By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Lou Reed speaks in a deadpan growl, his voice never rising or falling even when he becomes energized enough to stress a point. Through a phone receiver, it is almost impossible to tell when he laughs, except when a small gasp of air seems to escape his lungs. You get the sense nothing is funny to Lou because he's seen everything, done everything, laughed at everything already.
What's to chuckle about when you're 54 years old (as of March 2) and your dearest confreres are dying off, you've been gay and straight and everything in between, shot and snorted and sucked more drugs in one lifetime than they've got in 100 hospitals, and come back so often most people forgot you were ever here? Nothing's shocking anymore, and there ain't much left to giggle about.
Yet Lou Reed talks...and talks. There is no such thing as a simple question for this man who once thought he had the answers to everything. He doesn't really even answer questions, at least not in a straightforward fashion; rather, he uses questions to build to statements that may or may not make sense to anyone other than Lou Reed.
Answers themselves aren't the point anymore, just the words he uses--the way they tumble one after the other off his tongue, the way they gather in a corner and come out swinging. Sometimes you get the sense Lou Reed's a lot smarter than you, and sometimes you get the sense he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, but that's OK, because he's Lou Friggin' Reed and you're not.
Lou Reed, on the Republican Party: "When they say family values, what family are they talking about? What Hollywood movie are they dredging up for this nonsense? The real scary thing is there is certainly a point to be said about the trade problem, like when a corporation lays off 100,000 people then farms their factory out to Taiwan where they can pay them $.40 an hour. How are we supposed to react to that? I always notice when I'm overseas the cost of a Harley-Davidson over there is the cost of a house, yet Hondas over here are being sold at a normal price. How does that happen?"
It was once said that you could mention the Velvet Underground to, say, your mechanic or grocery-store bag boy, and they'd have no idea who you were talking about. Yet the Velvets are considered by those who consider such things to be the archetypal punk band--the first to use feedback and perversion as instruments, the first to illuminate life's darker side.
The Velvet Underground was a true organic band in which each member--John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Reed--was an indispensable moiety essential to the whole. Reed was the band's tongue, its young poet who gave voice and form to gloom. He was the one who told of how it felt to shoot heroin ("I feel just like Jesus' son"), who recounted the pleasure of S&M ("Taste the whip, now bleed for me"), who explained the inner turmoil of the drag queen ("Candy says I've come to hate my body"). He waited on the corner for the man to deliver the good stuff, and he never flinched even when the sun set and the thugs started hanging around.
When you come down to it, Reed is really just a one-hit wonder: His 1972 single, "Walk on the Wild Side," off Transformer, made him a pop star in the years after the Velvet Underground and an advertising commodity when he sold it to Honda for their motor scooters. Over the years, he has been cast as a torture freak, a rock-and-roll clown, a put-on, an idiot, an intellectual, but this former student of Delmore Schwartz's uses words with such deliberate force there's no getting around it: Lou Reed can write like a mother. He'd probably publish his grocery lists if he could get away with it, and his fans would surely find some revelation there.
In 1990, Reed published a book of his lyrics titled Between Thought and Expression, which ran the gamut from his first songs with the Velvet Underground ("Venus in Furs," "Heroin," "Waiting for the Man," "Sweet Jane," "Rock and Roll") through 1989's so-called "comeback," New York, and his 1990 collaboration with John Cale on the Andy Warhol tribute, Songs for Drella. Underneath many of the lyrics, Reed adds some explanation about the song's genesis: "I had 24 shock treatments when I was 17 years old," he writes underneath the words to "Lady Godiva's Operation." "I suppose it caused me to write things like this."
He also includes in the book an interview he conducted with author Hubert Selby, whose Last Exit to Brooklyn was a harbinger of the dark fiction-fact Reed would incorporate in his entire body of work. In that interview, the mentor (Selby) tells the pupil (Reed) that he writes in such a way that the reader doesn't even need to read the words, merely feel them. "It just comes off the page and you absorb it," Selby explained.
When asked if this is how he approaches his craft, Reed pauses for a second. Then he answers: "Yeah. Even if you couldn't follow the lyric, I would like you to just be able to be hit by it as it goes through you. If you want to examine them, they would be there, but if they could hit you on an intuitive level--like sometimes you hear something and know what it means without defining it--you may want to go back.