Lou Speaks for Himself


Lou Reed 1994. Photo: Gram Wood.

Reed all about it

By Adam McGovern. Cover Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Article photos: Gram Wood. In COVER Magazine, February, 1994

Lou Reed is not a man who shrinks from expectations. The recent regrouping of his band the Velvet Underground competed with that influential outfit's unsurpassable legend and won, in no small part because its very gambling of youthfully rebellious reputation proved an adventurousness and integrity of unprecedented longstanding. No sooner was the landmark audio document (Sire/Warners' Live MCMXCIII) in the stores than Lou was challenging the anticipations it raised by returning to high solo profile in Wim Wenders' Faraway, So Close film and soundtrack, performing a new song as good as any he has recorded. And, neither intimidated by nor content with the professional rarity and thematic ambitions of the novels-for-tape-deck that comprise his last three critically acclaimed studio albums, he is preparing his first novel for the bookshelves. Though famously reluctant to meet the press, he granted a rare insight into what it all means to him.

Lou Reed is not a man who rushes to conversation. Speaking for yourself when it's the songs you want to matter, and speaking for the songs when you stake your creative self-worth on how they speak for themselves, can't be a favorite of someone who gives little for personal celebrity and has endured much for artistic credibility: The unnerving metallic echo on my own name which summoned me to the proceedings made me lament anew the invention of speaker phones, while the steely "yeah it's lou reed" which called us to order made me grateful that at least video calling is still years off. But the qualms stirred by this opening stance were strictly suited to the media-molded cutout of himself that Lou has to stare down with much more resolve and urgency. The flesh and blood Lou Reed steadily emerged as a conversationalist of considerable articulateness and patience, guarded but never remote, confident but never combative. As his pioneering realist rock was trying to tell us all along, warmth and understanding are there for the earning, not for the taking. It was time to get to work:

Your recent albums are anything but neutral, with their strong communication of impacts to your personal feelings and your civic sense; but they are models of objectivity, with what must be a painstaking eschewal of sentimentality in addressing painful subjects. It makes me wonder if the vocal detachment for which you are known is intended as an intonational equivalent of journalism; if, rather than signifying the dismissal of emotion it is taken to be, it's really an attempt to remove obstacles to the projection and registration of the listener's own?

I really hate songs that preach to you. I always have a problem with that even when I agree with the person. And, some of the pop stuff I like is really sappy, sentimental stuff, but that's not the kind of stuff I like to write. I like to keep it on a certain dryer level, and let the lyrics speak for it. Because I think if you, or anyway if I pushed it too far it would overwhelm itself. So, I like to either have the situation in the lyrics speak for itself and not really take a position one way or another, just describe something, or if there is a position taken, relate it in a non-emotional way, and still let the situation speak for itself and the listener can go from there.

That relates to my next question. From the '60s through today you've dealt with controversial subjects like drug use in a way which has encompassed all the horror stories and reform the reactionary right could want. with none of the judgementalism or repentance they demand. You were always automatically associated with whatever attitude or circumstances you portrayed, and as such got a durable though inaccurate reputation for destructiveness and misanthropy. But I wonder if there was always an implicit ethic, even a morality, to your work in that strict documentary compels an individual effort of value formulation in a way that simple condemnation never could.

Well they'll tell you there's no one more boring to be around then a reformed drunk, or an ex-Catholic. I never wanted to preach about anything. Also — of course now it's all over rap records, people write about a lot of this stuff — but at the time my position was that these things were common in books, it was just maybe not common in a song lyric.

And you had aspirations to bring your medium to that level.

Yeah! Absolutely. I mean why shouldn't it be? Why shouldn't a song lyric be as good as really good poetry or a really good book? People stop listening to rock at a certain point because it can't engage them. I really love rock, and I thought it would be really great to marry these two forms. And of course there's a lot of resistance to that because a lot of people will tell you that the fun of rock is that you don't think, and that sticking something in there that causes that is an opposing force. But I wanted to make something you could listen to forever and it would be as meaningful ten, twenty years down the road as it was then. Ithought things would be twice as good at least — 'cause you could listen to it a whole bunch of different ways, and I thought if it had more than one level going to it, it could keep you engaged for quite a while, especially if the vocal wasn't particularly emotional

I did take the evacuation of emotionality to also perhaps be a way to spotlight the meaning rather than the affect.

Yeah, well I think that's true. It's also not soapboxing. It’s letting things speak for themselves. 'Cause when you do that it's a lot more effective when you do raise your voice, if vou do.

Did you ever foresee a time that you were in a way "saving up for" when you would "raise your voice" as you did? You're certainly more associated with activism from the mid-'80s on than from the time before that, or did that just evolve unexpectedly?

That evolved. Just because of situations occurring, and the fact that I'd left myself enough room to move in, I thought. It wasn't completely out of character, and yet it wasn't a constant.

I actively set out at a certain point to deconstruct the Lou Reed Image. It’s constricting. I mean, I understand it; I’d like to be like Lou Reed too, for that matter!

One reason that evolution came as such a surprise was that you were misidentified as some kind of enemy of liberalism because you critiqued a liberal moment in the ‘60s...

