroin. 

The Velvet Underground albums, although not commercially successful at the time, may be the most influential records ever made. At a time people were increasing playing around with complex time signatures and beginning to sing about Tolkeinesque subjects, Lou proved it was possible to be minimal, sexy and make a significant artistic statement . "One chord is fine,” as he put it. “Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

Transformer did make him a star, although he almost immediately returned to cult status with Berlin, a dirge-like album that was, despite a bleak beauty, one of the most depressing records ever made, and then followed that with an album of feedback called Metal Machine Music. At the least, he created a dozen of the best rock songs ever written.

Lou (pictured left in an audition tape made for Andy Warhol in 1966) made some fleetingly brilliant records like Memory and Loss since then, but also a lot of mediocre ones, like The Raven, derived from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. His persona was a constructed one of a tough leather jacketed punk in shades (apart from when he was experimenting with being androgynous) – although actually he was a highly literate student of the poet Delmore Schwartz and felt he should have been seen as equivalent to (and given the kudos of) the great American novelists.

Part of that persona was being horrible to journalists. But actually, the fact that for the last 15 years of his life he was with fellow visionary and frontier-spirited musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson suggests he wasn’t as nasty as he liked people to think (she is one of the sweetest and most considerate artists I’ve ever met).

Anyway, 10 years ago, I interviewed him in New York. He looked healthier than he had done 30 years before, when Lester Bangs interviewed him. This is what transpired...


"He's never early, he's always late

First thing you learn is you always gotta wait".

Waiting for the man, Lou Reed, in his Sister Ray production office on Broadway in downtown Manhattan is a bit like waiting for the dentist. You're not going to back out now, but it probably is going to be painful.

For one thing, he has a professed loathing for journalists. "Show me a critic and I'll show you an asshole. They are the vermin of the century," he says on his latest record, New York Man: The Ultimate Lou Reed Collection, which spans his career from the Velvet Undergound to The Raven, his update of Edgar Allen Poe.

Reed has been called petulant, paranoid and insecure - and that's just his friends talking. He is perfectly capable of getting through an entire interview giving only surly, monosyllabic answers. That's if he doesn't swear at you, or just walk out. The only thing Reed does seem to like to talk about , at mind-numbing length, is the kind of technical details of recording technique that are frankly only of interest to trainspotters.

These days every gangster rapper talks about dealers and ho's, but in the '70s it was a novelty

So why bother? Because Reed has written some fabulous songs - such as “Pale Blue Eyes”, “I'm Waiting for the Man”, “White Light White Heat” for Andy Warhol's house band, the hugely influential Velvet Underground, other classics like his two big hits in this country “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day” from his Bowie produced masterpiece Transformer, and several great tunes on albums like New York and Street Hassle.

In fact, many critics place him, even if his output of late has been patchy, with Neil Young and Bob Dylan, as one of the great American songwriters. Also, he was something of a teen idol of mine - his songs of transvestites, drugs, adultery and depravity greatly appealed to my own warped adolescent sensibility. These days every gangster rapper talks about dealers and ho's, but in the '70s it was a novelty.

One of his assistants plays me a new remix of "Walk on the Wild Side" with added lyrics about "Georgie [Bush] looking for gas" and "kicking Iraqi ass". Reed wanders by and turns it up to deafening levels before retreating to his office.

His partner Laurie Anderson is in the office and we have a conversation completely at cross-purposes due to the volume. I understand she has been doing some anti-war "performance art" dressed as a burger (that symbol of American evil) - eventually I realise she and her friends have dressed in a burqa.

After about an hour, I am ushered in to Reed's office, where he is eating a Japanese take-away. Although I'm expecting it, it's still unnerving when he goes into his monosyllabic schtick. The only real answer I get from the first five questions is when I ask him about the title of of the collection New York Man. "You mean you can't imagine anyone doing an album called London Man?"

Not really, no. "Well, you gotta admit it's better than Akron Man," he cackles. Other questions - about his being an alternative New York icon, about the changes in the city (you are as likely to find a real estate dealer as a drug dealer at Lexington 125 these days) - about his anti-war efforts are stonewalled.

Why does he find interviews such an imposition? "Maybe when the internet's better I won't have to. You have a new record out, you want people to know about it." Then he drawls "I enjoy talking about music." I know, with a sinking heart, what this means.

He spends the next 10 minutes droning on about remastering, 16 bit CD, acetates, analogue and digital remixes. At least he's talking. I tell him that, as a music specialist, I'm slightly interested in all this, but mostly people don't give a damn. In any case, they mostly listen to music on tinny beat boxes and car radios. "What kind of barbaric age are you talking about?" he says.

I suggest that I would rather hear Billie Holiday as originally recorded than any singer I can think of recorded perfectly today.

