Lou Reed: The Rolling Stone Interview

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

Lou Reed on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger
Lou Reed on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

Like "And the colored girls go do da-do da-do" in "Walk on the Wild Side"?
Sure, all of it. I had my first record out when I was fourteen [the Jades' "Leave Her for Me," in 1957], doing those kinds of songs. Now listen to "There Is No Time" [on New York]. If you get past the sonic blast, "There Is No Time" is just a very hyped version of that.

Where was the R&B in the songs and sound of the Velvet Underground?
It was always in the band somewhere. There were two sides of the coin for me. That kind of music – R&B, doo-wop, rockabilly. And then Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, stuff like that. When I was in college, I had a jazz radio show. I called it Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, after a Cecil Taylor song. I used to run around the Village following Ornette Coleman wherever he played. There was his song "Lonely Woman," Charlie Haden's bass on that [he hums the riff]. Extraordinary.

At the same time there was this other song, one of my all-time favorites, called "Outcast," by Eddie and Ernie. Like pre-Sam and Dave. Just killed me. I used to play it for the Velvet Underground and say, "Listen to this bass part, it's astonishing."

There is that little guitar quote from Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike" in "There She Goes Again," on 'The Velvet Underground and Nico.'
A nice little introductory thing, right? The thing is, we actually had a rule in the band for a while. If anybody played a blues lick, they would be fined. Of course, we didn't have any money to fine anybody with. But that was because there were so many of these blues bands around, all copping on that. And while I really liked the stuff for singing, I can't sing that. I had to find my own way. So all the arranging and stuff, those R&B kind of parts might be in the back of the mind, but it came out white. I meant what I said about Dion at the induction ceremony. There was a white guy singing that way, very obviously from New York. And I was very impressed by that.

How did Andy Warhol actually "produce" the first Velvet Underground album?
By keeping people away from us, because they thought he was producing it. They didn't sign us because of us. We were signed because of Andy. And he took all the flak. We said, "He's the producer," and he just sat there.

Was he merely a benign presence?
We just did what we do, and he would say, "Oh, that was great." "Oh, you should leave it that way." "Oh, no, that's wonderful." I'd been around studios before, writing and recording these cutout-bin kind of records, trendy songs that sell for ninety-nine cents. But Andy absorbed all the flak. Then MGM said they wanted to bring in a real producer, Tom Wilson. So that's how you got "Sunday Morning," with all those overdubs – the viola in the back, Nico chanting. But he couldn't undo what had already been done.

Were any of the songs on the first Velvets album written during your previous tenure writing quickie hits to order at Pickwick Records?
Some of them. "Heroin." I don't remember the other ones, but I know I had "Heroin" down.

Didn't you feel a bit schizophrenic, writing trendy, prefab pop songs such as "The Ostrich" and "Cycle Annie" by day and then something like "Heroin" by night?
But Andy was doing commercial art, then he was doing his other art. He supported the show [the Exploding Plastic Inevitable] with his commercial art. Where do they think we got the money to put it on? We didn't have inheritances or something. We were broke. Then Andy would do a TV Guide cover or something.

So I didn't see that as schizophrenic at all. I just had a job as a songwriter. I mean, a real hack job. They'd come in and give us a subject, and we'd write. Which I still kind of like to this day. I really love it if someone comes in and says they want a song, they give me a subject. And it's even better if they tell me what kind of attitude they want. I can divorce myself from it completely. Andy used to say he really liked it when people corrected his commercial art because he had no feelings about it one way or the other. He didn't feel anything, and since they did, they must be right.

Would Andy give you subjects to write about?
Sure. He said, "Why don't you write a song called 'Vicious'?" And I said, "Well, Andy, what kind of vicious?" "Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower." And I wrote it down, literally. Because I kept a notebook in those days. I used it for poetry, things people said. Just like in "Last Great American Whale" [on New York] – "Stick a fork in their ass, and turn them over, they're done." I first heard it in the Midwest; I heard John Mellencamp say it. I'd never heard the expression before. He said, "Stick a fork in my ass, turn me over, I'm done." I wrote that one down and changed it a little.

But I was doing that around the Factory. I went back and wrote a song, "Vicious/You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour/Oh baby you're so vicious." Then people would come up and say, "What do you mean by that?" I didn't want to say, "Well, ask Andy."

Or he said, "Oh, you should write a song, so-and-so is such a femme fatale. Write a song for her. Go write a song called 'Femme Fatale.'" No other reason than that. Or "Sister Ray" – when we were making the second record, he said, "Now you gotta make sure that you do the 'sucking on my ding-dong' song." "Okay, Andy." He was a lot of fun, he really was.

