An Uncomfortable Evening with Lou Reed

d07185ey3ih-150x150LOU REED THINKS he’s gone as deep as he wants to go for his own mental health. If he got any deeper, he’d wind up disappearing. Or so he says.

It was last August when I got the word from one of the leading ladies on his office staff.

“Lou Reed does not want anyone to know how he writes his songs.”

I was momentarily disoriented. “Pardon?”

“He will not give you permission to use his interview in your book.”

“Surely you jest?” I remarked.

“I’m not paid to jest,” she snapped.

Give a man a staff, I thought, and his sense of reality goes out the window. Regaining my composure, to say nothing of my indignation, I whipped up a new battle plan to deal with the secretary. Secretaries are my bread and butter, my ice cream cake. To secretaries I am Goliath.

“Then you must realize that I don’t actually need his permission. Calling for permission was a mere profes-sional courtesy on my part. Technically just the fact that he granted the interview is permission enough. Technically, all I need is the tape!”

“Technicalities, my ass,” snarled the secretary, “we have lawyers.”

“Lawyers, my foot,” I snarled back, not in the least intimidated, “I have friends high up.”

“How high?”

“The sixth floor?”

“Lou Reed does not want anyone to know how he writes his songs!” she bellowed.

“But everybody already knows. I’ve told all my friends!” I shouted, but she didn’t hear me, having hung up.

Still reverberating from that insulting conversation, I retreated to my living room, sank to the couch, my battle plans in tatters. This was not the first such sunlit moment to turn dusty on me in the bleak light of day. My memory is an attic cluttered with the broken down gadgetry of ambi-tion. Agents disappearing into the forests with my short stories. Record companies going bankrupt just after signing up my songs. Whenever good luck strokes me, sooner or later there is a secretary on the other end of the line, taking it all back.

From the outside I may seem important. People pop in at all hours, find me on the phone ninety percent of the time. What they don’t realize, what the world does not yet know, is that eighty percent of the time I am on hold.

It was November, vicious outside. As I left my house it began hailing. Thin young men skidded by me in the slush, pulled along by their umbrellas. Women in rubber-soled shoes trudging on the pavement in packs of twelve made the avenue impassable. I inched my way uptown, holding onto my hat. (Though winds they blow and trains may stall, taxicabs go floating into the river, no one has yet accused me of being late for an appointment.) Sopping wet, my yellow sheet of questions ruined, little eels swimming out of my trouser cuffs, I arrived at the publicist’s office on the dot of four, integrity personified.

“Didn’t they tell you?” moaned the British lady who was his press agent; “the interview’s been postponed.”

“Surely you jest?”

On viewing the figure before her, wringing out his overcoat sleeve, the lady was taken with pity. “Perhaps I can phone him again and see if he’s available.”

Had I met with the same fate as was handed me nine months later, by that foul secretary, there would be no story left to tell, except that of my subsequent pneumonia, which I have already sold to another publication. Reed, although suffering from a cold himself, agreed to grant me an immediate audience. I was interviewing him for a book on writers, after all, and Reed, I had a feeling, despite his footwork, was a literary man.

It was still vicious out, but now pitch dark, as we left the office for Reed’s apartment in Greenwich Village. Bowing toward the absurdity of having to journey directly back from whence I had just departed, I took no other pleasure in the fact that he and I were neighbors, perhaps shared a few of the same hangouts, haunts, knew a wino or two in common.

The press agent and I took the bus downtown. While she lathered me up with a finely recited message on the cur-rent comings and goings of Lou Reed, I lapsed into an historical reverie.

When Reed arrived, the Village had been engaged in a mini-civil war. The West Village had tradition on its side and little else, some notable watering holes, the Vanguard for jazz, the coffee house scene. But the East was in, had those marvelous slum apartments, perfect for dropout living, had the Summer of Love in its backyard, rock flow, the Balloon Farm and the legendary Fillmore East. St. Mark’s Place was giving MacDougal Street a run for the hippie dollar.

There was more than mecca at stake here, more than a territorial skirmish for possession of those sultry girls in tight dungarees, weekend runaways to decadence. There was a philosophical debate raging too, a war of lifestyles. It was like the difference between folk/rock and heavy metal, between grass and heroin.

