Grown Up In Public: Lou Reed at 80

Looking back on the man Lester Bangs once called a “pathetic death dwarf” but we hail as a forever hero

Lou Reed, the original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, would have turned 80 today (Image: RCA)

It was 1980, I was 24 and, yes, a bit nervous. Lou Reed was going to ring in momentarily, doing an interview from New York for a Boston Globe profile.

I’d done my research, as one does. I was a fan and had been listening to him – solo and with the Velvet Underground – and reading scads of contradictory things about him throughout the ‘70s. 

Five years earlier, CREEM’s Lester Bangs described Reed as “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is. On top of that he’s a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continuing in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh.”

In 1979, Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore wrote that “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.” 

Bangs’s bit was scabrous (and funny and maybe even half-true) and Gilmore’s, I thought, right on target.

So, I brought those lines up. Not surprisingly, Reed said he didn’t care for the aggressive and accusatory and antagonistic Bangs’ type of article-interview. As to the portrait Gilmore painted, he thought, it was “very dark and foreboding. A poet that’s going to burn out quietly at 5:30 in the morning with no one there to care. A very romantic notion that bears no relationship to the truth.”

Stepping into it, I asked: OK, what is the truth, then? What is the real Lou Reed like?

“Oh, the real me,” Reed said dryly, “is about 6 foot 6 inches, comes in at 245 – kind of Clint Eastwoody-ish – and has a Ph.D. in chemistry.”

Lou Reed Growing Up In Public, Arista 1980

I liked that answer. It was the start of, well, something good. Over the ensuing years, I’d review Reed – who would have celebrated his 80th birthday March 2 – and interview him half a dozen more times. As contentious or sullen as many other writers found him to be, I always enjoyed his prickly wit and his contrarian nature and lightning-quick repartee. Maybe I hit him on good days; maybe we clicked for some reason. He wasn’t intimidating.

And there was something as simple as this. Once, somewhere in the early ‘90s, we had a phone interview scheduled (for some reason) Sunday afternoon at the start of a televised New York Jets-New England Patriots football game we were both watching, him in New York, me in Newton, Mass. 

Reed – the guy who wrote Coney Island Baby (“I wanna play football for the coach”) – was a Jets fan. He rang up promptly at 1 p.m., but suggested we do the interview yak at half-time. I’d been thinking the same, but certainly wouldn’t have voiced it. So, we did. He rang in as the whistle blew on the first half, we talked, and wrapped it up about 20 minutes later when the game restarted. 

Maybe we got on because my favorite Lou Reed album was 1973’s Berlin. Reed loved it, but called it a “massive disappointment” from a commercial standpoint. The record is a haunting, stark, concept album about two equally unsympathetic characters – a couple caught up in a web of drugs, sex, sadomasochism, betrayal and, finally, the woman’s suicide, which is greeted with a so-what she-deserved-it shrug by her lover. It is not pretty, but it is grimly compelling, musically beautiful. Producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd) gave it the right theatrical, dramatic flourish – strings, horns and even wailing children when appropriate. 

Reed always liked playing the songs in concert. The first time I saw him live, in 1980, I think he did four or five songs from it. “I thought the people who liked me for real would love to see that particular thing done live,” Reed told me. “I wasn’t kidding. It’s one of my favorite albums. [Berlin] gives you a dose of realism, if I may dare use that word.” In 2008 – 35 years after its release – he recorded a live album of Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.   

But Reed always had an ear for what people wanted, “because when I go to see people, I like to hear them do stuff I know also. I always want to satisfy the faithful.”

Not that it meant you got the whole enchilada. On a previous trip through town, he’d omitted two longtime staples, Rock and Roll and Heroin.

“It’s interesting what people think are staples,” mused Reed. “One man’s staples is another man’s spit. You never know. I enjoy playing them all. [Although] it’d be fun to do a tour where I did a bunch of [obscurities]. I’d like to do a song called The Bells—things I don’t think anyone wants to hear about. It’s one of my favorite lyrics.”

In 1996, we were in the midst of an extensive interview in his New York office, Sister Ray. We decided to take a break and Reed asked if I wanted something to drink from the small fridge. Sure. He said he had nothing alcoholic – his drug and alcohol days were in the rear-view mirror – but did have Kaliber, Guinness’s non-alcoholic beer. I lied and chirped, “Oh, great!” and Reed’s response was, and I’m paraphrasing, no it wasn’t “great,” but it’s what he had to drink and all he had in stock.