He was perceived more as an instigator, a kind of puppeteer.
He was this catalyst, always putting jarring elements together. Which was something I wasn't always so happy about. So when he put Nico in, we said, "Hmmm." Because Andy said, "Oh, you've gotta have a chanteuse." I said, "Oh, Andy, give us a break." There we are, doing six sets a night at this terrible tourist trap in the Village, the audience was attacking people over the music.

Warhol and the Velvets parted ways in 1967. Did he lose interest in the band?
No. Andy passes through things, but so do we. He sat down and had a talk with me. "You gotta decide what you want to do. Do you want to keep just playing museums from now on and the art festivals? Or do you want to start moving into other areas? Lou, don't you think you should think about it?" So I thought about it, and I fired him. Because I thought that was one of the things to do if we were going to move away from that.

What was Andy's reaction to that?
He was furious. I'd never seen Andy angry, but I did that day. He was really mad. Called me a rat. That was the worst thing he could think of.

How do you look back on the Velvets now? Do you think, after only five years and four albums, that the band left behind a lot of unfinished business?
John [Cale] says that it broke up before we'd accomplished what we should have accomplished. I think he's right in a way. My records are my version of it. John's records are his version of it. The drumming of Maureen Tucker is something that can't be replaced by anyone. And then, of course, Loaded didn't have Maureen on it, and that's a lot of people's favorite Velvet Underground record. So we can't get too lost in the mystique of the Velvet Underground.

Yet that mystique is more pervasive now than it ever was before. Where do you hear the influence of the Velvet Underground today?
I hear things that sometimes make me think, "Oh, that sounds like Velvets." Or, "That sounds like me," or Maureen. It's rare to hear it all together. Then on the other hand, the Velvet Underground could do a lot of things a lot of ways. They could be very dissonant, very pretty. And they were all two-, three-chord songs. My albums are all two-, three-chord songs. I know for a young band, if they need some material, my stuff is kind of good for them, because it doesn't have a lot of chords. It's all right there. Maybe that's why people like it, because it's so simple.

After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1970, you worked for your father for a while.
As a typist. He had this company, he was like president of it. He really wanted me to be in the family business. But that was a real impossibility. But when I left the Velvet Underground, I just packed up. I'd had it.  So I was a typist for two years. My mother always told me in high school, "You should take typing. It gives you something to fall back on." She was right.

There is an old Lou Reed press bio issued by RCA that has handwritten comments by you. And for that period immediately following the Velvets, you put down "exile and great pondering." Pondering what?
What the next move I was going to make was. Did I want to do it myself? Did I want to have a band? Did I just want to do songwriting, not even get onstage? I'm the last person in the world I'd have thought should be on a stage. Some people really like having a spotlight on them. I don't. What I like is the song and performing it. Doing it for people – who like it.

I want out of the rock & roll thing. I really do. It's a little late now. But I don't enjoy that end of it. Yet there I am, up onstage, performing my stuff. Certainly part of the reason originally was because no one else would. And I still think that to some extent. I do me really well.

With the success of "Walk on the Wild Side" and the subsequent renewed interest in the Velvets, you became best known as the man who dared to put great social taboos in song – drug addiction, sexual deviance. . . .
It was only taboo on records. Let's keep that in mind. Movies, plays, books, it's all in there. You read Ginsberg, you read Buroughs, you read Hubert Selby Jr. If you want to have this stuff taken on a level that's worth considering, you can't compare yourself to the other stuff that's on record. You start looking at Brecht and Weill.

Did you feel pressured, though, to keep writing so-called Lou Reed songs?
For a while, I felt a little self-impelled to write Lou Reed Kind of songs. I should have understood that a Lou Reed song was anything I wanted to write about.

But during the Seventies you didn't just write about extremes in art and lifestyle. You also lived them.
Real-life zigzagging. Yeah, why not? It's taken me a while. Maybe I'm a late bloomer. Put it this way. I'm not harsh on myself for any of that. If anything, I have an understanding and sympathy for the situation. What I'm devoted to now is never letting those situations happen ever again. I would just walk away.

In 1989, how do you relate to that Lou Reed?
I don't look back on it. I wrote a record about it, though. I wrote a song, "Growing up in public/With your pants down." That's what I thought of the whole thing. And that said all that I had to say about that. Most of the major mistakes were in public, and I put them on record to boot. Lots of novelists have put it in their books. Norman Mailer's got his Advertisements for Myself.

It's quite remarkable that considering your colorful history and notable lack of hits, you can still get your "advertisements" put out on record by a major label.
Weird, isn't it? I don't know why people give me record deals. I think it's because they at least break even, and I think they're making a few bucks while they're at it. I'm a cult figure, but I sell some records.

