January 26, 2015
Remembering Lou Reed on the eve of the publication of Lou Reed: The Last Interview
by Alex Shephard & Liam O'Brien
Click here to listen to what Alex listened to while writing this piece. If you want to hear what Liam listened to, put on Metal Machine Music.
Alex: Hi Liam! We’re writing this because we’re publishing Lou Reed: The Last Interview this week, which I am very excited about. But here’s the question: how do you talk about Lou Reed? Or maybe better: how the fuck do you talk about Lou Reed?
I think our book gets at his complexity and his, for lack of a better term, instability, both as an interview subject and as an artist. He was all over the place in just about every possible way though (as an aside, I’m listening to Lou Reed on shuffle on Spotify right now and I’m getting pushed and pulled all over the place and it’s GREAT, though I did just hear the line “There’s a white prism with phony jism spread across its face” and have to go throw up everywhere). That’s what I think made him great though—he always went for it 100%. Even when he sounded like he was phoning it, he wasn’t. (OK, sometimes he was—but not as often as he seemed to be.) Anyway, how do we talk about Lou Reed? Sorry. How the fuck do we talk about Lou Reed?
Liam: Hi Alex! I agree that we’re challenged by this dilemma—if a figure like Lou Reed, who inspires such polarized opinions and has for decades, is as difficult to pin down as this book clearly shows him to be, is there any hope of having a productive discussion? The answer, thankfully, is yes, because we can jump in at any point we want. For instance, right now, I’m listening to an album that very much doesn’t have Lou Reed on it, the Velvet Underground’s Squeeze. Squeeze is on Spotify and Taylor Swift is not. There is no logic in this place.
But on the other hand, Lou’s music thrived on antagonism, of the listener, of the journalist, of the critic, and often of your speakers. So it’s likely that a discussion—sorry, a fucking discussion—of Lou and his music is going to end in a screaming match. Which I’m fine with.
I have to stop listening to Squeeze, because mother of God is it a bad album. I’ll switch over to Sally Can’t Dance.
Alex: I’m glad you brought up Squeeze. Well, scratch that, I’m not exactly glad because it is awful and I’ve spent most of my life trying to forget it exists.
Anyway, I’m glad you brought up Squeeze because it reminded me of what maybe my all time favorite Lou Reed interview, which appears on his 2001 album American Poet (we should talk about the obsession with calling Reed a “poet”/hyping his literary merits later). In that interview, the interlocuter asks Reed where Doug Yule is and Reed responds “Dead, I hope.” It’s a shocking moment—there are gasps, however playful. When pressed—“I went to high school with Doug Yule, you can’t say that!” Reed relents—“Well, I can say that, but I didn’t mean it.” It’s the most charming death wish I’ve ever heard.
It’s a great moment—I desperately wanted to include it in the collection but it was too short and it didn’t quite read right. The reason that it didn’t read right is that Reed is warm—he’s having fun with the question, and I think he’s having fun because he’s having fun with his image (which is not just hoping that Yule is dead but being a complete fucking asshole). I first encountered it during Tom Scharpling’s moving tribute to Reed and was immediately struck by how perfectly it encapsulated him—not just that moment, but the entire interview itself.
We want to see Reed as a scowl and a cigarette and a vial of random pills, all wrapped in leather—we want to see him as the Old New York, jabbing you with a finger, telling you that “I’m walking here” or whatever—but Reed the man (and more importantly, his music) challenged that constantly. This was a dude who not only worked in Tin Pan Alley, but clearly loved Tin Pan Alley.
“Smiles” just came on and I had two thoughts: 1. man, that’s a great song and 2. that’s the Reed we tend to forget about. That Reed, thankfully, shows up in The Last Interview—perhaps most notably in Neil Gaiman’s interview feature—but I fear he’s getting papered over by the second. Have we forgotten how warm Reed could be, even when he was wishing death upon that most hapless of bass players, Doug Yule? Or am I just being a softie who doesn’t get that Reed was Hubert Selby with an electric guitar?
Liam: Don’t be so hard on yourself. It sickens me.
Kidding! The first interview in The Last Interview is from Lester Bangs, who over-narrates the entire thing with his most abrasive and spittle-flecked tone, yet also manages a few moments of really raw honesty. Like this one:
“Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.”
Which is where I think a lot of uncertainty such as yours can be traced to; for all his gonzo bullshit thumb-in-the-eye posturing, to which Bangs and others were clearly drawn, Lou worked in so many different styles whether or not he could actually pull them all off, and that type of adventurousness is hard to get behind when the artist also has a handful of indelible classic rock songs in their catalog. That’s what got me over my initial distaste for the Velvet Underground—I realized that they made intentionally difficult music, but that it was wrapped around a fairly simple and reliable frame of songwriting, and in a time when cutting a record and getting it on wax and distributed cost what it did, that was still a ballsy move. That’s why most music from that era was at least listenable, and things like the Silver Apples or the VU was risky—it was just avant-gardish and just digestible enough. Or maybe that doesn’t make sense. I’m looking for a new apartment right now so I’m not actually sure if I’m still awake.