— And vindicated, I might add. And vindicated. By the times. But I actively set out at a certain point to deconstruct the Lou Reed image, by consciously looking at another way So, I end up being called "professorial" now; which is hilarious, it's just really funny how seriously people take a certain kind of image. But I wanted to expand that particular image 'cause it was getting rough being saddled with this one particular thing.

Y’know, Black Leather Jacket, Sunglasses, Underbelly of New York an' all that. It's constricting. I mean, I understand it, I'd like to be like Lou Reed too, for that matter! I wish Clint Eastwood would make another Dirty Harry movie, but he obviously has other things on his mind, and so do I.

You spoke of deconstructing the Lou Reed image. I'm also interested in what you were perhaps aiming to deconstruct before that time. It seems. that from decade to decade there was an interest in counterpoising your historical moment. Your writing seemed to contrast, say in the '60s, a giddy utopianism with a much more uncompromising realism.

Oh, purely the results of living in New York. I mean, most people living in New York and seeing what we see here, we're a little resistant to those other kinds of things, for the simple reason that all you have to do is walk outside and it becomes obvious that this is not a very practical or sophisticated approach to what's going on. Up to and including what's going on this minute. Think of the Whitman and Florio election in New Jersey: Like, did they really pay off black ministers? It's never really been answered. Should there be another election? Isn't it true that in fact both parties do that all the time anyway? And is that why they're not looking into it? Does anyone really believe Rollins when he says he said that just to irritate [James] Carville?

If it was a lie, it was the most elaborately constructed and rapidly extemporized one I’ve ever heard.

And certainly the most self-destructive one a guy could say in the end, and I don't see why in the world he would think that would bother Carville as opposed to delight him. It just sounds like he was boasting, and just, caught up in the minute, said it. But it doesn't seem to have changed anything. Here a guy comes out and says it. What changes, nothing changes. With Whitman, I mean just look at her - I mean, she's a rich lady: I know people really, really despised and hated Florio for the tax thing —

I think they despised and hated him, much like they despised and hated you, for the truth.

But I think that he dealt with the reality which all the other states have to deal with, and when she says she's gonna lower taxes thirty percent, how is she gonna do that, and keep the schools going and this service going and that service going? She's saying what people would like to hear. … Anyway.

Anyway, on the other hand, your dissent to utopianism has cycled around in the current era to a dissent of virtue as it were; during the socially callous and politically superficial '80s you turned to political protest and homages to family, and in the demoralized or denial-prone '90s you're turning to calls to awareness and invocations of renewal.

Well, so much of what I write is also personally generated; some of it was written because I'd gotten married, and Magic and Loss was written because of the death of two friends that meant a lot to me. So it was serendipitous.

Yeah. I mean I had thought about not pursuing Magic and Loss. I thought it could be a career-ender. That it would be taken the wrong way, monstrously non-commercial — even as I go, that it might be perceived as negative, when in fact it's positive, and I thought well, "you wrote it, now you could just put it away" but I couldn't do that, I had to record it so I did and that was that. "maudlin" is a terrible, terrible word and I certainly went to great lengths that that would be non-applicable.

Very successfully, I think. It must have been a hard-won accomplishment.

[Softly] I It was very difficult. It was very difficult. I also thought that, with all the things going on, it was an album that filled a necessary niche: how do you deal with loss? I mean all of us face it.

And many of us a lot sooner than we expected these days.

These days in particular. A generation is growing up dealing with things that are way past what happened when I was younger, and you know, who do you ask, where do you get the information about dealing with loss; real, intense personal loss; y'know, it's not taught. [Softly] You know and, and they had an album they could listen to.

People need tools to get over it rather than get used to it. Or even get an affinity for what is the only situation they know; not so much in the case of all the loss happening today through illness, but certainly in terms of violence.

Violence, AIDS, drugs. Anyway.

Words and Music

You took great care in sifting between those lyrics which you believed could and couldn't stand alone in selecting your literary anthology. This suggests what is further evident from other observation: that much music is understood more by what it means than what it says. Certainly the unapologetic assertiveness and millennial internationalism of an Angelique Kidjo or a Baaba Maal comes through loud and clear even to a listener who speaks none of the languages they do, and the very form of your own dispassionate or disjunctive singing style diverges so much from vocal tradition as to convey a certain dissent in its sound alone. What is your perspective on the nature and necessity of language, and the true essence and optimal form of communication?

Well certain songs are more about the music and, just, the beat, and the feel of it. And the lyrics don't have any real deep meaning or anything that would be any reason to put them under any scrutiny. I like to write songs like that once in a while. I like those kinds of things, I just don't like me doing a whole lot of them.

What do you feel that songs like that communicate on the level of songs, when they're being heard as music as opposed to read as abstracted lyrics?

Fun rock.

And what does that communicate?

I always think of it. Essentially I think of it as about freedom.

There are certainly particular songs of yours which meld the two, and maybe even consciously try to rehabilitate social awareness as something which is ultimately "fun" because if you're in prison, or dead, you can't have that great a time. Songs like "Voices of Freedom.”

Um hmm. That was really hard to write; I was writing for an organization [Amnesty International]. How do you do it without being cliche?

