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Oldies But Goldies: Jim Sullivan Remembered Lou Reed In 2013

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Lou Reed Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

(With the Velvet Underground anointed the greatest American rock band of all time today, we repost Jim Sullivan’s remembrance of Lou Reed)

(Boston Globe’s Jim Sullivan’s remembrance of Lou Reed, who he met many times through the decades, was posted in the rock writing archive website Rock’s Backpages. Rock’s Backpages is a subscription based website and both Jim and RBP gave their permission for us to repost his thoughts on the late leader of the Velvet Underground.)

I WAS TALKING with Lou Reed in his New York office, Sister Ray Enterprises, in 1996 and Reed was dressed, as usual, in a plain black T-shirt and faded blue jeans. This was the year the Velvet Underground was going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he was musing about rock star mannequins at the Hall. Mick Jagger and David Bowie are there. I asked if he’d like to join folks the menagerie. “Absolutely,” he said. “Before I’m gone I’d like to see myself stuffed and on display. So I’m able to bitch and moan about the look.”

As we were talking, a punk-pop song came on the radio that was playing in the background, Fine fine music from a (college) rock ‘n’ roll station — and it was all right. Reed turned it up. It was ‘All Kindsa Girls’, by the Real Kids, a Boston band that had a bit of Velvets in them. He lit up. Loved its primal energy. Asked me about ’em. And then he talked about bipolarity, about depression. He said he tried to look at it like the hands on the face of a clock. The minute hand may be on “6,” he said, but inevitably it will be come back to “12.” Sounds simplistic, maybe, but I got it: Life is cyclical, not linear.” I thought of his line in ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, “Down for you is up.”

Reed’s cycle ended Sunday Oct. 27. The cause had not been determined, but Reed, 71, had a liver transplant in May and had not been looking well. “He didn’t look so good in the past few weeks,” his friend producer Tony Visconti, posted on his Facebook wall. “But I thought surely his liver transplant would buy him a few more years of borrowed time. He knew he was dying but didn’t want to tell us. I can understand that.” Two days later, Visconti added, “We heard from Master Ren that Lou had a casual but dignified funeral attended by a small group of people who loved him and had spent his final hours with him over the weekend.” (Visconti and Reed belonged to a tai chi group in New York.)

Had Reed’s health not taken a turn for the worse, there was a decent chance Reed would have been in Boston at the Royale club that night, joining Simon Kirke, Joan Osborne, Evan Dando and others in a benefit for the substance abuse recovery organization called Right Turn, said event producer Bill Kenney. Reed’s friend, guitarist G.E. Smith, had asked him a month prior if he was interested in joining what they termed “the Supergroup” and Reed said he’d consider it, providing he was well enough to do so. It was Kenney who broke the news about Reed’s death to Smith, who soldiered on.

A couple of decades back, Reed and I were talking about his album Magic and Loss.

“I keep getting told, ‘This is too depressing’,” Reed said, of the response. “‘It’s depressing, it’s depressing, it’s about death and it’s depressing.’ You know, I must say if you look at it that way, Hamlet’s synopsis would seem pretty down, too. Macbeth would seem pretty awful. I think of Magic and Loss as about love and friendship, and it’s a very up thing. It is very emotional, also. These are not bad things. And I don’t see why a contemporary work of music can’t contain all these things. But when they do contain these things, you’re thought of as being too cerebral, or too down.

“I remember reading this book by Saul Bellow where he was quoting Walt Whitman and he said, ‘Until Americans and American poetry can deal with death, this is a country that has not grown up.’ There might be something to be said about that.”

And now, a lot of us are grieving Reed’s death. Sure, we knew he had health problems — though clean and sober for some time, he hadn’t had the healthiest lifestyle history — but the news came from out of the blue. When word spread on the web, many initially thought it was a hoax.

I spent a fair amount of time with Reed over the decades — first as a fan, then as a rock critic and feature writer, mostly for the Boston Globe. After the news hit, I looked at something I wrote more than three decades ago: “Being a Lou Reed fan means setting yourself up for disappointment. You curse the 1975 atonal subway-crash noise parade Metal Machine Music, (His one all-instrumental album, the double LP of feedback-drenched guitar noise, was an aggressive jab at RCA. Reed at the time was trying to get out of his contract, which required him to deliver two LPs of no less than 16:01 minutes a side. The four sides of MMM clocked in at exactly 16:01 each. “I was serious about it… I was also stoned,” he said much later in a PBS documentary.) You wince at the superficial Sally Can’t Dance, you buy The Bells only to find the title track the only moving song, and you sit through tepid concerts like last year’s Paradise show wondering where the emotional spark went. But then there’s the flip side, and this is what keeps you hanging on — the classic Velvet Underground songs, the Berlin and Street Hassle albums… and performances like the one Reed just gave at the same club. Yes, that was one of those nights. Magic.

