Lou Reed's Heart of Darkness

The artist discusses his music, struggles and why his morals don't matter

Lou Reed, 1979. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock & roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a bad joke.
—Lester Bangs, writing in Creem

I met myself in a dream / And I just want to tell you, everything was all right.
—Lou Reed, "Beginning to See the Light"

Cloistered in the dusky shadows of a Chinatown bar, his face lit by the glow of a trashy table lamp, Lou Reed looks like an artful composite of the mordant characters who stalk his songs. His thick, pale fingers tremble a lot, and his sallow face, masked with a poised, distant expression, looks worn. But behind that lurid veil lurks a sharp, fitful psyche, and with several ounces of bourbon stoking its fire, it can be virulent.

Lou has been ranting for almost an hour about his latest album, Take No Prisoners, a crotchety, double live set hailed by some critics as his bravest work yet, and by others as his silliest. He seems anxious for me to share his conviction that it's the zenith of his recording career—something I can't bring myself to do. Instead, I mention that the record might alienate even some of Reed's staunchest defenders. Instantly, his flickering brown eyes taper into bellicose slits. "Are you telling me," he snarls, "that you think Take No Prisoners is just another Metal Machine Music?"

Then, as quickly as he flared, Reed relaxes and flourishes a roguish smile. "It's funny," he says, "but whenever I ask anyone what they think of this record they say, 'Well, I love it, but I'm a little worried about what other people will think.' Except one friend. He told me he thought it was very manly. That's admirable. It's like the military maxim the title comes from: 'Give no quarter, take no prisoners.' I wanted to make a record that wouldn't give an inch. If anything, it would push the world back just an inch or two. If Metal Machine Music was just a hello note, Take No Prisoners is the letter that should've gone with it.

"You may find this funny, but I think of it as a contemporary urban-blues album. After all, that's what I write—tales of the city. And if I dropped dead tomorrow, this is the record I'd choose for posterity. It's not only the smartest thing I've ever done, it's also as close to Lou Reed as you're probably going to get, for better or worse."

He has a point. Take No Prisoners is brutal, coarse and indulgent—the kind of album that radio stations and record buyers love to ignore (it hasn't even nicked Billboard's Top 200). Which is a shame, because it's also one of the funniest live albums ever recorded. The songs (a potpourri of Reed's best known, including "Sweet Jane" and "Walk on the Wild Side") serve merely as backdrops for Lou's dark-humored, Lenny Bruce-like monologues. At one point, responding to somebody in the audience who objects to one of his many ethnic slurs, Lou snaps, "So what's wrong with cheap, dirty jokes? Fuck you. I never said I was tasteful. I'm not tasteful."

But the record's real bounty is its formidable last side, featuring petrifying versions of "Coney Island Baby" and "Street Hassle"—the definitive accounts of Reed's classic pariah angel in search of glut and redemption. "Street Hassle," in particular, is the apotheosis of Lou's callous brand of rock & roll. The original recording, a three-part vignette laced beguilingly with a cello phrase that turns into a murky requiem on guitar, was Reed's most disturbing song since "Heroin." The new, live version of "Street Hassle" is an even more credible descent into the dark musings of a malignant psychology, littered with mercenary sex and heroin casualties, and narrated by a jaded junkie who undergoes a catharsis at the end.

Lou Reed doesn't just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we're likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised. That is, if you're willing to allow your heroes a certain latitude for sleaziness.

Long before the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had begun preparing for a career as a hard-boiled outsider. When he was in high school, his mood swings and headlong dives into depression became so frequent that his parents committed him to electroshock therapy (an experience he later chronicled bitterly in a song called "Kill Your Sons"). Another time, during his student days at New York's Syracuse University, Reed reneged on his ROTC commitment by pointing an unloaded pistol at the head of his commanding officer.