Interestingly, it's almost as if you resorted to cliche but, in much the same way as you were describing less emotional vocals letting people see through to what was being said, the very simple verbal construction of those lyrics made people see through to the point.

Well I hoped it did, I mean, "Voices of Freedom." that's kind of a tacky title, but — it let you know its intent, but then the lyric doesn't actually hit you over the head with that at all.

Your ostensibly laissez-faire character portraits do imply a championing of anti-deterministic narrative, and yet your purposeful exclusion of "I Wanna Be Black" from your boxed set implies a concern for communication of a specific intent. If I were you I'd be hesitant about that song too, since while it lampoons the fantasy life of white suburbanites, it seems to do so almost as an afterthought to a lavish revelry in defamatory black stereotype. I'm curious about your interpretation —

My interpretation of it was that when it came out I was ready to give explications of how it's about stereotypes and everything, and I think it's just as applicable today referring to rap music. On the other hand, I didn't want to be faced with having to explain it anymore, so I just left it out.

When you say applicable referring to rap do you mean in terms of rap's popularity with white suburbanites?

Black wannabes. Including blacks.

What do you mean?

Gangsta rap by non-gangsters or, you know, white suburbanites. It's all about these bullshit fantasies which are all stereotypical. A lot of the black rappers are middle class for that matter... I just didn't want to have to explain it anymore so I just left it off.

So how do you account for the inclusion of its lyrics in the anthology? What did you think was different?

I thought reading it in a book was a lot different because it would be surrounded by a whole bunch of other lyries that I thought put things in context; you could see the stereotypicality of it.

I'm interested about that in context of "Walk on the Wild Side," which uses terminology which had widely fallen into disuse and disfavor even by the time of its release twenty years ago.

You mean "colored" as opposed to “black” That was the point of it.

How so?

I didn't see what difference it made colored, black, red, green.

Did you think that that was a distinction for you to make?

Me as well as anyone else. That's pretty gentle, as things go.

But it still raises issues of personal versus external self-definition, and who has more right to the self-definition of a group.

Well, probably the group.

So where do you see yourself as entering into that in this particular lyric?

I just thought it was ludicrous - arguments about whether it should be black or colored.

Would you think of it as being as ludicrous for any ethnicity or other circumstance of your own? Well, I, we have to deal with things like Public Enemy.

And if I were talking to Chuck I would be as vociferously raking him over this.

Um-hmm. Well as a writer I think you have to do your own defining, in the end. I mean I've had people come up to me and criticize me for that. And in public performance in fact, I just say "the girls go" at this point because, y'know, if you're gonna criticize it for that you might end up saving well why is it "black girls." And, if you keep going in that direction you might have to stop writing the song entirely. Because I don't think what I said was insulting. I mean I called up my friend Ruben Blades when I wrote a song called "Halloween Parade." because he's Panamanian, and I said, "In the context that I'm using the word 'spic,' is that insulting?"

He said "No." That's another one l've wondered about. What was his perspective on that?

Using street slang. There's a lot of slang that runs through that song.

An omniscient voice scooping up a lot of vernacular?

Yup... Just an accurate portrayal. If he had said he thought that was a slur, I wouldn't have used it. As far as between colored and black, the decision wasn't in on that; there were heavy objections on both sides, and it's certainly not a decision for me to make — as to how a group of people refer to themselves, when they're arguing about it at the very same time themselves. And at this point I remove myself from the whole thing by just saying "girls."


Velvet revolutionaries: Reed with Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and John Cale. Photo: Gram Wood, 1994.

Some statements bring things around, others stick them in loops; this last dizzying turnabout and other non-sequiturs I shall spare the reader and Lou's posterity signaled the latter, so I moved on to a question about the Velvets reunion and how it took the average band's calculated career climb and turned it into a daring risk of career suicide by confronting nostalgia rather than affirming it.

Was it meant to raise expectations?

Well if it had been calculated there'd be an American tour going on as we speak. My raison d'etre was fun and when there's no fun there's no reason to do it. The fun vanished and so did I. Forever. It'll never, ever, ever happen again - guaranteed. Let's just say, interpersonal relationships not being what they should be. Keep in mind the Velvet Underground was never popular in the first place, so what great money is there to be made out of it? It's hilarious to be one of the most non-commercial groups in history and then you think, "Wow, it might be fun to play in public," and get accused of going commercial. I don't mind making money by the way, I have nothing against making money; just, it wasn't the reason. I can't be bought.


This brought the career and the conversation full circle. If you're looking for idols you not only will be disappointed but should be, and I found Lou Reed to be someone who has a problem recognizing and disowning some of his mistakes, but no trouble not repeating them and seldom adding more — and an ability unique in his field for honoring and surpassing his successes.

By now he was obviously eager to achieve others, but was easily drawn back to praise a friend. "It's always a privilege and an honor to be involved with Wim Wenders," he said, attesting that no one knows how to use a song in film better, and stressing the un-lip-synched spontaneity of his own new one, and of the Velvets album, with a fitting summation on a career spent in the discontent that equals life and how to improve it "There's no studio overdubs," he noted.