As an interviewee, Reed could be loquacious and witty; he could be taciturn and desultory, bordering on catatonic. One time, he was at the Rat club in Boston to promote a concert movie which would be screened after he chatted it up. He was bored and tired and laconically introduced it, hastily repairing to the office upstairs, with me and a few other folks, and spent the “interview” staring off into space, saying nothing. Then again, once, we had an interview scheduled at the start televised New York-New England football game we were both watching (him in New York, me in Boston) and Lou, a New York fan (shock!), rang up and suggested we do the yak at half-time. Which we did. He promptly called as the whistle blew and we concluded 20 minutes later when the game restarted.

First with the Velvets and then as a solo artist, Reed consistently wrote what he called “adult rock ‘n’ roll.” Sure, Reed wrote ‘Real Good Time Together’ — which was about just that — ‘Banging on My Drum’, ‘Beginning to See the Light’ and ‘Crazy Feeling’. But many of the trips he took were darker and deeper. ‘Perfect Day’ — one of his signature songs, given new life in the movie Trainspotting — is the most bittersweet of uplifting tunes — “It’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you” — but it’s nuanced and pained too: “You just keep me hanging on” and an ominous “You’re gonna reap just what you sow.”

In 1992, Reed and I were talking about good times — all kindsa good times — simple, complex. “I’m saying you can have a real good time,” Reed said. “Just on a different level… You know, where is the rock equivalent of A Streetcar Named Desire? Is that such a far-fetched idea? Is that completely impossible? Why have any resistance to that? That’s like having your cake and eating it. As you get older, be able to have that level of writing plus the fun of rock. Why would you want to listen to what an 18-year-old is getting off on?”

His songs cut to the core, but Reed said most things he wrote were “not totally autobiographical — it’s more of an amalgam of people.” Reed said that even songs he sings from a first person point of view should be regarded as from the third person. “They’re very personal,” he said, “done with a great deal of distance. I try to keep myself invisible.”

Not everything was written to have deep meaning. Keep in mind, this is a man who penned the refrain “I guess that I’m dumb, ’cause I know I ain’t smart/But deep down inside, I got a rock ‘n’ roll heart” on 1976’s ‘Rock and Roll Heart’.

“Sure,” said Reed, responding to that reference and his own dumb-fun discography. “And ‘I Love You Suzanne’. I like that kind of stuff. My record collection is filled with it…. I had a song called ‘Banging on My Drum’ where that was the entire lyric. I can’t play drums, I can’t even keep the simplest beat on the drums. Cannot do it. I thought banging on my drum would be such fun. Air drums.”

“It’s just that I like to have a broad palette,” he added. “You don’t want to just eat guacamole all day. Of course, I have that side to me. I’m just trying to combine my love for that stuff with love for other stuff and trying to bring it all together, so that I could listen to it. I do this stuff for myself in the first place; I’m the audience I’m aiming for and I don’t think I’m particularly different from the other people that are out there. There’s nothing that special to me.”

In 1989, Reed released New York, a striking comeback, his best, grittiest effort in nearly a decade, the best since 1978’s Street Hassle. (The title track of Street Hassle, playing off the ‘Waltzing Matilda’ riff, remains one of the most harrowing songs of his catalog, a long song of casual violence and diffidence, featuring an uncredited spoken-word segment from Bruce Springsteen.) It was not a celebration of his town. He dealt with the evils of crack, the corruption of patriotism, the selfishness of America, the horror of Vietnam, the Louis Farrakhan-generated rift between Jesse Jackson and many members of the Jewish community, of whom Reed is one. Also: poverty, drug addiction, racism, police brutality and child beating. The album’s single, ‘Dirty Blvd.’, was an apt summation of the album’s sound and vision, a scabrous take on his home city where Reed saw the Statue of Liberty mocking poor immigrants: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death/and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.”

New York was 58 minutes long, a record Reed said he intended it to be heard as a movie is viewed: in one sitting. It’s a concept album about the underbelly of New York and America; it’s about characters caught in a trap; it’s a tough, terse record boasting a thick, yet sparse, rhythmic two-guitar sound. Reed’s voice is low and guttural, shot full of lacerating wit and brutal truths.

“They’re the kind of topics that, unfortunately, are always going to be with us,” Reed said. “All you have to do is look outside. It’s not that way every day, but it’s always in the back of your mind. You’re always watching.”

“I’m not making disposable records,” he continued. “I’m trying to make one you can play five years from now.” And although, in song, Reed drops the names of everyone from Michael Tyson to Bernard Goetz, from Hegel and Descartes to Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers, he says, “I’m not just namedropping; I don’t have to do it.”