After Syracuse (where, in his more stable moments, Reed studied poetry with Delmore Schwartz, a popular poet in the Forties), Lou took a job as a songwriter and singer at Pickwick Records on Long Island. While there, he recorded mostly ersatz surf and Motown rock under a multitude of names, and met John Cale, a classically trained musician with avant-garde leanings. In 1965, Reed and Cale formed the Warlocks, with Sterling Morrison, an old Syracuse pal of Lou's, on guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums. The group was renamed the Falling Spikes and then the Velvet Underground, after the title of a porn paperback about sadomasochism.

The Velvet Underground still looms today as a redoubtable influence on the New Wave. But in the context of the late-Sixties hippie/Samaritan rock scene, the group seemed, to many observers, positively malignant. "I remember," says Reed, "reading descriptions of us as the 'fetid underbelly of urban existence.' All I wanted to do was write songs that somebody like me could relate to. I got off on the Beatles and all that stuff, but why not have a little something on the side for the kids in the back row? At the worst, we were like antedated realists. At the best, we just hit a little more home than some things."

In the case of the Velvet Underground's first album, nominally produced by Andy Warhol, that viewpoint was presented as a remarkably ripened and self-contained group persona. Songs like "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Run, Run, Run" and "Heroin" depict a leering, gritty vision of urban life that, until the Velvets, had rarely been alluded to—much less exalted—in popular music.

By the Velvets' fourth album, 1970's Loaded, financial problems and lack of recognition prompted Reed to quit the band. He embarked on a solo career that became so spotty it seemed irreconcilable with the promise of his earlier work. After finally achieving commercial success in 1972 with "Walk on the Wild Side" (from Transformer, coproduced by David Bowie), Reed immediately began to test his audience's endurance. First he grilled them with the much-maligned Berlin narrative, then later with Metal Machine Music. In between, there were the hits, Rock 'n' Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance (the latter actually went Top Ten), records he now denounces as trivial, commercial contrivances.

Then, in 1976, after a brief, tempestuous marriage (the fodder for Berlin) and increasingly strained relationships with his manager and producer—brothers Dennis and Steve Katz—Reed rebounded. He disengaged himself from Dennis Katz, assembled a stoical, one-shot band and recorded Coney Island Baby, his most personal set of songs since his days with the Velvets. Following that, he left RCA Records for Arista and last year delivered Street Hassle—a jolting statement of self-affirmation—and now is about to release The Bells, which he thinks will surpass Take No Prisoners and which features a few songs cowritten with Nils Lofgren. It would seem that Reed's gifts of vision and expression are fully revivified and newly honed to a lethal edge.

Sitting in the bar, as a last flush of rain washes away the daylight outside, I figure both of us have had enough to drink for me to ask about where those lost years went. As a way of broaching the subject, I quote a passage from Rolling Stone's review of Street Hassle, in which Tom Carson describes Reed's decline as a degeneration into "a crude, death-trip clown." It sobers Reed right up. He smiles grimly and glances around the room. "That's not for me to comment on, is it? Obviously it's someone else's construction."

After a taut moment, he reconsiders. "Let me tell you a little story," he says. "It comes from a collection of personal prose that my friend, the late poet Delmore Schwartz, wrote, called Vaudeville for a Princess. In this one chapter he's talking about driving a car, and how as a youngster he had driven one as contemporary as he was; in other words, the year he was driving it was the year of the car's model. Subsequently, as he got older and fortune, perhaps, didn't smile upon him as he wished it would, the car he would drive was not at all of the same year as he was driving it, but it would be older—five, ten years older. Eventually, we get around to a time fifteen years later and he felt he was making progress because the car he was driving was only two years older than the year in which he was driving it. As a slight tangent, he makes mention not to mock him over this because he, too, has seen visions of glory and ticker-tape parades in New York City. Anyway, he's now at last out driving this car that's almost contemporary with his time, so he's obviously progressing. But he observes that nobody is with him to take note of the event, because he didn't have a license and his erratic driving reflected the fact that 'life, as I had come to know it, had made me nervous.'"

