LOU-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O,” rumbles the well-chilled audience. For a second, even David Letterman seems rattled. The unsettling chant-tribute, a response to the announcement that “a true rock-and-roll legend” is here tonight, echoes through the Ed Sullivan Theater. Its recipient, however, sits cool as ever in the greenroom, sipping chamomile tea and wearing black leather pants.
“I used to think they were booing,” says Lou Reed, author of such rock romans a clef as Street Hassle, Transformer, and, of course, “Walk on the Wild Side.” In shaggy, collar-length brown hear and taut, leathery skin, the 54-year-old legend sits across the carpet from the Artist Formerly Known as Larry “Bud” Melman. Paul Shaffer leads the band in a rousing Nine Inch Nails cover while Reed waits to perform a song from his excellent new record Set the Twilight Reeling, his first since 1992’s harrowing account of two close friends’ death, Magic and Loss.
Indeed, the man Letterman calls “nothing but cool” has pretty much earned the panegyric. As guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for the Velvet Underground in the sixties, he brought Dylanesque lyricism to punk noise and darkness, and spawned about 95 percent of bands currently passing for “alternative rock.”
Afterward, he began one of rock’s most compelling solo careers. Chronicling life as a junkie, speed freak, and polysexual being (and that’s just “Walk on the Wild Side”), Reed wrote with a conversational honesty matched in rock only by John Lennon’s. It’s this straight-forward, often uproarious directness—more than the seamy glamour of his reportage—that makes the aging Reed such an enduring presence, that makes the guys waiting for him on the corner of 53rd and Broadway tell him he’s “the Man.” “We read,” says a character in Shadowlands, “to know that we are not alone.” We listen to Lou Reed for the same reason. He is, as the chant suggest, the Bruce Springsteen of hipsters. Lou-o-o-o-o-o-o.
New York: You’re probably rock’s most famous chronicler of New York City life. How have your feelings about the city changed in these days of cleaner subways, “quality-of-life issues,” and the impending Disneyfication of Times Square?
Lou Reed: I personally think there should be a section of the city that’s like Times Square. In one sense, it’s terrible to lose that. On the other hand, some of my musicians live in that area, and they said it was so dangerous and so bad and now suddenly its not. And in the subways, you can look out the windows and see what station you’re getting to, and that’s nice. What I really wish they’d fix, though, is when that guy’s talking over the loudspeaker, in the train and in the station? No one has ever understood what he says. No one even tries to. It’s accepted as just another degradation you go through in New York, like cabdrivers who don’t speak English.
What’s the worst cab ride you ever had?
I was going down to Seventh Avenue once and told the driver, “Hey, let’s cut over to Eighth Avenue,” and he said, “Where’s that?” Actually, another one was worse. We got hit head-on by a limousine. I was lying on the ground and a drunk came over and said, ‘I saw—I saw…I saw the whole thing. Gimme 10 percent, I’m there.
Talk about a street hassle.
Well, there was an even worse one in California. We hit a van that was stopped in the freeway fast lane. When the cops showed up, they were saying, “Didn’t think any of yuh’d live through this.” The guy who was driving—his rib’s sticking out of his shirt. A friend of mine is on the ground bleeding. And when they came over to me, the cop put the flashlight on me and said, “Hey [snaps fingers, points], “aren’t you…doot-de-doot….?”
What’d you say?
I didn’t say shit. At that point, I actually didn’t know.
The Velvet Underground has been inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, has a new boxed set out, and is enjoying lavish retrospective praise from the critics. The media seem t have really come around on your work. Since when? Since when? Nah…they’ll never make it up to me [laughs]. But really, I didn’t see the press lavishing any praise—what I read was just people saying this group has been influential, blah, blah, blah, and they’re getting an award. You never see individual writers saying, “I love their records. They couldn’t give them enough rewards. This is so long overdue, they should impeach the chairman.