In the West Village you still held onto your day job, got stoned every night after work. Acid was a risk worth taking, maybe twice a year, for the world it revealed. Primary to your lifestyle was control, discipline in your craft. For years you might plod along, revising.

But once past Fifth Avenue, everyone freaked-out. No one did acid over there because they believed in it, only because it happened to be a good kick at an orgy. Minds were blown and busted routinely out on the edge where hippie genii spewed speed raps into microphones, issued verbatim transcripts as works of art and were rewarded with the keys to the vault as they slouched through the ozone.

So if you were a Western Yankee, the Rebel Eastsider was an object of envy and ridicule. You longed for a taste of such liberation – to really go psycho for a month or two – but knew the price was way too high – spontaneous art was fine, but let’s see them do that again for posterity. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the divide held the Yankees in the same ambiguous contempt, whining for your Establishment praise and approval, while at the same time calling you gutless or worse, conventional.

The press agent and I departed from the bus and entered Lou’s building – on Fifth Avenue, the very street that separates East from West. I found it more than symmetrical that Reed should live on the Western-most block of the Eastside, where he could in fact peer from his kitchen window into the posh gardens and lobbies of the enemy.

I considered his early days, the Velvet Underground, with their image of leather lips and contemporary cool –so chic and vague and dispirited. Their melancholy songs of addiction and despair. Reed in sunglasses playing at the Cafe Bizarre, a tourist trap in the Village, where they didn’t even have hawkers. Then came Andy Warhol and soundtracks at the New Cinematheque. When they opened at the Balloon Farm, a converted dancehall above the Dom, later to be known as the Electric Circus, all the freaks in the neighborhood made the place the number one local hangout. The group did ‘Heroin’, and ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ – songs of another culture, the new age, written in blood, accompanied by a grinding, atonal backbeat. Bowie, Iggy, the glittery cynicism of the ‘70s; that’s where it started. Now Reed’s records get reviewed in heavy print, his poems command space in the Harvard Advocate – leading figure in a cultural five-year plan, the underground rising to the surface, lopped off at the neck and dry-cleaned for mass consumption. Fitting then that Lou should live within smelling distance of the roses.

Are you interested in hearing an interviewer drown? The sound of a once-promising writer going down the toilet? Just listen to my tape. It’s all here. Dylan made a career out of destroying journalists. Reed had refined the process to an art. As I listen to it now, in pain, my face fixed in a wince, each minute hangs like a guillotine. The interviewer’s throat begins to get raw, his voice cracks. Soon he develops a cough, one which gets worse as the hour progresses. You can hear the terror in his tone.

Reed’s tone throughout is constant, drab, ominous, no trace in it of drama – the special craft of the put-on master, never give yourself away. In T-shirt, dungarees, newly shorn head, deep-set, hollow, ghastly eyes, my adversary stares at me across a bridge table in the living room, press agent and lady of the house chatting indistinctly on the couch.

“Were lyrics the first thing you started writing – songs
or did you write before that. . . poetry or anything?” I begin, establishing the high level I would maintain for some thirty seconds.

“I wrote stories,” says Reed.

A silence. The interviewer steps into the breach. “When was this?”

An ambulance goes by on Fifth Avenue. I follow its siren as it fades all the way downtown. “I wrote songs too,” says Reed at last. “When I was a kid.”

Having written stories myself at that age, I grab onto this as a connection which could lead us to a realm where we might wander unrestrained, revealing long-locked secrets of adolescence, lost loves, original philosophy.

“What kind of stories?”

Thirteen fire engines roll by. Fourteen. “Well, one of them was on one of my albums.”

I can see that Reed is already bored, has no desire to impart any ancient visions. But I persist. “Do they seem to follow the same kind of mood as your songs?” This is for a book, after all, on writing, writers.

My thirtieth birthday comes and goes. “I haven’t written a story in a long time.” I turn thirty-five. “Berlin’s a story that’s kind of in the same mood.”

