I interviewed Lou Reed in spring of 2003 in conjunction with the release of his latest album, The Raven. A hero of mine since childhood, our chat did not start out well. As I entered his office in Soho, he greeted me with a look combining contempt and outright revulsion: "Oh you little yuppie punk, please say something stupid so I can throw your ass outta my office," it seemed to say. Happily, Reed warmed up over the next two hours and we had a terrific chat about many things, recorded below.
Several months later, I attended his sold-out concert at the Wiltern in L.A. Backstage, I shook his hand and told him how much I enjoyed the show.. He managed a smile, patted my shoulder, and said "Nice work."
RIP Lou, and thanks for it all.
Lou Reed has been one of rock music's most profound innovators since bursting onto the New York club scene in the mid-'60s with his now-legendary band, The Velvet Underground. Discovered and supported by Andy Warhol, the Velvets, which also featured John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, and German chanteuse Nico, were arguably rock's first "progressive" band, their work clearly aimed at intelligent adults, and not the bubblegum set. The Velvet Underground and Nico, their premiere album from 1966 with Andy Warhol's famed "banana" cover, was a sublime blend of rock, folk, blues and ballads that would set the pace for an entirely new generation of rock and rollers: Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, David Bowie, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Patti Smith, and David Byrne have all cited the Velvets, and Lou Reed in particular, as one of the architects that helped them discover their own unique sounds.
Lewis Alan Reed was born March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York to an affluent, upper middle class family. After majoring in English at Syracuse University (where he studied with mentor Delmore Schwartz), Reed toiled in the New York club scene with various bands, until one fateful night when Andy Warhol saw The Velvet Underground performing in a dive bar, somewhere in New York. After the release of their first album, the Velvets continued to push the musical envelope, in spite of the band's line-up changing over the years. After their final album, Loaded, was released in 1970, the Velvets disbanded, with Reed pursuing a highly-acclaimed (and, in some circles, vilified) solo career. Although his only mainstream "hit" as a solo artist was the classic Walk on the Wild Side in 1972, the album it made its debut on, Transformer, is now regarded as a seminal work in rock history, produced by no less than David Bowie.
Much of Lou Reed's career has followed this path: work that was often misunderstood upon its first release, then usually hailed as a masterpiece in retrospect. The old adage that "A prophet is never recognized in his own time" seems to apply to Reed in spades, although a big part of his appeal always lay in the fact that he never seemed to care what anyone else thought.
Lou Reed's latest work doesn't disappoint, as it also breaks new musical ground. The Raven, released by Warner Bros. Records, is a blend of music and spoken word pieces, inspired by the work of Edgar Alan Poe. Theatrical in nature (it was inspired by a stage version of Poe's work that Reed took part in) and boasting an incredible cast of actors (Willem Dafoe, Amanda Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley) and musicians (David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Ornette Coleman, The Blind Boys of Alabama), The Raven is a moving, entertaining and highly disturbing work, one that requires repeated listening and discussion. Also new from Reed is the compilation NYC Man, being released by BMG Music on June 3.
Lou Reed met with us recently in his offices, located in the heart of NYC's Soho district, to discuss his work, past, present and future.
Tell us about the genesis of The Raven.
Lou Reed: Bob Wilson about four years ago said it would be great to do a play about Edgar Allan Poe and that I should write it. That's how it all came about. So I wrote the play, and we did it in Hamburg, Germany. When the opportunity came to make a CD of it, I rewrote it. So this time it was an audio experience, not a visual one.
Did you initially discover Poe as a kid?
When did you become a fan?
Maybe 10 years ago. My co-producer, Hal Wilner, was doing these Halloween extravaganzas at St. Anne's Church, which is now St. Anne's warehouse. Last year, he did one at Royce Hall at UCLA. Everybody there acted out something by Poe. I did The Tell-tale Heart, and that was the first time I really got it. I thought I understood Poe the first time I read him, but I didn't.
I like the way you modernized much of the language on a CD, especially the scatological language. I think had Poe been a contemporary writer, he would have used profanity much like Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, and other authors who use language to express rage.