Well, compared to the early days. Well, in the early days they hated us. Critical people. That or nobody knew who we were. People thought that Andy [Warhol] was the lead guitarist.
Your new record addresses the right in typically direct terms with song, “Sex With Your Parents [Mothefucker] Part II.” What are your thoughts now that Buchanan is winning primaries?
I keep thinking of Yeats, who said the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity. I can’t understand why the other side, namely us, is not so outraged that we come together, instead of campaigning only to keep, like trees from getting cut down, or only to keep animals safe.
How come you refused to let your songs be used in the film I Shot Andy Warhol?
Let me put it into perspective. What would you think of a movie called I Shot John Lennon? “Keanu Reeves is Mark Chapman….The problems. The stress. What drove him to it?” People would picket! I mean, you see the resentment against Warhol, how it still exist. They can do whatever they want and I wish them well; I’d just rather not be a part of it.
You spent two and a half years on this record, and most of it was on the recording process. Have you become a perfectionist, like Woody Allen, who never sees his films because of al the compromises an mistakes?
Every now and then something will catch me off guard on the radio and I’ll like it. But it’s usually excruciating. I mean as far as the Velvet Underground records go, God bless them, they’re great records. But we sounded way, way better than that. All my life I’ve been trying to have that kind of power of a song like “Sister Ray” and have you be able to understand the words. This new record is the first one where I’m truly happy with the sound.
You’ve said you like people to listen to your records whole, from beginning to end. Why is that?
I liked how, when you listened to an album on vinyl, it stopped halfway through. I don’t know anyone who’d say, “Whoo! Boy” and run across the room to flip it over. You went and had a cigarette, had a beer, joined the army, and then played the second half. When they went to CDs, the intermission vanished. I’m just saying, if that’s the case, why not treat the album as a whole, a connect work, with an organic build?
Especially since the literary component of your work suggests your songs are chapters in life that connect, the way the new album’s song “NYC Man” seems to be, in mood and subject matter, a sequel to “Walk on the Wild Side.”
That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense. The song sounds and feels so New York. The horns are like traffic horns. And the attitude, that way of being—just like, Look, it’s okay. It’s all right. You go your way, I’ll go mine. I’m a New York City man. It’s funny because in Spain, a guy told me that the posture that man is taking there is actually a very feminine position and they have a word for it.
You said that after Magic and Loss, with its searching moving songs you wrote after losing friends to terminal illness, you just wanted to rock.
Well, Magic and Loss was about a special situation that I think all of us are faced with. And there was no [rock] music to deal with that particular subject matter. You had to go listen to Bach. I can’t imagine ever doing a record like Magic and Loss again. Still, I like to think that these records are something that you can relate to because it’s a real person talking to you.
Your last film appearance was in the tobacco rhapsody Blue in the Face. Do you still smoke?
I haven’t had a cigarette in eleven months. I went through months and months of “Oh…blow the smoke towards me” and then even read in the “Science Times” that some people get so depressed from not smoking that they’re better off smoking! I don’t know how I managed, but now I find I never want one.
How’d you meet your current flame, Laurie Anderson?
We were both part of a benefit in Germany. I asked her if she would do me the honor of sitting in on my set. I was going to do a theatrical song called “The Dream” from Songs for Drella. So she read for the part. And got it. [Laughs.] I was dumbstruck and in awe and I continue to be.
So have you— I think I’m the most fortunate person on earth to have met somebody like Laurie Anderson.
The most vibrant, wonderful, beautiful, astounding woman any human being could possibly be fortunate enough to meet in their lifetime. With 400 billion new galaxies from Hubble, how did I get this lucky?
It looks like you’re doing martial arts in the video for the new single “HookyWooky.” Are you?
I am. I’ve studied it for years. A guy named Larry Tan taught me this thing, it’s like chow mein kung fu. He calls it triharmony. It’s for unity of mind, body, and spirit. But you should also be able to kill somebody in close quarters in a New York phone book.