In this archive piece from our March 2003 issue (Take 70), Uncut meets Lou Reed in his favourite Manhattan restaurant to discuss Edgar Allen Poe, Eminem, T’ai Chi, his illustrious career and his hatred of journalists: “I think in an interview what they essentially want to know is how big is your dick…” Words: Gavin Martin / Photo: Julian Schnabel
Downtown New York, December 9 2002. It’s 10.30 on a sunny but ice-cold morning in the back room of Pastis, Lou Reed’s favourite neighbourhood restaurant. Around the corner, the Hudson river gives off a foreboding chill. In here, the power breakfasting stockbrokers are settling into their morning routine in a faux continental setting.
The surrounding neighbourhood – with its expensive loft apartments and real estate – has changed out of all recognition from the sleazy haunts that inspired Lou’s early work. But, Lou remains and lives nearby with the “love of his life”, artist Laurie Anderson. The former drug-addled poet of rock’s underbelly is now an international man of letters and the toast of the New York demimonde. Earlier this year he and Anderson duetted on The Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me” at a tribute concert for the terpsichorean/ dance legend, Bill T Jones.
Four years in the making, Lou regards his latest album – the sprawling double CD The Raven – as the culmination of everything he’s striven to attain in a career that’s spanned five decades of rock’n’roll outrage. Based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven grew out of a collaboration with Robert Wilson, the theatrical director Reed previously worked with on Time Rocker and who also provided the theatrical starting points for Tom Waits’ recent Alice and Blood Money albums.
The Raven is immense in its lyrical, musical and thematic scope. The connection between the writer of dark classics like The Pit And The Pendulum, The Fall Of The House Of Usher and The Masque Of The Red Death – who, according to one critic, wielded his pen like “a scalpel, knife or a Tomahawk” – and the 21st-century rock legend is obvious. The most purposefully literate rocker of his generation, Reed has used his guitar, pen and stoic voice to perform autopsies on both the American dream and the human condition.
Lou arrives in Pastis a little late, snuggled inside a flamboyant black fur-lined leather jacket. There is a small Mandarina Duck designer handbag over his shoulder and he’s wearing leather trousers and heavy biker boots. He is a fascinating study in opposites, theatrical hand gestures and flouncy mannerisms when he’s giving his French-born PR Annie precise instructions to attain extra tickets for the evening’s “hottest ticket in town” – the premiere of Gangs Of New York. But he becomes noticeably wary, retreating into a macho shell as he approaches the interview table.
He gives the most non-committal handshake imaginable. The hand-over of a present, a new CD compilation of ’60s deep soul duo Eddie and Ernie, takes him off guard.
“Uhhn what is this? Omigod where did you get this… how did you even know to get this… fhh whoaah I didn’t even know this existed… whaa…” Reed scrutinises the CD up close. He’s not wearing glasses and seems to have trouble with contact lenses. He has a hand over his inflamed right eye. Up close, his thin-lipped, wrinkled and worn face shows the mixed effects of years of hard living and recuperation.
During the interview suspicion is often Lou’s first response to a question and he’ll suspect criticisms where there are none. He can be precious as a newborn baby’s heartbeat one minute, as flippant as a bar-room cynic the next. How do you gain the trust of someone whose parents sent him to have electric shock therapy in his teens? Don’t even try.
Lou has many tactics to avoid discussing the man who has created the cast of misfits, penitents, hedonists and heretics in his songs. He employs one immediately by picking up my mini-disc and embarking on a discourse on the history of digital technology. I hurriedly draw his attention to a promo copy of The Raven.
UNCUT: With the spoken-word contributions from Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe, the musical liaisons with Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Ornette Coleman and The Blind Boys Of Alabama, and all the research, The Raven must be the most ambitious album of your career.
LOU REED: Have you heard the double, the Grand Mal version? Can you imagine what it took to do that? I mean, I’m serious. Imagine! Even now I can’t believe that we’ve done it. This might be a nice way to say ‘Goodbye’, a good way to go out.
Really, you see it like a grand farewell, as suggested on “Vanishing Act”?
Yeah, it’s like ‘Pheww!’ Really. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll get a chance to make records like this with people downloading their music… unless you take the viewpoint that there’s only one good track on it.
You’ve always expanded the parameters of rock’n’roll. In recent years, you’ve talked about leaving the business entirely. Is that part of what The Raven is about?