What a vocabulary Poe had. My God! I'm writing about Poe's work, not his life. I'm not an expert on his life: where he was educated, how he was educated, or even whether he was self-educated. I did some research at one point, but I've forgotten most of it. But what I do remember, is sitting with an Oxford dictionary going through everything, loosely translating, because as far as I'm concerned, most people, myself included, would not understand parts of those texts. You do what most people do, which I think is what most people will do when they listen to The Raven, which is understand it by context. But that can only get you so far, and it's not always right either. A lot of the language he used was arcane by the standards of Poe's own time. It wasn't that he was a show off, because he was very specific with his words. It's very, very beautiful. The rhythm is beautiful. And it's something about this idea that there's somebody alone somewhere, in a dark room somewhere, in a building somewhere, and there's a tapping at his door somewhere, after midnight, and it's a big dark bird that's not friendly. That feeling has communicated itself now for over 100 years, that set up. But what is the poem actually about once you get past there? That's what I was trying to get across, and I was trying to do it somewhat quicker. I think there's 18 or 19 verses in the original text, and we do 13 or 14. When I first was looking at that rhythm, and I was an English major in college, initially I looked at that rhyme scheme and assumed it was a formal, well-known rhyme scheme. But it's not. He invented that. And no one had done it before, and no one's done it since. Now to couple that rhyme scheme with this incredible language, and what it's about to boot, then this is something that can't miss. You're talking major greatness, because nobody can forget that rhythm once they've heard it. I think if Poe were taught better in schools, people would respond to him better, especially teenagers. The right teacher could show how The Raven plays directly into all their teenage angst. That something I've been thinking that doing: rewriting some of the other classics for high schoolers, to make it more accessible for them.
You know what my teachers did? They showed all the old Vincent Price/Roger Corman movies from the '60s.
That's interesting, because Wilner loves those movies. Loves them, loves them, loves them. I think they're okay too, with one problem: they don't really tell you what Poe is all about. It's the surface version. Like The Tell-Tale Heart, for example. Why does he say that to the cop? "Do you mock me?" It's like, "Hey, don't tell me you don't hear that, motherfucker! Are you mocking me? Are you calling me a fool, you little pissant?" Is he crazy? No, he does it because he thinks the cop is making fun of him. It's a macho thing. It's almost like "You talkin' to me?' (laughs) Right? It's probably his own heart beating. That's kind of an interesting parallel to draw, with De Niro in Taxi Driver. "You talkin' to me?" Gone. Over and out. Straight to Rikers. (laughs) No need for a public defender for this one. This guy confessed. He would never claim insanity.
That intensity is there from the moment the CD starts when Willem Dafoe starts speaking. I also liked how rapid-fire his delivery was in the opening. It gave the whole thing a real ferocity.
Yeah, well Dafoe's from New York. (laughs) And then he suddenly slows. His voice is like ice cream. You could just listen to his voice all day, he wouldn't even have to be saying anything. On headphones it's particularly beguiling. I like listening to stuff on headphones anyway, just to get a sense of things spatially, the way different sounds are mixed. But listening to Willem's voice was just mesmeric. We were all like "this must have been what Jim Jones was like. Willem, we'll follow you anywhere." (laughs) Some criminals I've known have these very seductive voices.
You put together an incredible cast of both actors and musicians for this recording.
We got the crème de la crème of New York for this record. Hal and I made up a little dream list of all the people we'd love to have involved with this, and that's what we wound up with. That hasn't happened very often my life.
Elizabeth Ashley is another voice I could listen to all day. God, what a sexy voice!
Elizabeth Ashley is a force of nature. She is more fun to work with... she is a tornado, but a friendly tornado. If you see thing starting to move on their own, it's because Elizabeth has arrived. (laughs) She would spend more time than anybody because she really wanted to get things right, whenever "right" is. She would give us choices, very receptive to doing rewriting on the spot, and having her lines changed. I ran into her after I saw her in the Gore Vidal play The Best Man, and, what could I say, she's Elizabeth Ashley! Both Elizabeth, and Amanda Plummer, seemed to have a direct line into the psyche, any part of the psyche that you choose to go with them. And they can just go! After a while we'd have to tell them "Okay, okay, OKAY! YOU CAN STOP NOW!" (laughs)
How long did it take to record the entire piece?
I think about four months. You'd have to check with Wilner for the exact number. He's the keeper of the records.
I also thought that casting David Bowie as Hop Frog was really inspired.