Aside from the biting humor and the harrowing portraits of life in the tangled city and in the hidden shadows, Reed was capable of letting go with simple, exultant rock (‘Rock & Roll’) or with uplifting, hummable pop songs (most pronounced on the Coney Island Baby LP and various cuts on other albums) — happy kinds of things that present images that contrast with the usual perception of Lou Reed as a semi-wasted artist on the brink of disaster writing depressing songs about burned out characters (maybe himself).

“What are you gonna do?” Reed asks with a laugh. “I always like that stuff, don’t you? I don’t know anybody who doesn’t except my jazz friends and I think they really would if they thought about it.”

Reed’s posture has always been that of an outsider looking in, or, most often, etching chapters in the lives of fellow outsiders. The characters who inhabit Reed’s songs are often losers or tarnished heroes confronting their demons. I remember hearing ‘Heroin’ and thought it (then and now) the ultimate voyage into the abyss, an ever-chilling masterpiece. From a 1980 show, I wrote: “Reed employed a precise, tension-fraught build. As the band interwove the pulsating rhythms and raced toward a frantic peak, Reed let go: “When that heroin is in my blood and that blood is in my head… thank God I’m not aware.” Reed presents the drug’s siren-like allure and then drives home the horror with images of impending death. The attraction and the repulsion are captured eloquently.” When I talked with Reed in the ’90s, his drug and alcohol days were behind him. During an interview break in his office, he asked if I wanted something to drink from the small fridge. Sure. He said he had nothing alcoholic, but did have Kaliber non-alcoholic beer. I said, “Oh, great” and Reed’s response was, and I’m paraphrasing, no it’s not “great,” but it’s what I have to drink.

I asked him what was thing that was most misunderstood about him. “I don’t think people realize the sense of humor that’s running through these things [songs],” he said. “To say my sense of humor is dry is in itself a dry joke. I think I’m very funny. I find most things very funny.” Reed says his friends and the public in general can accept the more upbeat moods. “People have always been happy that I’ve been happy. I mean, maybe the attitude is: ‘If Lou Reed can get it together, then who can’t?'”

But of course Reed is best-known for a number of songs informed by his familiarity with life on the dark side: ‘Heroin’, ‘White Light/White Heat’, ‘Waiting for the Man’, ‘Caroline Says I and II’, ‘Berlin’, ‘Oh Jim’, ‘Street Hassle’, ‘The Bells’. Back with the Velvets, Reed’s tense, nervous rhythms and unflinching portrayals of lives lived on the edge countered the hippie dream of the late ’60s. Viewed as an anomaly or an annoyance back then, Reed found a wider audience after the dream crashed and burned and punk festered and flowered. When punk crashed the gates, in the mid-1970s, Reed was perfectly positioned as its godfather. Or one of them, along with Iggy Pop. He understood the currency of nihilism and negative thought, of three chords and a take-no-prisoners attitude, of the joy in confrontation.

The Velvets never had what could be called a hit. Reed broke through to the mainstream with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’,” the laid-back and racy shock hit single from 1972’s Transformer. Candy never lost her head, even when she was giving head? The “colored girls” singing “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” over and over? In a top 40 hit?! And this from a David Bowie-produced album, where Reed pushed the question of (his) sexuality. Who was gay, straight, bi? Who wasn’t just a little bit confused?

Reed captured the attention of hard rock fans with Rock N’ Roll Animal in 1974 with the deadly guitar duo Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner and their scorching, interwoven leads. (There was a follow-up disc, Lou Reed Live the next year which was just as good, featuring songs from an album I loved but most everyone hated (or ignored), the despairing and wrenching Bob Ezrin-produced concept album Berlin.) Wagner, responding to a post by music industry writer Bob Lefsetz, wrote: “I take personal pride in having been the principal leader of the band, co-lead guitarist and live performance arranger for songs like ‘Heroin’. The band managed to take Lou to his first gold record and create a greater awareness of his prodigious talents to a wider audience than before. Lou was not an easy man to know, and as a consequence, I never got to really know him except in band matters and through his incredible songs. The songs from Berlin are particularly genius.”

After the Rock N’ Roll Animal breakthrough, Reed was dismissive of it. When we talked in 1980, he joked about his lack of participation on guitar — “It took me so long to tune, I was restricted to just shaving my skull, taking diet pills and just standing around wondering when the next train’s coming up” — but he considered it a “really good live album.”

As to Berlin, Reed called it his “massive disappointment” from a commercial standpoint. The record is a haunting, stark, concept album about two equally unsympathetic characters — a couple caught up in a web of drugs, sex, sado-masochism, betrayal and, finally, the woman’s suicide which is greeted with a so-what she-deserved-it shrug by her lover. It is not pretty, but it is grimly compelling, musically beautiful. He always liked playing the songs in concert. “I thought the people who liked me for real would love to see that particular thing done live,” Reed told me. “I wasn’t kidding. It’s one of my favorite albums. [Berlin] gives you a dose of realism, if I may dare use that word.” In 2008, he recorded a live album of Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

* * *

REED ONCE TOLD Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore that his 1978 album, Take No Prisoners — Reed as acerbic standup comic with loose, jazzy re-arrangements of his tunes — was the smartest thing he’d ever done, adding, “it’s also as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably going to get, for better or worse.”

