IT was a bright cold day in March, and the clocks were striking one when I learned I was to interview Lou Reed. Lou Reed! My immediate reaction was elation, swiftly followed by doubt, then dread.
Reed is notoriously difficult; he is to journalists what Cape Horn was to 18th century sailors – a vicious hunk of rock given to unpredictable storms, which draws you with its legend then dashes all your hopes. Even the celebrated rock critic Lester Bangs, who admired Reed so much he wrote he would gladly perform a sex act upon him, was moved to describe his hero as a bibulous bozo, a death dwarf and an emblem of absolute negativism.
Conditions were placed upon our interview, which was eventually scheduled to take place in Denmark. It would not include lunch or dinner with Reed, a man known for his nutritional fads, who according to former Velvet Underground bandmate Sterling Morrison, “once went on a diet so radical there was no fat showing on his central-nerve chart”. And I was told I must write that he has recently signed a worldwide recording deal with Sanctuary Records. Sanctuary CEO Merck Mercuriadis told me that he intended for the release of Reed’s album in 2006 to feel like a real event. He also said that, “Lou definitely views journalists as the enemy.”
I sought advice on how to deal with him. The photographer Mick Rock, who took the iconic cover portrait for Reed’s 1972 album Transformer, warned, “Don’t be too aggressive. Let him settle. You can’t make Lou tell you or do anything at all. If he warms to you then he can be very sweet and charming, but I know what a fucking animal he can be because I’ve seen it. He loves animals, believe it or not. I think he’s still got a little dog, a little rat terrier. I remember this cat of mine he used to have a thing for. In the Seventies he had these dachshunds that he was very keen on, The Baron and The Duke.”
COPENHAGEN, May 3. They adore Lou Reed here; the first of two concerts at the historic Royal Theatre sold out in 14 minutes, the second even faster. Reed’s hotel, a short stroll from the venue, is the swishest in town as befits an elder statesman of rock, one of that pantheon of grizzled gods which includes Bob Dylan and Neil Young. In the street outside, an old man in a leather cap and waistcoat shuffles along, chains rattling; he looks like a geriatric version of the hustler on the back of Transformer.
The tour manager, Mike de Lisle, meets me in the lobby. Sorry, but the interview has been put back by 30 minutes, and Lou wants to shave ten off the end. I’ll have to make my own way to the room. Lou’s Tai Chi instructor Master Ren Guangyi is flying in from New York and needs to be picked up from the airport.
“The exercise is very important to Lou.”
I sit and wait in a banana-yellow room.
Eventually I hear a voice coming down the hall. It’s American, which is to say it sounds like it was buried by the founding pilgrims and only recently dug up. “Okay, ” the voice is saying, all rust and earthworms, “so you’ll come back in half an hour?” A female voice, a hotel receptionist, replies: “Ja. Yes.”
Reed enters the room, 62 years old, five foot five of rock icon, bigger than Iggy, littler than Ziggy, body by Michelangelo, head chiselled off Mount Rushmore. He puts his hand in mine and withdraws it quick as a conjuring trick. No smile, no hello. He’s wearing blue jeans, leather slip-ons and an olive T-shirt that says Coney Island, NY. He sits. Suddenly we’re in Room 101.
People have told me that the best strategy is an immediate dose of flattery, so I tell him thanks for taking the time to talk and thanks too for letting us use his self-portraits to illustrate this article, they’re really good.
Nothing. No reaction. Just a stare.
I start with a soft question about his headlining slot at the Burns An’ A’ That festival. “Is there something in particular that you like about Robert Burns’ work?”
I had read that while at Syracuse University in the early Sixties Reed performed ballads by Burns for his girlfriend. So I ask, “When did you first come across his work?”
“I’m not a Robert Burns expert, ” he snaps.
“No, but . . .”
He coughs. “I’m not a Robert Burns expert. I’m not gonna list songs and poems by Robert Burns. Okay?”
“But I wondered when you first came across his work?”
“I haven’t a clue.” He spreads his legs and drums his fingers on his thighs; veins pop up on his arms. “There’s a lot of writers I like. I couldn’t give you date: ‘Ooh, that’s when I read this one or that one’.”
“Mmm-hmm. But you’ve known his work for a long time. That would be fair to say?”
“That would be fair to say.”
At this point, I’m beginning to worry. If I can’t even get him to discuss the concert he is supposed to be promoting then what is he going to talk about? “Okay, right,” I stammer. “I mean . . .”
He cuts in. “I can’t emphasise to you enough: I am not. A. Robert Burns. Expert.”