That's him, not me. He chose that part. I was pretty astonished myself, because I thought he would have picked one of the other parts. I thought he would go for one of the power ballads, but it turns out that he was a perfect Hop Frog. I realized that David wanted to have some fun, and have some fun just being Bowie. He did the kind of background vocals on this that I really like, all the way back to my Transformer record when he did those kind of things. I liked it then and I still love it now.
Tell us more about Hal Wilner, who's been an important collaborator for you for some time.
Someone should do the Wilner collection. There is a collection of stuff that would be astonishing. All the different records he's put out by all these amazing poets and writers. You name it: from Lenny Bruce, to William S. Burroughs, to Ginsberg, to Brecht and Weil. That's Wilner. He's like a musician's, musician's scholar. He would wince if I said this in front of him, of course.
I also thought it was great that you had Ornette Coleman on the record.
That was my big desire. Ornette has been one of my heroes forever, and it turned out that Ornette was just a few blocks from the studio, and he came over the next day. He's amazing. When I was kid, I used to follow him around from gig to gig when he played the Village, because I couldn't afford to see his shows, so I'd stand outside the stage door, or by the window, were sitting on the subway grating, and just listen to him. It was kind of funny for me when he came in, because he doesn't know any of this.
One track that really stood out for me was Fire Music. I read in the notes that you recorded it just days after Sept. 11th.
Fire Music always existed, it's when the orangutans burn up during Hop Frog. But I hadn't been happy with it, and I had also been working for a long time on how I could do Metal Machine Music Part II with contemporary gadgets, so I could go past where I was when I left off. So I had figured that out, and was working on it when Sept. 11th happened. Two days later, I wrote the new Fire Music, which is what you hear on the record now. If you ever get a chance to hear it on big speakers, and I mean BIG speakers, that have bottom, turn that sucker up! When it goes up, it takes you with it, and then just drops you. It's amazing that you can do that with sound.
One thing I've noticed about all your work, going back to the Velvets, is that you can't date it. There's certain music when you hear it, you immediately say "Oh, 1966," or but that's never been the case with your work.
Yeah, I certainly know what you mean. I was pretty careful not to use contemporary slang that would date it. The only thing that could date it would be if 1) It was old-fashioned, which it never was, or 2) it was recorded in a way that dates it, which we never did, either. Some of the older recordings just sound like they're by a garage band, that were playing yesterday. So, that's a good thing, yeah! It was like 'I'm trying so hard not to be slick.' That was Warhol. That was the Warhol University ethic.
How did you guys first get involved with Warhol?
One of his people came to this dive that we were playing in. His name was Gerard Malanga, and Gerard told Andy that maybe he should come see us, and Andy did. Then we got fired, and Andy adopted us, and we all moved into The Factory, and then we got to work on the first Velvet Underground record.
Since we're talking about the Velvets, I have to thank you for the work you guys did. You changed the way that I, and so many other people listened to music. When I got the first Velvet Underground record for my 13th birthday, it was the first time I really had to sit down and listen to the music, the lyrics, everything. My musical tastes seemed to mature almost overnight.
Well, thank you. That's a big compliment.
You guys obviously wrote for adults, and you never talked down to your audience.
No, we were trying to talk directly to them, and certainly not down. This was stuff we wanted to listen to. It was something we thought was worthwhile. If you don't like it in the first place, how can you expect others to? We never set out to write things for other people to like, you understand. We were trying to write things that we really liked, and hoped other people would like, as well. The operating philosophy was, if we like it, why shouldn't others. How different can we be?
Do you still think of yourself primarily as a writer?
Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, in anything, anything musical has to be written. So yeah, I think of it as writing. I think of photography as writing. It looks like a book of my photographs will be coming out down the road. Mostly black & white stuff. It's funny, I just got a new digital camera that is able to capture as much information as 35mm. It's pretty stunning what they can do with that stuff now, all the advantages to it. But it will still never look quite like film does. People say the same thing about records: CDs sounds great, but they'll never sound like a record. Records, analog recording, has it's own fascination. I have a compilation coming out in June called NYC Man, and when we were remastering all those old tracks, we were listening to the title track, which was recorded in my home studio on a D-88 in 1996, and it wasn't even a 24-bit D-88. And we were listening to it, and you could hear me tapping my foot! Since this was CD, this was digital land, it was a whole different game. It was so intimate. It has its own place. The knock on digital is that it's cold, and sterile and all that, but it doesn't have to be that. It'll never have the pumping bass that an analog on vinyl will have. But this other thing, my God! We wanted to shape the bass better from the way it was on the original CD, and the original recording was fine, but years go by, and the technology gets better. Now you can really, really make it sound great, just pump like shit.