Close to Lou Reed… the real Lou Reed?… Which Lou Reed?

Reed was nothing if not contradictory, sometimes playfully so, sometimes more caustically. In the infamous, confrontational interview/profile done by Creem’s Lester Bangs in 1975, Reed is described as “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is. On top of that he’s a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continuing in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh.” (Keep in mind, Bangs wished nothing more than to be Lou Reed.) Last year, Gilmore wrote that “Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we’re likely to find.” Paradoxically enough, both Bangs and Gilmore went on to call Reed a rock ‘n’ roll hero.

When I asked Reed about those quotes, he said he doesn’t care for the aggressive and accusatory Bangs’ type of article and interview and the picture Gilmore painted was “very dark and foreboding. A poet that’s going to burn out quietly at 5:30 in the morning with no one there to care. A very romantic notion that bears no relationship to the truth.”

My first interview with Reed was in 1980, dawn of the Reagan era and the fear was out there that the Cold War would become a nuclear conflagration. We’d all be ashes. Reed talked about US News and World Report’s recent “How Ready to Fight?” issue (Reed termed it “their annual end of the world issue”) and he likened those times, those anxieties, to the Bay of Pigs incident: “Those of us who were in school” — Reed was at Syracuse University studying film and drama, being mentored by poet Delmore Schwartz — were all ready to hop in cars and drive to the mountains and hide. Wasn’t everything going to end then?

“If you sat down and seriously thought about things you’d drive yourself nuts. You’ve got to remember, this is New York where a few weeks ago a guy got shot with a bow and arrow and there’s a guy running around with a meat clever down on the subway. What can you say about that?”

I wasn’t sure. But he answered his own question: “I think it at least shows some innovation on physical assaults on the citizenry — going back to more primitive weapons. Now, I would find it perhaps scary if they found out that somebody were laser-beaming people to death in the subway. A guy like that would be hard to catch.”

He laughs. “Just little ashes, little bags through the subway, like 14 people in a little pooper scooper. Think about it. People say, ‘you ought to put that on tape’ and I say ‘I do. I make records’.”

During the latter part of the ’80s, Reed began what might be perceived as a public image makeover. He was a friend and supporter of Vaclav Havel, the playwright, poet and president of Czechoslovakia — whose liberating movement was called “the Velvet Revolution.” Havel credited the Velvet Underground as an inspiration in his country’s revolution against communism. Reed played at Farm Aid and was shocked that critics were shocked at his munificence — as if Reed was only about the dark side, incapable of charitable impulses. Or that he wasn’t deep down, an asshole. Reed’s musical tools may have been rudimentary and his voice limited in its monotonic range, but he was expressive and, as he had long insisted, his writing went in many different directions, from despairing all the way to upbeat. “I love lots of stupid stuff,” he said. “There’s a streak in me that’s never progressed beyond 11.”

Reed’s image rehab even led to the point where he was invited to the White House. “I was at the White House for the inauguration of Clinton and Gore,” says Reed. “I go to the vice president’s house and there’s Gore and his wife, Tipper, and these really nice kids that they have. They came over to me and said, ‘Oh, we really love your records.’ And then I meet Tipper and she’s shaking hands with me and looks at me and, in all sincerity, says, ‘Lou Reed: How can we communicate with our children better?’ Meaning, ‘generic children.’ I thought of saying back to her, ‘Get rid of the Parents [Music Resource] Council, Tipper,’ “a reference to the pro-labeling organization Tipper Gore helped found in the 1980s.

“And then I thought, ‘This is a pointless conversation. She doesn’t mean the question; I’m not here to give her a fucking answer; I don’t want to get into a conversation that is completely pointless. What am I gonna say? Grab her by the hand and say, ‘Tipper, Tipper, Tipper: Listen to the sound of my voice…’ You can’t do it — you’re in line shaking hands.”

So, what did he say? “Something like, ‘We would have to sit down and discuss something like that for a while over a bottle of Scotch and, maybe, some crack’.”

* * *

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND began playing in 1964 and came to notoriety as part of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, part of Warhol’s Factory scene of musicians, actors, artists and models. Their first album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico was named the 13th greatest of all time Rolling Stone. (Also “most prophetic, whatever that means.) Warhol managed the band, but in time Reed fired him. Shortly after, Reed fired his collaborator in the Velvets, John Cale. In 1989, Reed got back together with Cale. The purpose: a tribute to Andy Warhol, who’d died in 1987.

