From The Archives: A Conversation from 2000 over Lamb Chops in Denver
“Music was what bothered me, what interested me. I always believed that I have something important to say and I said it. That’s why I survived, because I still believe I’ve got something to say. My God is rock and roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life.”
– LOU REED
“I DON’T KNOW how to write songs,” Lou Reed says. We’re in a hotel dining room in Denver, where he is trying to cajole a decent meal out of a very flustered waiter, less than two hours before he is to perform with his band at the old Paramount Theater around the corner.
“I really don’t know how I write songs. But I do know how not to write songs. I know how to screw it up. So I spend my time removing the things that get in the way of it. The impediments that block it. The negative things, the attitudinal things. And since I know how to screw it up, I know how not to. Just don’t do those things that get in the way of it, and then it can start.”
And when it does start, what happens is not that Lou starts inventing the kind of astounding songs he’s been writing since the sixties. What happens is that he starts listening. And what he hears is something he calls his “permanent radio,” which transmits a non-stop broadcast of verbiage both serious and hilarious, specific and broad, narrative and impressionistic, full of comedy and tragedy, kindness and indifference, magic and realism, love and hate, sex and violence, set in present, past and future America and the world. It’s a station that only Lou receives, but there’s no guarantee on any given night that he’ll be able to tune into it. (“I don’t sleep,” he says more than once.)
When the reception is clear, what he hears, however, is not music but words. “Yes, words,” he says. “And my job is just to write it down.”
And what happens, I ask, if you don’t write them down?
“They’re gone,” he says.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
The real problem, as he explains in the following conversation, is not how to write the songs, but what to do with all the ones he receives. Many times during our talk, he said softly, as if confiding a long-kept secret, “Writing an album is nothing for me. Nothing.”
Nothing though they might seem to Lou as he creates them, they are certainly far from insubstantial to the legion of Lou-lovers around the world, an extensive network of fans from Boston to Borneo and beyond that shouts “Loooouuuuu” with the same devotion that Springsteen’s fans shout “Brooooooce.” (Both, in fact, sound like boos to the uninitiated.)
These are the ones who have hung on every one of his words, both spoken and sung, since his early days with the Velvet Underground, and through successive solo masterpieces such as Berlin (1972), Street Hassle (1978), The Blue Mask (1982), New York (1989), Magic and Loss (1990), Songs For Drella (written with John Cale) 1991, and most recently, Ecstasy (2000.)
Unlike other songwriters who struggle to write an album’s worth of material every few years, Lou Reed – even at the ripe old age of 58 – struggles with the frustration of not having an outlet for the full blossom of his creativity, and so channels it into other arenas: a gallery show of his photography, for example, or a musical (Time Rocker) written with Robert Wilson.
At an age when many of his peers are trying to summon up the energy to do another oldies tour singing their old hits, Lou is on fire, spitting out the words to to the jazzy, metallic, ‘Ecstasy’ or the breathtaking tirade of imagery in ‘Rock Minuet’, maybe the most graphically violent song ever written in waltz-time.
In the curse of the alley
The thrill of the street
On the bitter cold docks
Where the outlaws all meet
In euphoria drug
In euphoria heat
You could dance to the rock minuet
– ‘Rock Minuet’ by Lou Reed.
The son of an accountant, he was born on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn’s Beth El Hospital, and grew up in a Freeport, a suburb of Long Island.
From an early age on, he had a passion both for the expansive poetry and prose of his teacher and mentor, Delmore Schwartz, and for the sound of pure, electric rock and roll. From his teenage years on, his one goal was to merge the two forces, and infuse the unlimited expression inherent in poetry and fiction with the electricity of rock and roll.
And unlike Dylan and Neil Young, both of whom fell in love with the simplicity of folk music, Lou was steadfast from the start in his love for the electric guitar. At Syracuse University he fell in with fellow guitarist Sterling Morrison, and the two found they both shared a love for exploring the electric edges of the instrument, experimenting with the use of feedback, and playing off the droning dissonances they could coax out of thin air together.
Like John Lennon, Lou had been in bands since he was a kid, and was wise to the notion of only getting the best people possible. So it was a few years before he found another member for his band, classically-trained John Cale, a tremendously gifted musician who was fluent on many instuments, including piano, viola, and bass. Lou’s choice for drummer was Moe Tucker, who managed to keep the rhythm going down on earth, even when the others went into orbit. They named themselves after a notorious paperback then making the rounds that detailed the dirty details of suburban sex, The Velvet Underground.
