THE TRANSFORMER The first rule of interviewing LOU REED is that you don’t: he interviews you. Peter Murphy survives the turning of the tables and is rewarded with thoughts on Joyce, Wilde, Dylan, Ginsberg and on becoming an elder statesman for the alternative thing.
FIRST, RIDDLE me this:
Q: What do your reporter and Czech president Vaclav Havel have in common?
A: Very little, but we’ve both been interviewed by Lou Reed.
Dig, if you will, the picture. I’m waiting for my man in The Lord Monck suite in the Merrion Hotel, about to partake in the journalistic rite of passage known as The Lou Interview, watching tour manager Nick and Warner Bros’ Catherine arrange the furniture, the crockery and the various brands of green tea and bottled water in anticipation of their charge (in the heel of the hunt, the singer will touch none of these, instead requesting a humble ashtray).
It’s almost comforting to note that there’s still a fair amount of theatre involved in these encounters. Today, I’ve got Lou Reed’s full and undivided attention. He’s only doing one Irish interview, for Hot Press. I’m not sure whether this is good, bad or indifferent. Catherine asks if I need anything.
“Valium”, I reply.
There’s a knock on the door, and then the man himself enters the room, body language pitched somewhere between wary and cocksure, the kind of I’m-Lou-Reed-And-You’re-Not swagger many of us tried (and failed) to perfect as teenagers. Inscrutable during the introductions, he immediately turns to Catherine and says, “I wanna talk to you for a minute.”
They vanish into another room for a few moments, then Lou reappears, settles into a seat opposite me and places a pack of American Spirit cigarettes and a silver lighter on the table. Catherine signals that I have 15 minutes, then leaves. It doesn’t take a telepath to guess the gist of the sidebar session: I’ll do a quarter of an hour, and if he’s an asshole, I m outta here. When this NYC man walks in the room, the script goes out the window.
Reed peers across the table at me. He looks exactly like you’d expect, only more so: black t-shirt, muscular but not aerobicised, gut protruding over the waistband of a pair of dark blue jeans. He’s also sporting the kind of battered Noo Yoik rock poet leather jacket you only ever see on people like Jim Carroll or extras from Carlito’s Way. His tightly curled hair is short and that legendarily stony face tanned and heavily lined, almost a caricature of itself. He looks pretty great for 58. The voice is as familiar as your own, a deep monotone, with the occasional campy kosher inflection when playing the raconteur.
Lou and the band had played Belfast the night before our encounter. This morning, he sat in his hotel room writing a diary entry for his website. He had a corner room with windows on both sides, affording him a panoramic view of the city and the Lagan directly below. Last night, he’d watched the lights on the road and the houses sparkling like Xmas trees; “flaming torches seem to line the city in spirals,” as he described them. “It is all too glorious. In the day the magic is gone and I’m actually overlooking construction sites and many bridges crossing the river… We haven t seen much of the city as everything is closed due to bomb scares. The fighting does seem to go on forever.”
Lou is obviously curious about the political situation, so I attempt to fill him in on recent developments. Within minutes I’m regretting ever having brought it up, wishing I could get resident HP Northern affairs expert Niall Stanage on the mobile to talk me through this. Being interviewed by Lou Reed about the intricacies of The Troubles is one of life’s more daunting experiences.
“I saw a picture of one of the people who was released,” he’s saying, presumably referring to Johnny Adair. “The person really looked intense. They let all kinds of people out it would seem. It’s pretty horrible what some of the people they’d let out had done. I mean it sounds in theory nice, ‘we’ll release everybody’, but in practicality, you’re releasing somebody who shot someone else’s mother or something.”
He continues on, lighting on a cigarette.
“I remember reading about this, I mean, didn’t they like having no bombings for a while? And then I read about this parade, there’s a parade that goes through a certain neighbourhood or something.”
“That’s the Garvaghy Road”, I tell him. He takes a moment to digest this.
“Now, I mean, if you wanted to really get somebody upset, that’s what you do if you want to really get at them”, he decides. “I was just thinking in New York, everybody has parades. I mean, they knew this parade would get people upset. But of course, another way around it is saying, ‘You have your parade, we’ll have our parade!’”
The rather unlikely image of Lou as the new US Peace envoy suggests itself. I banish it from my head and try to concentrate on what he’s saying.
“So sad”, he sighs. “We just played Belfast, we had a great gig. I met these kids in the street and they were nice kids. I remember the last time we played there we had to go through barbed wire, the whole bus was searched, and these really young men with rifles; I mean they were young. With guns. It sorta made me think about Israel and Palestine and what went on over there. Every country I go to, every major city, there’s always a minority group that has a bad time of it. But you go to where that minority group is a majority and they’re doing it to somebody else.”