Since his death in 1987, Warhol has been the subject — some would say victim — of at least a half-dozen books: biographies, coffee-table picture-books and, of course, The Warhol Diaries, the gossip-drenched as-told-to account of club hopping and name dropping. Reed, who despite his differences was profoundly influenced by Warhol, wanted to counter some impressions those books left. Acting on Cale’s suggestion, the duo spent two weeks writing furiously and came up with Songs for ‘Drella — A Fiction. The 15-song set was performed four times at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York late in 1990; the two later recorded the work in the studio, and the album is due in the shops tomorrow.

“It’s an antidote to the books that were coming,” Reed said. “Painting him as such a piece of fluff, or as such a negative person, not giving him his due. We just wanted to show him in a positive light, as we really felt towards him.” With Songs for ‘Drella, Reed did not mince words. The album was bittersweet, caustic, terse, wry, barbed — and yet affectionate, rich in both detail and emotion. It’s done in the spare, piercing style of the Velvet Underground. And still it’s a complex, conceptual effort.

“It’s emotionally honest, which is something I’ve tried to be on all my records,” said Reed. “I mean, if there’s a thing that is negative towards me I don’t take it out. If it works in the context of the project and if it’s true in the context of the project, I leave it in.”

Indeed, Reed, who wrote the bulk of the lyrics, doesn’t flinch when it comes to portraying himself in an unflattering light. A hospitalized Warhol is dismayed because Reed won’t visit him. Warhol complains, in ‘A Dream’, a sequence spoken by Cale, about not being invited to Reed’s wedding. He complains that he did a black-and-white album cover for Cale who then went and changed it to color, diminishing its value. Sighs Warhol, not for the first time on ‘Drella: “You can’t tell anybody anything.”

“You’ll find out a lot about John and I and Andy from this thing,” said Reed. “All these relationships running through it. It’s interesting because there’s a lot of conflicting feelings.”

Reed was upfront about his praise for Warhol, with whom he often feuded and whom he once fired. “I was very turned on by him,” Reed said. “I just thought he was one of the most amazing, intelligent, creative, catalytic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming into contact with, and that’s why John and I were joined in this venture — out of our mutual respect for Warhol. What a great opportunity he afforded us. If you wanted to take advantage of the opportunities he gave you, you certainly could.”

But the portrait Reed and Cale etch is hardly all sweetness and light — ‘Drella is certainly a warts ‘n’ all project. It’s just that their Warhol is not the glib, blithe trendy Warhol of the 1970s. Reed and Cale genuinely respected the man. What they do is invoke Warhol’s ideas about art, such as his fondness for repetition. (A Velvet Underground tenet as well.) They also consider Warhol’s fears and self-doubts. In fact, perhaps the greatest strength of the work is that it humanizes a man many viewed, for better or worse, as just a shallow celebrity. Here, we hear of his quirks and habits, his passion for work, his trauma when, in 1968, he was shot and nearly killed by Solanis. Reed and Cale do this with music that swings from snarling, machine-gun punk to swirling, classically inspired balladry. Some of it’s historical; some of it’s impressionistic; some of it’s frighteningly fierce. For example, in ‘It Wasn’t Me’ Reed takes the voice of Warhol and targets those who bought into a debauchery they thought Warhol extolled. Reed spits out the verse: “I never said give up control/I never said stick a needle in your arm and die/It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me/I know he’s dead but it wasn’t me.” The closing line — Reed’s simple, plaintive “Hello it’s me — goodnight Andy/Goodbye, Andy” — is sincere and moving.

* * *

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND — long gone, but much-revered heroes to the punk-rock generation — didn’t surface that much in our conversations, partially, no doubt, because Reed felt he’d said his piece. Reed said that he didn’t even own an original copy of The Velvet Underground Featuring Nico album, aka the one with the Warhol banana on the cover.

As respected and influential as Reed and the Velvets have become to generations of punk and post-punk rockers, remember, the success of the Velvets was largely posthumous, and, as a solo artist, Reed’s sales figures have never came close to matching his critical acclaim. He found radio airplay hard to come by. And though you’ll find writers saying that never concerned Reed, that’s not true. It mattered. “I’ve gone through this all my life,” says Reed, “going back to the Velvet Underground. That’s the way it is, and I find it difficult, to tell you the truth.”

Was the Velvets legacy ever a burden? “Not really. What could be a cooler thing to be a member of? It’s like playing for the New York Jets when Namath was there.”

But there certainly are fans who considered the Velvet Underground the heyday and viewed Reed’s solo work as anticlimactic. (He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the VU, but not as a solo artist.) How does Reed respond to that take? “I just remind them that every lyric that was ever sung by the Velvet Underground was written by me.”

