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Lou Reed: Out of the Darkness

The acid-tongued Homer of the New York underground turns out to be a nice guy after all

Lou Reed

Lou Reed in 1986.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Most of his fans have never seen it, but Lou Reed’s smile is something to behold. In a midtown-Manhattan rehearsal studio, Reed is leading his new touring band into the mighty Memphis soul finish of a toughened-up “Legendary Hearts” when his dark, probing eyes suddenly light up like a pair of Broadway theater marquees. As the Stax-Volt swell of trumpet, sax and keyboards fades away, Reed’s notorious castiron jaw softens up and his thin, flinty lips crack open in a blazing display of dental fireworks. The laugh that follows, a howl of delight that leaves Reed shaking happily on his stool, fills the room with contagious glee.

”Think Otis! Think Otis!” Reed gushes, thrilled with the stark ballad’s new full-bodied flavor. As the musicians charge through a punchy ”I Love You, Suzanne,” he leaps from his stool and starts cuing the band Stokowski-style with the neck of his guitar. So it goes all afternoon. When he isn’t lighting up a fresh Marlboro, Lou Reed — dressed in a black T-shirt, black leather vest and jeans faded to a perfect robin’s-egg blue — is all smiles and grins.

Surely this can’t be the Lou Reed everyone loves and fears. The poker-faced, acid-tongued Homer of the New York underground, whose Iliad of sex, drugs, fear, loathing and fragile, hopeful love in the asphalt jungle spans two decades and more than twenty-five albums. The man who followed his only Top Ten hit, ”Walk on the Wild Side,” a jazzy 1972 roll call of Andy Warhol’s pop-art shock troupe, with Berlin, a cheerless romantic tragedy that he describes as “my version of Hamlet.” Who chronicled his own traumatic experience as a teenager undergoing electroshock therapy in ”Kill Your Sons” (from 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance) and publicly pilloried New York critics Robert Christgau and John Rockwell (”Fuck you! I don’t need you to tell me that I’m good”) on Take No Prisoners, a live LP released in 1978.

Reed can still fire those verbal poison darts with deadly aim. Before rehearsal, he matter-of-factly zapped a surprised interviewer with a lecture on ethical journalism, citing his displeasure with a story that had run six years ago. But in front of his new four-piece band, cranking out ultrafuzz chords on his guitar, revving up the punchy, commercially sleek new tunes from his two latest albums, 1984’s New Sensations and this year’s Mistrial, the middle-aged Lou Reed is anything but a monster.

After spending much of the Seventies playing and recording mostly for an audience of critics, glitter kids who’d bought ”Walk on the Wild Side” and Velvet Underground die-hards, Reed has connected with a new generation of fans who discovered him on MTV and in ads for Honda scooters. Reed was also one of the Artists United Against Apartheid on the Sun City record, and he won over a host of U2 and Sting devotees with his nightly performances on the recent Amnesty International tour. At age forty-three, Lou Reed has come up from the old Velvets underground in a very big way, with a smile to match.

A couple of days after the rehearsal, at the first of two shows at the Ritz in New York City, Reed acted more like a favorite uncle, mixing new songs and Velvets classics with snappy patter and paternal charm. “This is the nice Lou Reed act,” he quipped at one point, and in “Turn to Me” he declared, “Lou Reed loves ya. You can call me anytime, turn to me.”

You think that’s funny? “The next night,” Reed recalls with an impish grin a week later, as he sits next to an ashtray overflowing with Marlboro butts in an RCA conference room, “I told them, ‘Now, this is a slow one. So I want you to all hold hands with the person next to you and kiss them.’ “

Welcome to the new — maybe the only real — Lou Reed.