The VU, as they are commonly known, were never embraced by critics during their short span from ’65 to ’70, but they were warmly welcomed into the fold of the New York art community, attracting the attention of Andy Warhol, who decided he would produce their first album, despite his lack of any actual musical knowhow.
He also decided the beautiful model Nico, although she couldn’t sing very well, should serve as occasional vocalist for the band. Warhol was already an international icon at this time, and his declaration of the VU as the house band of his own Factory gave them easy access to landing a record deal.
From the start, the VU made music together and Lou wrote and sang the words. While other bands sang songs of peace and love, his reflected the dark side of the sixties, the violence, sex, drugs – topics that have hardly ever been conveyed in songs, and surely never with the kind of defiant authenticity Lou brings to everything he touches. You know Lou has not only been there, he’s survived. When he sings about heroin in his famous song of the same name, he does so with an unapologetic lucidity which is entirely unique to him, and which and which the song makes perfect sense. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says vehemently. “You have got to believe the singer.”
The VU went on to record four albums: The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded. All of them were roundly panned upon release, as were their live concerts. “When the Velvet Underground was around,” Lou says, “We sold almost no records. Literally.”
In 1972 came his first solo album, Lou Reed, which included some classics written for VU, including ‘Lisa Says’. Transformer came next, produced by Lou-devotees David Bowie and Mick Ronson. Containing ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, which is said to be based on remembrances of his time within the Warhol galaxy, and to this day it remains Lou’s most famous song.
Like Neil Young and Dylan, Lou has managed to step up to the plate almost every year with a new album of original material, and like both of those artists, every few years or so he hits one way out of the park and makes a masterpiece. While there might be some dispute among his fans over which albums deserve this designation, few will argue with the inclusion of Berlin (1973), Sally Can’t Dance (1974), Street Hassle (1978) and The Blue Mask (1982).
Then in 1989 came the amazing New York, a tour-de-force of songwriting that succeeded in conveying the divisive results of Reagan era, which split our nation into disparate parts as different as darkness from light.
“…there’s an opera at Lincoln Center
Movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the mean streets
A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
He’s selling plastic roses for a buck…”
– ‘Dirty Blvd’ by Lou Reed
With New York and the albums that followed it, such as Magic and Loss and Songs for Drella, both of which delve into death in their own ways, Reed reversed the conventional rock pattern of writing one’s greatest songs at the start of one’s career. Good when he started, he’s consistently gotten even better over the years, more in command of the language of rock and roll than ever.
One of the shifts he’s made is that he writes songs on computer now, a tool ideally suited to the rapid-fire transcription necessary to preserve the onslaught of words he receives. Before the dawn of the PC, he would just write them down anywhere and hope to collect enough when the song was done. “Yeah,” he said. “Matchbook covers. Pieces of paper. Arrows with rewrites pointing to another piece of paper and it’s written upside down. Now there’s version one, version two, three, four, ad infinitum.”
Lou is in great shape, both physically and creatively. At the age of 58, he’s as lithe as ever, playing muscular, full-tilt rock for three hours every night on this current tour. And when Lou plays, he rocks.
He’s a man of many contradictions. Or maybe they only seem like contradictions, because he has so often been portrayed inaccurately in the press. Said to be sullen and surly, he’s actually warm and gracious. Thought to be darkly serious, he’s in fact quite humorous, with a heartfelt respect for great comics such as Groucho, whose volume of letters he was in the midst of reading, as well as Chaplin, who he called “a phenomenally talented guy.” Even Jackie Gleason received Lou’s praise, both for his comedy and his composition of the Honeymooner theme.
Though he’s surely aware of his immeasurable influence on a vast array of songwriters, from Bowie to Strummer to Cobain, he’s a modest, unassuming man, much more interested in explaining the intricate schematics of his guitar rig than any rehashing of past glories and/or controversies. When discussing his friend Andy Warhol, for example, rather than celebrate his own role in Warhol’s exclusive cadre, he mentions more than once that Andy felt he was lazy, and not productive enough.
“There’s a funeral tomorrow at St. Patrick’s
The bells will ring for you
What must you have been thinking
When you knew the time had come for you
I wish I hadn’t thrown away my time
On so much human and so much less divine
The end of the last temptation
The end of a dime store mystery”
– ‘Dime Store Mystery’ by Lou Reed
He’s intimately and passionately involved with every aspect of his music, always striving to capture in a cold recording studio the heat of a live performance. And he goes out of his way when performing live to ensure that the sound in a cavernous concert hall or arena has the same clarity and warmth of a studio. Michael Soldano, whose custom-made amps have endeared him to Lou and other famous guitarists, said, “Lou Reed has the best ears in the business. He can hear subtleties in tone that most people never hear. He is beyond a perfectionist in terms of sound. He goes to a great extent, and spares no expense, to get the greatest possible sound he can get.”