Lou pauses and smiles curtly. "Life, as I had come to know it, had made me nervous. I've probably had more of a chance to make an asshole out of myself than most people, and I realize that. But then not everybody gets a chance to live out their nightmares for the vicarious pleasures of the public."

Earlier in our conversations, during the tour that spawned Take No Prisoners, Lou and I meet in the same bar. Instead of his usual playfully testy demeanor, he seems sullen, almost solitary. "This is one of those days," he says, taking a seat at a corner table, "where everything's going to go wrong."

At first Reed's mood is hard to place, since his shows of the night before had clearly been fervently fought successes. But then I recall that when he'd come out for his second show, he found his guitar out of tune and threw it angrily to the floor in the middle of the opening number, cracking its body. "I could've cried then," he says, "but I don't really care now. I use my moods. I get into one of these dark, melancholy things and I just milk it for everything I can. I know I'll be out of it soon and I won't be looking at things the same way. For every dark mood, I also have a euphoric opposite. I think they say that manic-depressives go as high as they go down, which isn't to say that I'm really depressive."

Since Lou in his dark moods, though, is probably Lou at his most reflective, I decide to ask him how this affects his songwriting. He's said in the past that he never writes from a personal point of view, that he has "nothing remotely in common with the Lou Reed character." Indeed, much of his work, especially Berlin, seems the product of a detached observer, with no stake in the outcome of his characters' lives and no moral interest in their choices. But Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle seem as revelatory and personal as anything in Seventies music. Isn't the real Lou Reed in there someplace?

Lou sits quietly for several moments, studying a gold-plated lighter cupped in his hands. When he speaks, it's in a soft, murmuring voice. "There are some severe little tangent things in my songs that remove them from me, but, ah, yes, they're very personal. I guess the Lou Reed character is pretty close to the real Lou Reed, to the point, maybe, where there's really no heavy difference between the two, except maybe a piece of vinyl. I keep hedging my bet, instead of saying that's really me, but that is me, as much as you can get on record."

Lou signals the waitress over to order a double Johnny Walker straight. He seems to be coming alive a bit to the idea of conversation, his eyes studying me as he talks. "I have songs about killing people, but Dostoevski killed people, too. In reality I might not do what a character in my songs would, if only because I'd be jailed. It goes back to when I began to write songs, I didn't see why the form should be looked upon as restrictive, although since then I've seen the resistance it can generate. But that's only if you lose your impetus.

"In my own writing, for instance, I'm very good at the glib remark that may not mean something if you examine it closely, but it still sounds great. It's like a person who can argue either side of a question with equal passion, but what do they really think? They might not think anything, so you might not get to know them." Lou spots a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle on a nearby table and fetches it to show me a review of his concert the night before. He turns momentarily livid. The reviewer, Lou is quick to point out, spent most of his space denouncing the ticket price ($9.50 at the door) and Reed's take (reportedly $7500 a night) before commenting on his "unmusical manner," "incoherent lyrics" and his spawning of "sick-rock."

I recall that the Velvet Underground received similar reviews when they played the West Coast."When we left New York," says Lou, "we were shocked that we were such a big deal. For anyone who goes to movies or reads anything, why should we have been shocking? One reason, I guess, is that singing a rock & roll song is a very real thing; it's accessible on an immediate level, more so than a book or movie. People assume that what's on a record applies to the person singing it and they find that shocking, although they can pick up the newspaper and read things far more shocking.

"Maybe one of the reasons my stuff doesn't have mass appeal is that it does approach people on a personal level. It assumes a certain agreement of mores, or if not an agreement, then at least an awareness on the listener's part. But with somebody like this [Lou slaps the review with the back of his hand], it's just deemed incoherent and offensive from the top. Unmusical manner," he spits. "What a great phrase to be used by such a poor writer. It's like saying Philip Marlowe was unsavory.

"Anyway, there wasn't anything like us at the time of the Velvet Underground. There still isn't. 'Heroin' is just as right on the nose now as it was ten years ago. Shocking? I suppose, but I always thought it was kind of romantic."