I can’t believe it. He’s given me a break, divulged a bit of independent information. Berlin is his latest work, his new baby, a strange, haunting piece filled with variations on gloom. There is loss, gentleness beneath the sorrow, a pervasive feeling of ennui. Passing up this opportunity, the interviewer blunders in the wrong direction.

“So, what led you into songwriting?”

“I had a job as a songwriter.” I wait for some further exposition, but none is forthcoming.

“Was it the result of going around knocking on doors and things like that?” the interviewer rasps, his lips bone dry.

“No, I met somebody who said ‘You write songs. So and so could use a songwriter. A staff-songwriter. Would you be interested?’ So I said yeah.”
The battle lines have been drawn – my Westside literary verbosity, his Easterly existential monotone.

“So what brought this staff-writing period to an end?”

“I just split.”

“When you write now, do you have a discipline, set aside a certain amount of time each day? Do you take any sort of notes, like if you get an idea for a title?”

“If I come up with something good, I’ll remember it.”

Earlier I had been handed a mimeographed volume of his poetry and lyrics; sensitive and raw, poignantly evocative pieces. I had a feeling he’d be vulnerable in this area.

“Do you have the same approach to writing poetry as you do lyrics?”

“I’ve stopped writing poetry altogether.”

“Is this a conscious decision?”

“I just haven’t had any poems to write.”

I have become the heavy, looking for explanations, footnotes. Reed is the Street; his curt responses render my long-winded questions meaningless. In rock & roll, as in all beatnik poetry, it’s the feeling not the method that mat-ters. I am the professor, he is the natural. I am the sociologist, he is the delinquent. I am the square, he is the streetpunk rockstar hipster. The anti-intellectual anti-hero played to its logical extreme.

But I am not as dumb as I look. I have my own devices too, even more devious. While asking him to describe how his lyrics have changed over the years, I begin to feed his image.

“I mean at one point you seemed to be really into describing a certain kind of scene, and making it very real for people who knew about it, but didn’t really know about it.”

“Especially for people who didn’t know about it at all,” Reed chimes in.

“Well, people might have heard of the East Village, but that’s as far as it went.”

“Yeah, but I brought a little taste of–” Catching himself, he holds back. “Ah, maybe that’s pretentious. It’s just I wrote about what I knew about.”

But at least I’ve gotten him interested. Soon Reed has us on St. Mark’s Place; Saturday night at the Balloon Farm.

“That was the beginning and everybody was quick to jump on the bandwagon.”

“What would you call that the Lower East Side experience?”

“It was a show by and for freaks, of which there turned out to be many more than anyone had suspected, who finally had a place to go where they wouldn’t be hassled and where they could have a good time.”

“Did it surprise you that this crowd was out there?”

“Well, you see, what it was – Andy had a week at the new Cinematheque when he could put on whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to put on was us. . . with films and stuff. And the people who showed up – everybody just looked at everybody else and said ‘Wow, there are a lot of us.’ So we knew they were there.”

We are finally untracked! Now let me speed up the tape a little bit to where he’s talking about Berlin again.

Berlin needed a lyrical approach that was direct. There could be no mistaking it, no head games. You didn’t have to be high to figure out what was happening, or be super hip or anything. It was to-the-point, whereas some of my other albums and songs had puns or double entendres. In other words, the difference would be, in ‘Heroin’ I wrote ‘It makes me feel like Jesus’ son’. Now if the Berlin guy had said that he’d say ‘I take heroin’. That’s the difference. Like in ‘Heroin’ I say ‘I wish I was born a thousand years ago’. The guy on Berlin would say ‘I don’t dig it here’. You can go through the whole album and he’s always approaching things that way. He’s consistently saying very short, straight, to-the-point, unmissable things.”

Like a freaked-out Zen master, Reed’s words can be misconstrued in several ways, but just look at the trans-cript so far. Time after time those short, straight, unmissable replies. He is the guy from Berlin, at least for the space of the interview. The question was, had the many complex emotions he’d lived through in the sixties, the drugs and suicides, the bad trips which scarred the Andy Warhol crowd, then his belated rise to fame, driven him into a psychological corner? And his response to it, like his songs, like his poems, were statements of an experience so devastating as to defy expression except by the most primitive of means? Reflecting a life where, after feeling too much for too long, the safest reaction is no reaction at all?