The one thing he doesn’t like to make time for is interviews. Not so because he has colossal disdain for journalists, although he does. “All this stuff about me not liking journalists,” he said somewhat apologetically after polishing off a couple of lamb-chops, “is not really accurate. It’s just that I don’t like talking about myself. Why would I? I mean, that’s really work. I don’t listen to my own stuff. Why should I? I already know my stuff. I would much rather listen to someone else.”
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: You once said, about your own songwriting, that you hear songs all the time, like a “permanent radio.” Is that accurate – are songs coming to you all the time?
LOU REED: Most of the time, yeah. On a good day. I hear stuff, yeah. It’s fun.
Fun to hear them, or fun to make them into songs?
Fun just listening. To whatever it is.
Do you hear words and music?
Mostly just words. Sometimes I just hear words just for fun. You know, just kidding around. I only write it down if I’m officially making a record.
Have there been times when you tried to tune into it and couldn’t?
Yeah. Lots of times. Oh yeah. It used to scare me to death. Not that you can do anything about it. Particularly if I don’t know where I want to go. I’m so happy when I hear the regular thing again. It makes me so happy. When I hear that stuff going on in my head, unbidden, I just love that. And when it happens that there is nothing, I walk away. I say, okay, not this week.
Do you have any thoughts about where that comes from, or what makes that happen?
Who knows? I don’t have a clue. I just don’t want to get in the way of it. And some of it is also being in shape, in fact. It does make it better. For me.
Physically in shape?
Physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally.
Then again, Oscar Wilde did pretty good. And Orson Welles. I saw his Othello. Wasn’t that made at the end of his life? It was fantastic. And he weighed 700 pounds. So I don’t know.
You wrote many great songs during times of great turmoil –
Yeah, thank goodness.
Is it easier to write when there is no turmoil in your life?
It’s easier to live when there’s no turmoil. And I think that is the first thing you want to do.
Some writers almost require turmoil. To keep them going.
I’ve got enough. I’ve got enough stored up to keep me going for four hundred years. [Laughter]
Is writing more enjoyable for you than making records and performing?
Writing is agony. Sometimes, yeah. It’s just awful. When it’s not coming. That’s really hard. It’s like being emasculated. Then there’s what you are writing about.
Do you know what you are going to write about before starting a song?
No. I don’t have a clue. I might have a direction. I’m usually following.
Following it more than leading it?
Hardly leading. It’s like being a recording secretary or something. I’m just listening. I mean, I know I’m listening to me. When somebody tells me that one of my songs is great, I didn’t really have that much to do with it. It sounds stupid. That’s why I don’t like to talk about it. It’s something that if you publish it, other writers will make fun. Journalists.
Maybe journalists, but not songwriters –
No, not them. Of course not them. I write about seven hours a day until the record’s done. And I do some major rewrites, we run over it, practice them, then we go and do it.
Is there sometimes more of it than you can get down?
Oh yeah. Oh yes. But I do it all the time. I do it in the hotel for amusement, out loud. It always use to amaze Cale that bing, I could do it on the spot. A lot of my records I made up in the studio with the tape running. That was just another version of it. And then at a certain point I decided I would rather do just that exact same thing. And then go over it. [Laughs] If that makes any sense.
When you are writing music, do you write it down in any way – do you write down the chords?
No, I record it. Usually. Usually on something like this [points to my portable cassette recorder]. Sad to say. That’s the only equipment I have. It was like this one – only bigger and clumsier. I use it because it’s quick. I mean, the thing has to be quick. It’s easy coming, and really easy going.
So it’s easy to lose stuff, if you don’t tape it right away?
Yeah. We have a lot of really, really miserable tape recordings. They are almost indecipherable.
When writing, do you always work with a guitar?
Well, sometimes, or I just sing it. That’s how I did ‘Dirty Boulevard’. We had the lyrics to ‘Dirty Boulevard’, and I could not figure it out. And usually, if I can’t figure something out, I’ll make that the last thing that I work on before I sleep. Usually I’ll wake up with it solved. I did that with ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Because I don’t sleep. And I suddenly heard it clear as a bell, put it on a tape recorder. And me and Mike [Rathke] tried to figure out what was this strange sound on the tape, just what was going on there? And we finally did decipher it. But it was clear than and only then. It wasn’t clear anymore after that.