Long explanation short: when you’re drawn to a musician for a strong individual reason, a song or a style or an album, and then the artists turns out to be frustratingly nuanced, you have to either accept the cognitive dissonance or cut bait.
Alex: “It’s hard being a man, living in a garbage pail” has always been one of my favorite Reed lyrics, and “I Can’t Stand It” just came on shuffle. One of the things I’ve always loved about Reed is that spirit of adventurous—sonic and lyrical, though his “sonic” experiments became increasingly rote as he grew older—in the face of an uncaring universe and a fanbase that always seemed to love what he did 10 years ago more than what he was doing now. For Reed, the world is a garbage pail—the media is garbage, his fans are garbage, music is garbage—and that’s ok. He simultaneously would shrug and tell it to fuck off at the same time, all the while strumming on some batshit hyper digital custom guitar, which I suppose is why he’s one of the all-time great New Yorkers.
Still, I think because that sentiment was so tied to the sorry-state of New York in the 70s and 80s, we’ve always wanted to make Reed regional. But the garbage was everywhere. (“Well I know one thing that really is true / This here’s a zoo and the keeper ain’t you,” as Reed is singing right now.)
Man, at the risk of this becoming an interrogation, I want to know more about that “initial distaste” for The Velvet Underground. I’m a total cliche when it comes to them. They changed my life two or three times in the early-2000s, which is something that is both a source of pride and something that seems to be completely ludicrous. The quiet stuff hit me first—”Pale Blue Eyes” still gets to me—and then when I started to play guitar White Light/White Heat was all I wanted to do. I still think Reed’s guitar solo on “I Heard Her Call My Name” is one of the three or four greatest in rock history. It split my fucking mind open, and I don’t care how corny that sounds.
But they were also a band that the Napster-era hurt for me. I never really listened to any of their albums straight through and, like all of Reed’s catalog, I tend to go all-in on four-six songs per album and largely forget about the rest. Which is weird, because I think all four of those albums are perfect. In fact, their four albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat/, VU, and Loaded may make up the greatest four album run in music history. (As an aside: arguing about the greatest three album run in music history is one of my favorite things to do.)
Liam: Well to give some context here; I was never a teenage boy who played guitar, which seriously inhibited or otherwise delayed my appreciation of certain musicians loved by a demographic widely known as “squirrely white dudes”, which I otherwise am. Pavement, Minor Threat, The Replacements—all of these took a while to really kick in for me, and when they did it was because of weird reasons, like someone I wanted to date played it in her dorm room, or I really liked the album cover after I saw it on a t-shirt.
This delay happened with to the Velvets and Lou Reed, and for that I can also partially blame my dad. My dad is a musician and he’s always expressed profound disinterest in the louder, more self-serious, or technically unskilled ends of the pop music spectrum, Lou and the Velvets included. He’s also the reason I like Steely Dan so much. No regrets about that. Even though “Sister Ray” just came on shuffle, which is a song that probably makes Donald Fagen want to scratch his own eyes out.
But I did eventually come around to Lou et al, it just took a while, and it was always through visual media. The first time I heard a Lou Reed solo song and registered it as such was “What’s Good”, off 1992’s Magic and Loss (terrible album title) on the soundtrack to an obscure Wim Wenders movie. The first time I heard “SIster Ray” was over the closing credits of Brick. The first time I heard The Velvet Underground and Nico all the way through was when I got assigned it for a New York literature class.
But at the risk of falling into solipsism, I’ll get back to our main point, which is that when we fucking talk about Lou Reed, it’s hard to separate the game from the truth, the aloof rock star from the man of the people, who sounded like he was strangling the shit out of a Stratocaster or speak-singing just for you. Nigh on impossible. Which is why I’m glad I was able to enjoy him, if a little later than you and for likely different reasons, because cultural chameleons and polymaths fascinate me. Paul Robeson’s a perfect example. Then in rock music we have Dylan, Mitchell, Young, and Lou Reed, and these are musicians who didn’t die young and just keep cranking out records. The long tail of musical output makes me wonder what a terrible Jimi Hendrix or Biggie Smalls album would have sounded like. That’s why I love Metal Machine Music, because it’s the album of a survivor. I’m going to turn it on right now.
Alex: You’re the only person I know who has said that—and you’ve said it repeatedly!—and it’s a string I’m terrified to pull. One quick (last, I think?) solipsistic aside. A few years ago, I was in a bar with some guys I played in a band in high school with. We met another group of guys from the high school across the river who were in a, I’ll charitably call it “almost-but-not-quite-racist” rap group—the only joke was that they were white—and they kept making fun of us for being dorks, basically. (I remember them repeatedly demanding that we freestyle.) At the end of the night, they invited us to play a show with them, because they thought it was funny. We showed up, wearing whiteface, I think, and played one song: a 40-minute version of “I’m Waiting For The Man” and we played it LOUD. People had to go outside to hear it properly. It felt fucking great. Later, we found out the show was a benefit for cancer research. You win some, you lose some.