Settling in again, I asked him what was most misunderstood about him. “I don’t think people realize the sense of humor that’s running through these things [songs],” he said. “To say my sense of humor is dry is in itself a dry joke. I think I’m very funny. I find most things very funny.” Reed says his friends and the public in general can accept the more upbeat moods. “People have always been happy that I’ve been happy. I mean, maybe the attitude is: ‘If Lou Reed can get it together, then who can’t?’”

Four years prior to that, Reed and I were talking his range, his penchant for dark and penetrating songs—Street Hassle, Kill Your Sons, and Heroin, to name three. But we were also taking about straight-up good-times songs from the simple to the complex and how they were part of the mix, too.

VIDEO: Lou Reed performs “Street Hassle” at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ 1984

Not everything was written to have deep meaning. Keep in mind, this was a man who penned the refrain “I guess that I’m dumb, ’cause I know I ain’t smart/ But deep down inside, I got a rock ‘n’ roll heart” on 1976’s Rock and Roll Heart.  

“Sure,” said Reed, responding to that reference and his own dumb-fun discography. “And I Love You Suzanne. I like that kind of stuff. My record collection is filled with it. . .. I had a song called Banging on My Drum where that was the entire lyric. I can’t play drums. I can’t even keep the simplest beat on the drums. Cannot do it. I thought banging on my drum would be such fun. Air drums.” 

“It’s just that I like to have a broad palette,” he added. “You don’t want to just eat guacamole all day. Of course, I have that side to me. I’m just trying to combine my love for that stuff with love for other stuff and trying to bring it all together, so that I could listen to it. I do this stuff for myself in the first place; I’m the audience I’m aiming for and I don’t think I’m particularly different from the other people that are out there. There’s nothing that special about me.” 

As to the music that was more serious or more of a narrative or, for that matter, maybe just grim or twisted, Reed said, “You can have a real good time, just on a different level. …You know, where is the rock equivalent of A Streetcar Named Desire? Is that such a far-fetched idea? Is that completely impossible? Why have any resistance to that? That’s like having your cake and eating it. As you get older, be able to have that level of writing plus the fun of rock. Why would you want to listen to what an 18-year-old is getting off on?” 

His songs cut to the core, but Reed maintained most were not about him or at the least, “not totally autobiographical – it’s more of an amalgam of people.” Reed said that even songs he sang from a first-person point of view should be regarded as from the third person. “They’re very personal,” he said, “done with a great deal of distance. I try to keep myself invisible.” 

I did get a bit of a pissy Lou in 1997 when Rhino Records put out a repackaging of the Velvet Underground’s classic 1970 LP Loaded, called The Fully Loaded Edition. It contained a second disc with demo-alternate versions of songs, plus tracks released only on the expensive Peel Slowly and See boxed set.

Reed allowed that “sure, there’s an amazing collection of songs on there” but as to his take on the re-release, he said, “I haven’t heard it. I haven’t even gotten a copy yet. Reviewers have. Journalists have. But the artist hasn’t. Rhino told me it’s because they wanted me to receive the ‘special’ packaging. That’s like the check is in the mail.”

Yes, but what about the album itself—which contains Sweet Jane, Rock and Roll, Who Loves the Sun? and New Age—Reed’s last with the group?

“I haven’t thought about it,” replied Reed. “There’s been no reason for me to think about it. It’s a long time ago. I don’t even know what these tracks are that are re-released. All the Velvet’s records are a little bit different, so I don’t really rank them. It would never occur to me to rank them.”

 

Of course, there was this: Reed left the group just before the album’s release. “There was this terrible, terrible management problem going on,” he says. “That’s why I have such a problem with it. That’s why I didn’t let Rhino interview me for it.”

There was friction within the band and a period in which Reed went through some personal trouble, perhaps a breakdown of sorts. 

Screech! 

“Seriously,” says Reed, “I don’t want to talk about it, and it’s precisely because of these kinds of questions. I don’t mind talking about the music, but the personal stuff . . . “

There was another time that was, well, odd. He was at the Rat club in Boston to promote a concert movie which would be screened after he chatted it up from the stage. He was bored and tired and laconically introduced it, hastily retreating to the office upstairs, with me and a few other Rat folks in tow. We all sat in a semi-circle and talked awkwardly. We had had a semblance of interview arranged, but Reed was pretty much catatonic, staring off into space, saying nothing. Drugs? I don’t know, I’m pretty certain he was clean. Call it a bad day.