The old Lou Reed met his demise with the release of 1982’s The Blue Mask and 1983’s Legendary Hearts, which together constitute a frank, musically raw two-volume study of marital tension and profound fear scored with the edgy understatement of the Velvets’ old twin-guitar spasms. Those records were, Reed says now, “the end of something, the absolute end of everything from the Velvet Underground up.” In forming a band that paired the notorious New York avant-punk guitarist Robert Quine, a longtime Velvets acolyte, with a fluid, soulful bassist named Fernando Saunders, Reed had summarized his entire career — seventeen erratic, troubled, triumphant years spent trying to reconcile his love of pithy pop expression with the exorcising shriek of free jazz and the brutal honesty of his lyric themes.

In one song, ”The Blue Mask,” he launched into a venomous attack on phony thrill seekers who dabble in deviance, who always back off when faced with the ultimate abyss (“Dirty’s what you are and clean is what you’re not/You deserve to be soundly beat”). Full of gruesome imagery — torture, masochism and ultimately castration — “The Blue Mask” was a nightmarish sum total of Reed’s own long odyssey through the pain of pleasure and the pleasure of pain. Even now, the song gives the usually fearless Reed the shivers.

“I had to be really careful not to look at the lyrics too closely, the symbolism going on in there,” he says of writing the song. “But it had real power to it, an unconscious power, and I didn’t want to interrupt the flow. When I got to the end of ‘The Blue Mask,’ I thought, ‘Take that out, the very end.’ But I couldn’t. The whole thing was leading up to that. Either leave it or take the whole song out. And I didn’t want to take the whole song out.”

Reed kept the song’s bloody ending — “Don’t take death away/Cut the finger at the joint/Cut the stallion at his mount/And stuff it in his mouth” — but he can no longer bear to listen to the song. “‘The Blue Mask’ as a song is really devastating,” he says. “I don’t anticipate doing any more of that.” Ironically, Reed took that final plunge into his own lyric abyss at a time when he was enjoying married life in the remote rural calm of New Jersey. The unabashed declarations of love on 1980’s Growing Up in Public, like “How Do You Speak to an Angel” and “Love Is Here to Stay,” coincided with his marriage to Sylvia Morales, his second wife, on Valentine’s Day, 1980. But while The Blue Mask also included a few love letters to Sylvia (“Heavenly Arms,” “Women”), Reed used the album to exorcise the accumulated anger, fear and bile of his crazy years by reaching back to the primitive ferocity of the Velvets.

But if The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts were Reed’s goodbye to the relentless angst of his past, 1984’s New Sensations was a calm hello to a rosier middle age. ”I want to eradicate my negative views,” he sang in the title song, ”and get rid of those people who are always on a down.”

”I thought it was the difference between being twenty, thirty and forty,” Reed says of the evolution that led to that LP, ”of getting out of that typical New York lockup and branching out. I don’t want to be forever the chronicler of New York nightlife, or probing the dark recesses of the psyche. I’ve done that to the satisfaction of my ambitions.”

With the help of Fernando Saunders, a studio pro whose credits include John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck and Seventies R&B star Hamilton Bohannon, Reed is now enjoying the art of commercial record making. On Mistrial, for instance, Saunders introduced him to the marvels of drum programming and computer sound sampling. The result was a hit LP.

Saunders, who coproduced the album with Reed, says that when work began on Mistrial last October, Reed ”wasn’t even thinking about selling records. I was thinking about it more than he was. I felt people deserved to hear how great this guy is as a lyricist and a writer. But the way the world should hear it is tamed down to a point where they could grasp the essence of it. Even though he’s been making solo records for a long time, I see Mistrial as a real solo Lou Reed record. It highlights him, the lyrics and everything. This is Lou Reed the way he wants to hear himself.”

Reed is hardly skimping on attitude. ”I’ll keep yours and/I’ll keep mine,” he declares in his unmistakable monotone over fat, bristling, fuck-you guitar chords in Mistrial‘s rap-meets-metal entry, ”The Original Wrapper.” The next song, ”Mama’s Got a Lover,” is a double whammy, a protest against pretentious New York art snobs and a mother’s betrayal of her son’s devotion to his real father (”She’s starting a new chapter/I wish she was on the last page”). It’s also a true story, Reed notes. ”It’s something a friend of mine told me about. It happened to his mom. And I transposed it.”