The question of virtuosity is an interesting one, especially because I’ve never quite understood Reed’s relationship to it. The Velvets were an interesting amalgam on that front: Mo Tucker’s drumming was rudimentary and primal, Sterling Morrison’s guitar playing was, as Reed memorably described it, just that, “sterling” (I sometimes think of him as the American George Harrison, which is stupid), John Cale was a virtuoso and Reed was… well, what? I think he’s the foundation of a certain school of guitar-playing—it was messy and virtuosic at the same time. Maybe you’d just call it “avant-garde.” Either way, he clearly was a freak for jazz—as a player, Sonny Sharrock is probably his closest contemporary (as an aside, how many rock guitar players ever came that close to playing jazz?).
But he also loved songs with only two or three chords and his best live bands were, well, messy—The Velvets being the best example, though it was always a studied mess. And yet, Reed’s solo career was full of professional musicians—it’s weird sometimes to hear a tight band play around him and Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith, who played with him for years were definitely professionals, maybe above all else (though they’re also fucking killer players). I always thought that he was attracted to Metallica for two reasons: because they were heavy and Reed’s heaviness has always been underrated (And he was fucking heavy. He could be sludgy and sludgy Lou was always my favorite Lou. Dude would make Leslie West look like Peter Yarrow—and because they were virtuosos. I thought Lulu was great, by the way. Even though it’s also atrocious.
I think those kind of contradictions are the things that draw me to Lou Reed and his music the most. They’re also so readily apparent in The Last Interview—the tension between the primitive and the virtuosic is mirrored by the tension between him acting like the coolest fucking piss ant in the world (though still a fucking piss ant) and being a thoughtful, meditative guy who cared very deeply about music.
Oh god, this is the third time I’ve had to skip a song from The Raven. That may be the one place I can’t go. That and Metal Machine Music, which I told myself I would listen to to prepare for this but nope, not happening.
Liam: A guy I used to work with at the Strand once said the Metal Machine Music is best played in the background of a painful breakup. I have yet to test this theory but I’m switching over to my second-favorite Lou Reed album, New York, which uses a tight band as you previously described, and also contains actual songs, because Metal Machine Music is giving me a headache.
One of our authors, the great Jeremy Bushnell, posted a great series of tweets about being a music fan in a post-scarcity mediasphere, and as you and I both enjoy the music of Lou Reed via Spotify I’m reminded of the moment in The Last Interview where Neil Gaiman ends his piece with a little joyful aside about how a few of Lou’s back catalog just came out on CD. That interview is from 23 years ago, and it took me a moment to understand what he was saying, and that only recently have I lived with the privilege of shuffling through hundreds of Lou Reed songs, totally at random, including Metal Machine Music and The Raven and ambient twaddle like Hudson River Meditations, and then muse on them.
I find it almost impossible to imagine a life without this access. But I think that speaks to the arc of Reed’s career; even when he was making bad music, I didn’t want it to end. I remember when I heard he died, which was not a huge surprise as I’d read about his liver transplant several months before, and how I felt that had to have been more music we’d all lost out on—perhaps a sentimental idea borne out of the post-scarcity entitlement, but I imagined him teaming up with other guitar weirdos like Fennesz or Kaki King, and it makes me sad. But I gain comfort by knowing that there is a huge back catalog available to me, and that I won’t run out of Lou Reed anytime soon. Unless I pull five all-nighters, which would seriously piss off my girlfriend.
Alex: That’s the thing I love about Reed—there’s never one reaction. Just now, a song came on and I thought “Man, this song fucking GROOVES” and then I looked and the title was “I wanna Be Black” and I was disgusted and then he started talk-singing and I fucking love it again—he’s having a blast. (“Andre Previn… he’s French…” he sings, though the rest of the song reads like it was written by David Allen Coe). So it goes, to quote Nick Lowe.
I guess that’s the thing with demanding that Reed is a poet—something that I think he playfully winked at by naming his album American Poet. People wanted him to be Burroughs, to be Lorca, to be the Poet of the Lower East Side, the Patron Saint of the Bowery, the last son of the Beat Generation, but that’s always sat badly with me. He isn’t Whitman or Ginsberg—he’s something altogether weirder.
He’s a songwriter and he was one of the best there was, even when he was making total shit. He was a hero. First because he stood for all of the most fucked up things you could imagine and then because he just kept doing it and doing it his own goddamn way forever. This isn’t BrainPickings creativity, this isn’t the creativity Jonah Lehrer writes books about—it’s doing it and not giving a fuck about anything else. I can get down with that.
Liam: Agreed. There’s no other rock star who won my heart by appearing as himself in Prozac Nation, a bad book’s worse adaptation. That was the singular achievement of Lou Reed.
Do you think anyone’s managed to read through all of this? I don’t think so. We can probably say anything we want here. Nobody will know.
Squeeze is the best VU album.
Alex: Fuck off, Liam.
Alex Shephard and Liam O'Brien work at Melville House and are friends.