What about that memorable instance in 1979 when, during a show at the Bottom Line, in New York, you pointed out your record-company president, Clive Davis, in the audience and demanded, "Where's the money, Clive"?
I was drunk, and I've always regretted that I did that. On the other hand, I was mad because there were supposed to be some promotional displays in the city, and I thought I was being jerked around. I responded in a way that I'm not particularly proud of. But that's the way I was then. You pushed me, I push back. Or I waited until I could do to you what I thought you did to me. I don't think Clive was trying to do anything to me. But I was frustrated, so I took it out on him, and I've always regretted that I did that.

On the other hand, that's Lou! [Laughs.]

What would you say is the most common misconception about you?
Oh, I don't know. I would have to hear them.

For instance, that you're difficult.
I'll tell ya, I'm a genuinely nice guy. I really am. A real nice guy. But I think I'm temperamental. And I'm talking about me, today. I think I have a pretty good handle on it. But sometimes temperamental can be misconstrued as being difficult.

For instance, I don't like being interviewed. Why would anyone want to be interviewed? Anybody in their right mind? Why would you, if the position was reversed, want to sit here and have me ask questions about you? "What was it like, this failure you had when you were twenty-two, David?" Who needs it, unless you're an egotist and you really like talking about yourself? And I don't Because I know myself. I think I'm a nice guy.

I've certainly been really difficult in the past, in a lot of ways, or extremely temperamental. But that's because I was beset, and I didn't have it together. It's a different story now. Of course, I'm older. Supposedly when you get older, you get something from all of it before, or you drop dead and that's the end of it I think I know about certain things better than other people. And I'll fight for it. And I don't think that's being difficult I mean, it sounds tacky, but it's like being true to your vision.

How did you feel when "Dirty Blvd." [from 'New York'] was released as a single to radio with the words "piss" ["Give me your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em/That's what the Statue of Bigotry says"] and "suck" ["The TV Whores are calling the Cops out for a Suck"] blipped out? It was no big deal in 1972 to hear "Walk on the Wild Side" on AM radio complete with the line "even when she was giving head."
I did the blipping on "Dirty Blvd." I didn't want the promo people to feel defeated before they ever went in. I was with [mastering engineer] Bob Ludwig – Bob and I go back a long time, all the way to Metal Machine Music – and Bob said to me, "If you think they're gonna have a problem with this, why don't you just give 'em a choice, so promo guys don't have to go out and bang their heads against the wall? Just put a guitar there instead of the words." So I asked the company, "Would that make life easier for you?" "Oh, are you kidding? We didn't want to bring it up."

Doesn't it bother you that you of all people would have opted for such a compromise?
It would bother me if the other version didn't exist I thought the song was representative of the album, and I wanted to make it easier for everybody. I didn't want to get into a battle about those two words. I've been around way too long. I've made my point. People understand where I'm coming from.

'New York' is certainly quintessential! Reed. The city and its citizens have been grist for your mill since the dawn of the Velvets.
Well, Faulkner had the South, Joyce had Dublin. I've got New York – and its environs. It's just a big city. The reason I don't think the album's inhibited by topicality is because I travel around a lot. I talk to people, and it's just the same old stories over there. Different name, same situation.

But there is a difference in perspective. There's anger and urgency in these songs. Whereas in your Velvets songs, you were more of an observer, an emotional journalist.
I don't know if there's any anger in there.

Urgency?
That's different from anger. 

But there is a feeling of an eye for an eye, being up against the wall, in songs like "There Is No Time," "Busload of Faith" and "Hold On."
It's interesting, from a writing point of view, the techniques I used. The sequence is important. Because every time you're hit with a song, you've been hit with a few others before it. There have been these other things whispered in your ear, setting you up for what that song's going to talk about. In "Romeo Had Juliette," you have the two teens. You have "Halloween Parade," people dying of AIDS, then Pedro in the welfare hotel in "Dirty Blvd." Then you have these two people who are fighting ["Endless Cycle"] and what if they had a kid.

Then it's into the ecology ["Last Great American Whale"], and suddenly you've got a guy talking about "Gee, maybe I oughta have a kid" ["Beginning of a Great Adventure"]. But while he's talking about that, you've been loaded up with five other ones. What has been happening to the kids? What is happening to the land?

In recent years you've performed at benefit concerts, appeared on "Sun City" and toured on behalf of Amnesty International. Did those experiences in any way inspire or influence the attitude and subject matter of 'New York'?
There's a lot of things to write about I could write about the table, who sat at the table, what the table means to me. It's a great old antique table, look at that spot over there. There's a lot of things you can write about. But this is what came out. Plus, I've been privately talking about these things with a lot of people, about what is going on. And as a writer, that really drew my attention, today, now. It's perfectly possible I'll put out a party record next. But in my own way, I think this is a party record. Just not the kind you're used to. It's not a pop record. I don't even think I'm part of rock & roll anymore. There's a niche that's "Lou Reed music." And that's over there.