You got the whole lyric for ‘Dirty Boulevard’ but no music?
Yeah. Well, there was music, but of undetermined rhythmic tempo and approach. Nothing that sounded right. It just wasn’t right.
That song, and the entire New York album, is extraordinary. There’s content in those songs that no one has ever put into songs before –
I don’t know that no one’s ever done that before. Everybody does things differently. I haven’t listened to everything that’s out there, so I don’t know.
A lot of songs don’t have much going on in them –
Most things don’t have much going on. Most movies, most everything.
Why do you think that is?
You have to see what’s popular. My friend Doc Pomus always used to say, “Look at the source.” When you get criticized, it’s important to look and see who’s saying that. I think people hear what they want to hear. People are doing that for money. If everyone ran out to buy this other thing, then that’s what they would give you. Although they don’t seem to up the ante very much.
Because they feel there’s no need to?
Right. It’s like Mission Impossible 2. There’s a screenplay by Robert Towne. John Woo directs it. And they are aiming so low that the audience they think they are aiming at actually laughs at the movie. It’s amazing to see people that good aiming that low. I think it’s Number One.
That’s so common nowadays, to do a sequel, and to try to repeat something that has already been done. Which is something you’ve never done –
You mean like doing Son of Wild Side? [Laughs] I think record companies were just hoping for a long time. That I would see the light.
Were they just hoping, or did they actively encourage you?
It’s never really happened. I mean, when I was younger, before I had control over my career, there were manager types who tried to bring in producers to try to make you go a certain way. Certain players to make it go a certain way. And having to fight about that all the time.
You know, when we started out in the Velvet Underground, people didn’t know who we were. Literally. They thought Andy Warhol was the guitar player. They said I would never write anything as good as ‘Heroin’. And then they said that if I left the Velvet Underground, I would never be as good as I was in the Velvet Underground.
That’s common with people’s reactions to songwriters. They don’t want you to change –
It seems this country, in particular, is geared to turning people into nostalgia acts. Everything moves really quickly here. It’s really based around 14 year olds, and that’s kind of that. People get older and they stop buying records, really. And it’s like a vicious circle. They stop making records because there’s nothing there for them. So they don’t buy any records. And it’s not on radio, so they can’t hear it. So it becomes this insulated little thing. Of an endless series of things aimed at 14-year-olds. I don’t have anything against 14 year-old people. I was 14. And I think that’s great. It’s just that music is so wonderful, it’s kind of extraordinary to gear it only to children.
I mean, there used to be infinitely more eclectic radio. Like college stations. There’s a station called WFMU. There’s a station in L.A. called KCRW. That’s wild.
What would you consider good radio?
When it’s programmed by someone who really knows the music, and is turning you onto something. Whether it’s Moroccan music, or blues, or rare Etta James recordings. Things you might not have heard. That’s just fantastic. Usually you want to tape something like that.
You’ve played rock and roll since you were a kid –
Yeah. I was always in a band. I’ve been in bar-bands since I was 14. I was always the youngest one in the bar. I played right through high school, right through college. It’s kind of funny to look back and see, hey, there’s a pattern! I had my first record out when I was fourteen.
You were a rocker, but also very involved with poetry and literature, which is unusual –
You don’t believe that, do you? They are certainly not incompatible. I just thought it would be the greatest fun imaginable to put something like Delmore Schwartz, or Raymond Chandler, into a rock song. I’d say, “Can you imagine if you have that whole physical thing going on, the fun of that, and this other thing hitting you in the head?” Now I know there are people who say that if you engage the mind that way, the sexy, physical part of it vanishes. But I don’t think that’s true, the mind being the most erogenous zone of all. So I think you can have the whole kit and kaboodle. [Laughs] There’s a phrase you haven’t heard for a while.
See, this entire conversation is being affected by the fact that I have been reading Groucho’s letters, while on the road, and I’m starting to talk like him.
He was a great letter writer, wasn’t he?
My god, yes.
When you had the idea of combining rock with great literature, where did that thought come from?
