I arrive late at this Italian joint in the West Village, and Lou’s already here. He’s punctual. Black tight jeans and a blue flannel shirt covering a powerful chest, barely showing a dark tangle of curly hair slightly grizzled. We greet each other. He rubs his face, once boyishly handsome and now rough and lined.
The wear and tear seems written into every one of his songs, from “Heroin” to “Perfect Day,” and his songs engraved on his face. I guess you could call it harshly beautiful. It could be the face of Hank Williams, who wrote “I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” who failed to survive drug and alcohol to make it to his 30 birthday, unlike Lou Reed who miraculously celebrated his 64th on March 2.
He looks at me from the other side of the table without a smile, eyes cast downward, darting occasionally to the PR girl at his side. I know he dislikes journalists. He’s exhibiting all the symptoms of a restless patient, tied to a dentist's chair, about to be drilled. Which bodes ill for my interview. But it’s too late. I have already ordered two double espressos and I'm ready to rock and roll!
On the other hand, if you're really curious to know what makes Lou Reed tick, in the depths of his soul, and what it really means when he sings of a life "saved by rock &roll," you've only got a handful of options:
\1) You can listen to the music and speculate on its production over fourty years, ranging from the top 40 single of 1964 “(Do) The Ostrich” ("All right, everybody get down on your face – whoo! ") to classics like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” to the more recent Grand Guignol of “The Raven” ("Once upon a midnight dreary... ").
2) You can embark on a tortuous online journey through dozens of archived interviews with a man whose caustic manner has reduced reporters to pitiful piles of stuttering jelly.
3) You can watch “Rock and Roll Heart,” the 1998 Grammy-award winning documentary.
4) You can meet him yourself, try to relax and see what the fuck happens.
So when Lou's assistant informs me that a dentist’s office is exactly the place where Lou will go, scheduled for a root canal, after our brief chat, I relax. "I'm sorry, Lou," I say, but really I’m thinking: Ah! Better him than me!
Lou Reed was born in Brooklyn, grew up in a middle class family in the suburbs, went to college, played in high school bands and used his share of drugs and probably your share and mine. Writing and recording for the Pickwick label, Lou paired up with John Cale, a viola player with a classical education who was a disciple of the avant-garde composer LaMonte Young.
Cale and Reed formed the Velvet Underground (so baptized after of a sordid pulp novel about sexual predators in the suburbs) along with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. Discovered by Andy Warhol while they were playing in a club in Greenwich Village called Café Bizarre, they became the pop rockers residing in the artist's studio, The Factory, as well as the pivot of Warhol’s extravagant performance art circus, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. At that time, the mid-to-late 1960’s Lou and I did not know each other, but we walked the same East Village streets and probably shared the same dealers.
So we chatted about mutual friends long gone such as Mickey Ruskin, the owner of Max's Kansas City, the club on Park Avenue South where Warhol’s superstars the Velvet Underground reigned. Ruskin, who died in 1985, helped support a slew of demi-monde celebrities with free food and a place to hang.
"At Max's Kansas City I had a tab that I finally paid off," says Lou in a generous spirit. He is not known to be nostalgic about "those different times," as he defines it in “Sweet Jane.” But now he recalls the pinched nature of those years. "My earning capacity at the time was equal to zero," he continues. "But Mickey knew, and he was looking out for me and for everyone else. Mickey was the first of the people I whom repaid when I could. When things got a bit 'better I was able to eat at places other than Max's. But it would surprise many people who revere Reed and the Velvet Underground to know that it despite the seminal role of the Velvet Underground in the history of rock, it took a while for things to get better.
Ultimately, the group generated musical movements such as glam, punk, not to mention the millions of clones of the Velvet, and entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
However, in the Sixties, the Velvet Underground was anything but a commercial success. Their four discs sold a pittance. The black leather sado-masochistic performance style, the obvious abuse of hard drugs, the dark lyrics and sonic dissonance failed to gain many followers in times of Flower Power, and their concerts did not sell many tickets. Self-righteously, Bill Graham, the main music impresario of the Sixties, pulled the plug during a Velvets concert at his Fillmore West. San Francisco hippies were more accustomed to the "peace-and-love" of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane than the psychodrama of the Velvets.
When the Velvet Underground broke up in 1970, Lou's finances were a disaster. "Things were really tough," he reflected ruefully. Things got so bad that one summer, after the group’s last concert at Max's, Lou retired to his parents' home in Freeport, Long Island, and at odds with the rock &roll, he worked as a bookkeeper for his father, a tax advisor.
I wonder if Lou learned anything about accounting from his father, but I hold back on the question. Personal questions make Lou fall silent, and any attempt to get him to talk about his sources of inspiration provoke general statements about how and why music was the complete and utter center of his life. Going forward, he declares his dedication to the capricious and irritable twin deities of Sound and Tone. Many interviewers who have been granted far more time and access are still in their offices dissecting hours of taped interviews in which Lou Reed grumbles endlessly about the most minute details and mysteries of magnets and speakers, vintage tube amplifiers, the cones of amplifiers, which kind of cones, and then he goes on to guitars, what makes a good guitar. And not much else from Lou about Lou Reed, the human being.