In 1998 America’s Public Broadcasting Company did a feature on Reed for its American Masters series, putting him in the company of Martha Graham, James Baldwin and Lena Horne. So, I had to ask him: Are you an American master? “That’s not for me to say,” says Reed. “I’ll leave that to others.”

Was there a part of him that thought the attention of PBS indicates a change in the way popular culture is perceived?


The ultimate tribute, of course, are the many children of the Velvets: bands like Luna, the Feelies, Bizarros, the Dream Syndicate, Television, R.E.M., the Strokes, Spacemen 3, Modern Lovers, Violent Femmes, Yo La Tengo and, of course, Brian Eno. There’s Eno’s famous quote about if only 30,000 people bought Velvets records all 30,000 went on to start bands.

I exchanged emails with the Feelies’ drummer Stan Demeski after Reed’s death. “It’s too bad, but to be honest, when I used to see Lou in the mid-to-late ’70s, he seemed like he was living on borrowed time. It’s only when he did The Blue Mask and the subsequent tours that he looked better and seemed to be doing well health-wise.” (Note: There’s a great four-song bootleg of Reed, joined by the Feelies in 1988 at a radio station party on Long Island ripping through ‘Run Run Run’, ‘We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together’, ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘What Goes On’. Another Reed/Feelies aside: When the Feelies opened a theatre tour for Reed, the Feelies — some of whom liked their pot — were barred from smoking in their own dressing room. Reed was so adamant about his own recovery he didn’t want drugs or alcohol anywhere near him.)

Reed’s effect on Demeski? “When I was in college, there were guys who could play rings around me,” Demeski continued, “but as far as I know I’m the only one who recorded several LPs and did many tours. I think at least some of it is because I knew who the VU were and I understood their impact on music. Lou was almost always gracious and supportive of us, but why wouldn’t he be? Both my bands — [Demeski was in Luna as well] — emulated his music.”

Of his recognition in the punk and post-punk world, Reed said, “If it is true, it’s very flattering. Some bands, I hear the Velvet thing, something from a certain period, and I say, ‘That’s really great. It seems such an obvious way to get a two-guitar, bass-drum thing going. Two incredibly — or even one — really cool guitar parts and it’s not R & B. But it’s also not white bread.” (The Velvet Underground reunited for a European tour in 1993, but Reed and Cale suffered a falling-out that derailed plans for an American continuation. Guitarist Sterling Morrison died in 1995. Nico had died in 1988.)

“We said we would do it till it wasn’t any fun,” Reed said of the reunion. “There were some people [in America] that were silly enough to say, ‘He’s doing it for the money and we’ll wait for you to come here.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, it’s not being done for money, it’s being done for fun.’ At a certain point, it didn’t become fun — we all disagreed [on issues] — and we all said, ‘We don’t have to do it.’ So, we agreed to disagree and went our separate ways.”

In 1997, Rhino did a wonderful re-release-repackaging of a classic 1970 rock album that just came out on Rhino: The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, called “The Fully Loaded Edition.” It has two of the best-known VU songs, ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Rock & Roll’. The Rhino version contains a second disc with demo-alternate versions of songs, plus tracks released only on the expensive Peel Slowly and See boxed set.

Reed’s reaction? “I haven’t thought about it. There’s been no reason for me to think about it. It’s a long time ago. I don’t even know what these tracks are that are re-released. All the Velvet’s records are a little bit different, so I don’t really rank them. It would never occur to me to rank them.” Also, Reed left the group just before the album’s release. “There was this terrible, terrible management problem going on,” he says. “That’s why I have such a problem with it.”

Reed did allow that, “sure, there’s an amazing collection of songs on there.” But it was a period in which Reed went through some personal trouble, perhaps a breakdown of sorts. “Seriously,” says Reed, “I don’t want to talk about it, and it’s precisely because of these kind of questions. I don’t mind talking about the music, but the personal stuff.”

But Reed took pleasure in the VU’s eventual acceptance and his subsequent critical acclaim. Everyone loves the VU now, but he felt he and the band had been unfairly ripped in the past. “To me, there’s a degree of vindication involved,” Reed says. “Going back to year 1, being vilified…. Just being given credit for what really was, as opposed to what people accused it of being. At the time,” he continues, his work was considered “a very negative thing — the lyric matter and all the rest of it.”

Reed was not happy about a 1995 biography of him called Transformer. As one reviewer put it: “Admire the art, not the artist. That was the main lesson I took away from Transformer, Victor Bockris’ extensive, engaging biography… The book traces Reed’s rise from middle-class Jewish kid in Freeport, Long Island to legendary rock star, but it’s not an enjoyable read. That’s mainly because Reed himself seems immune to joy and comes across as the archetypal tortured artist — moody, stubborn, demanding, rude crass and unfeeling.”

