Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Going Toe to Toe With Lou Reed by Pete Culshaw

Delighted to be able to reproduce this great 2003 interview with Lou Reed by one of the most brilliant music journalists in Britain. Enjoy.

"He's never early / he's always late.One thing is certain / you always gotta wait."
Lou Reed, I'm Waiting for The Man

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, which he released earlier this year.

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 mindnumbing length - is the technical details of recording technique that are frankly only of interest to trainspotters.

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; others like his two big hits, Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day, from his David Bowie-produced masterpiece Transformer; and several great tunes on albums such as 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 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 "hos", 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 Japanese takeaway. Although I'm expecting it, it is 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 these words mean. He spends the next 10 minutes droning on about remastering, 16-bit CD, acetates, analog 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. 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, f---king, 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 by Brazilian singer Mariza Monte) that I'd always 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 say I think vinyl is warmer to listen to, he agrees, apparently undercutting everything he's said on the subject.

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 group has played it live and it is now considered an avant-garde masterpiece, influencing industrial rock, although, of course, ignorant critics hated it at the time. Some of us still do.

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. "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 true arrogance "that I pretty much still have the field to myself."

Lou was christened Lewis Allen Firbank and 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'n'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 Schwarz, 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 that are melancholy shrines, read by plummy actors, and is entirely indigestible. One rock number has Edgar Allen Poe, not once but several times, rhymed with "not exactly the boy next door", as if it was any good the first time round.

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 onto us and we wore black: that was the first multimedia 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 in to say my time is up. I tell Reed I hope he keeps up not smoking, 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 he's interviewing a singer called Anthony for a magazine. 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 the woman winking at the end of The Weakest Link, "a few of my friends are journalists, actually".

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