Well, I was studying with Delmore Schwartz. And he just hated any music that he heard that had lyrics. He just thought it was all shit. But he’s not the person I would point to as someone would know anything about the kind of music I’m interested in. But it did pose an interesting thought. I think “In Dreams We Take Responsibility” is one of the greatest short stories ever written. Simple language, five pages, the most astonishing thing I have ever read to this day. It’s just incredible. Imagine being able to do something like that with the simple language that is available to anybody. It’s mind-bending. Now imagine putting it into a song. It’s so simple, it’s ridiculous. So it’s not a major leap, like an illuminating thought. It was more like a log in the middle of the road that you coud trip over. You know – hello? Hello? Hello? It’s so obvious.
But many artists never venture into a place where no one else has been before.
But people had been there. Kurt Weill, for example.
Had you ever heard Kurt Weill back then?
No. [Laughter] That’s in retrospect. My models were rock and roll songs. A lot of people were into folk but I just liked rock. I liked creative writing and stuff like that, so it was natural for me to take that and put it over here, with the music.
Did you ever think of being a poet or an author?
No. Because I’m a guitar player. I mean, I like to think I’m a guitar player, and that I have some musical ability. My first record, I was in the background.
I wasn’t worthy. [Laughs] You’ve got to work your way to the front. You know, some people are naturals.
The Velvet Underground is considered to be a classic rock band, and is in the Hall of Fame –
Some stuff takes a while for people to catch up to.
Twenty years. That’s just the way it is, and I’m very much aware of that. Things people say to me about stuff I do now means nothing. I mean, it didn’t mean anything then and it means even less now. Like Doc said, consider the source.
I mean, I have a vision. I have a vision, an ambition. And it’s words and sounds and rhythm and tone. On and on and on. Just cause I get off on that.
Is it a vision to always move beyond what you have already done?
Well, the sound gets better. And the writing ought to be improving. I should be able to write better now than I did then.
Rock has been been a young person’s game, unlike jazz.
I think I’m part of the first generation to refuse to be nostalgia acts.
You are more prolific than most songwriters – with a new album of new material each year –
It think it’s pathetic to put out only one record a year. That’s not very much at all. That’s nothing. You could do ten a year, easy. I mean, it’s nothing.
You could write ten albums of new songs in a year?
Well, I mean, while I did this album I did a play with Robert Wilson. I did the text and the music and lyrics for that. And that was just before I did the album. And then I had a photo show before that.
But, as you know, even one album of new material each year from many artists would be very difficult.
Believe me, it’s really nothing. It really isn’t. The hard thing is deciding what you want to do. Once you decide that, it’s easy. When you decide what vision you have for it. I mean, this stuff is really easy. And, of course, someone would say, “Well, listening to your stuff, you’re proving it by how bad it is.” [Laughs]
Compared to Warhol, I will always consider myself lazy. Because Andy said I was, and he was right. And look at what he did. It’s endless. I mean, look at that body of work. I mean, that’s incredible. But Andy, he would have said it wasn’t incredible, he was just working. And he always said I was incredibly lazy. He thought I should be writing more.
Right. He was talking about ten or fifteen songs a day.
Do you think it would be possible to write ten or fifteen good songs in one day?
Sure. But then do what with them? That’s what I mean. I mean, one album, it’s like nothing. But the record company would never want any more than one album a year. They would say that that is way too much product. I’ve got a home studio. I could just record things and stock them up for albums. But I never do that.
Your albums reflect the fact that you write all the songs together. Often the themes connect –
It’s like my vocals. I don’t like to do vocals in pieces. I hate when people do that. I just think there’s an intrinsic logic. I mean, we do it sometimes. Sometimes we’ll have a great vocal, and I’ll have fucked up this or that. and we’ll search around to get the best thing. But we don’t do a lot of them. I’m only good for a couple of shots.
Do you ever make demos first of your songs?
No, but sometimes then I would bring the guys in and sit in my home studio and get it down. I don’t have a lot of equipment in my studio, but like Spencer Tracy said about Katherine Hepburn, what I have is choice. [Laughter]
So we would just play around with a song, do different versions of it, different tempos, different grooves and stuff. I usually sit down with Mike or Fernando or we’ll bring Tony in, and we’ll go over something. Usually a lot of it is on there, on the tape. Cheap date. It doesn’t take much, you know. That’s the nice thing about writing. I mean, pencil, piece of paper, fifty buck tape recorder, and off you go.