Or was he putting me on?

“Do you see this as representing a new approach to things on your part?”

He shrugs. “On my next album I may go right back to the other way.”

And yet, the conversation picks up from here on. The literary man begins to emerge. During another of my interminable dissertations on the inaccessibility of most forms of publishing to the young writer, Reed jumps head-first into my thought.

“That’s why I get a kick out of publishing poetry in rock magazines. I mean, I’ve been in the Harvard Advocate. I’ve been in some of the heaviest. But I get a kick out of being in the rock magazines because that’s the people I want to read the stuff, not the people who read the Harvard Advocate.”

And then he really opens up about his songwriting.

“I write very fast. The lyric part of it comes in one clump. I like to leave the lyrics for the very last possible minute and then just sit down and zap, go through them. Just take each song and put a lyric to it, put it away. Take the next song, put a lyric to it, put it away. Do the next song. And just not even look at them. I look at them later to check, ’cause I know the basic thing is perfect, for me. Sometimes one or two words have to be changed. The real danger is that maybe I’ll be tired. . . and my handwriting is so bad..

“That you won’t be able to read a few words?”

“I won’t be able to read the whole damn thing!”

And then we talked about prose.

“Dorothy Parker – now if she wrote a song, watch out! That would be something else because she was right on target. I mean, just a little short story about a guy and his wife, where he’s reading the newspaper and she’s setting the table and they’ve got nothing to talk about – that story’s unbelievable, so painful sometimes you just have to put her away or she’ll drive you through the wall.”

I asked him if any songs had ever affected him that way.

“‘Mother’ by John Lennon. That was a song that had
realism. I mean, that did it to you. That’s about the only one I can think of on that level. When I first heard it l didn’t even know it was him. I just said ‘Who the fuck is that? I
don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.”

“Do you think you’ll get further down in your songs?”

“I think I’ve gone as deep as I want to go for my own mental health. If I got any deeper I’d wind up disappearing.”

Things are happening thick and fast. He’s breaking out anthologies of his essays and poetry, showing me reviews of old albums and performances.

“Ralph Gleason, the dean of American reviewers, wrote in a review, I’ll never forget it; he said the whole love thing going on in San Francisco has been partially sabotaged by the influx of this trash from New York, representing everything they had cured.”

Reed becomes rhapsodic, flipping through the pages of
1967.

“When we went to Frisco, Bill Graham was doing his Fillmore and he had alight show, right? So we walked in and we saw a slide of Buddah and we said, ‘That’s gotta go!’ He hated us, said we were the lowest trash ever to hit Frisco. Let’s say we were a little bit sarcastic about the love thing, which we were right about, because look what happened. We knew that in the first place. They thought acid was going to solve everything. You take acid and you’ll solve the problems of the universe. And we just said bullshit, you people are fucked. That’s not the way it is and you’re kidding yourselves. And they hated us.”

Then he pulls out the Rolling Stone review of Berlin. “It’s one of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen of anything. I got one paragraph saying I should be physically punished for putting out the album.”

Though Reed may thrive on being reviled, the interviewer has given him no such outlet. In fact, things may have gone much too well. Instead of formally signifying an end to the interview, Reed drifts off, into a discussion with the press agent, leaving me to prepare for the street alone. I assume that while I am in the midst of slipping into my coat, unraveling my scarf, pulling on my mittens, someone will come over to acknowledge my leaving, walk me to the door with a few kind words. Hopefully it will be Lou Reed himself, offering me a handshake to commend a bout well-contested.

But it doesn’t happen. He won’t even meet my eye. Already he’s denying the event, banishing our conversation from his mind. Means nothing. And I in my foolish pride, cannot force myself to return and face him in the living room. He might punch me out. At last the lady of the house (who has never been introduced) unbolts the door and wishes me Godspeed in the violent night.

Months later, in the summer of the year, Reed would act, through his intermediaries, to deny the encounter even further, withholding his signature from the manda-tory book company release, as if to say we never met. And maybe we didn’t.
You certainly won’t read about it in my book.

 

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