But the old Lou Reed was never this easy to digest. And the new Lou Reed is not as blasé about commercial success as it may seem. He agreed to sing ”My Love Is Chemical” for last year’s White Nights soundtrack — one of only two songs he’s ever recorded that he didn’t write (the other was ”September Song” for the Kurt Weill tribute LP Lost in the Stars) — because he wanted to pick up some studio tips from veteran producer Phil Ramone. Reed has also learned how to use television to his advantage. For the Honda ad, he turned on his old deadpan charm to the sound of ”Walk on the Wild Side.” And when asked why he agreed to do a recent guest VJ shot on MTV, he simply replies: ”Buy those Lou Reed records.”

”I would like more commercial success, I really would,” Reed admits. ”But it doesn’t particularly affect what I do. Because I always end up doing the thing that I like, for better or worse.

”Right and wrong,” he declares firmly, ”exists for me only in the sense of my hearing. If I like it, then it’s right. If I don’t like it, then it’s wrong. And all the rest of the stuff never comes into it. We’re only talking about a rock & roll record, after all.”

Brooklyn-Born Louis Alan Reed made his first rock & roll record at the age of fourteen. It wasn’t a particularly good record. The group was called the Shades (subsequently changed to the Jades on the label), the song was called ”So Blue,” and the sound was copycat Fifties teen anguish, with blustery car-horn sax and Jordanaires-style background crooning. Reed played rhythm guitar and wrote the flip side, a nice slice of earnest New York doo-wop called ”Leave Her for Me.” Though it was hardly indicative of the Velvet Underground’s white-noise wail-to-come or the grim, almost conversational tone of junkie confessions like ”Heroin,” that 1957 single had everything to do with Reed’s formative experiences as a songwriter and performer. No matter what extremes he went to in later years, Reed always made his strongest, most lasting statements with a simple rock & roll heartbeat.

Ellie Greenwich, ”Da Doo Ron Ron,” doo-wop, rockabilly — these were Lou Reed’s principal influences. Already a veteran of classical-piano lessons, the teenage Reed was more interested in the gritty elegance of street-corner R&B and Sun Records’ hillbilly throb. ”I wanted to write songs like Warren Smith and Carl Perkins,” he says. His favorite rock & roll ”just had three chords. I figured I could do it, too.” After getting his first guitar, Reed went to an instructor, who started to put him through the usual beginner’s drill. ”He took out a book that had like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and I said, ‘No, just show me how to play this song.’ He did and that was it. I just wanted to know the three chords. And I went from there.”

”There” included an unlikely but crucial apprenticeship in the early Sixties at the New York headquarters of Pickwick Records, where Reed churned out hack variations on current rock & roll hits for ninety-nine-cent budget albums. At the time, Reed was fresh out of Syracuse University, where he had studied poetry with Delmore Schwartz, taken courses in creative writing and opera and picked up spare change playing guitar in campus bar bands with future Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison. However, on the Pickwick assembly line, Reed learned how to get maximum effect from the most basic hooks, recycling and refining those three essential chords into embryonic riffs and choruses that would in later years blossom into enduring gems like ”Sweet Jane” and ”Rock and Roll.”

”At Pickwick, I was like an unsuccessful Ellie Greenwich, a poor man’s Carole King,” Reed remembers with a wry smile. ”There were these three other guys. We’d all go into this room and write songs. We’d just be sitting there until someone came up with something.” Like ”The Ostrich,” which Reed wrote and recorded in 1964.

”I had seen a thing by Eugenia Sheppard in the Herald-Examiner saying ostrich feathers were coming in. I was convinced there was going to be an ostrich-feather fad and if I wrote a song about it, I could make a million dollars. So I wrote this song ‘The Ostrich’ [‘We got something new we’re gonna show you, man/It’s gonna knock you dead/When we come upside your head’], figuring that a dance craze to go along with the latest fashion thing would be perfect. That was my idea of being cunning and clever in 1964.”

