There’s really nothing else that needs to be said. Or, if there is, it’s nothing that he himself hadn’t already said in the past.
The following is an interview I did with Lou in 1996, on the eve of the release of Set The Twilight Reeling, and I’m only going to add one thing. He remains one of the finest gentlemen, in every sense of the word, I have ever been shut away in a room with.
A copy of Vanity Fair lies on the table, open to a recent Lou Reed Q&A.
“What do you love the most in the world?” it asks. “Laurie Anderson,” he smilingly replies.
And what do you hate the most? “Being interviewed by British journalists.” Then Lou walks in, and I let rip with “O Superman.”
He isn’t impressed.
There again, it’s always taken a lot to impress Lou Reed, and with a resume like his, who’s surprised? Founding membership of the most influential band on the planet; a run of four 70s solo albums which redefined the decade, and four more since ’89 which redefined his career. By his own admission, Lou Reed has killed off that career more times than you’re able to count, but he’s still out there today, and he’s feeling cocky too, because Set The Twilight Reeling, his first in four years, tears even his own recent high standards to shreds.
So, should I just put on a fake accent?
He seats himself slowly and adjusts his spectacles. “It’d probably be the best idea.”
Old legends die hard. Before the interview began, his PR lady reminded me that Lou doesn’t like to talk about the past. Not even the immediate past, it seems. I passed a cursory greeting, “so what sort of day are you having today?” His mouth shot back “the usual,” but the silence which followed defied any follow-up.
Hah, but that’s nothing new for Lou. He did an album once, when you were all children, and that defied any follow-up too. It was called Metal Machine Music, and maybe you remember it? It’s the one that goes GGGGGGGZZZZZZZRRRRRRNNNNNNBBBBBBB, and keeps going GGGGGGGZZZZZZZRRRRRRNNNNNNBBBBBBB, for 64 minutes. It was released at the height of his rock’n'roll fame, the follow-up to a Top 40 album, and Rolling Stone described it as “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator.” You know
Lou, as a 15 year old fan who bought it and loved it…
“The guy who made it loved it as well. I made up phoney liner notes, and I was whacked out of my head, but I believed in it. I still believe in it.” Ah, so he doesn’t mind talking about the past when he chooses. You just have to find the right past to begin with.
And this is important stuff, because acquired wisdom now insists that Metal Machine was a put-on, a monumental goof designed to piss off his fans and say “fuck you” to the record company….
Reed sounds genuinely dismayed. “Oh no! No! I would never do that and have someone buy my fuck you, that’s ridiculous. I don’t know why people think that.”
Maybe because you’ve suggested as much in the past?
Maybe. But he continues, “I love feedback and distorted guitars. And that’s what Metal Machine is. The record company was supposed to put a big disclaimer on it that said ‘this is all instrumental, it doesn’t have any songs, it doesn’t have any vocals,’ but instead they… they’re money-hungry grubbers, so the little fucks put this tiny, tiny print that I probably can’t read now, which said ‘this is an electronic composition,’ and no-one saw that. People thought it was a rock album with songs on it, and they went crazy when they found it wasn’t. That album was almost a career end for me… yet another career end.
“But when you listen to it now, zip ahead 15 or 20 years and think Industrial Rock.”
My sentiments exactly, so I mention another favorite, the contractual obligation Take No Prisoners live album that is as close to a spoken word comedy disc as Reed is ever likely to come. He responds, initially, with a silence that I think is the sound of him preparing to walk out (a favorite tactic of his, or so we’re told), but which actually turns out to be the sound of him preparing to laugh. And then laughing, a jocular, ho-ho-hoing laugh that you could almost mistake for Santa, if Lou Reed wasn’t sitting opposite you.
“I don’t want to suggest that the critics never understand me, but that was another one where the critics didn’t understand me. That was my stand-up album, the world’s most under-rated stand-up comedian, standing up with an album that you could laugh all the way through. I’d already done the big stadium rock thing [with Rock’n’Roll Album, in 1974). Now it was time to do the smokey night club thing. Another career end, hahaha.”
