The American Songwriter Interview: Lou Reed

Lou Reed

This awesome story originally appeared in 2009.

He is sitting right there on the sidewalk, eating red snapper, heavy-lidded eyes taking in the world around him and engaging with the various people who wander up-looking for that gen-u-wine piece of downtown authenticity. Lou Reed has always been a perpendicular player: someone who strikes gold, then blows up the mine, and that defiance of commercial convention makes him the ultimate rejectionista, the judge of hipper-than-what-most-think-you-oughta.

Lollabelle, his rat terrier, is curled beneath his chair, half-alseep, half-taking in the passers-by. Mostly bored by life as the best friend of the man who made nihilism seem like a trip to Disneyland, switch-blading the bourgeoisie conventions with the dingy reality of the people living in the cracks, she waits.

He is here on the brink of the reissue of Berlin, the follow-up of his wildly successful David Bowie-produced Transformer. What should have been a slam dunk-even Bowie wanted to be Lou, as Lester Bangs tells William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age Almost Famous-was a star-making car wreck of catastrophic proportions.

The song cycle scandalized and appalled fans with its unburnished take on junkie life, bottom-feeding whore-tricks and an obsessive love affair that resulted in Caroline losing her children (“The Kids”) replete with the shrieking of producer Bob Ezrin’s own children, who’d purportedly been told their mother was dead upon returning home from school.

What was a momentum-killer then, now more than holds up in modern light. An operatic take on downtown street life, it examined complexities of lust and obsession, jealousy and addiction’s bottomless pit. Disconcerting to listen to-if only for the relentlessness of the writing and arrangements-Berlin is an audio vérité concept album that captures the rest of that celebrated “walk on the wild side.”

An acclaimed man about Manhattan, Reed is the paramour of performance artist Laurie Anderson, a regular at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, a compadre of Hal Wilner, a creative partner to John Zorn, John Cale and Bill Laswell, an alum of the Velvet Underground, a veteran of Andy Warhol’s circle and someone who seemingly knows every hipster, true blue-blood and creative engine in NYC.

With a Julian Schnabel film capturing the staging of Berlin-its own sort of Rorschach of the subconscious dream-states and impressionistic scenes the work evokes merging with the initial performances of the album once most charitably deemed “challenging”-it seems Reed’s reviled-at-the-time-of-release work is being vindicated. Not that he works for approval; indeed, he works to scrape all that’s inside him to be written.

As locals stopped and he exchanged neighborhood news, and caught up with people he rarely sees, Reed was not so much the snarling pre-punk, as much as a man respected for his uncompromising wrestle with his muse. With one of his most polarizing CDs-more so than Songs for Drella, Metal Machine Music, Magic & Loss or even the wildly pop New Sensations-finally performed in public, it was a good time to weigh the weight of creation, the reasons songwriting matters and how he views the reality of what he does.

As a writer, is it more important to be great, or true? What do you value?
Certainly those two words go together. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. But the real thing is: do you like it?

That’s pretty clean.
It’s kind of a weird thing to do…

It’s a very weird thing to do, and yet…
If you grew up listening to rock and roll songs, it’s kind of an obvious thing…

Because it’s the only thing worth anything. It’s immediate. It’s not like going to the movies is the same as listening to music. It’s kind of weird to even be thought of as a songwriter. “Oh, is that what I am?”

Do you think of yourself as a songwriter?

Then how do you think of yourself?
Artist. Sometimes, it’s with music and words. Sometimes, it’s photos. Other times, it’s electronics. Whatever it is… But being a songwriter, that’s pretty good.

Do you think the truth or the connection point is pretty true to all those things? Or does it shift with the medium?
It’s the same. Guaranteed. Look, being a songwriter…We met a guy in Chile the other day, a cartoonist. Laurie had done a show, and I’d played guitar. The guy created a cartoon out of it. He came the next day with it, and it was really good. A whole page thing, interpreting songs… And he said, “I’m a cartoonist.” I thought, “That’s a fun thing to say about yourself…” Like, I’m a songwriter. I do a couple things. One of them is being a songwriter.

I saw your show at Hermès. The pictures of New York.
It was also in the Kasher Gallery. There was a book available. That was book number one. Now, there’s book number two, which is also out. I’m working on book number three.