“Right. I’m not saying you are an expert. But there is something within his work that draws you?”
“What do you think is the answer to that question?”
“I think there must be, otherwise you wouldn’t be playing.”
“There you go. You could do both sides now, all by yourself.”
He’s acting as if I’m attacking him. I try again – “Could you . . .” – but he interrupts:
“No. I can’t.”
“You can’t say what you particularly like about his work?”
“No, no. I’m not a critic. I don’t do things like that.”
“I wasn’t asking you to take a critical stance,” I say, “just give a personal response.”
He pauses and takes a slug from his water bottle. “How can anyone not like, ‘A man’s a man for all of that, for all of that, for all of that’? I mean, he’s a great writer. I don’t know what you want me to say. I could recite clichés to you all afternoon if you want.” He starts to do so, sarcastically.
“‘Great rhythm. Terrific choice of words. Really tremendous subject matter. Very, very great empathy with working people.’ Is that okay? Do you think?”
Why is he being like this? I’m beginning to get a picture of the future: Lou Reed’s leather slip-on stamping on my face forever. Yet those who know him insist he is lovely. “I know of a number of occasions of Lou’s kindness,” says Mick Rock. “In my own case, eight and a half years ago I had quadruple bypass surgery. When I was wheeled into the recovery room the very first flowers to greet me and express his love and concern were from Lou Reed. He is caring and empathetic. He is without doubt a deeply sensitive man as well as one of the great artists of our time.”
Victor Bockris, who wrote an unauthorised biography of Reed, says, “Lou’s a sweet person. He has a very good relationship with Laurie Anderson, which he’s had for 12, 15 years. I know from two women I spoke to – his first wife and a long-time girlfriend who he was with for ten years from his college years onwards, that he is very sweet when you get closely involved with him romantically.”
Whatever he is like in private, it’s pretty clear that Reed is paranoid about the press. As he says, “Most journalists would really like to come off looking a lot better than the subject. People lie. You have a journalist saying, ‘Oh, my brother died of Aids, I’m so upset, do you know anyone who has had that?’ And they are lying. There’s no level too low.
“Now photographers, most of them are Nazis. ‘Move over there, tilt your head, do this, do that’. I said to a photographer once, ‘Why do you do this?’ He said, ‘I love ordering people around. This is the only chance I get.’ Not every journalist is like that, not every photographer either. But if you cue into the fact that odds are they are not on your side, then you play the game from your half of the net.”
A couple of weeks before, I had turned on the TV and there was Reed talking about the photograph on the front of Transformer. All white face and Kohl eyes, Lon Chaney with a guitar, it’s a look known as The Phantom of Rock. In a way, it has trapped Reed, capturing him at his commercial peak, and setting in amber the idea that he is a decadent figure, druggy and faggy, forever walking on the wild side and having perfect days in the park with sangria and smack.
I mention to him that he said on the TV show that he sometimes wishes he was the guy in the photograph.
“What? I actually said that? You heard me say it?”
“Yeah, and I wondered what you meant.”
“Well,” he says, “it’s like when Robert and John Kennedy call up Cary Grant, and Cary Grant answers the phone in that great voice, and one of the Kennedy brothers says, ‘I wish I was Cary Grant’ and Cary Grant says, ‘So do I.’ That’s what I mean.”
“You wish you were that guy.”
“Nah, I mean maybe for a half hour or whatever. I’m not that. I’m not any of them. It’s acting.”
How to create a persona is something he admits to learning from Andy Warhol, whose patronage of The Velvet Underground was key to their early development. His association with the band ended after the first album, which was released in 1967. Reed and Warhol fell out, but he never lost his admiration for the artist, and attempted a posthumous rapprochement with the 1990 tribute album Songs For Drella.
“Studied,” he says now. “I studied Mr Warhol. Any dot that I can use from him, I do. How many times do you get to be around geniuses? What I call geniuses. I think he qualifies.”
Songs For Drella contains a song in which Reed explains that Warhol always tried to teach him that the most important thing in life was work. Is it an attitude he has retained?
“I was just reading the biography of Katharine Hepburn,” he replies. “To age 96 she would just keep working, working, working, working. And that’s what Warhol said. And most of the people I know, that’s all they do. It’s kind of amazing.”
“Have you had to sacrifice things within your life to focus on work to that extent?”
“I never really thought of it that way. You know, what would I be doing? Shovelling coal in a coal mine? That’s work. Playing guitar? I don’t call that work. The travelling is a drag. I wish I was a superstar with my own Lear jet. On the other hand, look at this fuckin’ hotel for Chrissakes. How bad can it be?”