Along with Andy, the author Delmore Schwartz was a great mentor to you.
He was my teacher at Syracuse. He was the first really great teacher I ever had. Everyone should have at least one great teacher in their lives. I've been really lucky to go from Delmore to Warhol.
What makes a great teacher?
Passion and the ability to communicate it, which elevates you as a student. They're inspiring. With Delmore, what he could do with five words, was astonishing to me. He had an advanced vocabulary, but he could also write the simplest things conceivable and there would be such beauty in them. The supreme example of that is a short story called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. That changed my life, reading that story. What that story was about, the way it was written, the language it's written in. There's no 50 cent words in there. There's no college degree words in there. This is the democracy of the verb. Anybody could step up to the plate and write a story like this. All you needed to be was a genius. Nothing I can say here can prepare you for that story. It's about a boy who walks into a movie theater. He sits down. They're showing a short, silent movie, and the movie is his parents courting at Coney Island. And they're walking on the boardwalk and the kid stand up and starts screaming "Stop this! Stop this movie!" The usher comes up and says "Sit down, or we throw you out." It goes on from there. It won the Bolinger Prize for the best American short story in 1938. It's five pages long. So here's somebody who wants to be a writer, and he finds something like this. It was like a revelation. "Holy shit!"
How was Andy a great teacher?
His work ethic, what he was about, the way he turned things around, anti-slick. Genius. An enormous, insane talent, brilliant with colors and composition. Ideas. He'd look at something that you'd be looking at, and then you'd hear what Andy sees. He was so receptive to your ideas, he made you feel like he really believed in you, and he did. He believed in us, and that's why he made us part of it all. He got it. He really got it. Then you look at what he did and you say "Wow! If he says it's okay, then we must be okay. Because as far as other people were concerned (at that point), we were less than a Campbell's soup can. We weren't even the paper bag it comes in. "Some Warhol toy." They didn't think that for long after we came in and really hauled off and batted them.
Did you stay close with Andy up until his death?
Some of us did. I always saw Andy. Whenever I had problems I'd go see Andy. He was so smart. It's very, very difficult losing someone who's that smart, that kind of smart. It's not something that gets replaced. He would get savagely criticized and made fun of, for everything: his work, his persona, his lifestyle. "He's gay." "He's this." "He's that." On and on and on. Now, $10 million a painting later, it's like, Jesus Christ! It would've been nice if some of that adulation had been given to him while he was still here, but who knows what Andy actually wanted? Andy liked to paint, he liked to work. 24 hours a day. And he would always harangue me: "Why haven't you written something today?" "How much did you write?" "Do more." "Why are you so lazy?" "What are you waiting for?" Considering the milieu this is all in, this might seem a little shocking. I remember when John Cale and I were doing Songs for Drella at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and some idiot stands up and yells at us "Tell us something we don't know!" And I think we really had. But Andy used to say that you can't tell anybody anything, and I think that's really true. As far as I'm concerned, journalists and audiences like that one want to know one thing, and that's how big your dick is. That's what they want to know. That's the width, breadth, and depth of their interest. I don't know if that's the lowest common denominator. There's still lower, and those are the critics.
You, the Velvets and Andy were all ahead of your time. The old saying goes "A prophet is never recognized in his own time."
Andy was always ahead of his time. You look around now at ads and things, the use of colors, and I think 'My God, how is that possible to be that smart?' But he was. He's still here, and most people don't even know it! The little squirt is still making fun of them! (laughs) That's why my view of critics and everything is very, very jaundiced.
Even Poe was regarded as a pulp writer in his day. No one took him seriously.
Poe... how did he get that vocabulary? There was this thing in The Times, that talked about this poem Poe did called Eureka. It was all about the planets and the universe and in it, he predicates the big bang theory! And T.S. Eliot later attacked Poe, saying he should stick to writing horror stories and leave physics and astronomy to scientists. But Poe was right, he said they're going to find that the whole universe comes from a sliver. Do you believe along with the first science fiction story, the first detective story, he came up with this? No slouch he! (laughs)