Do they come from the same place?

Can you say where that is? Can you define it?

Do you know where it starts?
If I could, it would mean I could do it whenever I wanted-and I can’t. I have no idea how to go about it. I really don’t. I get asked all the time… Believe me, if I could, you’d’ve heard “Son of Wild Side” by now.

Would you go back? Expand on that reality?
No…I’m not in the same place.

And yet you went back to Berlin. There was a film. And it’s so impossibly evocative… Was it a homecoming? A reclamation?
It was a performance.

Going back to that thing of all things… My major interests are the lyrics of that. It wasn’t the Velvet Underground. No, [Berlin] was something else: the one that almost sunk the ship. Funny… That’s the one to go back to?

Were you driven to it? Or pulled?
Susan Feldman from St Ann’s… I’ve known her a long time. She’s asked me this every year for a long time. Susan’s the reason John Cale and I did Songs for Drella. I’ve done a lot of things for Susan. I did The Raven for Susan. She’s the only person who would have us…and I love that she does. I was there with Laurie, Fisher Stevens, Richard Belzer-doing readings from my thing-The Raven, which is rewriting Edgar Allen Poe. That was really fun. So much of the language is hard to understand…A lot of words were arcane when he started writing, architectural terms. Then the rhythm of it all-and he did the first detective story. But also the psychology of Poe. “You were made for him…” Susan said, “Why don’t you do this…?” She was like “I love [Berlin] so much. Why don’t you just do the whole thing from beginning to end, the way the record is-the way you meant it to be?” I was out of work again, so I figured, “Why not? Maybe it will be great fun.”

Was it?
Yeah, great fun. When we toured Europe, I really had it down. The one that’s on film with Julian, that’s really just opening the door… That’s why Bob Ezrin was conducting. He didn’t want to be onstage. I said, “Well you have to…I can’t do the guitar and those cues and those words… I can’t.” Turns out I could; but at the time, I needed a guiding hand. There’s a lot going on. Bob still has the arrangements. Those aren’t my arrangements. I wrote the songs and the melodies, but all the arrangements were Bob’s. The core band is my guys, and then Steve Bernstein and the horns, the strings… that’s [Hal] Wilner. The choir: the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Rupert Christy was all the keyboards, all the synthesizers, if you want a breakdown, and Anthony Dejewell would work overtime with the choir…

Not too many [songwriters], when they write songs go for broke. When someone does who’s really good, it’s astonishing. There’s a reason a three-minute song can devastate you, or make you get up and dance, stop what you’re doing and go, “What is that?” It just hits you. And it’s a very potent thing you’re playing around with. Some people don’t like that: they don’t like the subject matter, what it’s about-they don’t like the musicians. I’d always say, “Well, you know, the ending of Hamlet‘s not so uplifting…What do you think about Othello and Desdemona? What can we learn from this?”

Now there’s jealousy. And Berlin, if it’s about anything, it’s about jealousy. Talk about a universal emotion?! No one hasn’t been jealous; amongst all the other things, but big time, the guy’s jealous! He’s being killed by jealousy. A lot of things are going on on top of it all….The green-eyed monster it is.

I’ve read all of that Poe, who is also a master of knowing about paranoia, ache, loving, unrequited love. On The RavenBerlin is great and all, but The Raven? Oh, God…Elizabeth Ashley. No one got to hear this, and it’s sad, because she is epic in this.

We worked so hard on these guitar things, these electronic sounds. It’s awesome. And she’s behind it all. She’s a volcano. It’s wonderful to see someone turn emotions off and on like that.

If I really had my way, I would’ve started out as an actor and stayed there. Or write-write myself a role, write monologues.

My lyric book is coming out. They’re going to put The Raven, stuff I’ve written since it was [first] published. Brando in the car, talking: “I coulda been somebody…I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which, let’s face it Charlie, is what I am. It was you Charlie…”

You could hear it. It’s so obvious. Why’d you do specifically that?

Or Liz doing Blanche DuBois [sings the line] : “I have always depended…on…the kindness…of… strangers…” There you go. But you have to write that book that well. It’s an obvious thing to do with music…

In a weird way, it is obvious.

