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Lou Reed: The Rolling Stone Interview

Reed talks about the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol and his new album, the scathingly brilliant "New York"

May 4, 1989
Lou Reed on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Lou Reed on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

The heckling starts in the middle of the very first song. Above the steely guitar strains of "Romeo Had Juliette," the gritty ode to love under siege that sets the stage and the tone for Lou Reed's urban apocalypse suite New York, some bozo up in the balcony of the Orpheum Theater in Boston keeps yelling. "This sucks! Play some rock & roll!" The bozo wants hits; Reed couldn't care less. He is opening his two-hour-plus show tonight by presenting New York in a manner befitting its urgent content and narrative structure, as a complete song cycle, all fourteen songs in order, from start to finish.

The bozo nearly ruins "Halloween Parade," a bittersweet hymn for the bodies and souls lost to AIDS, with his yapping. At which point, Reed, never one to suffer fools gladly or otherwise, stops the show, takes dead aim and fires.

"This is rock & roll. It's my rock & roll," Reed snaps with acidic relish. "If you don't like my rock & roll, why don't ya just split? Get a refund, motherfucker." Upstairs, silence. The bozo is history.

Nobody humbles a heckler better than Lou Reed. Of course, nobody does Lou Reed better than Lou Reed. He said so himself in 1978 on the aptly titled live album Take No Prisoners: "I do Lou Reed better than anybody." A decade before that, he set the standard for literate streetwise verse, dark lyric humor, white avant-noise and primal rock & roll throb with the Velvet Underground, arguably the most influential American band of rock's last quarter century.

Reed's disciples and descendants range in age, genre and temperament from David Bowie, Ric Ocasek and Chrissie Hynde to U2, Sonic Youth and R.E.M. Reed remains, however, unbeatable at his own game. He is also at the height of his powers. New York is his best album since the harrowing 1982 document of love and obsession The Blue Mask; it is also the closest he has truly come to recapturing the Velvets' rarefied magic on record since their demise. On New York he dramatizes the physical and moral rotting of the Big Apple with the same corrosive wit, whiplash language and poker-faced humanity with which he depicted drug addiction in "Heroin," errant sexual behavior in "Walk on the Wild Side" and, in the epic "Street Hassle," the fragility of hope and love among the ruins.

Tonight at the Orpheum, part of a spring tour that includes a sellout week on Broadway, Reed animates the album's characters and crises with the slow-boil indignation of his unmistakable deadpan singing and the vibrant guitar cross-talk between himself and Mike Rathke, which recalls the heady primitivism of Reed's six-string dialogues with Sterling Morrison in the Velvets. "Dime Store Mystery," Reed's farewell to his friend and the Velvets' original manager and mentor, Andy Warhol, is a deliberate, dynamic evocation of the group's singular style of dissonant, and poignant, art song – the ominous serrated bowing of electric standup bassist Rob Wasserman, à la John Cale; Robert Medici's ghost-dance drumming, à la Maureen Tucker; Reed's own fireball guitar distortion; the howling feedback coda. At forty-seven, an age when many of his contemporaries are just rehearsing for retirement, Lou Reed remains true to the sonic extremes and uncompromised vision of the Velvet Underground.

"I did what I always do," Reed says of the songs, sound and sentiment of New York between swigs of Perrier and drags on a cigarette before sound check. "The only change has been – and I know it sounds clichéd – but if you practice something over and over and over and over, you're supposed to get better at it."

The fans agree. New York is Reed's highest-charting album since the mid-Seventies heyday of Transformer (which spawned his only Top Ten single, "Walk on the Wild Side"), Rock n Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance. There have been a few near misses in the interim, like the user-friendly power rock of 1984's New Sensations, but Reed insists his interest in mainstream pop success is less than zero. "I've become completely well adjusted to being a cult figure," he says.

What does bug him is the continuing furor, twenty-two years after the release of the first Velvet Underground album, over his style of writing and choice of subjects. To the young Lou Reed, fresh out of Syracuse University – where he divided his time between creative-writing courses, poetry studies with Delmore Schwartz and a series of campus bar bands – frank discussions of sex, drugs and ravaged romance were no big deal in serious literature. If pop music was indeed art (a major mid-Sixties premise), scoring these discussions to electric guitars and tribal drums was the most logical thing in the world.

"I never in a million years thought people would be outraged by what I was doing," Reed says. "You could go to your neighborhood bookstore and get any of that." Except Reed's version of the Great American Novel, now more than twenty-five albums in length, has the weight of keen personal observation and, during a particularly colorful period in the Seventies, autobiographical truth. (Today his worst vice is smoking – "the next to go," he vows.)

With New York in the Top Fifty, the tour drawing rapturous audiences and anticipation high for the November première of Songs for 'Drella – Reed and John Cale's dramatic and moving requiem for Andy Warhol (recently debuted as a work-in-progress in New York) – Reed sat down with ROLLING STONE for in-depth conversations in Boston and Washington, D.C., combined here with a session that took place earlier this year in New York. With his round-rimmed glasses giving him a slightly professorial air, he talked of his songwriting; his love of Fifties rhythm & blues; the spiritual and artistic influence of Andy Warhol; the music and mystique of the Velvet Underground; the making, and the message, of New York.

Photos: Lou Reed Through the Years

"It's interesting when you've been around as long as I have to see these things come around," Reed remarked near the end. "It's like, do you want to be serious? About your own life? And if you don't want to be serious, there's party records, and that's a lot of fun. But I'm interested in something else. I'm not saying it's better than all the rest. It's just different.

"I have a few more words at my disposal. And I can't ignore that."

 When you recently inducted Dion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you reminisced in your speech about studying geometry at home on Long Island in the Fifties while grooving to R&B vocal groups like the Paragons, the Diablos and the Jesters on the radio. Most people do not associate you or your records with that kind of vintage street-comer soul.
Well, they might not equate me, either, with someone trying to figure out solid geometry. But listen to the end of "Halloween Parade." Jeffrey [Lesser], the engineer, did that great high falsetto. All my background vocal parts are based on that land of music.

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