"Yes, because it's not really like that at all," he replies. "There's not that much strain in that world. I've had kids come up to me and say, 'You turned me on to junk because of that song.' Well, you can't concern yourself with being a parent for the world. People deserve the right to be what they're going to be, both in the positive and pejorative sense. I just wish they'd see that you can't evolve through someone else."

But one thing that disturbs people about Reed's music, I note, is its lack of what might be called a moral stance. Lou shrugs his nose in disdain. "It's simply professional detachment," he says. "I'm not spinning around in the caldron of it all with no viewpoint. There is a viewpoint, although it's mainly the view that that's the way things are. Take it or leave it. The thing that allows a lot of my characters to leave it is something that ends up negating them.

"Let me propose something to you. Take the guy who's singing in the second part of 'Street Hassle,' who's saying, 'Hey that's some bad shit that you came to our place with/But you ought to be a little more careful around those little girls....' Now, he may come off as a little cruel, but let's say he's also the guy who's singing the last part about losing love. He's already lost the one for him. He's not unaware of those feelings, he's just handling the situation, that's all. And who would know better than the guy who lost somebody in a natural way? That's what my songs are all about: they're one-to-ones. I just let people eavesdrop on them. Like that line at the end of 'Street Hassle': 'Love has gone away/Took the rings right off my fingers/There's nothing left to say/But oh how I miss him, baby.'

That person really exists. He did take the rings right off my fingers, and I do miss him." Lou digs into the pocket of his jacket for his cigarettes. He lights one and looks straight at me. "They're not heterosexual concerns running through that song," he says. "I don't make a deal of it, but when I mention a pronoun, its gender is all-important. It's just that my gay people don't lisp. They're not any more affected than the straight world. They just are. That's important to me. I'm one of them and I'm right there, just like anybody else. It's not made anything other than what it is. But if you take me, you've got to take the whole thing."

I'm not sure what to say for the moment, so I sit there, returning his stare. I recall something he said the day before about Delmore Schwartz: "It must have been really incredible to have been good-looking, a poet and be straight."

Several days later, Lou is in Los Angeles for a series of shows at the Roxy. On the afternoon of his last show, I visit him at his Beverly Hills hotel and find him lying on the floor before the TV, watching a videotape of the previous night's performance. "Look at that guy," says Lou, pointing at himself on the screen. "He sure is shameless about occupying his own life." Lou Reed on the screen turns and looks over his shoulder and smiles at Lou Reed on the floor. Lou Reed on the floor smiles back.

On the screen a jagged tango pulse announces "Street Hassle." I've seen Lou do this song eight times, and each time something remarkable happened to his character—and to the audience. Although several of the people at those shows were hearing it for the first time, they nearly always sat in stunned silence. It was as if Lou were guiding them through a private and treacherous world, the world of Lou Reed's ethos. To miss this performance is to miss one of the greatest psychodramas in rock & roll.

Lou on the TV screen slicks his hair back now and begins declaiming to some unseen guest about how that guest has been too reckless with his dope, bringing his girlfriend to Lou's apartment and then fixing her up so carelessly that she overdoses on the spot. "I know this ain't no way to treat a guest," says Lou on the screen, "but why don't you grab your old lady by the feet and lay her out in the darkened street/And by tomorrow morning she's just another hit-and-run/You know, some people got no choice and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can call their own/So the first thing they see that allows them the right to be, they follow it/You know what it's called? Bad luck."

"You know," says Lou on the floor, turning to me, "every time I'm doing that song, when it gets to that awful last line I never know just how it's going to come across. 'So the first thing they see that allows them the right to be, they follow it/You know what it's called?' And here comes that line and it should punch like a bullet: Bad Luck. The point of view of the guy saying that is so awful. But it's so true. I only realize sometime afterward what Lou Reed's talking about. I just try to stay out of the way." Lou is up on his feet now and decides he wants to ride into Hollywood to find an obscure patch cord for one of his tape decks. Outside, it's a damp, gray winter day in Los Angeles. "This is the kind of day where, if you were in the Village in New York," says Lou, "you might go down to some gay bar and see if you can make a new friend."

