You wrote a song on The Blue Mask called “The Day John Kennedy Died,” in which the main character is sitting in a bar watching a football game on TV when he hears the news. Where were you when you heard about the assassination?
That day is exactly like it was in the song, although I’ve run into some people who say there wasn’t a football game on that day, in which case I’ve obviously lost my mind. But I can swear that’s how I remember it. I was in the Orange Cafe, in Syracuse [New York], watching a football game on TV. All of a sudden, this rumor started. “Did you hear about Kennedy?” And everybody ran into the bar.
Kennedy’s death was a milestone in the cultural and political upheaval of the Sixties. What were your aspirations as a fledgling writer and musician at the time?
I lie about this so much, I suppose I should try to tell the truth. I was at Syracuse University. I was in the film school and the drama school. But mainly I was in the bar. That’s where I met Delmore Schwartz. It was the only bar there. You took two steps out of the school and there was the bar. I studied with him in the bar. I took classes with him, but it was mainly meeting every day for hours in the bar. Actually, it was him talking and me listening. People who know me would say, “I can’t imagine that.” But that was what it was.
At this time, Delmore would be reading Firmegans Wake out loud, which seemed to be the only way I could get through it. Delmore thought you could do worse with your life than devote it to reading James Joyce. He was very intellectual but very funny. And he hated pop music. He would start screaming at people in the bar to turn the jukebox off.
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I later found out — after he died — a lot more about him than I knew when I was a kid, just what state he was in when I met him. But at the time, no matter how strange the stories or the requests or the plan, I was there. I was ready to go for him. He was incredible, even in his decline. I’d never met anybody like him. I came from this small town out on Long Island, nowhere. I mean nowhere, the most boring place on earth. The only good thing about it was you knew you were going to get out of there.
I hadn’t thought of being a songwriter yet. I wanted to write a novel; I took creative writing. At the same time, I was in rock & roll bands. It doesn’t take a great leap to say, “Gee, why don’t I put the two together?”
You founded the Velvet Underground in New York in 1965, just as the hippie movement was starting out in San Francisco. How did you and the other Velvets relate to flower power?
We were from New York City, with everything that was going on there, and we thought the whole thing was laughable. Above and beyond that, I was interested in writing the Great American Novel, and I wanted to use the rock & roll song as a vehicle for it. And life as we had seen it did not lead us to go for all this other stuff that was going on out on the West Coast.
Jeez, it was really funny. We were doing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in New York one night, and right around the corner was Timothy Leary and some mixed-media event. He criticized us, saying, “Those people are nothing but A-heads, speed freaks. “So the people talking for Andy Warhol said, “Those people take acid. How can you listen to anything those people say?” It was that inane and ridiculous.
It was very funny — until there were a lot of casualties. Then it wasn’t funny anymore. I don’t think a lot of people realized at the time what they were playing with. That flower-power thing eventually crumbled as a result of drug casualties and the fact that it was a nice idea but not a very realistic one. What we, the Velvets, were talking about, though it seemed like a down, was just a realistic portrayal of certain kinds of things.
I might add, Rolling Stone at the time did not embrace us with open arms. I remember Ralph Gleason wrote this editorial telling how much he liked Lenny Bruce and how the trouble of being in favor of free speech was that you had to defend the likes of Lou Reed. I never forgot that. I mean, John [Cale] was here on his Leonard Bernstein scholarship; we were all from college. To be accused of something like that was so parochial.
And this was not during Reagan and the PMRC. This is supposedly flower power, freedom of speech, freedom of this and that. These guys are supposed to be so open-minded. I remember reading something about us there: “the virus from New York.” We represented everything bad and evil spreading out from New York to the West Coast. You would have thought we’d landed on Mars.
One of the major differences between a Sixties icon like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the first Velvet Underground album was that while groups like the Beatles were dealing in grand concepts and high art, you were singing about people in the here and now, many of them barely able to hold on to reality.
I was also trying to write poetry at the same time. That was a very big part of it. I think the lyrics really hold up on their own, and the fact that you can get a drum and guitar in back of them is pure bliss for someone like me.