Reed told me, tersely, “I don’t even speak about it. I got in touch with all the people that I know to warn them. No one I know spoke to him.”

Did it bother him to have a rather scabrous representation of his life in the bookstores?

“What can I do? My stuff speaks for itself…. It’s like being accused, a very strange situation to be in — defending yourself against what? Am I on trial? From whom? I’m a guy who’s been in some of the rottenest lawsuits you can imagine, some of the lowest people in the world. Guys who write these books are nothing to me. I’ve been around bad guys. That I worry about. This shit — you’d have to do so much better than that.”

After his death was announced, Howie Klein, who ran the 415 record label (among other things) posted on Reed’s Facebook fan page: “One of the greatest men I ever met and one of the kindest and most loving — and that’s from someone who worked with him and knew him from the 1960s.”

Producer Tony Visconti posted on Facebook: “I am still in a state of shock over Lou’s death. We have been in hundreds of tai chi classes together in the past ten years. I will always feel his presence and see him out of the corner of my eye during class as always. He was never too big a star to also have brunch with the rest of us after class — we were from all walks of life. I’m only just getting what a great man he was. We observed one minute of silence as Master Ren turned up Lou’s tai chi music that he wrote and recorded for us so loud the windows rattled. After class, some of us stayed behind and told our Lou stories. It was very comforting. For our little tai chi group he will always be with us and so will his wonderful music.””

* * *

‘SWEET JANE’, perhaps Reed’s signature song, just about always showed up in concert. “I always want to satisfy the faithful because I know when I go to see people, I like to hear them do stuff I know also,” Reed said. Yet, during this interview, I reminded him the last time I’d seen him live, he omitted two longtime staples, ‘Rock & Roll’ and ‘Heroin’.

“It’s interesting what people think are staples,” mused Reed. “One man’s staple is another man’s spit. You never know. I enjoy playing them all… It’d be fun to do a tour where I did a bunch of [obscurities]. I’d like to do a song called ‘The Bells’ — things I don’t think anyone wants to hear about. It’s one of my favorite lyrics.” At any rate, said Reed, “it’s just rock ‘n’ roll.”

As it happened, Reed found happiness with performance artist-musician Laurie Anderson, who he married in 2008. One of their bonds: She, as he was, is a gearhead. “Laurie can run a [mixing] board; I couldn’t,” says Reed. “There’s other things I’m into. She’s into effects and keyboards and all that; I’m into guitars and — not really extreme effects, but reverb and all that. We do talk gear. What we do more than that is play together. Melodic and heartfelt.” The last time I saw Reed play live, he was on guitar, accompanying Anderson on a music-spoken word show at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2009. Her show; he was the sideman.

Reed’s thoughts about Anderson were woven through Set the Twilight Reeling his 17th solo album. There’s an impossibly infectious, upbeat song called ‘Hookywooky’. It’s fireworks and romance, until, well, it isn’t: Suddenly, Reed is threatening to push all of her ex-boyfriends off the roof. Good old Lou. But there’s another praising Anderson’s spirit, ‘The Adventurer’, and it would seem her muse floats throughout the album. It’s almost “Songs for Laurie.”

“This is dedicated to Laurie, but not necessarily about her,” said Reed. “I have seen the theme of the album as being about change, growth and how good that is. It’s all transformation. I was actually thinking of calling it ‘Transformer Squared,’ and then I regained control of myself.”

Whenever you give Lou Reed an open field, he’ll make a mad dash to talk about the tools of the trade — amps, pickups, classic guitars. During one of our interviews in his office, a call came in and it seemed that a friend has located an ancient kind of amplifier Reed cherishes. Reed’s spirits soar. The sound of his music is was important to Reed as the shape of his ideas. “We used a lot of technology to make a very, very well-recorded raw album,” he said, about New York. “And that’s all I’m willing to do. The kind of a sound that’s based around wood and tubes and power — thickness. The sound of New York is a vintage hot rod.”

And referring for a moment, just a moment, back to the Velvet Underground days, Reed said, “If something doesn’t sound right, it hurts me. Literally. So I have trouble listening to pianos sometimes, which may sound odd coming from someone in the Velvet Underground, which was doing dissonance and everything, but dissonance is one thing, and being out of tune is another. I like being in tune.”

Late in his career, Reed told me, “I think the singing is improving and the guitar playing with it, and the ability to differentiate between tones, and trying to craft a lyric…. I wouldn’t want to come off as glib or trendy or second-hand, but I’m out there trying to chisel something out of that rock of words available to us. Some of what I like is using words common to all of us and that is the challenge to me: to be able to use them so it can go directly to your heart. Hope that doesn’t sound pretentious.”

Reed certainly wrote a lot about death. When it came time to record Magic and Loss in 1992, he said, he didn’t set out to make an album about death. No, said Reed, it was going to be about magic. “Voodoo, Carlos Castaneda, Mexican magic, those kind of things. Then, these things happened and it turned into magic and loss.”

