AUDIO: Lou Reed on the Merger of Poetry with Rock & Roll

It was over dinner in a fairly noisy hotel dining room in Denver that we conducted the interview from which this was spoken. We were in Denver because Lou missed our originally-planned interview in Los Angeles. So I was told, “Lou’s doing a show tomorrow night in Denver. He’s going to have to have dinner before that. You can be at that dinner.”

Great. Sounded good to me. I’d go to Poughkeepsie to Lou, if necessary. I was excited, and grateful to his friend and mine, the great Bill Bentley, who convinced Lou to do the interview. Twice. For this I remain grateful forever. Truly.

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I came to Denver equipped with pages of questions, each delving into how Lou became the songwriter he did. How he knew that the intersection of his two great passions – literature and rock & roll – was an obvious one to attempt.

As always, I had already been swimming in the deep end of his song pool for weeks, devising countless questions focused on his classic songs such as “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane” from his Velvet Underground days, as well as his new masterpieces from his monumental solo New York album, such as “Dirty Boulevard.” (His performance of it at Farm Aid is the soundtrack for this).

But all my excitement turned to anxiety when his road manager informed me that it would be wise “not to mention any of his old songs.”

WHAT? None of his old songs? This is like telling Sinatra, before he walked onstage, “Frank, don’t do any of the old stuff.” Because like him, my focus has always been about songs that last. If a song was was released in 1972, as was “Walk On The Wild Side,” yet still resounds today, still is not only relevant but as strong as ever, that is what this is all about. How does a human create one of those? A truly timeless, beloved song, impervious to time, fashion, politics or any of the forces that dilute things we once cherished. That is the goal of songwriters, after all. Or most of them. To write a song which is great now, but which retains that greatness for years – decades even – past its season of creation.

And Lou, after all, did that several times. When I questioned his manager about this, he said doing so would “just not be a great idea. He walked out on his last three interviews.”

Walked out? That would be unfortunate, to put it lightly.

Thankfully that didn’t happen. In fact, Lou brought up “Walk On The Wild Side,” and “Sweet Jane” both before I did. It seems his anger at the others was not the mention of old songs, but perhaps a lack of information or interest in the new ones. As well as no overview of how all these songs connected.

Lou, after all, did not live in the past. His New York album, released in 1989, was a tour de force of songwriting, a song cycle greater in its reach and expression than any which had come before. It was a seminal album – about that city – but about this country as well, and modern times. His dry humor woven into the lyrics was brilliant and great. As when he discusses the big news that Manhattan was falling apart, which to him was no revelation, yet connected always to the physicality of love, and the brevity of human time:

I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says
“It’s hard to give a shit these days”
Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson, what a shock
They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome
The perfume burned his eyes holding tightly to her thighs
and something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone

From “Romeo Had Juliette”
By Lou Reed

All of which is to say that any usual sense of calm going in to interview him was replaced by mild panic. Like other famous songwriters I was told were really tough to interview, and could be mean even, Lou was great. One of my first questions mentioned Delmore Schwartz, the poet that meant more to Lou than any, and helped plant the seed in him to fuse poetry with rock & roll. From that moment on, the conversation turned into one of the most delightful ones ever. Because Lou was a brilliant guy, as interested in speaking about Groucho Marx (as he did) than Karl Marx. And so together we covered the entire creative map of his life and work, including famous personages which impacted it forever – such as Andy Warhol, John Cale and others.

He invited me to the beautiful old Paramount Theater for his show, which was tremendous. Rocking, funny, brilliant, energetic. Essential Lou. Afterwards I was surprised and honored to be invited to a hang with only a few invited guests. He let me on then to what was his secret passion. Expecting something illicit, he told me it was Tai Chi. That’s how he kept so fit, but he didn’t want people to know. He was a great guy. Warm, funny, brilliant. He simply didn’t suffer fools, or endure them in any way, for very long. But when he spoke of his “permanent radio” beaming in songs always, everyday, he appreciated that I knew what that meant, and that I was awestruck. Because while some might consider such songwriter-talk nothing but pure madness, songwriters recognize it, and his ability to preserve those songs which come through, as genius. The man was plugged in.

This is why I don’t like to talk about this,” he said. “Because if you say this to writers – to journalists – they will make fun of you.”

“Journalists, maybe,” I said. “But not songwriters.”

“No,” he said smiling, “not them! They get it.”

That means you. You songwriters and musicians. He was preaching to the choir. And not just any choir – our choir! A great one who sang on pitch. He liked that a lot.

This is a small passage of audio from that interview at the historic Brown Palace in Denver, 1996. The background noise and muzak is from that hotel dining room. It’s Lou explaining that the thought of mixing great literature – poetry, novels, more – with rock & roll, thrilled him more than anything. And that thrill was never gone.

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