“Why would I want to see Bob Dylan? I know what he looks like and he’s too short to see anyway?”
I thought it was a reasonable question, Bob being the talk of the town after his Madison Square Garden shows. Lou Reed thought otherwise. I had been warned that he could be contrary. Observing the instructions that Gina had conveyed to me from Mr Coleman, I had set up an interview with Mr Reed that took place in late February. Although I knew all about the rise and fall of the Velvets and had made the acquaintance of John Cale – not something I mentioned by the way, perhaps wisely – I wasn’t really prepared for the taciturn ill will with which Lou approached the interview.
Lou faced me from the far end of a long table on the 37th floor of a Park Avenue office block facing north that commanded an expansive view of Central Park with Harlem way out in the distance. It was a cold day with snow on the ground, as it often is at this time of the year in New York, and Lou was as cold as the weather. He sat in a director’s swivel chair and looked uncomfortable. I had been told that sometimes he brought a friend along to interviews to smooth out the atmosphere and encourage conversation but when we met no such friend was available and he seemed a little lost for words, and rather than say something he didn’t want to say, he simply didn’t say anything at all. As the years rolled by he became more and more famous for his aloof behaviour towards journalists sent to interview him and, the difficult Dylan question aside, I think I got off quite lightly in the end.
‘His appearance has changed yet again,’ I wrote. ‘Today, and for at least the next few weeks, he has very short hair, almost a crew-cut, dyed black, and without any growth at all descending below the height of his ears. Last week he had Iron Crosses dyed into the back, but they’ve gone today. He looks, in fact, rather like a convict or a soldier. He is very thin. His blue denim jacket tends to drop off his shoulders and his jeans would be tight on others if not on him. He talks very quietly. Also very little.’
On his appearance, Reed said he altered it continually through boredom. “I found I couldn’t really solve the boredom by changing my appearance but at least I could stop some of the hassle. I don’t have to comb my hair now because there isn’t enough of it.”
We talked about his current band, a recent live album and where his career was headed. I mentioned David Bowie. “He’s very clever,” Lou admitted. “We found we had a lot of things in common.”
I suggested his career took an uplift as a result of his flirtation with Bowie. “David learned how to be hip,” he replied with a glint in his eye. He wasn’t about to admit that Bowie’s patronage had in any way contributed to his career upswing. “Associating with me brought his name out to a lot more people, too. He’s very good in the studio. In a manner of speaking he produced an album for me.”
He was disparaging about other artists, mentioning that when he played London’s Rainbow on his last UK tour he kept thinking about how Frank Zappa was pushed into the orchestra pit, an incident I happened to witness. I mentioned to Lou that I’d actually seen the fan barge into Zappa and push him over. Lou thought for a moment. “I hate Frank Zappa,” he said. “It made me so happy to think about that.”
For no apparent reason, Reed next launched into a seething criticism of Jefferson Airplane, expressing the view that they represented the worst in everything, both musically and ideally. “I hate everything about them, the way they dress, the way they look, the way they play, the cute name. I despise every San Francisco group except Moby Grape and they broke up.”
It was then that I asked him whether he’d been to see Bob Dylan on his recent tour. “Are you kidding?” he replied, evidently shocked that I had the insolence to ask such a question. “Why would I want to see Bob Dylan. I know what Bob Dylan looks like and he’s too short to see anyway. I saw the back of his head once. I didn’t want to go to see him, especially if he is giving his money to Israel. If he gave some to Israel and some to the Arabs it would be different.”
We moved on to the New York Dolls, the sort of group I imagined he would like. “You know, I tried so hard to like the Dolls but I couldn’t. I like the titles of their songs. It’s such a shame. They’re just another glitter trash band.” Then, inexplicably, he launched into a tribute to Fats Domino. “I’m still mad that Fats never made it properly. He could have been a blues artist in the tradition of Bessie Smith.”
And with that last comment, Reed offered a limp handshake and disappeared into the afternoon.
In time I my relationship with Lou, at least when I wasn’t interviewing him, became less frosty and a couple of years down the line he gave me two television sets, but that’s another story.
In March Yes came town, bringing with them Harvey Goldsmith, London’s top rock promoter whom I knew well. I was invited to a get-together at their hotel where Harvey collared me and asked which American acts he should bring to London this year. “Bruce Springsteen,” I replied without hesitation.
Later in the year, in July, Harvey would return to New York and I would take him to see Bruce at the Bottom Line, courtesy of my friend Peter Philbin, my man at Columbia International. It would be another year before Bruce made his celebrated London debut at the Hammersmith Odeon, a show promoted by Harvey. I wasn’t there, of course, but I sometimes think about the small part I played in bringing Bruce to the UK.
The get-together in Yes’ hotel suite was notable for one further incident. Rick Wakeman, then the bad boy in Yes if such a thing can be imagined, took it on himself to run a cold bath and somehow dump Harvey in it. He wasn’t best pleased.
Thanks mainly to the patronage of my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch, there was a close relationship between Yes and MM, and their two shows at Madison Square Garden were co-promoted by the paper, an unusual state of affairs which in the more enlightened 21st century might raise matters of conflict of interest. At 46 years remove I’m hard pressed to recall the details of our promotion but I suspect some money changed hands for MM’s logo to appear on the tickets and posters advertising the event.
I went to both shows and in a lengthy report that included an interview with Wakeman, concluded that Monday’s show – the first – was far better than the one two nights later. Chris Squire offered an explanation: “We lost our rhythm through having a day off between shows. When we play night after night it comes natural. But we had a day away one another shopping in New York and I think that affected us.”
The concerts showcased the group’s Tales From Topographic Oceans album, right down to the way in which the stage depicted a fairy-tale landscape, but it had been roundly criticised as the epitome of their self-indulgent tendencies, and Rick seemed aware of this when we talked in his hotel. “A band of our standing reaches a dangerous position when it can put out records that will sell no matter how good they are,” he told me. “We have realised we did make some mistakes but I think these problems have been ironed out now.”
The nearest America had to a Slade in those days was a group called Brownsville Station, led by bespectacled Cub Koda, who had a hit around this time with ‘Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room’. Prefaced by a monologue that promoted similar views to Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools’ Out’, it was one of those cheerful, rowdy and effortlessly catchy songs, and about as far removed from the rigours of Yes’ contemplative offerings as Koda was from Lou Reed.
He turned out to be a likeable chap, though, a former DJ and record archivist, one of those guys who’ll rhapsodise lyrically about an obscure B-side by a garage band lost to all but Lenny Kaye and the band themselves. “We don’t play the blues because we ain’t got the blues,” he told me.
‘He’s a bizarre guitarist with a rasping voice and huge round black spectacles,’ I wrote. ‘He has longish, jet-black hair and always wears white pants and a vertical black and white striped jersey, rather like New Castle’s United’s football strip. The eccentric dress is heightened by his Gibson guitar, again painted in black and white stripes. It contributes to an odd, op-arty effect.’
His favourite English band, he told me, was the Troggs. “I’m sure people don’t want all this culture bullshit being pushed down them.”
‘Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room’ was huge hit but it turned out to be a one-hit wonder. I doubt Kub minded that much.