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.
"I have actually done a reading tour, reading lyrics without music as though they're a poem or just something that exists without music. It was really interesting the way the lyrics changed. I try, generally speaking, to write lyrics that can stand without the music in back of it. That's how strong I'd like the lyric to be.
"Sometimes the music softens the edge of it. Sometimes the lyrics, when read alone, were edgier and sometimes harsher. 'Street Hassle,' for instance, is an example of that."
When asked, "How so?" he recites a line in that same simple deadpan growl, and he makes his point: "'That cunt's not breathing/I think she's had too much.'"
So in answer to the question I am most often asked, "Are these incidents real?" Yes, he said, Yes Yes Yes.
--Lou Reed, Between Thought
and Expression, 1990
Lou Reed exists as a myth, a larger-than-life self-created icon--as befits anyone who learned his shtick from Andy Warhol and fashioned his existence out of a plastic world--who's part bullshit artist and part genuine genius. He fancies himself the intellectual tough guy, a poet in black leather who carries his cigarettes rolled in his shirt-sleeve; he's Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Keith Richards rolled into the body of a Long Island Jew--alternately prince and bastard, troubadour and stand-up comic, drug abuser and sober teacher, hero and villain. He embodies the rock-and-roll ideology because he doesn't give a shit--not about you, not about his world, not even about himself--but still tries to reconcile that abandon with compassion and heart.
The late Lester Bangs, who saw himself as something of a kindred spirit of Reed's and made his private battles with Reed a very public exercise in egocentric masochism, often wrote of the conflicting sides of Lou Reed. Where other writers of the '70s tended to dismiss much of Reed's work as exercises in megalomania and masturbation (especially the unlistenable Metal Machine Music, a totally electronic work of wonder and arrogance that treated the listener to nothing but static and electricity), Bangs celebrated the garbage and spat on the gold. Usually, he saw no difference between the two.
"Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is," Bangs wrote in Creem magazine in March 1975. "On top of that, he's a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually living in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a seventies generation that doesn't have the energy to commit suicide. Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock'n'roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements."
Reed is like Bob Dylan, in a sense--not necessarily because of what Reed writes, but because he externally doesn't seem to give much of a damn. Like Dylan, whose career began with blinding and unexpected flash then faded into a dull gray, Reed has not released a complete masterpiece in many a decade. Even his best records (The Blue Mask, Berlin, New Sensations, New York) feel half-assed, casual, sloppy; they blindside you with volumes of words, jive-talk you into believing those words are pure poetry, then brainwash you into believing the crap is genius and the genius is immortal. But Reed, like Dylan, never stopped fighting the good fight.
It's simply impossible to remove Lou Reed from his art, to discuss the music without examining the man. Few other artists, be they painters or poets or authors or songwriters, have ever given so much of themselves to their art. Lou Reed doesn't confess his sins--he celebrates them, exaggerates them, glorifies them until they don't seem so sinful anymore but the sweet meat of life itself. Whether he was sink-speaking about the rush of heroin through his veins or his attempts at giving up his drug addiction by becoming an alcoholic or crashing his motorcycle after a drunken trip down Route 80, Reed was unabashed about allowing his audience into his skin and his soul.
He never apologized for his recklessness, but merely allowed you to smell death without actually looking at the corpse. He doesn't want you to understand his pain, doesn't want your sympathy, doesn't want you to stand so close as to see the pockmarks, but he does want you to share the agonies and ecstasies of his life, simply because he's convinced it ought to be your life, too.
"My records aren't just me, or else I would have run out of material a long time ago," he says, maybe or maybe not laughing. "First of all, I think a lot of artists do that--not all of them--even if they say they don't; two, it makes me think of Kasparov playing IBM's Deep Blue computer and beating it. It's amazing. I mean, our brain has passed that computer. That's how intense the brain is. I mean, I am just constantly stunned by that, just as I'm constantly stunned by the Hubble telescope reporting back there are 40 billion new universes we haven't seen.
"From that point of view, we are so infinitesimal and there's just so much to pull on it seems to me, and the one thing you can depend on is change. It's the one constant. Things are always changing. I think records could conceivably be different if they were cut one week later or an hour earlier. They often can take on a different slant. Plus, I think there's universality to so much of it. I would hate to think of them as studies in introspection or narcissism and megalomania carried to some new height. I would like to think that's not what this is all about.
