Lou Reed, with his mascara, rejectionist mantle and references to angel dust and turning tricks, was becoming the underworld’s eminence of Manhattan. He was still making music, synthesizing the scene into Magic & Loss, conceptualizing past work and teaming with Metallica. Like rust, artists never stop.
Not to mention the orchestral detours and photo exhibitions, plays and other explorations. Lou Reed, even needing a liver transplant, remained a burning if dissatisfied and restless creative force.
My last opportunity to speak with him came four falls ago. On a beautiful day in the Village, at a fancy French bistro that was anything like the squalor his post-Velvet Underground phoenix had risen from. Or maybe just like it, because while Warhol was intrigued by slumming, he was even more taken by the luxe.
Fifteen years later, he’d mellowed little. Ordering for both of us, he opened the conversation with the challenge of just why American Songwriter would want to interview him now... now when all he was doing was reissuing Berlin, and not all these other years when they obviously had snubbed his poetic and melodic genius.
As a full grown woman, used to artist tantrums and meltdowns, it didn’t even graze me. I smiled, wrinkled my nose and leaned back across the white linen-dressed table with the pretty flatware and returned, “Why, Lou... How dare you? How many times have you turned them down is more like it? You are impossibly to talk to, deny everyone and don’t entertain genius, let alone fools. “Shame on you,” I admonished, laughing. “Shame, shame.”
With his rat terrier curled at his feet, he knitted his brows and puckered his lips. The once sinewy body was looking more like the Social Securitarian on Miami Beach in the ‘80s, gone was the coiled whip tautness. I almost felt bad.
“I don’t understand,” he tried.
I was having none of the turn and retreat he used to keep people off balance. “Surely you know requests are always turned down. Don’t you dare play like you’ve been ignored. You, who say no, should consider your hand in it. But that’s not why I’m here... I’m here to talk about your songwriting.”
He just looked at me. It wasn’t check or mate or king me. It was a moment, suspended like the ones spent in that empty conference room, intoning “WTF” over and over as the seconds clicked away.
To a passersby, we no doubt looked like old friends or confidantes sharing a late afternoon meal. To the wait staff in their short black coats and napkins crisply folded over the forearms, a couple engaged in fairly thoughtful conversation.
In reality, we weren’t adversaries, because I wouldn’t spar. But there was a rift he seemed to like to sow, and he figured by salvo-ing early, he could have the dynamic he wanted. He’d not banked on the impact of our first dance, nor the passage of years and experience. His master plan was not working out.
It turned out, he enjoyed it. We talked and talked and talked. About literature, about inspiration, about motivation, about life. I didn’t remind him of the imploded first interview, for why recall a horror when you’re trying to harvest a bumper crop... He teased me about how Irish I truly am.
At the crux of the conversation was the reissue of Berlin, the chaotic, nervy concept project that followed his breakthrough genderbenderdefender Transformer, produced by Bowie at the height of his Ziggy Stardust zeitgeist. Beyond the disco/downtown anthem “Walk on the Wild Side,” it had contained “Satellite of Love,” “Make Up,” “Vicious” and “I’m So Free;” it launched a superstar.
Who then committed commercial suicide. Or as the conversation went:
When you made Berlin… you’d made Transformer…
Yes, the worst thing anyone has ever thought of doing.
Then why did you do it? Such a hard left. It was brave…
Not really. That’s the last thing I’d say. Really, that’s what got
written, so that was that. That’s what got written down.
That was what was there. I’m happy to get any idea about anything. It’s
So hard. Indeed. Or not. Or maybe. That’s the reality of the non-negotiable of Lou Reed. He was brittle, unyielding, yet quick to give. Inscrutable, perhaps as a defense; ornery as a flavor. And you never really knew, which is – as much as the downtown decadence -- why I kept coming back.
Indeed, there I was in lower Manhattan, watching him indulge the people strolling by after their double takes and the double back to have “their moment with Lou Reed.” To the hoi polloi, whose faces you’d think he’d chew up and chew off, he couldn’t have been more gracious.
As for me, I was no fool. I knew to never let the line go slack, concentrating solely on the thin man before me. Allison Moorer knew where I was and what I was doing: she and Steve Earle walked by to try and prank me, I never saw them.
The beautiful Elysa Gardner, USA Today’s East Coast Theater and Music Critic, emerged from a cab, paused and made small talk with me. Even then, I never broke the moment. Poor Elysa, an accomplished critic, hadn’t had that first difficult engagement: Reed got the first question, deemed her insufficiently prepared and sent her away.
Such were the wages of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s leading cantanker. As that most rock & roll of effects, the bitchiness wrought its own kind of respect. It imbued the music with that cutthroat anarchism, an acid burn without mercy. In that, it’s easy to forget his own roots were in doo-wop. He was a romantic at heart, callous though he came off. Those shredding rockers and dour minor key slow ones were steeped in the yearning of one who says he don’t give a damn because he can’t possibly show you how he really feels.
That was the crucial irony. Talking about his little dog, his tai chi teacher, the mentor who read him Finnegan’s Wake, there was no camouflaging that tender heart. Ahhhh, the rat bastard of rock & roll: in the end, just one more tramped soul yearning to kick out whatever stood between him and what he was after.
A taunter, tempter, chastiser, celebrator of the thrown away, the abject and the desperate, Lou Reed forged a new world order where he transformed the ones rejected by the mainstream into heroes by virtue of their inherent anti-hero sensibility.
Sitting in Bongo Java, Nashville’s original hippie coffeehouse surrounded by Christian college kids studying for their Music Business degree, I marvel at how upside down this moment really is. I asked the girl taking my order if she liked music and she shrugged; “You might care that Lou Reed just died,” I shared, thinking it mattered; she just smiled and blithely responded, “Well, okay, you have a great day...”
If the indifference had been just a little snotty, something tells me Lou woulda liked it. The benign out to lunch, though, suggests the battle’s lost. For me,I’m gonna have to be content with him calling me his “Little Irish Rose.”
As “Satellite of Love” plays and
its fingersnaps rising from the track suggest “West Side Story” through
psychedelic pop , I’m caught between“Rocky Horror” and that same
vertigo I felt in the Warner Brothers Conference room many years ago.
Something tells me this one’s gonna last a whole lot longer no matter
how many needles I run through White Light/White Heat or New York