All of which posits an interesting notion. Wind Metal Machine (and elements of Take No Prisoners) ahead a few decades, and we have one side of the modern rock coin; fast-forward Lou Reed himself, and we have another one entirely. Arguably through the late Seventies, and certainly throughout the 1980s, Lou Reed appeared increasingly redundant. New albums drifted by, good, bad, or indifferent, and the sad thing was, Reed himself felt the same way. And then he hit New York in ’89, spitting defiance, spouting determination, shrieking the odds across a cityscape nightmare, his finest new album since Coney Island Baby, and quite feasibly, his all-round best album ever. The archetypal rock’n'roll animal, reborn, rebuilt… rejuvenated.
Reed himself cannot say what happened back then (or if he can, he won’t), but it’s worth noting that Neil Young bounced back from the brink that same year, and suddenly, so long after their respective sell-by dates, two men whose combined age scraped a century were teaching America how to rock’n'roll again.
Everything that’s happened in guitar rock since then, from Grunge to Punk and onwards, owes them both a debt of thanks, and shouldn’t go to bed at night without playing either New York or Freedom or both simultaneously. And though Young’s gone off the boil again, Lou is still pumping them out… add on Songs For ‘Drella and Magic And Loss, and with Set The Twilight Reeling, Reed is now four albums into the most critically revered period of his entire career. He is also 54 years old. What does that say for rock’n'roll being a young man’s game?
“That’s pretty much something for you to say. But jazz and blues guys play till they drop, and I’d like to think I could do the kind of music I do with the same attitude. I think I’m playing better, there are certain things I’ve gained through experience that are valuable: how to play better, how to record better, how to get a sound consistently, how to do a lot of things consistently, and translate it onto record with full fidelity….”
And, midway throughhe tells a joke. It’s not the first time, and it’s not his best. Take No Prisoners saw to that. If you only listen to one punchline this year, though, make sure it’s “Sex With Your Parents (Part Two),” a song which not only namechecks Rush Limbaugh and Robert Dole (to rhyme with “something pink that climbs out of a hole”), it also packs enough provocative venom to keep a bucketful of barristers in their chambers for weeks. After all, sex with your parents – that’s a really perverse charge to level at anyone.
But Lou’s justification makes sense. “They’re really perverse people. I can’t imagine what they would object to.” And as for the lawyers… “the only thing they said was ‘are you sure the spelling’s right?’”
It’s been three years since Magic And Loss, Reed’s last in-earnest studio set, three years during which his entire past career has resurfaced, care of one boxed set or another. Set The Twilight Reeling, though, has little time for that past. A fresh breath of inspiration blows the album along, an inspiration which is only half-explained by his new life with Laurie Anderson (which in turn is reflected on “Trade In,” his most overtly romantic song in aeons); only partially documented by the manual’s worth of technical info packed into the credits.
But that stuff makes a difference, you know, mixing on a 20-bit converter when the industry standard is only 16. This is not a passive record. Recorded live, it sounds live, a vibrantly visual collection which is only highlighted by the Hendrix-esque “Riptide,” the most intense seven minutes you’ll spend in any album’s company. Indeed, if New York and Berlin were movies for the ear, Twilight twists that round and becomes an album for the eyes, typically Reed, but until now, unread.
“The guiding light was that you should hear on record exactly what I heard in the studio. Not almost what I heard, not a construction on the consul of what I heard, not an EQ-ed, compressed version of what I heard to make it sound like what I heard. I wanted a non EQ-ed thing which was recorded properly, of exactly what it sounded like. That’s what I wanted, and that’s really hard to do, by the way.”
He reckons it took two and a half years to figure out how to do all that, of which a mere three months was spent actually recording the thing. He also admits that a lot of what went into Twilight was “the kind of detail that’ll put most people to sleep. But because of that, knowing how to record it, I was able to bring in a whole bunch of my guitars, a whole bunch of amps, and know that you’d be able to hear the difference.”
And here, again, he excuses himself. “We get into a lot of technical stuff that I won’t bore you with. But one thing - there’s this wonderful amplifier-guitar combination that you hear on ‘Hang Onto Your Emotions.’ They only made about 364 of them, and they stopped in 1964, but I happened to come across one, I went into a favorite haunt of mine and there it was. So after I fainted, and got back up, I bought the little devil, and it was wonderful. My friend Michael calls it one of those cheesy 50s sounding amps.” Lou prefers “rockabilly swamp music.”