And now, somehow, he’s on the subject again. "All my stuff is made just for me,” says Lou. “Each guitar that I like is made for me." I imagine that he could finally afford his customized equipment sometime after her second album, “Transformer,” released at the end of 1972. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, it contains Lou’s only hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Today, after eighteen discs, manufacturers of guitars for Lou include also the legendary luthier Rick Kelly of Carmine Street Guitars just down the street in Greenwich Village, and the great Carl Johnson, who made the seven-string models that Lou Reed played in his 2005 tour. Lou has a large collection of Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, as well as amplifiers, both vintage and custom-made. The guitars made especially for him give Lou the sound he likes, which is ...? Well, I’m sorry I asked. He launches into a very detailed list of the greatest musicians of all time: "There's Joe Mapes, Link Wray, Carl Perkins, Elvis’ guy... you know, what's his name?"
We scratch our heads and none of us can remember the name of Scotty Moore, probably because we're a couple of guys with brain cells equally diminished by drug use. With only twenty more minutes left (the PR girl warns me), I want to keep the conversation on track, and it is not a simple thing. There are other things that Lou Reed does, in addition to music. He’s a photographer and has exhibitions opening at the same time at the prestigious Steven Kasher Gallery in New York and at Hermés' Gallery, writes theater pieces for renowned opera director Robert Wilson and collections of his photographs are being published by fine art book publisher Gerhardt Steidl.
But when you go to the core, there is only one thing that makes Lou Reed tick: playing the guitar. The intro to the live version of Sweet Jane on “Rock and Roll Animal” says it all. The pace of the guitar, the way in which the licks whirl and, after a dizzying fret board stunts, burst of color seemingly from Mars, hurled back to Earth and landing precisely on the classic three-chord riff of the piece.
He's not kidding when he says—and he says it often enough—that he has spent most of his life trying to learn how to play properly. Lou told Kung Fu Magazine in a recent interview: "It was a very important thing for me, to discover the exact way to achieve that tone, so that now I can do more with the sound. It took tons of time, and sometimes seems to me that it has taken a lifetime. When you think of someone who experiences an absurd number of years playing with different woods and pickups, you'd say, 'Well, this person is a fool'. But it's actually what I do. "
If you wonder why Lou Reed grants an interview to Kung Fu Magazine, it is because Lou is also a big fan of martial arts. For over twenty years, since he stopped drinking and taking drugs, Lou has studied Tai Chi Chuan, starting with a dark form of discipline called Eagle Claw. He discovered later the Chen style of Master Ren Guang-Yi, who has also been heavyweight champion of Chinese boxing in 1998. Lou has likened the style of Master Ren to ballet star Rudolf Nureyev. He brought Ren with him on stage during several past tours. To an interviewer who protested that he was puzzled by the combination of Lou’s bleak music and the Tai Chi master wielding a sword, Lou said: "Think of this as a choreography by George Balanchine."
Lou hopes to bring his teacher on the current tour which begins with opening the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. Lou’s companion, performance artist Laurie Anderson, may also appear for a couple of concerts, and Lou can’t wait to be in Italy. "What can you not love about Italy? It is one of the places Laurie and I talk about when we think about leaving New York at all. We love Italy very much."
At the invitation of Luciano Pavarotti, Lou has performed at the maestro’s annual benefit concert in Modena. It’s an area they like. "Modena, Bologna ... those parts would be completely happy for us just for the food."
It is difficult to imagine Lou Reed, living embodiment of the heart and soul of New York, leaving Gotham. Omnipresent at benefits and social events, uptown and downtown, he even showed up by surprise at the annual Tai Chi Day in Central Park and, along with Laurie Anderson. He attended the opening of a new park on the banks of the Hudson, at the end of Canal Street. He admits that the city has changed; it’s no longer the “Dirty Boulevard” of “Street Hassle.” On the other hand, Lou’s changed a lot, too.
"Now I have different interests," he says. "It is no longer what it once was. I am a different person. I'm not interested in what interested me once. As we age, my field of vision has expanded, encompassing many other things that New York offers. It is a city for everyone. I am most interested—always have been—in what concerns New York that you cannot find in a small town. Martial arts instructors, Chinese herbalists, swords and weapons to be bought and all the raw theater…"
Speaking of what you can find in New York, he says, for example, that the venerable singer-songwriter Dion (of the doo wop Fifties group Dion & The Belmonts) held one of his rare concerts at Joe's Pub. Allen Toussaint, who has no home in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina, makes numerous appearances around the city, to the delight of New Orleans aficionados. "And if a movie comes out,” says Lou with evident pride, “it comes out here first. We're not in Kansas anymore.” He added that his favorite movie of the moment is Peter Jackson's “King Kong.”