I explain that that very thing has begun to happen in the Republic, with recent spates of racist attacks. To help illuminate, I reach into my bag and produce the issue of Hot Press containing the Invisible Republic article I recently wrote about the Little Africa community on Parnell Street. As Lou looks it over, I explain that, before now, domestic racist tendencies only really came to the fore in relation to travelling people. He cracks up laughing.
“Travelling people; you mean tourists?”
No, I explain, it’s the preferred name for tinkers. Gypsies.
He nods, then returns to the magazine.
“Is this your article?” he asks. “And you did the photography?”
No. That was Peter Matthews.
“You coulda taken your own photos”, he assures me, sounding like a stern but supportive uncle. “You don’t have to study it anymore. Go out and get one of those digital ones, it focuses, you would have to be deranged short of being a cretin. You can scroll through the menu bar, take those pictures, if you don’t like it, you can erase it, crop it, print it out on a printer, off you go. I mean, I’ve got one with me. Any of your photographer friends will set you up with that. And they make ‘em really small now, just hold ‘em in your hand. It’s gonna change everything.”
He flicks through the copy of hotpress.
“So this is U2’s magazine?”
There’s a knock on the door. Catherine announces that our 15 minutes are up. Lou waves her away. “We’re fine”, he says. “We talked politics, so we haven t actually started.”
Apparently, I’ve passed the audition. I’m thinking this must be what it was like to have interviewed Charlie Haughey in his prime; the same rhino-hide charisma, the same imposing presence.
Lou continues to quiz me about Irish culture. I explain that a lot of Irish productions doing big business in the USA, Riverdance and Frank McCourt s Angela’s Ashes, for example are regarded as somewhat ersatz at home, bearing little relation to Irish life.
“You mean like American movies?” he responds. “Our movies are taking over the world. It’s fantastic. I must’ve watched The Matrix 20 times by now. I love that movie.”
I tell him I haven t seen it. He almost tut-tuts.
“It’s really good,” he assures me. “And if you get the DVD of it, or the VCR of it, watch it over and over, you’ll see things in there ... It’s such a fabulous movie. It’s exactly the kind of movie the States gets criticised about, y’know, big splashy special effects, but they’re all fabulous…”
Let’s get one thing straight. Nobody really interviews Lou Reed anymore. Rather, you participate in a conversation, which is recorded for posterity, on his terms. The 15-minute rule is a safety mechanism put in place to protect him from wasting his time on people he regards as a waste of time. On previous campaigns, he would spend this warm-up period talking about subjects like Contemporary Recording Techniques, Optimum String Gauge & Amp Hum. This, he maintained, was because he wanted to get something out of the exchange too.
But I’ll wager there’s more to it than that. Lou likes to be in control of the situation. He does not submit to interviews so much as dictate them. Questions intended to nudge him into areas he doesn’t care for are not so much batted off as completely ignored. And yet, at the same time, you get the impression that this is quite a lonely character, glad to talk to someone from outside the touring company. Quite possibly, the only reason we’re here at all is to break up the monotony of hotel life, and as a side-benefit, promote the Ecstasy album.
Like its predecessor Set The Twilight Reeling, the new collection is a turbulent piece of work, beset by a couple of substantial errors of judgment (the main one being the 18-minute folly ‘Like A Possum’). However, the sheer warmth, cantankerousness and barely subdued violence of tunes like ‘Mad’, ‘Mystic Child’ and ‘Baton Rouge’ more than proves that, for some artists, the fire in the belly only grows hotter on the other side of 50.
Ecstasy was produced by the right honourable Hal Willner, a human conducting rod for almost every conceivable stream of American music. Willner has also produced mind-bending albums for Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, not to mention tributes to Kurt Weill, Charlie Mingus and the Edgar Allen Poe project Closed On Account Of Rabies. Here the lines start to intersect. One of Reed s most recent projects was Poe-try, written for Texan theatricist and visual magician Robert Wilson (also known for his work with Philip Glass on Einstein On The Beach and Tom Waits on The Black Rider, not to mention his last Reed collaboration Timerocker, which yielded Future Farmers Of America off the new album).
Then there’s Willner’s stewardship of the Harry Smith nights, concerts based around the legendary Anthology Of American Folk Music, staged in London and New York. At last year’s extravaganza in Brooklyn, on a bill that included Mary Margaret O’Hara, Gavin Friday and Nick Cave, Lou sang ‘Please See That My Grave Is Kept Clear’. There’s talk of a repeat performance this November.