So it’s a very guitar heavy album, even by his standards. On the back sleeve of New York, he wrote, “you can’t beat two guitars, bass and drum.” The feeling this time is even more minimal; just Lou and a rhythm section, Fernando Saunders and Tony “Thunder” Smith, bulldozing the house down, and you can hear every brick as it shatters.
He’s worked live in the studio before, of course; as far back as The Blue Mask (1982), and as recently as the Magic And Loss long-form video. Back in 1976, he even advocated tearing the Dolby out of every desk, plugging everything in and just letting rip. Oh, heinous horror in those days of studio perfection, of ELP and the Moody Blues and sounds so pure you could hear the tape op yawn, he even went on record admitting “I like leakage,” singing the praises of that skittering fuzz and blur you get, when you play guitar and sing at the same time, and the microphone’s in overload and the engineer’s ripping his hair out.
How things have changed since then, I suggest, and we both know who made that happen. Lou, Neil, a couple of others…. “It’s only because a lot of groups are starting to cut live in the studio that engineers are learning that leakage is a good thing, and that the real thing you need to record is the feeling and the spirit. You don’t need to get everything perfect, because that’s where the power comes from. That leakage they worked so hard to get out is the lifeblood of rock’n'roll.”
The difference is, it can be captured on record a lot better now. “There’s been some big jumps in technology. It’s amazing, it really is, it’s hard to grab onto it. A lot of the stuff we’re using on this record wasn’t even built when I did Magic And Loss.”
It was the principle of being able to recreate perfectly what could only be sketched out before that led to the Velvet Underground reunion three years ago; that, and the knowledge that nothing lasts forever. Sterling Morrison’s death last year proved that, and Lou takes a certain perverse satisfaction from knowing that one of his own past prophecies has come chillingly to pass.
“When we went out to play and have some fun, people thought that we were doing it for money. But when I said ‘don’t hold your breath, see it while you’ve got the chance,’ I meant it. Two months later, no more; and now, no more ever. I said we were doing it for fun, and we were.”‹
So, has the saga of the Velvets finally been closed?
“I don’t know about that, but certainly the Velvet Underground as it was classically formed can’t, by definition, exist any more.” The last act, in this world at least, came when the group was inducted into the Rock’n'Roll Hall Of Fame. “John (Cale), Maureen (Tucker) and I wrote a song for Sterl. It’s called ‘Last Night I Said Goodbye To A Friend,’ it’s a nice song.” He is adamant, though, that they’ll never release it. “It was a one-time only thing, a bootleggers thing.”
It’s common knowledge, of course, that the reunion ended in tears; still, however, Reed won’t put it down. “I think we could play together forever, there’s something that happens when we play together that’s very special and unique, and it will happen forever.” And that’s despite all the ructions, eruptions and bad-tempered sniping, the pages of bile which other people have unleashed.
Even he admits, though, that what happened in ’93 was still only a pale, blue-eyed recreation of three decades before that. Admits it, then lays it on with a trowel. There’s sincerity and there’s sincerity, and then there’s this. The thing is, I don’t doubt he means every word of it.
“The original Velvet Underground. What a magnificent beginning that was for a career. I can’t possibly imagine improving on it. I was thrilled and honored to be playing with those people. I loved John and Maureen and Sterling; I miss Nico and Andy and the rest of it. What a magnificent way to start, it couldn’t have been more fun. I was very, very, lucky to be with such great people, such great musicians, right off the bat. Isn’t that astonishing? Who would have believed it?”
And he’s proud of their legacy too, all the little baby Velvets who’ve poured out of the woodwork since the real thing called it quits (the first time), proud – and just a little mystified.
“I’m not being falsely modest or consciously reticent; I just don’t think that much about what I’m doing when I’m trying to do what I do, so I’ll hear some other group or something and it’ll have that sound to it, but it really is just that sound. I’ve heard people say this band sounds like you, or that band, and I usually don’t get it. There are certain bands where I like the way they sound, like Luna, for instance, and people’ll say ‘oh, that’s a Velvets influence’. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
“I’m not in competition with anyone, least of all myself. All I want to do is communicate a certain explosive, fun, rock’n'roll quality that I’ve liked since I was 9 years old, and I want the listener to hear what I heard, the thing that makes me think it’s so great. And that’s what took this record so long, this intense desire to for once get it right.”
For once? Oh I forgot, we’re not talking about the past anymore.