Interview: Lou Reed
He’s a rock and roll icon from a Jewish middle-class family. He’s also known for his abrasive, sometimes abusive, attitude to British music writers. And he gave the JC’s man the full benefit when he granted a rare interview
"I’m still a kid… I was born from the egg of rhythm and blues,” he says
In 1975, after a run of three commercially successful albums on the back of his best-known LP, Transformer, Lou Reed committed commercial suicide by releasing Metal Machine Music, a double album which consisted of 65 minutes of atonal guitar feedback and white noise. Although it went on to sell a respectable 100,000 copies, the rumour that Reed actually recorded it as a way of getting out of his contract with RCA Records has persisted ever since. In the end, RCA were forced to apologise publicly for even releasing it. Critics savaged Metal Machine Music at the time - The Rolling Stone Record Guide described it as "a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time".
After Transformer (which was produced by David Bowie and his guitarist, Mick Ronson) had provided Reed with his first and last number one single - Walk On The Wild Side - fans and critics were hungry for another slice of catchy glam rock detailing the lives of transvestites, sado-masochists and the eccentric characters Reed had met during his time inside Andy Warhol's Factory. Instead, he decided to release "difficult" albums such as Berlin and Metal Machine Music.
Over his 40-year career much of Lou Reed's groundbreaking music has been derided or ignored, but more recently, these albums have been reassessed and are now recognised by many as being way ahead of their time. Thirty-five years on from Metal Machine Music's original release, Reed is still sticking to his guns as he settles down to talk about the newly remastered version of his most inaccessible work.
"I'm just a rock and roll person who likes loud guitars and feedback, so what could be better than lots of guitars feeding back?" he says. "I'm so simple, it's actually scary. Believe me, it's not as complicated as you think. I didn't really consider Metal Machine Music to be a brave thing to do. I just thought - I know - just float in a sea of guitars. Won't that be amazing? I just make music to make music, and it certainly has not been a raging commercial success, let's put it that way. I don't think the public ever really got a chance to hear it, but I'm not doing this for them, I'm doing this for me."
Does Reed agree that Metal Machine Music is probably the antithesis of what most people would perceive to be beautiful music? "Oh my God, I hadn't thought of that, so I must be in trouble," Reed replies, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I think it's stunning and gorgeous. I don't know what you're talking about. Anyway, what is beautiful in the conventional sense?"
BORN: March 2 1942
EARLY LIFE: Lewis Allan Reed was born at the Beth El hospital in Brooklyn and brought up in the middle-class suburb of Freeport, New York, by his accountant father, Sidney, and mother Toby. He learned to play guitar by following musicians on the radio and joined a number of bands while still at school
CAREER: Served his apprenticeship as a songwriter at Pickwick Records in New York scoring a minor hit with a song called The Ostrich. Later in the 1960s he formed The Velvet Underground, under the guidance of artist Andy Warhol, one of the most infuential bands of the time. Later, as a solo performer he had hit singles with songs including Walk on the Wild Side and Perfect Day.
PERSONAL LIFE: First wife filmmaker Sylvia Morales. Married in 1980, divorced over a decade later. Since 1999 married to performance artist Laurie Anderson
Well, I stutter, a lot of people would agree that Bach and Mozart created beautiful music.
"Don't you think that's a little old?" Reed responds. "For whom are they considered beautiful? You are talking about the narrowest palette available. I don't listen to Bach and Mozart very much. I listen to rock."
He is talking through a speaker-phone from his New York office. For the first few minutes of our conversation, I can barely understand a word he is saying. For a moment, I consider asking him to speak up a bit before remembering the sorry tale of a fellow journalist who dared to ask him to talk a little louder, politely pointing out that the line was terrible: "Your f***ing problem, not mine", was Reed's gracious reply. In an airbrushed age where rock stars launch endless media charm offenses in order to flog their latest product, in one sense, Lou Reed is rather refreshing. He truly does not seem to care what people think.
Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn in 1942 into an upper middle-class Jewish family. After majoring in English at Syracuse University, he cut his teeth with various struggling groups until one life-changing night in 1965 when Andy Warhol saw him performing in a New York club with The Velvet Underground.
The Velvets immediately enlisted Warhol's services as both manager and producer, despite the fact that he proudly professed to know next to nothing about rock and roll. Although they achieved almost no commercial success during their short time together, they are now considered one of the most influential and iconic bands to emerge from the '60s.
Is he still as passionate about rock and roll as he was when he first started? "Why do you think I am still doing this?" he barks. "Do you realise what an insulting question that is? You said, do you still have the power and the passion of rock and roll that you had when you were young, or are you just repeating yourself and doing it for money? I do what I do because of my love and passion for music. I'm still a kid. I'm a rock and roll person, whether I'm a kid rock and roll person or an adult rock and roll person. I am a child of rock and roll. I was born from the egg of rhythm and blues."
It would be something of an understatement to say that interviewing Lou Reed is a daunting prospect. His curmudgeonly attitude to the promotional hamster wheel is the stuff of legend, and he has what you might call a particularly difficult relationship with the press on these shores. When Vanity Fair magazine asked him to give his definition of abject misery a few years ago, Reed's response was simply: "Being interviewed by an English journalist".
On the rare occasions he does agree to being interviewed, he treats the whole process as sport, a perverse game of hide and seek seemingly designed to reveal nothing about himself while simultaneously steering the conversation in the direction that he wants it to go in. In reality, this invariably involves him rambling on about the technical minutiae of music-making.
As our allotted time comes to a close, someone from Reed's office interjects and says that I have one more question. I ask for a few more minutes, but I am told in no uncertain terms that our time is up. "I have to be some place… I'm having a testicle removed, so I'm a little nervous," Reed cackles.
How did he feel when he first met Warhol? "I thought I had gone to heaven," he replies, sounding almost cheery for a moment. "I couldn't have been in a righter place at a righter time. You know, without Andy, I probably wouldn't have a career. He was right there saying what you do - everything that you do - is fine; don't let anybody change it and keep it exactly the way it is. And that was Andy Warhol saying that, so that was enough for me, and it's been enough for me up to this day. Andy said it was OK, so it was.
"Having access to watching an artist as great as Andy Warhol made a lot of things possible for me. I can't even imagine what it would have been like if I hadn't been lucky enough to meet him. And with that, I say goodbye."
Metal Machine Music, newly remastered by Lou Reed is released on double vinyl, audio DVD and Blu-ray. For more information, go to www.loureed.com