Lou Reed in 1974

Fifty years ago this week I interviewed Lou Reed which wasn’t as onerous a task as I had been led to believe it might be. Lou could be a bit of a curmudgeon at the best of times but apart from when I asked him if he’d been to see Bob Dylan during his recent shows at Madison Square Garden, he was reasonably civil towards me. His response to the Dylan question comes towards the end of the piece I wrote for Melody Maker which I’ve now posted on Just Backdated, link below. 

As it happened I became reasonably friendly with Lou in 1976, as my stint as MM’s man in New York was coming to an end. He was a regular at Ashley's bar & restaurant on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, often in the company of Jonny Podell, his manager at the time, and Rachel, his girlfriend whose gender was always in doubt. One night, my friend Glen Colson – who was sleeping on my couch at the time – and I got talking to Lou at Ashley’s and I mentioned that I’d reviewed his show at the Palladium, and Glen offered to drop off a copy of that week’s MM at his apartment. 

At Lou’s place on the East Side he was greeted by Rachel. She roused Lou from the bedroom and the MM was handed over. Their living room full to the brim with old black and white RCA TV sets that he’d used as the backdrop to the Palladium show and Lou offered Glen some. Glen called me and when I gave him the thumbs up he relieved Lou of three TVs which he loaded into a cab and brought round to my flat on East 78th Street. I think Lou had got them from a hospital where they were surplus to requirements. They didn’t work that well, probably because we had to use coat hangers from a dry-cleaners as aerials. I wasn’t that bothered. In the four years I spent in New York I never felt the need to watch TV. I liked Robert Stack as Elliot Ness and a news show called 60 Minutes but most US TV was crap and, in any case, I was out and about pretty much every night. 

Over to you Lou. 

Lou Reed: Man Of Few Words

We’re up on the 37th floor of a Park Avenue office block that faces north and thus commands an extensive view of New York’s Central Park and Harlem way out in the distance. Lou Reed sits in a director’s swivel chair and looks uncomfortable.

    It’s not that he doesn’t like doing interviews, it’s just that it usually helps if he has a friend with him to smooth out the atmosphere and encourage conversation. Today no such friend is available and Lou seems a little lost for words, and rather than say something he doesn’t want to say, he doesn’t say anything at all.

    The continuing story of Lou Reed reached another chapter last month with the release of a live album titled Rock And Roll Animal, recorded at New York’s Academy of Music around Christmas It contains familiar Reed material, ‘Heroin’, ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Rock And Roll’ and the sound quality is really excellent for a live show.

    And, in keeping with Reed’s persistently changing image, his appearance has changed yet again. 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 black, 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.

    Thus when I inquired what motivated him to put out a live album of old material at this stage in his career, he replied quite simply that a mobile recording studio was available and he thought he might as well use it. And he was equally vague about the musicians who played with him on the concert and record.

    “There was Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner on guitars, Prakash John on bass, Whitey Glan on drums, Ray Colcord on bass and me on vocals. I don’t know whether I’ll be playing with them again, though. They all have private ambitions of their own.

    “I’ve almost got a band together of my own at the moment, but we haven’t rehearsed yet. It includes Doug Yule, who was in the Velvet Underground, and Steve Katz and I may play acoustic guitars or we may not depending on what happens.”

    It seems that Lou had plans to go over to England to record with this new band during early May, but the power problems have put him off. “I think the English work harder in the studio,” he says, “but I can’t go there if there’s no power. The engineers seem to care more and they do more with less than the Americans do.

    “I’ve written plenty of material recently, more than enough for an album and I like it. I think it’s rock and roll. It has a drum,” he grins.

    I asked whether he preferred to work in the studio or onstage. Again his answer was vague. “I haven’t done either in such a long time that I really don’t know.” So why is it he doesn’t work too often? “My condition.” He was reluctant to amplify.

    I changed direction and mentioned David Bowie. “He’s very clever. We found we had a lot of things in common.”

    I suggested his career took an uplift as a result of this flirtation but he wasnt about to give Bowie any more credit than he felt was due. “David learned how to be hip,” he replied with a glint in his eye. “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.”

    But certain observers thought it was a step in the wrong direction for Reed. “People think a lot of things,” he replied.

    “I enjoyed those shows I did in London at the Rainbow, but I kept thinking, Frank Zappa fell 17 feet down into that pit. I hate Frank Zappa, and it made me so happy to think about that.

    “I like the direction my career is going right now. It has more direction and cohesiveness. I don’t think I’m a singer, with or without a guitar. I give dramatic readings that are almost my tunes. Did you know that my real voice has never been heard? What they usually do in the studio is to speed up the vocal track and make my voice higher. I scream, when I play live because when you scream your voice goes up...like this – Sweet Jane,” he yelled.

    He paused: “I liked Mott The Hoople’s version of that song,” he went on. “I did a reference vocal for them. The one I really liked was Brownsville Station’s version of that song. I loved that. I hope they release it as a single.

    “I liked ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, too. I found the secret with that one. I was supposed to write a play called The Walk On The Wild Side and I read the book and wrote the song. Nothing came of the play but I wasn’t going to waste the time and energy I put into the song so I put it out.

    “People don’t deserve good lyrics because they never listen to them these days. That’s why the melody has to be good, When I have a lyric that I think everybody will like, I won’t drown it out, though. If it’s a secret lyric I’ll bury it. I don’t print lyrics on record sleeves, except with Berlin and then they wrote them with a quill pen, the stupid fuckers. They wrote them out in longhand because they thought that was chic. I could have killed them.”

    Reed says he listens to very little music other than his own and The Kinks. He is a great admirer of Ray Davies. “I liked the Great Lost Kinks album where Ray stands revealed. I’d love to see them in a nice little cabaret setting singing their nice little songs.”

    Reed says he is continually changing his appearance 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.

    At this stage in the interview, Steve Katz walked into the room. Katz, the former guitarist with Blood, Sweat & Tears, produced Reed’s live album, so I asked how he came to be involved with Reed.

    “I admire him as a person, musician and organiser,” said Reed. “I can’t organise anything. I have a lot of problems when it comes to organisation.”

    For no apparent reason, Reed then launched into a seething criticism of Jefferson Airplane, expressing the view that they represented the worst in everything, both musical 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.”

    So I asked whether Lou had been to see Bob Dylan on the recent tour. “Are you kidding?” he replied. “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.”

    I mentioned the New York Dolls a band I thought Lou would like. 

    “You know, I tried so hard to like the New York Dolls but I couldn’t. I like the titles of their songs. It’s such a shame. They’re just another glitter trash band.

    “I’m still mad that Fats Domino 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.


Glenn Burris said...

"I enjoyed those shows I did in London at the Rainbow, but I kept thinking, Frank Zappa fell 17 feet down into that pit. I hate Frank Zappa, and it made me so happy to think about that."

Contrast that with this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4lEDmQiyqc

But that was Lou, right? The number six one day, the color chartreuse the next. Or, should we just give credit for 20 years of thinking things over. Whatever, I wish to God both of those guys were still around.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks Glenn. Evidently Lou had a change of heart, I still laugh about what he said about Dylan.