Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed died today. He was 71.

In the winter of 1973 I had the dubious pleasure of interviewing him. I was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Reed had released Berlin, not one of his best albums (Rolling Stone called it “brutal literary bombast” and I’m not sure what that means), but it was doing well in Montreal. My boss at CBC, who desperately wanted to escape the backwaters of Washington, DC, and go back to Canada, had no idea who Lou was. I did. I had worn out his Velvet Underground album, the one with the peelable banana on the cover and Nico, the gorgeous model whom Warhol forced to sing, even though she had even less voice than Brigitte Bardot. (The Velvet Underground & Nico, when it was originally released, sold about 10,000 copies.  It was to have as much influence on popular music as did Sgt. Pepper, the Stones’ Satisfaction, and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.)

It was snowing the night of the interview, and I picked Reed up at the downtown Holiday Inn where he was going to be staying with his band. He arrived late. The van from New York had gotten stuck in traffic. I was waiting in the foyer and saw him enter holding his guitar case, and I’m pretty sure he would have been happy to skip the interview. When I introduced myself--beard, hair to the shoulders and aviator sunglasses--he shrugged, said something to a band mate, and sighed, “Let’s go.” He was paler than white, dressed completely in black, with black eyeliner, black nail polish, hair dyed flat black and, yes, a truly dark and crappy attitude. He mustn’t have weighed 120 pounds. He didn’t have a coat and I lent him my jacket.

I drove him in my Honda Accord to the National Press Club where CBC had its recording studio and he didn’t say a word. The interview didn’t go much better. Reed was monosyllabic. He didn’t want to talk about Berlin, or his band, or his friendship with Warhol and John Cale. He allowed that Nico “was a strange person” but said he actually didn’t know her at all. She wasn’t a musician or a songwriter, and those were about the only people Lou was interested in at the time.

I don’t think Reed was being either recalcitrant or arrogant. I think he was bored. Too many silly interviewers had asked him too many silly questions, and he was never one to focus on the past. By 1974, he’d been free of Velvet Undergound for four years. Nico, Cale, Sunday Morning--one of the most beautiful rock ‘n’ roll ballad ever written--and even Sweet Jane, which he would record several times over and keep playing for almost four decades, all that was history.

The next night I saw him at the Kennedy Center, a long way from the Bowery places he used to frequent and one of the oddest venues he must have ever played. He was small on stage, uninspiring and uninspired. The band was listless; he stood stock still at the microphone like a frozen marionette with too many strings and I don’t think there was even an encore.  

Reed only had one Top Ten single, his anthem, Walk on the Wild Side, which when it was released had to be cleaned up for AM radio. Yet few would doubt that his compositions, both music and lyrics, were as important as that of the Beatles, or the Stones. Without Reed, such acts as David Bowie, U2, Sonic Youth,  R.E.M, Chrissie Hynde and Ric Ocasek might have made it to the stage, but not with the same rawness, or the same impact.

Reed was a drugger and a drinker, an addict of large proportion and an alcoholic who documented his own life through his music. Never once did he apologize for whatever chaos his habits may have sown.

In time, he got his act together, got straight, married, divorced, remarried. He became a Tai Chi expert. He wrote increasingly poetic songs, some stark, others orchestral. He produced albums for mainline artists and became, perhaps, the most famous performer to never play huge venues, even as his following became international. He never strayed from who he was.

He once said, “My bullshit is worth more than other people’s diamonds.”  

He’ll be missed.

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