In fact, Reed was nursing his real ambitions on the side. ”The other guys, I think, wanted to have a future making pop records. Meanwhile, I had my own songs I was writing. And they ended up on the first Velvet Underground album. But no one wanted to hear my shit.”

That was certainly true during the Velvets’ brief, tumultuous lifetime. Formed in 1965, the original Velvet Underground was a crude but exhilarating synthesis of Reed and Morrison’s rootsy taste in rock and rhythm & blues and the avant-garde leanings of John Cale, a young Welsh composer who played bass and viola. Maureen Tucker, the younger sister of one of Reed’s fellow English majors at Syracuse, rounded out the group, playing simple rhythms on a minimalist drum kit.

Despite the early patronage of Andy Warhol, who used the band as the centerpiece of his traveling ’66 freak-rock happening, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Velvet Underground sold pitifully few records and got zero airplay. Their radical guitar violence and frightfully uncommercial lyrics baffled the group’s record company and estranged a dazed hippie population ill prepared to digest the seventeen-minute atonal squall of ”Sister Ray” or Reed’s blunt portrayals of life on the hip New York fringe. Even though the band retreated from the noisy extremes of 1968’s White Light/White Heat after Doug Yule replaced Cale later that year, the peace-and-love brigade continued to ignore the gentle radiance of the Velvets’ love songs (”Pale Blue Eyes,” ”I’ll Be Your Mirror”) and the powerful surge of rock & roll tradition at the core of the band’s sound. Reed finally quit in 1970 during the making of Loaded, the group’s last studio album. ‘

‘The Velvet Underground was not just some freakish experimental group,” says Blue Mask guitarist Robert Quine. ”It was straight from Little Richard and Elvis, getting as experimental as possible but never losing the basic, hypnotic, funky feel of nice simple rock & roll.”

”My prime ambition,” Reed claims, ”was to knock the door down on what rock & roll songs were about. If this stuff had been novels, nobody would have thought twice about it. But rock & roll was supposed to be a form looked on with such contempt that adults wouldn’t listen to it. I wanted to put adult things into it, real life as it was going on all around us. Drugs, violence, New York, all this stuff. I was in the right place at the right time, falling into Warhol’s thing. What a setup.

”The other idea,” he continues, ”was the music matched the words. If the words were scary, the music would get scary. If the words were sad, the music would get very sad. Even today, you might have a song with biting words but the music is real up and happy. You think, yeah, why would anyone want to buy despondency? But in those days, I thought there was a certain kind of aloneness that was going on and I felt I wasn’t the only one feeling that.”

Subsequent generations of fans have proven him right. Artists as diverse as David Bowie, the Cars, Simple Minds, Jonathan Richman and Echo and the Bunnymen have either recorded Reed’s songs or openly acknowledged his influence as a musician and lyricist as well as that of the Velvets as a band. Some of these acts sell a lot more records than Reed does, but few of his spiritual descendants have made records as catalytic as White Light/White Heat. And while Reed believes the posthumous lionization of the Velvet Underground is way out of control — ”What else can you do with two guitars, bass and drums, more or less?” — even he was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic immediacy of PolyGram’s ’85 release VU, an assortment of Velvets demos and rough studio diamonds from 1968 and ’69, which he helped compile.

”It was a great record. It sounded like it was recorded by a new band last week. It was astonishing.” He’s not as enthusiastic about the recent follow-up, Another View. ”They’re outtakes of the outtakes, the bottom of the barrel. But on the other hand,” he adds, ”I know what it’s like to be a fan. I went out and bought an album of Little Richard’s outtakes. I know what it means to want to hear that.”