"Look at Van Gogh's 'Self-Portrait.' How much more would you want to know about him from that painting, which is probably the greatest painting in the world? People would probably argue about that, but you understand what I mean. I'm talking about the one where he cut his ear off. Like it says in my song, 'Riptide,' which refers to the last painting he did with the wheat field and the crows, what more would you want to know about him?"
Sixteen years ago, Reed released a record called Growing Up in Public, and it was--God forbid--his most sympathetic and compassionate record. It allowed a peek into the heart behind the hardened arteries and gave a more complete picture of the man behind the blue mask.
"Think it Over," especially, was a lovely, sentimental song written for Sylvia, his wife at the time, and it painted a self-portrait that was as red as it was black. "He woke her with a start to offer her his heart/Once and for all, forever to keep," Reed mumbled. The song was a marriage proposal: "He was asking her to marry him, and to think it over."
Years later, Sylvia and Lou would divorce and Lou would take up with art-rock chanteuse Laurie Anderson, for whom he would write a very similar line in a song called, ironically or appropriately enough, "Trade In": "I've met a woman with a thousand faces/And I want to make her my wife."
At this point, about the only thing we don't know about Lou is what size shoe he wears.
The just-released Set the Twilight Reeling is a perfect Lou Reed record in that it's imperfect in every way: He starts off the record with a deceptive throwaway ("Egg Cream"), swaggers his way through "NYC Man," shuffles his way through "Hookywooky" (in which he fantasizes about killing his lover's old boyfriends by throwing them off the roof during a party), and goes overboard to make his point about the sleazebags in the Republican Party by labeling "Rush Rambo" and Bob Dole as men disgusting enough to literally screw their own parents.
Scratch just an inch under the surface and Set the Twilight Reeling is an incisive, passionate glimpse of the artist who has grown up in public only to find he's still a child--or "a star newly emerging," as he puts it in the title song that closes out the record. It tells of a man still coming to terms with his own sense of being, still searching for identity and using his music to help him take shape. Sometimes the record roars (the magnetic "Riptide"), sometimes it whispers ("Trade In"), but only because it's the sound of a man still searching for his voice after all these years of being listened to but never heard.
"For whatever it's worth to you, I don't constantly write songs and store them up and there's an album and then go back to my files," he says. "I only write them down when I'm making an album, so they're always written around the time the album is made. They're always reflecting that time. They're not picking up pieces from other times.
"I thought of this record more along the lines of a statement, as looking at various things and then proving that statement--beginning, middle, end. I mean, a sequence is supposed to build just like the songs within themselves build , so it's supposed to have--and I hesitate to use the word--a climax.
"It starts off at the beginning with a statement about what it's like to be young, a statement about when I was a young man. It's talking about being a kid. Then the next one ['NYC Man'] talks about being a man in the present, and then 'Finish Line' talks about the finish line, and then you fill in the whole thing. It goes over the whole thing again from the beginning and takes you straight through to takeoff time, but it's based around the idea of change and growth."
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Lou Reed is nothing if not the master of change, a bona fide chameleon who has presented himself as would-be folkie, bloated metal god, shaved-head numskull, and grizzled op-ed page contributor. It's hard to imagine he ever had a childhood, just as it's hard to fathom some days how he ever lived through middle age. Yet here he is to chronicle such things with all the passion of the faithful and all the sincerity of a survivor.
"I never thought I would be the one to step in front of a mic," Reed says with all the backwards-glancing wisdom of a man who crashed his car then stood unscathed to stare at the wreckage. "I never thought I would get this far. It had never been a career plan or anything like that. I loved writing, and now I value it. I'm pleased I have this talent that doesn't desert me. I'm pleased I've learned to frame things in a better way to give it room to express itself, but before, there was much less thought involved. It was more of a hit or miss thing. I've come to appreciate things more and be eternally grateful for it. To me, it's like breathing. I don't really have to think about it, lucky for me. Some days, I was surprised I could walk."
He laughs, obviously.
"I'm missing huge blocks of time. I'm pretty surprised by a lot of things, to tell you the truth. From my point of view, I woke up one day and found out I was Lou Reed and thought, 'What is all this? How has this happened?'"
Lou Reed performs March 14 at the Bronco Bowl. Luna opens.