Surprisingly enough, given the effect it had on figures like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia upon its release in 1965, The Harry Smith Anthology passed right by Reed. If early Velvets demos of ‘Heroin’ and ‘Venus In Furs’ betrayed a folk influence, it was down to Cale’s Welsh valleys diction and more practical concerns like a lack of electricity.
“You know, there’s all this stuff about these bootlegs”, Lou reasons, “like it’s acoustic, it’s folky, it’s this ‘n’ that, and what it’s really about is that we couldn’t afford to make a tape that had electric instruments on it… it was made quick and cheap, with acoustic guitars. When I was in school there were lots of people into folk music. I wouldn’t call it the dominant thing, but it was a big thing; in school you’d have full nights of people playing folk music. Folkways records, but not Harry Smith, which is odd when you think about it. I thought of Harry Smith as an animator, I had no idea (about the Anthology). It was Willner who put me onto it.”
As recently as a couple of years ago?
“Yeah. I didn’t know.”
He punctuates this last sentence with full stops. I. Didn’t. Know.
I tell him that a song like ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’, recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928, has his deadpan delivery all over it, not to mention the lyrics, probably stranger and more surreal than anything that followed in the next 70 years.
“Much more”, he concedes. “Much more. It’s amazing to hear that. And then, lyrics kind of take a nosedive. You’re talking to somebody who was a fan of Ginsberg and Burroughs and Selby and Raymond Chandler. And Joyce for that matter. There’s a movie out called Nora now, have you seen that?”
I haven’t, but I recommend John Huston’s adaptation of The Dead, probably the best screen adaptation of any book.
“Trainspotting?” he ventures, eyebrow raised.
“Better than that”, I assure him. In the film of Trainspotting they were forced to lose a lot of the blacker humour.
“I can’t read the book!” he confesses. “Who could understand it?”
Here, he sounds just like a Jewish mother-in-law. I suggest that Irvine Welsh’s gutterspeak is kind of like Finnegan’s Wake; if you read it aloud it makes more sense.
“Delmore Schwartz used to read Finnegan’s Wake aloud to me”, he remembers. “Not just me alone, but a bunch of us and it was perfectly understandable, and very funny. And when he didn’t do that, I couldn’t read it. I’ve never been able by myself to sit and get through Finnegan’s Wake. I did (Poe s) The Telltale Heart with Willner on Halloween at St. Ann’s, and that’s the difference about reading things out loud. I acted it out and I understood it much better than when I read it.
“I’ve got a letter to the editor that’s being published in the New York Times about the NYU trying to demolish Poe’s house,” he continues. “It’s amazing: the NYU law school is teaching their lawyers that the first thing we’ll do is destroy the house of one of the most brilliant novelists, short story writers and poets of our century. What are they doing? Is this the new millennium?”
He lights another cigarette and collects his thoughts.
“It was odd,” he resumes. “I took a walk out there (around Dublin) and there’s a statue to Oscar Wilde, a little thing y’know, and his father’s got a big plaque. What does that mean? Oscar’s got a smaller plaque! Who in history knows Richard Wilde? But the fact that there is a statue at all… and he s got a green coat on!”
He throws himself back in his seat, laughing.
“I love the Irish!” he beams. “I love the Irish! And yet I would think of the Irish as a homophobic people, more so than some other places.”
“I don’t have a clue. I’m asking you if it’s true.”
I tell him it probably is, citing residual resistance to an artist like Francis Bacon as an example. Mind you, I qualify, he was of English stock.
Lou seems to find this incredibly funny, again falling back in his chair and laughing.
“I love the Irish,” he repeats. “I really do.”
I tell him that he should’ve been in Dublin a couple of weeks ago to see the Bacon exhibition.
“Oh really?” he replies. “That’s amazing to see live. Listen to the way I’m talking; to see live as opposed to TV, as opposed to on a film. To see, in front of you, those paintings, is an extraordinary thing.”
I remark that they brought to mind the description of Hubert Selby Jr. as ‘a scream looking for a mouth.’
“That was actually in an interview I did with him,” he notes. “My book’s been republished (as Walk Thru Fire PM) but the first book (Between Thought And Expression) had an interview with Hubert Selby that was in Musician magazine, and he said that. So maybe it’s a line he s used before.”