It’s so obvious; it fails to qualify as an idea. My teacher, Delmore Schwartz, wrote this story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is a line from Yeats…and, like, in five pages with very simple language; it’s one of the most devastating short stories. T.S. Eliot wrote him a letter, saying, “This is one of the greatest pieces of writing.”

There’s not one polysyllabic word in it. I said, “You know, if you can do this, why would you do anything else?” I mean, wouldn’t that be something? It’s just so obvious.

What else would you do? [A man scuttles across the street diagonally]

What is he doing? He was doing hieroglyphics or something in the middle of the street; guess he decided it was better to cross it. You could write a song called “People Watching”…It would be so easy, but not as interesting as actually watching people.

A song is like a short story, only in half the time. It’s a very short amount of time. That’s what lyrics are: the shortest stories.

It’s funny. You think you’re well-read ‘til you sit down with another person, then you find out… That’s how I feel. I’m not as well-read as I’d like. I could only read Finnegan’s Wake when Delmore read it to me. When he read it, it was great. But alone, it was very hard… you had to read it with a dictionary. Just the sound and the poetry was so thrilling.

It’s weird. I’m Irish, so it’s part of the canon…
One would think…

Completely different experience sitting on a page versus being an articulation.
Someone really smart, who really knows Joyce…like Delmore. When you devote your life to it: He had all the books and they’re all referenced with the arrows, and this to that. He was deep into it. If you’re not going to get that deep into it, you’re not going to get as much out of it.

But when someone that deep reads to you, you get their knowledge of cadence and what it all means.

My Dad loved Finnegan’s Wake, so he read it to me growing up.
He’d read it to you? That was very special.

Well, we’re Irish. That was part of the steepage.
One of the greatest books ever written. It’s up there with The Bible. How many books are up there with The Bible? Ulysses? You have to include Ulysses, so that’s two for Joyce. You’d have to put every Shakespearean play up there…

Now what happens when you include songs? “Mack the Knife”? “The Seven Deadly Sins”? Who I’m I talking about…Weill… and…

You got me…
We can Google it. Weill’s writing partner?

It’s funny. When the [album] advance came, I’d forgotten how… compelling? No, uhm… operatic this was…
In what sense?It was such a tiny, finite story, yet such a huge reality it became intensely intimate. I was thinking, if you go over it, it’s really three people: Caroline, the guy and Jim. That’s three. Then you have Lady Day, Caroline’s fantasy.

Three. The triangle.

When I started acting and directing, triangular staging… You can always look for that. Wherever you’re standing in the world…

Wilner knows everything. You can call him up and go, “Who wrote… what year…what color is the label…” He’ll know.

It’s amazing. It was…just, uhn! [Wilner’s research arrives via iPhone] Kurt Weill was a German, and is an American composer, who worked in the ‘20s until his death. He has the same birthday as me.


Wow… that’s really heavy
That’s really, really heavy. Good God.

How do you feel about that?
Good God….Who knew? He died at age 50. This is Google. It’s not responding. You got me this far. Bertolt Brecht. We’ve got it. Gooood-byyyyye. Isn’t it great? To be able to just research something like that?

It boggles the mind.

Have you seen Shazam? It’s for the iPhone. If you hear a song you like, you turn it on-and it will go find it. Straight from iTunes for your 99 cents.

They’re just leading us around. I’ve got the iPhone. I had the other phones. But with a screen like that, and what this thing can do…It’s not a successful phone, but that’s AT&T.

AT&T is bad everywhere-except Europe. They’re great in Europe because they’re part of some other thing.

T-Mobile went completely down and out. So many customers, their chips were fried.

The chips were fried…
That’s a good line — for something. You could use it in the interview: the chips were fried/ baked in the oven in 1972/ only to have the cake pop out at St Ann’s Warehouse/ St Ann’s Warehouse popovers.

When you…
Holly what?

Holly Ann…
Wow, there’s an Irish name: Holly Ann Gleason. You go to Gleason’s Gym…?

Gleason’s Gym. The most famous gym in the world…OK, what do you want to know?

When you made Berlin… you’d made Transformer
Yes, the worst thing anyone has ever thought of doing.

Then why did you do it? Such a hard left. It was brave…
Not really. That’s the last thing I’d say. Really, that’s what got written, so that was that. That’s what got written down. That was what was there. I’m happy to get any idea about anything. It’s so hard.