I was in love with rock — because rock does this thing to you. You get directly to somebody, unfiltered. This person doesn’t have to go to the movie theater. This person will be listening, alone, maybe at five in the morning. I read this interview where John was complaining, “You know, we did this stuff, we’re trying something new, we look out, and there’s all these socialites dancing to it. It felt like ‘What a failure.'” And I’m saying that had nothing to do with it. That was just a side thing going on. What was important was the records going out, going to people. These people were going into their homes and apartments with these records and really listening to them. And we were always writing on a one-to-one level. So if you listen to the record, it’s like somebody sitting across from you. It’s not that different from reading a book, but because there’s the music, there’s this other thing happening.
Aside from his managing and promoting the Velvet Underground in the early days, what was Andy Warhol’s impact on you as a writer and as an observer of the human circus at the Factory?
I watched Andy. I watched Andy watching everybody. You’ve got to understand, I was never part of it. I was not a great friend of Andy’s.
But I was really fascinated about how this thing was happening. It was a mixture like I’d never seen in my life. I was from a small town — Freeport, Long Island. And here it all was. It was like landing in heaven. I would hear people say the most astonishing things, the craziest things, the funniest things, the saddest things. I used to write it down.
It was just such an obvious thing to do. It was sitting there, waiting for someone to write it down — someone who also played. Dylan was still into his political stances then. This area was still open. He went in once in a while, but he wasn’t staking it out.
Despite the West Coast aversion to what you were doing, the Velvet Underground spent a lot of time playing the psychedelic-club-and-ballroom circuit in the late Sixties. What kinds of audiences were you getting — hippies, alienated teenagers?
Who showed up? I don’t remember anymore. I run into a bunch of different people who are in bands — Ric Ocasek was saying how he saw us at La Cave, in Cleveland; Chrissie Hynde saw us there. We definitely had an impact on a certain type of person. There was a place in Philadelphia we used to play, the Second Fret. One of the weirdest stories about that is that I had taken the name Velvet Underground from this paperback book I had seen, just this junky book with a great title. I went into the Second Fret, and this girl was there taking tickets. She said to me, “My father just died.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” “He wrote that book.” Small world.
David Bowie, who coproduced your LP Transformer, was certainly a Reed acolyte, covering your songs and, as Ziggy Stardust, writing about the same kinds of rock & roll madness. What, in turn, did you get out of your early-Seventies relationship with him, besides a hit single [“Walk on the Wild Side”]?
I wanted to see how he did things in the studio. What did he do? He seemed really quick and facile. I was very isolated. Why were people talking about him so much? What did he do that I could learn?
I do that to this day. The guys in U2 have such a clear vision for guys that young. I asked them, “How do you do it in the studio?” I asked Peter Gabriel, “Gee, how do you do it?” I’m curious; I want to know the alternatives.
What did you think of glitter rock and the Ziggy-style androgyny that followed in Bowie’s wake? You had been writing about sexual confusion and deviancy for years.
A lot of it reminded me of when I was with Warhol. It was just that more people were doing it. Then it became stylized and very commercialized. And when that happened, it became nothing.
I always thought one way kids had of getting back at their parents was to do this gender business. It was only kids trying to be outrageous. That’s a lot of what rock & roll is about to some people: listening to something your parents don’t like, dressing the way your parents won’t like. Then the adults are doing it, too, and it becomes pointless. Then what’s next? Everybody’s got long hair now? Okay — skinheads. Everybody becomes a skinhead? Long hair. It’s all built around the idea of being offensive to some other generation, and nothing more. It doesn’t carry any weight.
Don’t you think it’s interesting that the kids of all these hippies became all these yuppies? Think of what’s going on in the world today. If this was the Sixties, the college kids would be in the streets tearing the buildings down. They would never tolerate what’s going on in South Africa, what’s going on with Reagan, the Iran-contra thing. They wouldn’t put up with it for two seconds.
I’m not saying they were the good old days. It’s the difference in the generations. You get a lot of parents who are prodrug, so now you get these strait-laced kids who are very Republican. All these outrages are going on, and they’re sitting there doing nothing. It’s interesting, because their kids will probably be the other way.