Did he or didn’t he? That’s what most people want to know about Lou Reed. Could ”Heroin,” for instance, probably the most ruthlessly truthful song ever written about a junkie’s terminal love for his dope, simply have been good guesswork? Are all those songs about sex and self-destructive kicks merely great reportage, 60 Minutes meets Chuck Berry?

”Nobody could be here now,” Reed said in 1980, ”having done all the things I’m supposed to have done.” Even today, ask Reed how much autobiography there is in a particular song and he’ll give you a percentage: ”Legendary Hearts,” 100 percent; ”New Sensations,” 70 percent, ”with the rest of it just some nice stuff because I thought it would be nice to have it in there, not because I’m really that way.” ”Street Hassle,” he says, is completely true. It’s just not true to his life. ”I just changed the gender of the person that was involved. I wasn’t even there for it. It was relayed to me.”

While Reed flatly refuses to answer certain questions about his personal life, his life is an open book for anyone able to read between the right lines. ”If I wanted to know where I was at a particular time in my life,” he says bluntly, ”I’d just find out what album was out that year. They say the acorn’s not far from the tree? The record isn’t far from me.”

By that vinylogical clock, the reductionist fury of Reed’s infamous ’75 double album Metal Machine Music — ”the all-time feedback guitar solo,” he claims proudly, ”unrestricted by key or tempo” — was at least to some degree a defiant response to the growing web of management problems and lawsuits that would plague him for the next nine years. (Reed finally settled the last of these pestilent legal actions in 1984; one major victory was his acquisition of the publishing rights to all of his songs.) In striking contrast, New Sensations and Mistrial are the Eighties sound of Lou Reed’s private contentment and new public self-assurance. With his wife, he divides his time between the couple’s green acres in New Jersey and a place in Manhattan. He still soaks up that street energy and inevitably squeezes it back out into song, but no longer to the exclusion of other things. For Lou Reed, there is now a lot more to life than the embattled lovers, street-corner jive-asses and doomed dopers of his rock & roll Naked City.

”I just realized at a certain point that it was very important to get out of New York at least once in a while, to really experience something a little different.” Adjusting to the quiet of the Jersey woods took some time, he admits. ”You don’t hear any cars at night. You look up in the sky and there are stars. It’s strange. The closest I ever came to seeing stars before was the Planetarium. It’s kind of pathetic.”

When he first moved to the Jersey countryside several years ago, Reed brought a lot of his hip New York attitude with him. ”I’d show up out there and go, ‘What the fuck is going on? It’s raining here. What is this, another weekend with rain?’ Finally, they sat me down to tell me the facts of life, such as there are farmers out there and they’re getting killed by the drought. I became aware of what weather means, besides New Yorkers going away for the weekend.”

That little lesson in agriculture later inspired Reed to perform at the 1985 Farm Aid benefit concert. He also contributed to Little Steven’s all-star protest single ”Sun City” (trading lines with John Oates, Bobby Womack and salsa star Rubén Blades, a close friend), and this year Reed performed at all six shows on the Amnesty International tour headlined by Sting and U2.

”I don’t write about political prisoners,” he says. ”I write about internal prisoners, people who are going through internal battles in a really small framework, close relationships, betrayed friendships. But just because I write about what I write about doesn’t mean I don’t care about what’s going on around me. The days of me being aloof about certain things are over. I couldn’t not be vocal about apartheid.” The Amnesty tour, he continues, ”was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my life, bar none. It changed me forever. Writing letters to these prisoners will have an effect on them? And then I met these people. It actually mattered.

”I feel I’ve just started to figure out what I’m going to do about these things. Okay, where are you, Lou Reed? What do you have to say for yourself while all this is going on? I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it and I’m sure it’ll be on a record.”

The new ”nice” Lou Reed flashes one of those great smiles and then gets ready to leave. He has a few more songs to rehearse, a tour about to start and a new generation of fans out there — lives waiting, as he once wrote, to be ”saved by rock & roll.” ”I’m not gonna sit by,” Reed says as he finally stands up to go, ”and watch the turnip rot.” 

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