As an interviewee, Lou Reed’s reputation precedes him like a pit pull terrier straining on a leash. Most who survive an audience with the leathery street poet king of New York flee with impressions of a cranky, uncooperative, even abusive old codger.
“Oh, he can be grumpy, that’s for sure,” his partner Laurie Anderson confirmed on her February visit to Melbourne. “But you know, he’s a complicated person, as we all are, and those easy labels tend to stick. So Lou became ‘Cranky’.”
After a surprisingly agreeable meeting during his last trip to Australia in October 2000, I left with a more complex label for this terse but otherwise cordial character. It went like this:
Lou Reed is your archetypal no-shit New Yorker with a singular consuming obsession: how to make good music sound better. He has hence developed an acute and uncompromising sense that life is too short for idle conversation. In a journalistic context, he calls this “idiot prattle”.
Ask the long-sober 61-year-old about sliding down the microphone stand unconscious on his first Australian tour of ’74, for instance, and he may prefer to leave the room than speculate on something unpleasant that he can’t even remember.
“Although I will say one thing,” he volunteered at our last meeting. “Once when I was in a LOT of trouble, it was an Australian named Ron Blackmore, who was a promoter at the time, who helped me out. And I will never be able to thank Ron Blackmore enough.”
He declined to elaborate.
You can expect less information still if you dwell on any of Reed’s soured past relationships, from Velvet Underground foil John Cale to mysterious transvestite lover Rachel to old sparring partner David Bowie, who he slapped and reduced to tears in a London restaurant in 1979 (they’ve since made up). Not unreasonably, he dismisses this kind of enquiry as “gossip”.
Probing his song lyrics also tends to court stormy silence. But dude, from Heroin to Walk On The Wild Side to NYC Man, what exactly do you not understand? When he has something to add, rest assured he’ll write another song, using words of few syllables.
“The heart of a lyric for me has always been anchored in an experienced reality,” Reed wrote in the introduction to his anthology of 1991, Between Thought and Expression, “whether it be Avedon’s photo of Warhol’s chest or the sociopathic attitudes recorded in Kicks or Street Hassle.
“So in answer to the question I am most commonly asked, ‘Are these incidents real?’ Yes, he said, Yes Yes Yes.”
Not to downplay his poetic sensibility, but Reed is among rock’s most transparently literal songwriters. Between the Velvet Underground’s debut of ‘67 and Songs For Drella 23 years later, he documented the life and world of his former mentor Andy Warhol with more salience, insight and compassion than any biographer.
Between I’m Waiting For The Man and The Last Shot, his history of drug use is hardly classified information. Want to know how he feels about his father? Follow the thread from Kill Your Sons to Harry’s Circumcision to Rock Minuet.
Reed coined the phrase Growing Up In Public to describe his 10th album in 1980. There’s since been a whole record about the place he was born and still calls home, New York; one devoted to understanding death, Magic and Loss; and another about the tortuous pursuit of happiness, Ecstasy.
If you turn up with queries about any of these things, chances are you haven’t been listening. Hence the shirty reception. And if you harbour any fascination with his public image – “it’s pretty boring,” he reckons – the best you can hope for is weary sarcasm.
“That’s great. I'm glad for you,” Reed responded to this admission in ‘00. “But really, the most important thing, seriously, is music. Trying to get the equipment and the people who can play it.” End of manifesto. The maestro will accept questions on this subject only.
Reed’s current world tour marks a radical change in the people and equipment he’s favoured for the last decade. The tour straddles two recent, epic releases: his personally selected and remastered twin CD retrospective, NYC Man, and an atmospheric, star-studded concept album based around the works of Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven.
On stage, the two studio experiences have blended into a rearrangement of his back catalogue for voices, guitars, cello and Tai-Chi – a far cry from the principle that “you can’t beat 2 guitars, bass, drums,” as inscribed on the back of New York 14 years ago.
“I had had a lot of fun in the studio with Antony (vocalist) and Jane (Scarpantoni, cellist) and I thought it would be great fun to go out with that,” he explains of the new line-up. “And Fernando (Saunders, long term bassist) is doing (programmed) drumming, so there we are.
“I loved some of those string things we were doing (on The Raven) and I wanted to be able to reproduce it and I didn’t want to have a drum kit going all the time. I wanted people to be able to hear things the correct way.”
So what does Reed’s Tai-Chi Master, Ren Guang-yi, bring to the experience?
“I’d always wanted to show people what certain martial arts look like with contemporary music but you need somebody really, really good. I wanted to see that. I wanted to have a show that can show that.”
Further queries about content and motivation are cut short with characteristically blunt referral to the art itself. “Sounds like you want me to describe the whole show to you. But no. Isn’t it more fun to show up and be surprised?”
Well, should prospective punters expect a gentler kind of energy than ‘00’s hair-raising Ecstasy shows?
“I wouldn’t categorise things like that. If I were you.”
No, sir. Maybe we can talk about the parallels, then, between Lou Reed as a master rock musician and Master Ren as a martial arts expert?
“Oh, that would be really hard, to compare what I do to Master Ren. It’s two disciplines. He practices 14 hours a day.”
“I practise music every second of the day.”
He doesn’t mean scales. Reed’s obsession is not technique but sound, and it bears audible fruit on both new albums.