You have been appearing on MTV in a Rock Against Drugs public-service announcement. [“I stopped. You shouldn’t start.”] As the writer of “Heroin” and “Sister Ray,” did you feel awkward doing that TV spot?
When all these rock people make these announcements — “I did it, you shouldn’t” — my attitude when I was out on the street was “Now he’s had his fucking fun, and he’s going to turn around and say, ‘Don’t have any fun because I’ll tell you it’s not worth it.’ Who the fuck are you to tell me anything?”
I had a lot of problems with that spot. I was prefacing it, saying, “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but speaking for myself, da, da, da…” And the director said, “Lou, no offense, but this is aimed at eight-year-olds. You do that and they’ll go to sleep.” So I thought about it, and that’s when I came up with what I said. The one thing that bothered me was I would hate to think the kid thought I was preaching at him. Yet on the other hand, the drug problem is so severe. And with me, it’s no secret that I had a drug problem and a drinking problem. I don’t know if these kids know that. But seeing as it comes from me, that’s why I did it.
How do you look back now on your experiences with drugs — as a mistake, as a rite of passage?
I don’t think of it in terms of mistakes. It was what it was. I was in a position of choice. That’s how I handled my problems. That’s how I grew up, how I did it, like a couple hundred thousand others.
Things seem much more available now than they ever were. Now it’s on the level liquor is. That’s a lot different from what it was before, when you had to be a gutter rat, seeking it out.
But on the other hand, the truth is the stuff could always kill you, right then and there. So what reason is there not to do it? There isn’t any. You just do whatever you want. It’s a free country. If you want to blow out your brains, go ahead. All I wanted to say in that commercial was “I did it once, now I don’t. You don’t have to.” And who better to have that come from than me?
This summer you toured Europe, opening for U2. How did it feel playing for huge outdoor audiences full of people young enough to be your children?
It’s great. They come in completely fresh — “Gee, what’s this?” It’s interesting that I connect with them. Sometimes, with an audience like that, I try to cut down the songs that have a lot of words, or maybe ease them into it.
I’ll give you an example. We were doing “Street Hassle.” Bono loves “Street Hassle.” And after we did it one night, he told me, “You know, if you sang ‘sha-la-la-la’ more, the audience would sing along with it. That’s the fun part of the song; I love it when you do that. Stay with it — they’ll love it.” Next time out, I did that — changed the words around and did the “sha-la-la-la” more. Sure enough, they really liked it. Funnily enough, I liked it, too.
Actually, I have two favorite parts of “Street Hassle.” One could be my epitaph: “Sha-la-la-la, man.” Perfect. Caught that kind of character right on the money. The other part is “You know some people ain’t got no choice/ And they never can find a voice/To talk with that they could call their own/So the first thing that they see/That allows them the right to be/Why, they follow it/You know it’s called/Ba-a-a-ad luck.” It’s incredible. It’s a down thought. And it explains a lot of things that happen to a lot of people.
Few artists can match the depth and breadth of your oeuvre over the past two decades: the Velvet Underground, Transformer, Berlin, Metal Machine Music, Street Hassle and The Blue Mask. What is it that fuels you — musically, spiritually?
This will sound very sentimental, I understand. And like Bette Davis, I hate cheap sentiment. But I was in the bar with Delmore one night. He was very drunk, and I was getting ready to try and get him home. He said to me that when he dies and goes to another world better than this one, he would be watching me. He threatened to haunt me if I didn’t really try to write well and never sell out. And he said to me, “You know, if anybody can haunt you, I can.”
I really took that seriously. He saw fit to think even that I was capable of writing decently. Because I never showed him anything I wrote — I was really afraid. But he thought that much of me. That was a tremendous compliment to me, and I always retained that.
All through this, I’ve always felt that if you thought of it all as a book, then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel. It tells you all about me, of growing up in the Sixties, Seventies and now the Eighties. That’s what it was like for one person, trying to do the best he could, with all the problems that go along with everybody. Except mine took place in public. And I wrote about that too.