There’s lots you can read about Reed’s personal life, at least five biographies. There’s some vicious shit out there – self-abuse and abuse of others – and I won’t say it’s untrue. There was wreckage. But a few years ago, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis dug in deep, wanting to illustrate how Reed’s personal life intersected with his musical one. He wrote Lou Reed: A Life, which was published in 2018. I highly recommend it.

When he set out to write his book, DeCurtis told me he had one primary goal: “To get at his complexity. I was hearing a lot of the negative stuff, but he was a genius as far as I’m concerned and there was also an incredible sweetness to him. I wanted to paint a portrait, I felt that in some of the other biographies, there’s a cartoon Lou Reed – a monster – and I wanted, to the degree that I could, to erase that.”

DeCurtis unraveled the story of Reed’s life – the tense family life on Long Island, the electroshock treatments, the bisexuality, the drug use – correlating it to an analysis of the music. “I haven’t heard this term used too much in recent years,” DeCurtis told me, about his endeavor, “but there were books called ‘critical biographies’ and I had that idea in the back of my mind. This views the life and the work on equal terms. It’s meant to find things in life that reveal things about the work and find things in the work that reveal things about the life.”   

As it turned out, Reed and I got into the concept of mortality a couple of times, the first occasion being the death of Andy Warhol, who “produced” the VU debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The VU was Warhol’s house band; it was a very complicated love/hate relationship between Andy and Lou. Reed and one-time VU partner John Cale dealt with that on 1990’s Songs for ‘Drella – A Fiction.

Since his death in 1987, Warhol had been the subject—some would say victim—of at least a half-dozen books: biographies, coffee-table picture-books and, of course, The Warhol Diaries, the gossip-drenched as-told-to account of club hopping and name dropping.

Reed, who despite his differences was profoundly influenced by Warhol, wanted to counter some impressions those books left. Acting on Cale’s suggestion, the duo spent two weeks writing furiously and came up with Songs for Drella. 

“It’s an antidote to the books that were coming,” Reed said. “Painting him as such a piece of fluff, or as such a negative person, not giving him his due. We just wanted to show him in a positive light, as we really felt towards him.”

Drella was a ’60s nickname for Warhol, a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella. Reed and Cale chart Warhol’s path from his Pittsburgh roots to his death after a gallbladder operation. He gets a job drawing on shoes; he meets up with the Velvets; establishes the creative Factory scene; is shot by Valerie Solanis; publishes Interview; frets constantly; dies inexplicably.

“It’s emotionally honest, which is something I’ve tried to be on all my records,” Reed said. “I mean, if there’s a thing that is negative towards me, I don’t take it out. If it works in the context of the project and if it’s true in the context of the project, I leave it in.”

 

VIDEO: Lou Reed / John Cale Songs For Drella

Reed was not done with death—or the examining the life led prior to—returning to the theme on his next album, Magic and Loss, which came two years later. It was an evocative, spare, heart-wrenching disc that dealt with the emotions flooding Reed’s mind as two close friends faced death. Bittersweet, pained and, yet (no surprise) witty.

“I keep getting told, ‘This is too depressing,'” said Reed, of the response to Magic and Loss. “’It’s depressing, it’s depressing, it’s about death and it’s depressing.’ You know, I must say if you look at it that way, Hamlet’s synopsis would seem pretty down, too. Macbeth would seem pretty awful. I think of Magic and Loss as about love and friendship, and it’s a very up thing. It is very emotional, also. These are not bad things. And I don’t see why a contemporary work of music can’t contain all these things. But when they do contain these things, you’re thought of as being too cerebral, or too down.

“I remember reading this book by Saul Bellow where he was quoting Walt Whitman and he said, ‘Until Americans and American poetry can deal with death, this is a country that has not grown up.’ There might be something to be said about that.”

That is: Is the perception just too pervasive that rock ‘n’ roll is still supposed to mean simply “let the good times roll”?

The last time I saw Reed, he was working as a sideman. A sideman-guitarist, accompanying his wife, Laurie Anderson for her show, The Yellow Pony and Other Songs and Stories. It was at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Arts on May 1, 2009. Anderson wove her wry tales using her ironic voice, playing violin and keyboards, and Reed provided the backing skronk, sitting down, playing electric guitar, very much in the shadows. It was mostly Anderson’s stuff, though a lovely and fragile “Pale Blue Eyes” surfaced. Both sang, harmonizing on the final “Linger on, your pale blue eyes.” 

In May 2013, Reed had a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic. The post-op buzz was positive, but in October he died from liver disease at his home in East Hampton, New York. He was 71. He was cremated and the ashes were given to his family.

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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