For NYC Man, he had access to master tapes going back 36 years, tapes which he’d tried and failed to locate before, and which he painstakingly treated to sound “the way they’re supposed to sound” as opposed to the “scary” CD reissues of the last 20 years.
“The problem is that none of these tapes are being taken care of,” he says. “They’re in warehouses where they’re oxidising away. I want them to be preserved because it’s not like they’re in a humidified room at a certain temperature being taken care of.
“It behoves artists to try and get it into the digital domain but to get it into the digital domain in really good audio, which is what I wanted to do. So part of the problem is first finding the tape. The second problem is working on the tape so you can actually play it without destroying it.”
Shockingly, the rotting archives include some of rock’s most revered recordings. The Velvet Underground and Nico is routinely cited among the most influential of all time. Transformer has been celebrated in an oft-repeated episode of SBS’s Classic Albums series. Few who experience the magnificently harrowing domestic drama of Berlin remain unmoved, one way or another.
Asked if any of the material was a revelation to its maker, Reed deftly shifts the conversation back to technical concerns.
“No. I know all of them. The revelation to me was how good the analog tapes are. How bad the CDs are. I don’t know why people wouldn’t prefer listening to analog. But having said that, having the right equipment, which is certainly available these days, you can really, really up the ante on what a CD sounds like. And on NYC Man, some of the stuff is better than the vinyl, I say.”
Reed will talk at length about the relative merits of vinyl and DVD and the “arbitrarily low, 16-bit pattern” of commercial compact discs. He’ll allude to tantalising acoustic mysteries, about the “bass trap” of a venue or the spot in a room where you can place your stereo speakers to make headphones redundant.
If you’re even slightly interested, he’ll itemise every piece of his customised stage gear and speak in glowing terms about their various distortion tones. Because he’s a hard man to interrupt, this can chew up a lot of interview time.
But you don’t need to be an audiophile to appreciate the extraordinary quality of The Raven. Apart from musical input from Anderson, Bowie, Ornette Coleman, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the McGarrigle sisters, much of it consists of rather gripping spoken word pieces with spare accompaniment.
Whether reciting Poe’s words, Reed’s, or a blurring of the two, such great New York actors as Elizabeth Ashley, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe and Amanda Plummer sound like they’re lurking behind your lounge room curtains. On the hypnotically intimate Vanishing Act, you can practically hear every cigarette Lou Reed ever smoked.
He pauses to chuckle at the observation – no, really – before emitting a gratified sigh. “Oooh! We spent sooo long... you know, people who really like sound will go crazy over this.”
He’s less thrilled to learn that the double CD edition of The Raven is only available on import here, Warner Music Australia having opted to release only the edited, single-disc version.
“Wow,” he croaks. “For Chrissakes. An English speaking country and there’s no double version of it. If there was any place they should have it, it would be Australia because there’s no language problem. Wow. You know, originally they didn’t want it in record stores, they were gonna put it in book stores!” A more pained, higher-pitched cackle.
“We made two versions of it. The single album is the ‘enticement’ version. Hopefully then people would seek out the double, but the double is hard. It’s for the true believers. But it’s really, genuinely fantastic.
“I mean, it’s two hours long, but the double is amazing, if I do say so myself, and I will. You should hear The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s very, very cool. I mean, it’s Willem Dafoe and Fisher (Stevens)… or The Cask of Amontillado! Amazing! You’d fall on the floor.”
Actually, the floor is a good vantage point to soak up the unbelievably crisp, resonant, languid guitar strums of the final song, Guardian Angel. I don’t know much about crafty speaker placement or arbitrarily low 16-bit CD patterns, but it sounds like another giant step towards the peak of hi-fi mountain.
“One of the reasons for that is it’s a seven-string guitar,” Reed confides. “The bass string is the length of a piano string. That’s why it sounds like that. It’s an awesome, AWESOME, beautiful sound. I’d never heard anything like it in my life. It’s huge.”
So is there a point at which he can say, “That’s perfect”? Or is the perfect recording an endless quest?
“It’s an endless quest but you know, that particular sound on that guitar is like, I… that…” he’s stuck for words. “I mean, there’s nowhere to go from there but back.”
Which isn’t likely, of course, unless you count a Tai-Chi and cello version of an old Velvet Underground tune.
Reed’s first, “really bad” song, Leave Her For Me, was released while he was still at school, the year Elvis Presley released Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog. Forty-seven years later, his active enthusiasm for progress on all levels is probably without peer in rock’n’roll.
Contrary to his public image, what’s more, he may be becoming less cranky and more open-hearted with each year. One of his most recent songs, Laurie Sadly Listening, was penned for Anderson as he watched the World Trade Centre fall, alone, from their rooftop. It’s an astoundingly naked and tender piece that ends with the lines:
Laurie if you're sadly listening
Laurie if you're sadly listening
“It’s not recorded, it’s not out,” Reed says gruffly. “Having said that, though, in the New York Times Magazine, where they published the lyrics, they also published the transcription of the music. So anyone who can play music can play the melody and the words.”
Open book or what?
Lou Reed plays the Palais in St Kilda on Monday and the Forum on Tuesday.
This article first appeared in The Age, Melbourne, September 5, 2003