I’ve been writing plays, I’ve got photography shows and I’m putting a photo book together. I’ve been involved with Hal Willner in his Halloween shows at St Anne’s church. When I read Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart aloud there, it was the first time I really understood it. I have a degree in English literature, and I still can’t remember when I first read Poe. Of course, I can’t remember things from last week. I’m kind of Reaganesque with that.
But I do know that, before, my understanding was only superficial. That’s one of the nice things about getting older – you can read something like that and have a better chance of taking it how it was meant by the writer. Poe is so incredible to read. In the essay, The Imp Of The Perverse, he’s saying, “Why are we drawn to that which we know is bad for us?” Now if there’s a human being on Earth with a pulse who doesn’t understand that, hasn’t experienced that or doesn’t know what that is about, I haven’t met them.
I was just ready, really, primed and ready when Bob [Wilson] came up with the idea. I do martial arts and there’s a saying that when you’re ready the teacher appears.
You turned 60 during the making of this record. Was that a major landmark?
You didn’t mark it in any way?
Do you feel blessed, lucky to be alive?
Do you? This is not what I want to talk about. I talk about music. If you want to talk about the ageing process, you should talk about someone who concentrates on that.
Burroughs imagined the writing machine, the place where all the great ideas are churned out. Is that where you get your creative juice?
Oh, I miss Burroughs. I love his writing. No one has taken his place, it’s so special and unique unto him, just as what Poe does is special and unique unto him. I’m also a big film noir fan, keep that in mind. If film noir had a drum, it would be me. I’m such a fan of that.
On “Who Am I?”, you depict a universe where God has left the stage.
Well there is a whole philosophical school of thought that God is dead. When I was at university it was one of the ideas I studied. God made a watch and walked away, you know all that stuff.
Is that still an attractive concept for you?
That requires a large bottle of Barola, my friend, a cigar and many hours to kick around. Would that I were wiser.
Are you nervous about how The Raven will be received?
Let me tell you something. I put out a thing called Metal Machine Music, and 20 years after the fact they put out an anniversary edition of it and it’s performed live by an orchestra in Berlin. It’s the sort of thing that I’ve had happen with a bunch of records. I would hate to see that happen with this. If people don’t get into it because of its length and complexity then you’ll just continue to have what you have. And you’ll deserve it.
There’s a strong gospel undercurrent on the album, the idea that community can overcome the dark torments Poe’s imagination unleashes, most explicitly on “I Wanna Know”, your duet with The Blind Boys Of Alabama.
I do things on instinct and if you ask me to explain it I wouldn’t be able to explain it. Well, I can make up an explanation, but I don’t want to bother any more. I’ve always loved The Blind Boys Of Alabama, and Jimmy [Carter] holds a note on there that sounds like it lasts a day, it’s just astonishing.
On “Old Poe”, the author addresses his younger self. If you had a chance to talk to the Lou Reed of 20 or 30 years ago, what would you say?
A big round of applause for the guy with the blond hair dye and the Iron Cross shaved on the temple?
I was young. I was having fun. You’ll never hear me saying, “How come you dye your hair purple or why are you piercing your cheek with a four-inch spike?” That’s what I was doing at that age, because that’s what you do when you’re that age. I love looking at photos of myself from back then. It was something you could get away with if you were a rock star.
These days, you can be on the furthest alternative whatever trajectory and it will be absorbed like purple hair, pins and spikes, and it becomes a business. It’s hilarious when you think about it… people are against something, then they see you can make money out of it. The culture is a massive sponge, a money sponge.
Have you always been conscious of having a “Guardian Angel”?
I keep the songs in the songs. If I start to apply them to me, I feel weird. But in the context of the album, I wanted an upbeat ending. Not just a Poe ending, with the King and all his cronies dressed as orang-utans going up in flames, or The Pit And The Pendulum or The Tell Tale Heart – all of which have pretty dark endings. I wanted something that was me, not him.
Maybe the younger Lou might have gone with the darker ending. Is the desire to have an upbeat ending a result of age and wisdom?
I certainly hope so. There’s a lot of thrills and chills in there and you can just leave it at that or you can explicate, which is what I chose to do. I don’t know the answers to some of those questions. I know you think I do, but I don’t. I don’t question when I’m writing. If I kept asking why, I might not get anywhere. I just go with it.
You recorded “Fire Music” two days after September 11 in a studio close to Ground Zero. What was that like?
Everything I experienced is in that piece of music. I really and truly mean that I can’t sum it up in words, that’s what music is for. It’s a very compressed piece, played in real time. It’s not looped. It is the big brother of Metal Machine Music, the next step. What I like is, it doesn’t have a key and the rhythm is always shifting – a very free form of music which I’ve been a fan of all the way back to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. To have Ornette on this album doing Ornette is beyond thrilling. I mean, is there anyone else in the world called Ornette?
