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Farewell, Lou Reed

| October 30, 2013 | 1 Comment

— By Paul Zollo

The son of an accountant, Lou Reed was born on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn’s Beth El Hospital, and grew up in Freeport, a suburb of Long Island. From an early age on, he had a passion to merge the kind of expansive poetry and prose he absorbed from his teacher and mentor, Delmore Schwartz, with the power of pure, electric rock and roll.

And unlike Dylan and Neil Young, both of whom fell in love with the simplicity of folk music, Lou was steadfast from the start in his love for the electric guitar. At Syracuse University he fell in with fellow guitarist Sterling Morrison, and together they explored the electric edges of the instrument, experimenting with the use of feedback, and playing off the droning dissonance they could coax out of thin air together.

It was a couple years before Lou found another musician he felt worthy to join his band—classically-trained John Cale, a gifted musician who was fluent on many instruments, including piano, viola, and bass. Lou’s choice for drummer was Maureen Tucker, one of the first great female rock musicians, who John Cale summed up with the single word, “monumental.” Lou named his band after a notorious paperback then making the rounds that specified the dirty details of suburban sex, The Velvet Underground.

The VU, as they are commonly known, were never embraced by critics during their short span from ’65 to ’70, but they were warmly welcomed into the fold of the New York art community, attracting the attention of Andy Warhol, who decided he would produce their first album, despite his lack of any actual musical know-how. He also decided the beautiful model Nico—although she couldn’t sing very well—should serve as occasional vocalist for the band. Warhol was already an international icon at this time, and his declaration of the VU as the house band of his own Factory gave them easy access to the music industry.

From the start, the VU made music together and Lou wrote and sang the words. While other bands sang songs of peace and love, his reflected the dark side of the ’60s: violence, sex, and drugs—topics rarely conveyed in songs, and surely never with the kind of defiant authenticity Lou brought and still brings to everything he touches. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says vehemently. “You have got to believe the singer.”

The VU made four albums: The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded. All of them were roundly panned upon release, as were their live concerts. “When the Velvet Underground was around,” Lou says, “We sold almost no records. Literally.”

In 1972 came the first of many solo albums, Lou Reed, which included some classics written for VU, including “Lisa Says.” Transformer came next, produced by Lou-devotees David Bowie and Mick Ronson, and containing “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was said to have been based on Lou’s recollections of his time within the Warhol galaxy.

Lou left this earth on Oct. 27, so we pulled togethere excerpts from a 2000 interview in Performing Songwriter.  Rest in peace, Lou, and thank you for the creative legacy you left us.

Do you know what you are going to write about before you start?

No. I don’t have a clue. I might have a direction. I’m usually following.

Following it more than leading?

Hardly leading. It’s like being a recording secretary or something. I’m just listening. I mean, I know I’m listening to me. When somebody tells me that one of my songs is great, I know I didn’t really have that much to do with it. And I know that can sound stupid to people. Which is why I don’t like to talk about it. It’s something that if you quote me, other writers will make fun. Journalists.

Maybe journalists, but not songwriters—

No, not them. Of course not them.

Is there sometimes more of it than you can get down?

Oh yeah. Oh yes. But I do it all the time. I do it in the hotel for amusement, out loud. It always used to amaze Cale that bing, I could do it on the spot. A lot of my records I made up in the studio with the tape running. That was just another version of it. And then at a certain point I decided I would rather do just that exact same thing. And then go over it [laughs]. If that makes any sense.

When writing, do you always work with a guitar?

Well, sometimes, or I just sing it. That’s how I did “Dirty Boulevard.” We had the lyrics to “Dirty Boulevard,” and I could not figure it out. And usually, if I can’t figure something out, I’ll make that the last thing that I work on before I sleep. Usually I’ll wake up with it solved. I did that with “Dirty Boulevard.” Because I don’t sleep. And I suddenly heard it clear as a bell, put it on a tape recorder. And me and Mike [Rathke] tried to figure out what this strange sound on the tape was, just what was going on there? And we finally did decipher it. But it was clear then and only then. It wasn’t clear anymore after that.

You got the whole lyric for ‘‘Dirty Boulevard” but no music?

Yeah. Well, there was music, but of undetermined rhythmic tempo and approach. Nothing that sounded right. It just wasn’t right.

That song, and the entire New York album, is extraordinary. There’s content in those songs that no one has ever put into songs before—

I don’t know that no one’s ever done that before. Everybody does things differently. I haven’t listened to everything that’s out there, so I don’t know.

A lot of songs don’t have much going on in them—

Most things don’t have much going on. Most movies, most everything.

Why do you think that is?

You have to see what’s popular. My friend Doc Pomus always used to say, “Look at the source.” When you get criticized, it’s important to look and see who’s saying that. I think people hear what they want to hear. People are doing that for money. If everyone ran out to buy this other thing, then that’s what they would give you. Although they don’t seem to up the ante very much.

Because they feel there’s no need to?

Right. It’s like Mission Impossible 2. There’s a screenplay by Robert Towne. John Woo directs it. And they are aiming so low that the audience they think they are aiming at actually laughs at the movie. It’s amazing to see people that good aiming that low.

That’s so common nowadays, to do a sequel and to try to repeat something that has already been done. Which is something as a songwriter you’ve never done—

You mean like doing “Son of Wild Side” [laughs]? I think record companies were just hoping for a long time that I would see the light.

Were they just hoping, or did they actively encourage you?

It’s never really happened. I mean, when I was younger, before I had control over my career, there were manager types who tried to bring in producers to try to make you go a certain way. Certain players to make it go a certain way. And having to fight about that all the time.

You know, when we started out in the Velvet Underground, people didn’t know who we were. Literally. They thought Andy Warhol was the guitar player. They said I would never write anything as good as “Heroin.” And then they said that if I left the Velvet Underground, I would never be as good as I was in the Velvet Underground.

That’s common with people’s reactions to songwriters. They don’t want you to change—

It seems this country, in particular, is geared to turning people into nostalgia acts. Everything moves really quickly here. It’s really based around 14-year-olds, and that’s kind of that. People get older and they stop buying records, really. And it’s like a vicious circle. They stop making records because there’s nothing there for them. So they don’t buy any records. And it’s not on radio, so they can’t hear it. So it becomes this insulated little thing, out of an endless series of things aimed at 14-year-olds. I don’t have anything against 14-year-old people. I was 14. And I think that’s great. It’s just that music is so wonderful, it’s kind of extraordinary to gear it only to children.

—By Paul Zollo

For the entire interview in hi-res PDF format:

For the Back Issue featuring the interview:


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  1. lou reed live « punkdaddy | September 13, 2011

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