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.
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.
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