How has New York changed since September 11?
I can’t tell you that. We’re here to talk music. I can’t give a good answer to something like that. That’s really a book.
How do you feel about the way your government has responded. Is it scary to see freedoms being restricted?
What about being in London – is it scary there? Tony Blair linking up with Mr Bush. I’m sure you have your own thoughts on that. I don’t get into these types of questions. I keep trying to pull you back toward music. You’re trying to do a personality thing, I guess.
You’ve done interviews before. You know the game.
I think in an interview what they essentially want to know is how big is your dick. Everything else is superfluous. It’s like, “Just tell us that, now.”
There is a quite frank assessment of the effect the ageing process has on the genitalia in the song “Change”.
[He quotes himself, shrieking with glee] “Your balls shrivel up in their sack.” Ha! To my mind that song – imagine Little Richard singing it instead of me. If I could have, I would have got him to sing it. That’s the way I wrote it and heard it. It’s my version of it, but I’m singing Little Richard. The minute you say that the song becomes much clearer.
Do you think rock’n’roll is a dying culture?
I don’t know anything. It’ll come through another door, there’s always going to be bands, people like bands getting together. There are two radio stations I listen to all the time, and you hear The White Stripes and The Strokes and hundreds more. Is it as exciting now as it was 30 years ago? I’m not a critic, but 30 years ago things were new. It’s not new now. What’s new is the technology. The sounds producers are getting today are just fantastic, really exciting, amazing. I couldn’t comment on what the songs are saying because it’s very hard to understand the words.
Do you listen to Eminem?
He’s very funny – and maybe it’s not fair to say this, but he is young and maybe as he gets older he might change. I just don’t like people advocating violence against other people.
But on “Who Am I?”, you fantasise about slitting someone’s throat and ripping their heart out.
…on the other hand, there’s some pretty extraordinarily tasteless things on my very own records so I can’t throw a rock at anybody. I like that rock stays raw and that includes Eminem.
I’d like to hear Eminem do “Street Hassle”.
A great epic, that one. I remember playing it to Clive [Davis, head of Reed’s then-label Arista] and it starts out “Hey, that c***’s not breathing, I think she’s had too much”, and Clive said, “There you go, that’s just like you. No airplay for this.” And there wasn’t any. A 12-minute song – just finished, dead in the water. This wasn’t the days when something could go underground. That didn’t happen, it just got killed.
Do you resent that?
No. I don’t resent anything along those lines. Those are business people. They do what they do and I have nothing to do with it. I would resent it if it drove me out of the whole thing, but I’ve survived. There’s room for everybody I guess, including me.
When The Velvet Underground split and you went back to work with your father, did you think your career was over?
Part of the myth? Look, why should any of that shit be true? What was the question? I’ve lied so much about the past I can’t even tell myself what is true any more.
The ’70s was the period when rock mythology was shaped. Were you a willing participant?
Rock interviews had never been done before. There weren’t sound systems. It was like the Wild West out there. The idea of being able to hear the lead singer was a whole new deal. It was like the Wright Brothers and the aeroplane. Then you got a guy like Lester Bangs trying to write with the rhythm of rock, but all those people, they were just doing it because they couldn’t be in a band.
Did you look down on them because of that?
I would look down on a journalist whether he wanted to be in a band or not, just because of their occupation. It’s just a game. Journalists ask if you look down on journalists and they’re baiting you. They want you to say yes, of course.
You were supposedly close to death several times.
And you know what? That shit, why should any of it be true?
Does Chinese medicine and T’ai Chi take the place in your life once filled by heroin, speed and alcohol?
Ha ha ha, you just won’t stop will you? Let me tell you something. Eagle Claw, Ying Ja Pow, T’ai Chi are about the most amazing physical experiences I can think of. I’m part of a foundation that is connected to all that, I’ve been studying it for 20 years. I’m not trying to make any converts but if you want to know something I feel strongly about, there it is. And, of course, it keeps your dick really big. Haven’t you figured that out yet?
The interview over, I offer him another present, a copy of An Introduction To The Velvet Underground. You’d imagine this was the last thing he’d need, but he’s never seen a copy and accepts it, as graciously as he can. He looks at the cover shot and shakes his head. “Poor Sterling, he missed all this,” he says, gesturing around the restaurant.
“And here we are,” he smirks and raises his glass, “drinking water.”