These things. In the previous year, Reed watched as two of his close friends died from cancer. One was famed R & B songwriter Doc Pomus — he wrote hits for Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, the Drifters and Dion & the Belmonts, among others. The other was a woman whom Reed simply refers to as Rita. Their illnesses and deaths, and Reed’s reactions to them, form the basis of his the somber album.

Reed maintained that he’s always written, first, to please himself. He says that he writes rock ‘n’ roll for adults, not kids: “I can only hope there are enough grown-up people out there that want to hear something meaningful along with all this other stuff out there. There’s certainly room for a lot of different kinds of things and I hope there’s room enough for my little thing.” He believes that his lyrics also work as poetry — “The bulk of them are meant to stand alone. That was the raison d’etre. The fact that there’s some rock going to it, that’s great.”

Magic and Loss is Reed’s third consecutive conceptual album, and it wastes no time getting right to the nitty-gritty. There’s a bracing electric guitar introduction and then a series of mostly spare, hushed chamber-rock songs dealing with the unfairness of life, cancer’s grip (“So many things to do — it’s too early/For my life to be ending/For this body to simply rot away”), radiation, death, the funeral, the cremation, reflection and remembrance. Also, there’s Reed’s admission, in ‘No Chance — Regret’: “I see you in the hospital your humor is intact/I’m embarrassed by the strength I seem to lack/If I was in your shoes, so strange that I am not/I’d fold up in a minute and a half.”

Is Magic and Loss intended as a downer?

“It’s not a negative album,” said Reed. “It’s not a bad trip or anything like that. It’s like how do you deal with these situations, and it’s also I might add like a real celebration of friendship and the spirit of your friends. So I would object when people say this is a death album, that it’s really down. It’s about friendship and loss and how you deal with it, which I find particularly appropriate to these times, although that’s not why I wrote it. That’s in retrospect. Everyone who hears this record — well, not everyone, but everyone I come in touch with — suddenly tell me their story, their mother, their father, their sister, their friend down the block…. I made every effort to be realistic but also give you what I call a positive viewpoint about the whole thing: that the record might be helpful.

“The people I’m describing were like giants in stature. I learned a tremendous amount from them, and they live on through me. And that incredible humor that runs through the most appalling circumstances; that was an astonishing thing to witness and be a part of, and I want to communicate that to listeners.”


“They all have funny things,” Reed said of New York, Songs for ‘Drella and Magic and Loss, picking out ‘Harry’s Circumcision: Reverie Gone Astray’ from Magic and Loss as an example. ‘Harry’s…’ is about a suicide gone awry; it’s based on the real-life attempted suicide of Lincoln Swados, Reed’s old college roommate. In Reed’s song, Harry slits his throat. “But he lives to tell about it.”

And it hurts him to laugh.

“Right…,” said Reed. “I guess that’s what people mean when they say I have a dark sense of humor. Maybe they mean things like that.”

In the sense of tragedy and narrative structure, Magic and Loss recalls Reed’s Berlin. “It’s a direct descendant,” said Reed. “I just think, you’ve got somebody who’s listening, who may be at home, alone, putting on headphones, or whatever, and you’re telling them a story. It’s illustrated with music, with the best lyrics I could write. It’s an hour’s worth of music about a subject where you’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. I feel I can go up against a novel or a stage play or a movie easily.”

Reed said that as they were dying he wasn’t thinking about wresting art out of illnesses — “no, not at all” — but he added, “I know from personal experience that everything I encounter is fair game. The turnaround came when I actually started writing, and when I saw what was coming out. That’s when I realized what was going on. Then I had to make a decision: Did I really want to do this? I thought this could be misconstrued by a lot of people. This is painful writing; this is not the kind of thing people want to hear about in the first place, in the United States, in particular.”

* * *

AND THIS, DEAR reader, was also painful writing. Necessary, painful writing. A long trek and a lot of memories unearthed. Reflections on an artist who’s been part of my life for over 40 years, someone high in my pantheon. Coincidentally, I bought a CD copy of Velvet Underground Live 1969 at a record store — we still have a few in Boston, mainly Newbury Comics branches — a couple of weeks before Reed’s death. Yes, I had it on vinyl, but I wanted to pop the CD in the car deck immediately. I did so and it has remained there, before he died, and, now, after. The last song I heard before hearing of his death was the ten minute-plus ‘Ocean’, its swelling chords and gentle brushes, Reed gently singing “Here comes the waves/Down by the shore/Washing the rocks that have been here/Centuries or more… Down by the sea… Here comes the ocean/and the waves down by the sea/Here comes the ocean/And the waves, where have they been?”

© Jim Sullivan, 2013

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