Lou Reed on the Telephone
by D.J. Palladino
According to most, Lou Reed is a genius. “The great towering icon of American music,” says the New York Post. It’s almost impossible to convey how much the former Velvet Undergrounder meant to the history of rock in the wake of 1960s hippie music. Equally difficult to express was his importance to my late 1970s cadre of then-young college pals sitting in late night burnout parties listening to Reed’s Coney Island Baby album, and nodding at the profundity when Reed says, “If you want to see me / You know that I can’t be found. / But if you want to hear me / … I’m by the window where the light is.”
How then can a man of such greatness be such a twit? When he does talk to the press — a rarity — he stalks the room and ridicules his interrogators. “I’m an artist and that means I can be as egotistical as I want to be,” Reed recently told a Web site interviewer. John Cale wondered aloud how a man who wrote such tender lyrics could be so insensitive to his friends. Perhaps he’s a fan of W.B. Yeats, who once said that a person has to choose between perfection of the life or of the work, in effect letting himself off the hook from humanity. But Reed — the man who wrote “It’s Such a Perfect Day,” “Flowers,” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” with lines like “She never lost her head, even when she was giving head,” — does not deserve the same slack. I read W.B.Yeats. Lou Reed is no W.B. Yeats.
Last week, the man who generally doesn’t, and certainly shouldn’t, do interviews decided to grant me an audience to promote his appearance at Campbell Hall on November 1. At 7:30 a.m. Reed’s attaché called, demanding a call back in 15 minutes exactly or the interview was off. Fifteen minutes later, the handler insisted on a preview of the questions I would ask Reed. I groaned but complied with the request. (In 25 years I have never offered preview questions). “No,” he said to several questions. “He would hate that. He won’t answer it. He won’t talk about personal stuff or lyrics.” What’s left? I had a dumb ice-breaking question about this unusual tour taking Reed to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Riverside. “He’ll love that question,” said Reed’s handler. He will?
After 10 minutes of unexplained delay, Reed came on, complaining he couldn’t hear me. I shouted my question about the tour. “I don’t know anything about that,” said the genius. “Well, it’s nice to have you here after so long an absence,” I said. “How do you define a long time?” asked the twit. “Ten years,” I told him. He complained he couldn’t hear me.
I called back for a better connection, and we began again. Based on Reed’s recent bemoaning about artists who wallow in the past — he thinks they are nostalgic fools — I asked what he was currently working on. “Tai Chi music,” he said. “My teacher, Ren Guangyi, is having a DVD come out in November and I did two pieces for it. One is called ‘Centering Music’ and it is exactly that, and the other is called ‘Energy Music.’ It gives you energy like rock gives you energy to perform sex.” Okay …“That’s one. Two, I’m doing some meditation music on a label called Sounds True. This is for meditation. Period.” “Then,” said the man who wants artists to steer clear of the shoals of the past, “there’s also a live recording of Metal Machine Music.” I stop him for clarification. “You can’t hear me, I can’t hear you. Let’s call the whole thing off,” he drawls. “I can’t keep repeating myself.” I redirect him, asking about his rerecording of the album. (It’s not a critical fave.) “No, it’s by a group called Zeitkrauser on another label called Asphodel. That’s in California,” he said, with a kind of mock emphasis.
Reed perked up a little bit when I mentioned the staging of Berlin, his third solo effort from 1973, which featured Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce, but also puzzled most people. Since Reed considers it a film, I asked if he had a director. “Julian Schnabel,” he replied, as if the answer was self-evident. To my delight, Reed admitted that he will also use Antony — the indie cabaret star whom Reed “discovered” and put on his CD The Raven. “Antony is like a natural force of nature I happened to be around and knew that if I put him on the stage, people would listen to him. He has a monumental talent,” Reed said, giving the devil his due. I note his graciousness, to which Reed sadly replies “Thanks.”
There are more projects, I found, as he has just finished re-mastering Coney Island Baby. “I thought the artist shouldn’t look back,” I said, now not caring where the interview went. “I just worked on the outtakes,” Reed replied, meaning songs that didn’t make the 1976 release. “They were the best ones,” he said. I said I’d have to buy it. “I can’t believe the record company didn’t send you one, since you were doing the interview,” he said, sounding almost sympathetic.
The handler, listening in, cleared his throat. “Any chance of previewing the kind of show you will be doing in Santa Barbara?” I asked. “That’s a long time from now,” he replied in the weariest tone alive. “And how would you define a long time?” I asked. His handler coughs again, and Reed says goodbye.