“What is the main emotion that’s driven your work?” I ask. He bats the question away, saying he’s not given to self-analysis.
But the reason I ask is because it was something he brought up in his interview with the novelist Hubert Selby Jr. Anyway, I persevere and ask if the main emotion driving his work is anger.
“I get energy from anger,” he yawns.
“As much as you used to?”
“Oh, I have enough anger to last me a long time. It’s in every cell in my body.”
Why is he so angry? According to Victor Bockris, aggression is part of a public image which Reed feels he has to maintain. But more than that, he has had to be confrontational in order to survive almost four decades in the music business.
“The rock ‘n’ roll stage is one of the strangest spaces that’s existed in history of performance,” says Bockris. “So much of rock ‘n’ roll is about crying or wanting to kill yourself or something. It’s about extremes. Anyone who raises the gods of rock on a stage in front of a few thousand people is doing something very emotional and dramatic and it has an enormous effect on them. Their engagement and their involvement with that dominates their lives. And you need to be very strong to maintain that kind of thing over a long period of time.
“Lou is a very strong person, and when you are operating on a world stage where the other 250 people operating that level are all egomaniacs, you have to be an egomaniac. It’s part of the job. You have to fulfil the role. Deciding to be a rock star is a much more complex thing than most people think. It’s a calling.”
Back in the room with Reed, the conversation twists and jerks like a fish on a line. It turns out we had both seen Robert Carlyle playing Hitler on TV the night before, and he can’t stop talking about how great he (Carlyle not Hitler) was. Then he wants to know who else is performing at Burns An’ A’ That (“Billy O’Connolly?”) and which is the better city for taking photographs, Glasgow or Edinburgh. We touch, too, on the recent Channel 4 poll of the 100 greatest albums of all time, which I tell him included Transformer and the first Velvets album.
“That’s all? I shoulda had the first 30.”
We talk about Tai Chi. Reed has been practising the martial art since 1985 and now studies with America’s top master, Ren Guangyi, who will be arriving at the hotel shortly after this interview. “What has practising it done for you?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, everything. Everything positive you could think of in every way. Mind, body, spirit, endurance, health, focus, discipline, physical strength. I’m talking about Chen Tai Chi specifically. The Tai Chis you’ve probably seen are very slow but Chen Tai Chi is not slow.”
The thing that particularly impressed Reed about Ren Guangyi is that he has mastered a particular technique called ‘exploding power’. “It’s exploding power expressed through whatever part of your body you want,” Reed explains. “Generally with the idea of hitting someone.”
“Have you had to use Tai Chi in a violent situation?” I ask.
“I’m not a violent person,” he deadpans. “But there are three dead in Jersey as we speak.”
The hotel receptionist knocks on the door, and Reed indicates that we need to wind things up. I ask him whether he feels there has been some predetermined purpose to his life and work that has meant he stayed alive despite everything; at one point in the speed-and-Scotch Seventies he was generally considered the rock star most likely to die, and as recently as 2001 a hoax email fooled several American radio stations into reporting he had succumbed to an overdose.
“Nah, I’m just lucky,” he says. “I know people, same kind of thing, bad luck, they’re dead. I was standing right next to them. Could have been me. A thousand times it could have been me. You don’t question these things. Some guy steps off the curb at the wrong time? Bad luck. You step off the curb at the same time and they miss you? Good luck. Dumb luck is what it’s usually called. They say God protects junkies and drunks, but if you sober up you’re on your own. I think that may be true.”
“So you’ve been on your own for quite a few years now?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah. Okay?” He leans across the table and shakes my hand to signal it is over.
He has to go elsewhere in the hotel and be filmed for a documentary on Hubert Selby Jr. He signs my copy of his collected lyrics and tells me I can come along.
We take the lift upstairs. He knocks on a door. A Danish woman, Maia Lorentzen, answers. He looks around the tiny room, muttering, “No expense spared.”
Lorentzen invites him to sit. “I don’t like this chair,” he says, moving a fussy thing covered in flowers and hunting scenes. “I like this chair.” He grabs a black leather swivelly number and sits on it. He notices that the bathroom door is open and the toilet visible. “So genteel. Can we close that while I’m talking?”
Lorentzen switches her camera on and asks a couple of questions about Selby, who Reed refers to as “Cubby”. He mentions that he had been invited to write the score for the film of Selby’s Requiem For A Dream, but had declined because he didn’t want to have to immerse himself in that world of drug addicts for a prolonged period. When he eventually saw the scene in the film where Ellen Burstyn’s character hallucinates that her fridge has come to life, he almost went through the roof.