As we swing onto Santa Monica Boulevard, Lou injects the tape resting in my cassette player. "We're the poison in your human machine," roars Johnny Rotten. "We're the future—You-rrr future." Lou has a queasy look on his face. "Shakespeare had a phrase for that," he says. "'Sound and fury signifying nothing.' I'm so tired of the theory of the noble savage. I'd like to hear punks who weren't at the mercy of their own rage and who could put together a coherent sentence. I mean, they can get away with 'Anarchy in the U.K.' and that bullshit, but it hasn't an eighth the heart or intelligence of something like Garland Jeffreys' 'Wild in the Streets.'"

We arrive at the stereo store, and Lou spends the next hour meticulously picking through accessory bins until he finds the cord he needs. Back in the car we talk a bit about the early Velvets albums. I ask Lou again why it was so hard for him, after he left the group, to maintain his creative momentum. He frames his reply carefully. "It was just an awful period. I had very little control over the records; they were really geared for the money. When I made Coney Island Baby, Ken Glancy, the president of RCA at the time, backed me to the hilt because he knew me. There were rumors that I couldn't stand tours because I was all fucked up on dope and my mind was going. I put out Metal Machine Music precisely to stop all of it. No matter what people may think of that record, it wasn't ill-advised at all. It did what it was supposed to do. But it was supposed to do a lot more. I mean, I really believed in it also. That could be ill-advised, I suppose, but I just think it's one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever done by anybody, anywhere. In time, it will prove itself."

What made Coney Island Baby such a statement of renewal?

"Because it was my record. I didn't have much time and I didn't have much money, but it was mine. There was just me and Rachel [Reed's male companion of the last several years and the raison d'être of Street Hassle] living at the fucking Gramercy Park Hotel on fifteen dollars a day, while the lawyers were trying to figure out what to do with me. Then, I got a call from Clive Davis [president of Arista Records] and he said, 'Hey, how ya doing? Haven't seen you for a while.' He knew how I was doing. He said, 'Why don't we have lunch?' I felt like saying, 'You mean you want to be seen with me in public?' If Clive could be seen with me, I had turned the corner. I grabbed Rachel and said, 'Do you know who just called?' I knew then that I'd won.

"It's just that turning that corner was really hard. When Ken Glancy backed me, that was step one; when Clive gave me a call, step two; and Street Hassle and Take No Prisoners are like step three. And I think they're all home runs. I'm a long-term player. Saying 'I'm a Coney Island baby' at the end of that song is like saying I haven't backed off an inch, and don't you forget it."

We arrive back at Lou's hotel and he invites me in to hear the difference the patch cord makes in his tape deck. Inside, two members of his sound crew are already waiting to take him to the afternoon's sound check, but Lou wants to play with his machines first. "It's funny," he says, sitting on the floor with his miniature speakers sprawled around him, "but maybe the most frightening thing that can be said about me is that I'm so damn sane. Maybe these aren't my devils at all that people are finding on these records—they're other people's. When I start writing about my own, then it could prove really interesting."

Maybe so, but I can't help recalling his earlier comment about what a master of the glib remark he is. I think Lou's been exposing plenty of his devils all along, and I think he knows it. On an earlier occasion, I'd told him his work sometimes reminded me of that of Diane Arbus, the late photographer known principally for her studies of desolate and deformed subjects. Lou recoiled instantly at the suggestion. "Her subject matter's grotesque," he said. "I don't consider mine grotesque. To show the inherent deformity in normally formed people is what I'm interested in, not in showing beauty in deformity." By saying that, Lou seems to be saying he knows exactly what devils he's after, and that he won't pass them off on anyone as angels. If Lou Reed has accomplished nothing else, that victory alone would be moral enough.