Excuse the book bias, but it’s relevant. You can view the high points of Lou’s career as attempts to channel forms of literature into sound, be they short stories (The Gift, Harry’s Circumcision), off-Broadway plays (Transformer, Berlin), lyric poetry (Street Hassle), hard boiled journalism (New York, Magic And Loss), biography (Songs For Drella) or autobiography (New Sensations, Set The Twilight Reeling, Ecstasy). Frequently, his albums deploy the emotional graph of a novel or a play. And while he’s made some real turkeys too, Reed has helped to validate rock ‘n’ roll as the equal of any other art, just as Chandler forged diamond hard street literature out of pulp fiction. Before Dylan, pop was viewed by the highbrows as, in Lou’s words, “not worth spitting on.” After the first three Velvets albums, it seemed like there were no limits to what you could write about.
“Like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say”, is the singer’s verdict. “I mean, it was so obvious. It was this huge, huge area, that anybody who wanted to write, who liked rock… it was like the Atlantic Ocean there was so much of it. You look around and say, ‘My God, there’s nobody here! Let’s go for a swim! Look at this! Put a drum to it. Let’s take a swing at Naked Lunch. Let’s do Last Exit to this and see what happens.”
Did Dylan break through any of those boundaries for him?
“I’ve always loved him, but I was always a big book reader. He was the first person I heard where you would bother listening at all to the words he was singing.”
So who has taken it to the next level?
“No-one’s really stepped into the breach appropriately, it seems. I mean, that area is still wide open. A lot of the other people trying to get into it end up writing about suicide or something, which really kind of misses the point. There’s a lot of subject matter out there. Just look at any of your major novelists and translate it over here, major poets, translate it over there. That’s easy, I mean, anybody could do that.”
Lou’s road manager enters at this point, calling time out. Lou says, “We re gonna go for a little bit more.” I ask about the impulse to make a record like Magic And Loss, which has more in common with bereavement counselling than entertainment.
“I had two friends die (legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and a woman he called Rita PM) and I realised there was nothing other than classical music to listen to that related to that comprehensively, so that’s why I wrote it. As a consequence, people come up to me who loved the record, loved it because something happened. See, that’s why my records aren’t necessarily something that can be understood by a nine-year old. My records make more sense if you’ve got more life experience. And then sometimes they can make a lot of sense.”
So now, Lou Reed’s going on 60. If you live long enough even if you’re a degenerate agitator like Burroughs or Ginsberg you get sucked from the fringes into the centre of things. Hence Lou Reed giving readings in galleries, getting his lyrics published, staging photo exhibitions, writing for newspapers and magazines (“I’m gonna have an article in the New York Times magazine section,” he says proudly. “I’m one of the people they asked to write about your first New York apartment). Clearly, Reed is enjoying his grand old man of letters status. If they can t kill you, they give you a title after your name.
“Well, yeah,” Lou concedes. “I mean Allen Ginsberg took his lumps before he became… I wouldn’t even say respectable, it’s just now there’s The Allen Ginsberg Section. And y’know, part of being a poet might be: ‘Are you read? ‘People read Allen, he’s very relatable, you can relate things from now, today, our world, things we live through. Not a small accomplishment. I loved his last book of poetry, talking about his health. He always wanted to shake it up, no matter what.
“It was a big deal for me to meet Burroughs, Ginsberg and Selby,” he continues. “I mean, I was a fan first, I’m capable of being a fan. And then appearing in shows with them… sometimes I go on vacation, I don’t take anything but Burroughs. I think of him as the most contemporary writer. Who is gonna fill those shoes?”
Who indeed. But even Burroughs ended up doing Gap ads and selling PowerBooks in his latter days. The underground is over.
“Let me put it to you this way and then we’ll stop,” Lou concludes. “When you’re underground or alternative, nonetheless your record’s coming out on a corporate label, or an independent and then it’s bought up by a corporate. And you get absorbed. It’s unavoidable. On the other side of the coin, generally speaking, no-one until they started putting stickers on records gave two shits what we said on these things, they didn’t listen to them. No-one listened to the Velvet Underground records, no-one said, ‘You can t have a song about that.’ They couldn’t stand listening to our records, they couldn’t get past three notes! Then when it came to me, they said, ‘Well, he’s always like that, y’know, there’s no point in talking to him, he’ll never change.’ So I became like The Lou Reed Section, you know what I’m saying? ‘There’s The Lou Reed Section, it’s over there; what a mouth on him!’ Then you get adjectives like ‘depraved’, all this stuff that … you’re trying to write about adult themes that are in novels all over the place, and yet because you bring out a record, it’s like, ‘Depraved Underbelly Of Dark’. It’s actually very, very, very funny. So then, becoming an elder statesman for the alternative thing, what’s that? It’s nothing. What I’m interested in is people getting what’s on the record. I mean, I don t make these to stack in a closet. That’s it.”
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