"You are missing the point. Even if most people are deaf. That's like saying why spend time with the lighting for the camera, Marty? What's the big, fucking, deal." He spits out the words.

In any case, I'm not so keen on what he calls his "cleaning up" digital remastering. I liked the sludgy noise of the Velvet Underground, a shadowy version of Phil Spector's wall of sound. Even the lyrics are not necessarily improved by hearing them.

There's a line on “Pale Blue Eyes” (the best version is sung by Brazilian singer Mariza Monte) which I misheard as "I thought you were my mom and pop", which I thought rich in dark, Freudian meaning. Turns out it was "Thought you were my mountaintop"- much more banal. I tell him that I think vinyl is warmer to listen to, and he agrees, apparently undercutting everything he's said on the subject.

 Coming up with the idea. That's not the bitch. Unless you can't do it. Everything else is the bitch

Does he actually like making music? "Coming up with the idea. That's not the bitch. Unless you can't do it. Everything else is the bitch." We talk about the music business and he says, "People here argue about which is more disgusting - the movie business or the music business. Just depends which way you would rather be raped and pillaged."

I tell him I never made any money when I made some records. "You thought you'd make money?" he condescends. "How sweet. How cute of you."

It has occurred to me that Reed, often encrusted in leather, with bug-eyed shades and poisonous tongue, is rather reptilian. But at least his blood is warming up a bit. It occurs to me I haven't yet been enough of an asshole, so I try a high-risk question.

"You realise that if you had overdosed on all the drugs you took in the '70s," I suggest, "it would have been a great career move." There is a silence, during which I'm fairly sure I'm about to be ejected. But he says: "Yeah, think of the number of records I'd have sold. I'd be a legend. Thank you very much." He tells me he's fit now he's given up smoking.

The thing is, Lou, I venture, people think you're pretentious. Another pregnant pause. "I don't give a shit. I've always done what interests me". True enough, including a double album of atonal feedback called Metal Machine Music (the record company ended up apologising to distributors for that one). He tells me that some German groups have played it live and it's now considered an avant-garde masterpiece, influencing industrial rock, although, of course, ignorant critics hated it at the time. Some of us still do.

In an attempt to get him to say something interesting, I try abject flattery. I tell him many people think he's a great American writer like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, but because he's working in the rock field he's not given the accolades due to him. This strategy works.

"I wanted to combine Burroughs and Ginsberg with rock. I mean, here was this great music with not much going on lyrically and here's a book like Last Exit to Brooklyn. You'd have to be retarded not to see the possibilities. I'm amazed," he says, with considerable arrogance, "that I pretty much still have the field to myself."

Actually, Lou was christened Lewis Allen Firbank, was born in 1942 in suburban Long Island. He made his first record as The Shades aged 14, called "So Blue" - his middle-class parents were so upset by his rock and roll tendencies they persuaded him to have electric shock therapy. He ended up studying English literature at Syracuse University, which is where he met his first mentor, the poet Delmore Schwartz, author of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

"One of the greatest short stories ever written, five pages and not one polysyllabic word." When Reed has that directness, his songs are at their best, although The Raven, his recent adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe, is full - nay, replete - with arbours of sculpted ivy, entablatures intertwined and kingly halls which are melancholy shrines, read by plummy actors, and is entirely undigestible. One rock number has Edgar Allen Poe, not once but several times, rhymed with "not exactly the boy next door", as though it was any good the first time around.

People hated him, but now he's dead he's maybe the greatest American artist

His other mentor was Warhol. How important was he for you, I ask. "My God, what luck was that - of all the people to adopt you as his band. It was fantastic. He did it all - we played the same music we had been fired for and beaten up elsewhere. The first week he projected films on to us and we wore black: that was the first multi-media show. People hated him, but now he's dead he's maybe the greatest American artist."

For the first time, Reed's clear enthusiasm and admiration for Warhol shows a brief flash of humanity, but then his publicist pops her head round the door to say my time is up.

I tell him I hope he keeps up not smoking and that I haven't, and he fishes out the number of his Chinese herbalist. Thanks, Lou, for caring.

When I ask him what he's up to next, he says that he's interviewing a singer called Anthony for a magazine [an early reference in the press to Anthony Hegerty]. He has been out shopping and was considering getting the same microphone as mine. This I can hardly believe. So, Lou, you're joining the assholes?

"Well," he says, and his eye twitches like Anne Robinson winking at the end of The Weakest Link, "a few of my friends are journalists, actually."

P.S.  Lou Reed sent a tweet hours before he died. It just said "The Door" and linked to this Facebook image. RIP, Lou.

Reed was called petulant, paranoid and insecure - and that's just his friends talking

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