Just a New York Conversation

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

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

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.


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