More than thirty years after Lou Reed struck his first detached chord with the monstrously influential Velvet Underground, the New York born and bred singer/songwriter is still entrenched in the art of experimentation.
Back in the Velvet’s late-Sixties heyday, Reed wrote about sex, drugs and seedy urban reality at a time when the West Coast was dosed up on its feel-good flower power hippie trip. The Velvet’s mindset influenced the likes of bands from Television to Sonic Youth to U2 to Luna and paved the way for the provocative lyrics of today’s music.
Now, the fifty-six-year-old Reed is still delivering his gritty, cynical take on life in a variety of forms, from spoken word performances to helping score a futuristic rock opera, Time Rocker, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last November. His latest release, Perfect Night Live in London, was recorded at last year’s Meltdown Festival specifically to capture classics like “Perfect Day,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and “Dirty Blvd.” as performed on a new acoustic guitar built just for him — one that completely eliminates feedback when played through an amp.
There is also the reissue of his sobering Berlin solo album, though some Reed fans will be disappointed it does not include the fourteen extra minutes of recorded material that ended up shelved during the original. The decision to keep Berlin as is was Reed’s.
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Reed is planning another studio effort tentatively set for ’99 release, is working on a revised edition of his collected lyrics to be titled Pass Thru Fire, will appear in a cameo role in the Paul Auster film Lulu on the Bridge and is participating in a group photo exhibit at the SoHo Triad Gallery in New York. Tonight, PBS will air the American Masters documentary Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart, which spans the quintessential New Yorker’s career from the Velvet’s Andy Warhol era to his glam Transformer days to his current solo projects. Reed recently spoke with Rolling Stone Online about his current projects and the VU legacy. His uniformly short answers, however, suggest an artist who seems content to let his music do the talking for him.
What was your reaction when you were approached about doing a documentary about your career?
I had been hesitant of these things before. I haven’t been interested. But this offer came through Timothy [Greenfield-Sanders], the director, who is a friend of mine, so I just said, ‘Why not?’ I thought it would be fun.
What do you hope people take away from it?
I don’t know. What did you learn?
I think it’s a bit of a history lesson that shows how we take for granted what was considered challenging and even shocking back in that era.
It’s nice to see some of the things that existed before now without being shocking. “Metal Machine Music” [from ’75] — you can hear that in industrial rock.
Was there any part of your life you did not want included?
I wanted them to concentrate on music.
Were they trying to get more like the book about your life, Transformer?
You bring up that book, I don’t like that book or the person who wrote it. I don’t think the bulk of it is true.
You’re credited with making rock a serious art form. Was that an intention?
I was trying to write really well. I was trying to not be part of any trend. I was hoping songs might be around a little bit. You could still play them without embarrassing yourself.
How different is it playing those or reading those same songs today for you?
They hold up pretty good. What do you think?
Of course, but what about on the performing end? Do you have the same feeling as when you’ve written those songs?
I found sometimes you don’t know what a song is about until years and years later.
Is there any one in particular you’ve written and learned from later on?
I never realized just how much “Satellite of Love” was about jealousy.
You’ve dealt with a lot of loss of people close to you: Andy Warhol, Nico, Sterling Morrison, Doc Pomus. Magic and Loss focused on aging and death, and Songs for Drella was an ode to Warhol. Is that still a focus of your writing?
Loss is pretty much unavoidable by definition. I did an album [Magic and Loss], because I thought, ‘Gee, when you lose a friend there is no contemporary music here to listen to. Nothing to make you feel better or ease it, the experience.’ So that’s why I wrote it. Have you ever listened to it? Is it accurate?
It definitely hits a lot of nerves.
In a good way I hope.
I was listening to the words to “Waves of Fear” and was wondering what different fears are in your life now as opposed to the time you wrote it.
Oh, it’s gotten worse. … I’m joking.
What was the impetus for this new live album?
I was in love with the sound of this particular guitar. A beautiful custom-made acoustic that I wanted to electrify. It had such a gorgeous sound that I wanted to build the set around it … I thought there was this great clarity and it would be fun to look at some of the songs again. And there are three new songs there from Time Rocker, the play I did with Robert Wilson. “Into the Divine,” “Talking Book” and “Why Do You Talk?”
Your album Berlin has recently been reissued. How do you view the album now as opposed to when it came out?
Well, I got killed critically back then. By Rolling Stone, I think.
From what I’ve read, you didn’t care what the critics said back then: that the album was too cold and bleak.
Gee, how would they respond to Naked Lunch?
You were recently inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What does it mean to you?
I thought it was great. I wish Sterling had been around.
Where do you think the Velvet Underground would have fit into the music scene nowadays?
I don’t know. The Velvet Underground was such a foothold for modern music that it’s difficult to imagine it not being there.
Any other projects like Time Rocker up your sleeve?
I may have another project like that, but I can’t talk about it yet.
You think you would do more work with David Bowie after singing with him for his 50th birthday bash?
You never know.
From your earliest songs like “Waiting for the Man” through to “Dirty Blvd.,” the seedy underbelly of New York has always been a key touchstone in your work. Now that the city has been cleaned up and Disneyfied, is it as much an inspiration for your writing as it used to be?
There’s a lot of different things still going on. I can always write about jaywalking.