I think you have excruciating standards. You don’t just write lines… You…
When there’s something to work with, I do. When I really work on it, level it, that’s what I’m gonna do. [But] that’s why the albums are so different, because that’s what I got written-and I was happy to get that.
No one wanted an album called Magic & Loss. The head of the record company called, and said, “Lou… Do you know what that’s about?”

The thing is: I had two friends I lost. There was nothing contemporary to listen to to help deal with that, or about that. I’m not the only person who’s had that happen. Everybody’s had that happen… So I wrote about that.

Why? Because that’s what got written.

Why? Because that’s all I could think about at the time; that’s what went on.

I can’t change it. I don’t try to change it. I’m lucky I can write a sentence.


I don’t believe you. Again, it’s a question of quality. You won’t accept less than great.
I wrote a little thing called “Banging On My Drum,” “I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m having lots of fun…banging on my drum.” That was the whole lyric, and it’s really a fun song…

Yeah, Chuck Berry.
Of course. From there to Magic & Loss… They’re all tied together. The unity of rock.

I believe that. If you’re just lofty, that’s precious.
I’ve never been lofty.

You have your moments…
I know, but never lofty. That’s not the word I’d use.

Pick your word.
Umm…I’ve tried to fly into the sun. Like Icarus. Look what happened to him.

When you went back to Berlin, how did it compare?
I had nothing to compare it to…I don’t sit around listening to my own records. I didn’t re-experience Berlin. It was more like landing on another planet. I recognize that. You know what writing is: it’s an amalgam. It’s many things.

But there’s always truth in the amalgam.
Yes. There has to be truth. If you don’t believe it’s true, it’s a waste of time. You have to believe the person singing is capable of what they’re singing, [that] they’re telling the truth. Why else would you be doing it?
In my stuff, the guy is…what’s the word I’m looking for…flawed.

Philip Marlowe is flawed. I think, “Wouldn’t it be great to be Philip Marlowe, except rock?” Because Philip Marlowe is. I thought when we did the autobiography of Andy [Warhol], it was such a great way of learning about somebody that soon other people would be doing it. There’d be a whole genre of biography CDs. Didn’t happen.

You have to have a life to support that.
Malcolm X? Martin Luther King? John Kennedy? George Washington? Bach? Are you kidding? There are all these people you could tell what they did, how they did it, their story. It’s art, not a piece of fluff.

But you believe in heft… depth to the truth.
You have to visualize a really vivid, very quick [truth] where you can feel the attitude of the person you’re singing about. It’s very 3-D. You have to be able to picture it. For me, the red Porsche hopped over the curb and ran over the small dog. That’s real quick. There you go. You’re a hard person to flame, standing over the pizza oven…

We can do this all day. One of them will work. There’ll be another one… on a good day.

And you write ‘em down?
Used to. Then I just stopped. They don’t come back either. That’s what’s really strange. I know if I don’t write it down, gone forever. So I listen to in my head for me. They go wherever they go.

For yourself.
Broadcast from Radio Lou. Listenership: 1.

That’s all you need if it’s truly about creation…
Whatever it is. I’ve never understood it. I gave up trying to understand it. Didn’t get me anywhere. It was a long time ago…

Ever feel like it spins you around?
Well, it takes two to dance. Two willing partners. You can’t have one person being recalcitrant.

Is that the muse?
Whomever. Sometimes, you lose interest. It’s more interesting to do tai chi… to do a spinning kick with a spear.

A spinning kick with a spear?
I was doing that this morning. Tai Chi Chen with master Ren Guang Yi…

One last question.
Go ahead. I like you, Little Irish Rose.

When you look back on your work, do you ever startle yourself… ever look at something you’ve written and think, “Damn…”
I never do that stuff.

But going in to do this…
Many “holy shit” moments.

In a good way?
You know, “Oh, my God… look at that.” You certainly laid that one out.

Berlin was a staggering record.
Does it hold up? Hmmmm: “Lotta ways to say that…” “How do you do that chord change?…,” “Wow, didn’t hold much back on that one…”

On the other hand, I was never arrested for breaking someone’s arms. You know why? Because it never happened. That’s called writing.

[My God he was brilliant!]

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