Apropos of Manhattan’s skyline, Lou says he witnessed the collapse on September 11, 2001, of the World Trade Center. He watched it go down in flames from his downtown loft. That moved me to mention the impact of the Velvet Underground on cities other than New York, cities such as Prague. That’s where the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 took the former Soviet territory on a new path, led by dissident playwright and activist Vaclav Havel and contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The former Czech President professed admiration for Lou Reed’s music and maintains friendships with several rock musicians. Reed and Havel, an Odd Couple, appeared on stage last year in Prague for a public seminar. When a reporter asked about his influence on the events that contributed to the end of the Cold War, Lou said, "I haven’t got a clue." Now I asked the same questions.
"I do not know," he says. "I have no idea if the Velvet Revolution means something. What is it that really makes sense? It is named for the Velvet Underground because you consider velvet in the sense that no one was actually hurt?"
We reflected on that for a moment. "When I was in Prague, President Havel, in his office, he introduced me to many dissidents and I gave him a book with my lyrics. At the time, he said, you could go to jail if you had that in your possession. Can you imagine? They told me that my words were a source of inspiration. I always wondered why. I asked them why, and I guess it was the anti-authoritarian stance—for lack of a better expression. Maybe that was the reason, since that’s Havel says. And Havel is an intellectual."
Will he and Havel get together again? "I sure hope so. He is a great friend," says Lou. The contrast is stark and ironic: Reed’s ballads of deviant sex and illegal substance abuse such as “Heroin” ("Beware of the text,” he says, “but it is a beautiful piece") was rewarded with cheers instead of imprisonment. He reflects on Havel’s very different experience. "I was lamenting with him," he continues, "because I had done a show with Bob Wilson and I was not able to hear it in English since they staged it in Germany and it had been translated into German. So I have not heard even in English. And I was surprised when I said that to Havel and he told me that because he was in prison, he has never been able to hear his works brought to the stage in Czech—in his own language. It is almost inconceivable, right?"
And speaking of the great power of music in social change, I say - bringing the conversation closer to my only really important question—that rock music is heard everywhere today in commercials. (“Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop sells Holiday cruises). "The kids today think it's cool to have a song in a commercial," Lou interrupted. "Warhol was always into that sort of thing and it was fun. And I thought, 'Well, if it's okay for Andy ...' But people got really angry with me because I did it, although personally I thought it was funny. But the fans did not think the same way. So then I stopped. Even today, there are certain things that others do that I cannot do because I think the fans would feel betrayed. Now, if I had serious financial problems, I would not think twice about it. It is easy to have ethics long as you have enough money. God forbid that a loved one is in trouble and that you need something—hey, here's the Cadillac. So do not begrudge anyone anything."
Speaking with his typical New York accent, with his assistant smiling uneasily to signal the end of the interview, Lou continues: "As we age and understanding more about the world, I think that we cannot speak for others outside of our own circumstances. I do not give a damn about a rapper covered with jewelry who makes a commercial for whatever.”
Lou shakes his head. "This is not for me. If I can avoid it, I avoid it. They say, 'Hey, the kids like it, and in the end what does it matter?' And, you know, what do I care? Do I care? But there is a certain—I don’t know—call it a certain patina on some rock songs that would not be there if it was just another jingle selling something for the business world. In this country, no matter what you do, you are absorbed. If you're around for a long time you soak up the alternative. So now you're part of the alternative part of the whole thing. No matter how far off you are, you will be the alternative alternative. Whichever way you put it—Christian alternative devil alternative, heavy metal, speed metal, death metal—you become absorbed.”
Okay, at this point I pull out The Question: Is it still possible for rock and roll—as Lou claims in “Sweet Jane”—to save people’s Lives?
"Absolutely," says Lou. "Rock and roll speaks of the spirit of the heart. Music is strange—it's just a sound. Sound waves. Words. Movement. Sound. I'll give you a perfect example, okay? There is an album that was released just now, called ‘Our New Orleans.’ There is a piece by Buckwheat Zydeco with Ry Cooder on guitar called ‘The Streets Are Cryin. ' I listened and it was devastating. I was listening to it on a fucking iPod. It's a miracle. This means that you can carry the church around in your pocket."
Lou laughs at his notion: the church in his pocket. He’s going to tuck that one away for future use. "There is nothing else that can do such a thing," he insists. "Anyone can listen to Buckwheat Zydeco. It requires no preparation. It is music, that’s all it is. Music made with the heart. What more could you want? It is one of the great lessons of life. Wow. "
We’ve used up our hour and now the assistant and the PR girl drag Lou firmly to the dentist while I go for a walk on a chilly New York street to a record store, buy the CD “Our New Orleans” (Nonesuch), and listen to “The Streets Are Cryin’ “by Buckwheat Zydeco. It's a beautiful piece, sure enough, and I could never say that Lou is mistaken about the fact that this music saves lives, because the money made from sales of the CD go to finance the construction of new homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
But when you replay Lou’s intro to the live version of “Sweet Jane…” Wow, indeed. This music has, and always will, save lives, Lou. Starting with yours and mine.
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