“I know what that’s like, but I didn’t want to spend two months remembering what that was like.”
Filming over, Reed gets back in the lift and I walk downstairs. Outside the hotel I look to see what he has written in my book. “To Peter,” it says. “A good interviewer.” Huh? That has never felt less true than right now.
BACK in Britain, after a few days of phone calls and emails to his people, Reed agrees to give me a little more time. I phone him in Denmark. After a couple of questions which he considers stupid, he says, “You needed 15 minutes more even though I let you watch the Hubert Selby interview? You went home and thought a lot, is that what happened?”
“No, I just had some other questions that I wanted to ask you.”
“What you wanted was a longer interview and I had said ‘No’, so you come back later and say you need 15 more minutes on the phone. Not fair. You’re here now, but I’m just telling you that’s not fair, especially when I let you in on the Selby interview. You should have been happy then and quit while you were ahead.”
Well, I say, I’ll just ask the questions and he can see what he thinks. “Are you at all concerned about how posterity might judge you?”
“Why would I care about that? That’s a typical journalist’s question. Do you think someone’s going to remember you, Peter? The great interviewer?”
I tell him no. He agrees and we move on. “There’s a feeling,” I say, “that America has moved to the right in recent years . . . ”
He interrupts: “No politics.”
“This isn’t to do with politics. Moved to the right in recent years in terms of what is acceptable from art and popular culture. That being the case, do you now feel out of step with your own country?”
“I just said, ‘No politics’.”
“But it’s to do with art. ”
“Do you understand what the word ‘No’ means?”
“Yeah, but I’m not asking you about politics.”
“I say you are. You can ask me the same question 18 times. What answer do you want? You keep asking the same question over and over and over and over and over.
“You’ll ask it eight different ways. I answer you and it’s not good enough for you, so you ask it another way. What do you actually wanna know? It’s incredible. What. Do. You. Really. Want. To. Know? What is the point? What do you wanna know? Do you think The Velvet Underground was in step? What do you want?”
“I’m interested in your views on these things!” My voice is getting shrill; meanwhile he’s roadkill-flat. I’m like a debutante with a too-tight corset who has just been spurned by Mr Darcy. Now I’m pleading: “Why is that wrong?”
“Peter, ask a straight question. Don’t try to get me into a dialogue. Will you just ask a straight question about music? Is it impossible for you to do that?”
I tell him that I was sixteen the first time I ever heard The Velvet Underground song Heroin and was amazed by the way the sound mirrored the words. Was he aware then that he was doing something new?
“We didn’t know about it being new, but the basic idea was that the music should always match the lyrics. Heroin is a perfect example. So is Venus In Furs and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The same idea runs through every song I’ve ever written.
“But we were having fun. You must understand that we weren’t critics, only players. Players play and they don’t sit around assessing it. At least this one doesn’t. We certainly did enjoy what we were doing and we were very pure. One hundred per cent devoted to music as music without any other considerations.
“That’s why it was great to be picked up by Warhol, who loved us just the way we were and didn’t try to change anything, except, y’know, give us a chanteuse. I guess he thought we needed someone who was really good looking.”
“There were already good looking people in the band, surely?”
“I thought we were all gorgeous, but not as gorgeous as Nico. She set some new kind of standard for incredible-looking people. ”
We talk about his song Magic And Loss and how there’s a line in it – “And there’s a door up ahead not a wall” – which is very hopeful. He says he has learned that even if something very bad happens, some good will eventually come of it. I start to say, “Can you give me . . .” but he cuts me off. “No.”
“What was I going to say?” I ask.
“I’m not going to give you an example. ”
“I’m not. Do you wonder how I knew you were going to ask that? Because I know you, Peter.”
“You know me?”
“I know you.”
“How do you know me?”
“I can feel you.”
I laugh at this. He’s indignant: “You think I’m joking?”
“What do you mean you can feel me?” I ask.
“I can feel your brain. ”
“Okay. How does it feel?”
“Well that’s good, right?”
“Sure ” he says, “it’s good.”
We don’t speak for much longer after that exchange. “You have three minutes.”
Then he tells me that he would like to write a detective story and that he won’t be performing any Burns songs at Burns An’ A’ That because he can’t do a Scottish accent.
“Okay,” I say, punch-drunk. “I’ll ask you one more question. Do you ever dance to your own music?”
“Oh, sure,” he says. “Ones I particularly like are Down At The Arcade, Senselessly Cruel, love that. I love the opening to The Raven, and I love the track Guilty with Ornette Coleman. I put that on repeat.”
“And you dance to that song?”
“I leap about.”