Let's talk about some of your contemporaries. Bob Dylan, for example. He hung out with Warhol at the Factory quite a bit in the mid-Sixties and was at the time, like you, busy transforming rock & roll songwriting.
I always go out and get the latest Dylan album. Bob Dylan can turn a phrase, man. Like his last album [Down in the Groove], his choice of songs. "Going ninety miles an hour down a dead-end street" – I'd give anything if I could have written that or that other one, "Rank Strangers to Me." The key word there is rank.

I can really listen to something like that The rest of it is all pop. I have zero interest in it. But Dylan continuously knocks me out. "Brownsville Girl," the thing he did with Sam Shepard, he said, "Even the SWAT teams around here are getting pretty corrupt." I was on the floor. I have that same reaction to some of my own stuff. And the only other person I can think of who does that for me is Dylan.

What about John Lennon? Like you, he wrote frankly in his songs about his life and lifestyle.
He wrote a song called "Mother" that I thought was a really good song. "Jealous Guy." I liked his stuff away from the Beatles. Just my own taste. But the kind of phrasing that knocks me out is Dylan's. For language, Dylan kills me to this day.

Bruce Springsteen.
I like him in concert. He's a great live performer. What I really like is the little skits with Clarence and everything, these great spoken introductions.

How did he come to recite those lines on "Street Hassle"?
Because if I'd done them, they'd have come out funny. And when he did it, it sounded real. He was at the same studio, the Record Plant. It wasn't making it with me doing it So the engineer said, "Why don't you ask Bruce to do it? He could really do that" So we asked Bruce to do it, and he rewrote it a little.

The ending of his passage is a clever take-off on "Born to Run" – "There are tramps like us/Who were born to pay." Was that his contribution?
No, that was mine. It had been written with him in mind, but he wasn't there. I was just playing off the title.

As someone who was part of the Warhol celebrity circus at its height, what do you think of the "celebutante" party scene in New York now?
I'm not familiar with it. I don't go to clubs, I don't go to concerts. See, after being with Andy, if I never went to another one of those things, it would be too soon. And I still feel that way. I don't go to the China Club, I don't go to M.K., I don't go to the Tunnel. I get cards from all these places, but I don't go. Not interested. I'm kind of dull, huh?

Is there any pop music out there now that interests you at all?
I haven't heard enough. I don't listen to the radio. I don't know what's out there. I know my wife, Sylvia, is really mad about the Waterboys. So we listen a lot to the Waterboys. But of course, I'm really interested in the lyrics. There are few and far between, someone who can really do that.

After you got out of college, did you ever seriously pursue writing – that is, poetry or prose, as opposed to songwriting?
I won a poetry award. While I was at the Factory, Gerard Malanga [a Warhol associate and Velvets biographer] submitted one of my poems to a little magazine. I was getting published in these little magazines. Eugene McCarthy gave me the award, something like "one of the five best new poets in a small literary magazine." I was actually mad at Gerard for submitting it, because I hated the poem. I didn't care if someone else thought it was good. I knew it was terrible. I thought my song lyric was way better than that particular poem.

You've always contended that your records are your version of the Great American Novel.
Yeah, when you play it all in a row. If you have the patience to follow it.

Do you think your "novel" would have made it as poetry or prose, rather than rock & roll?
It wouldn't have had a drum. It wouldn't have had guitars. So you wouldn't have gotten that physicality from it That's kind of what I like about it.

Ironically, given the country's increasingly conservative disposition, your work seems more drastic, more potent, than it did ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago.
I think the cover-up of Kennedy's assassination, then the pardoning of Nixon finished it for a lot of people. They said, "Well, we didn't know it was bullshit before. We certainly know it's bullshit now. So fuck it. Every man for himself." No one gives a shit. They know they're getting fucked. No time to take care of anything else.

But 'New York' is very much your way of saying you do give a shit.
It is. It's also about the use of language. That's why I say maybe we shouldn't think of me making rock & roll records. I'm in this for the long haul. I feel I've just started to get a grip on it, what I can do with it, what I want to do with it. And who I'd like to take with me when I do it.

It's really easy, in a sense, because the people who like it will go with me. And the people who don't will say I'm full of shit. And more power to them. They don't want me, and I'm not interested in them, either. That's okay. [Smiles] I have no problem with that.

This story is from the May 4th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 551: May 4, 1989