You know, it’s really funny, after you’ve done things for a while, people have this desire to learn new chords, or to expand their musical horizons as though, I don’t know, as though rock isn’t big enough to contain some beautiful things. I mean, I’m always aiming for Otis’ Redding’s ‘I’ve Been Loving You For So Long’. Those horn lines. That incredible emotional peak. Yeah, let’s see you do that. Before you go off sniffing around… I mean, everybody can do what they want. I just really like rock. I really, really like it. Good rock. Hard to find. I like the physicality of it.
Though you are not interested in nostalgia, many of your old songs are classics – they still sound great and are meaningful today.
See, that’s never something I care about. People don’t believe me, which I don’t understand. Other than I wish that Clint Eastwood would make another Dirty Harry movie. I think it’s kind of like that. I mean, I admit it. I love him. I really do. I go see everything that he’s in. Not quite, but almost. I’d love if he made another Dirty Harry. A really good one, not like the last ones. And I think people, when they come to see you, they want you to do that thing that they really liked then. And if you don’t do that, they’re disappointed. And they don’t really want to hear what you’re doing now.
You know I was very, very careful, generally speaking, not to put language in a song that would date it. And it’s kind of funny. When I did get interviewed, I would tell people this and they would not believe me.
What wouldn’t they believe?
That you’re doing this. That you’re thinking about it. That there’s tradition attached to it. That you’re not just some thing bouncing off walls. That there’s a concept behind it. That this is not a runaway car.
‘Sweet Jane’ is one of the very few songs from your past they you’ve been playing on this tour. Is that because it has meaning for you today that some of the others don’t?
I have fun playing that because I love the lick so much. I mean, we played it the other night and we got into such a groove, it was a joke. I mean, it was my first great lick, and I really am enormously fond of it. [Laughter] And it makes the audience happy, which makes me happy. I mean, I want them to have a good time. I just don’t want to be dictated to. I want to have fun. That’s why I’m doing it. I’m playing and recording for me. First and foremost. I want to like it. I want it to be something I would run out and buy. Or a show that I would kill to get in and see it. That’s what I want. How else could I do it? I’m gauging it for that. I’m not trying to make them like it. Although I certainly would like them to.
A song like ‘Sweet Jane’ connects us to our common history with you. Like seeing Dylan, it can be great to hear both his new songs and old ones.
It’s great as long as he still likes doing them. It would not be great hearing him do it when he does not want to do it. That would be very depressing for you.
Yes. And so to keep himself involved, he does new versions of old songs, which is something people don’t always like –
But the thing is, that’s just the way the song was on that day at that hour when it was recorded. If it was the next day, or two hours later, it could be different. It could be a little different or it could be very different. Certainly a month from now, it’s going to be different. To ask you to just do it the way it was that one moment – why would you want to do that? Why wouldn’t you want to hear the guy who wrote it do it the way it is? If you want it exactly the way it was, you could hire somebody to do that. Just mimic that.
Some artists feel that their record is the ultimate, perfect version of the song, as it should always be –
I think it’s a work in progress.
Your records capture a moment in time.
It was that moment. You can’t have that moment back. The head you were in. The age you were. You’re not there anymore.
So for that reason is it important to record them quickly?
I want to do it while I know it. And I don’t want to sit around. And things get majorly changed in the studio. Because I leave a lot of space in things. A lot of space in the whole way of approaching it. In the studio. I want to be able to try everything, and to really play loud. And try a whole bunch of different things. And things change. They’re not written in stone, for Christ’s sake.
People don’t understand that.
I wrote it, by God. It’s not even recorded yet. Besides, my live versions of things are always better than the album versions. Oh yeah.
Because there’s an audience.
You’ve captured that live energy in the studio.
We’re barbarians. I want to have fun. I’m in love with good sound. Great sound. I didn’t always know that about myself but I finally figured it out. I always knew that the live sound was important, I just didn’t know how we were getting it. I certainly didn’t know how to record it. What mic, what mic-pre, what kind of a board, what kind of cabinet, what kind of speaker, what kind of tape. It goes on and on and on. What kind of room are you in? I mean, when they say “Paying your dues,” this is part of it. Somebody says, “Put a carpet under that,” and it sounds better.
Much of the conventional wisdom about recording seems to be wrong.
Well, yes. Because so many people are deaf. Engineers. Deaf. They can just read meters. But they don’t hear it. It’s better to ask a janitor. You know how musicians always say, “What do you think, what do you think?” Asking the janitor would probably be more informative than asking an engineer. Or a producer.
Unless that producer is someone like Hal Willner –
Now you’re talking. They’re gradations of things.
Will you always write songs?
Well, only if there was a place to put them. Or I would just listen to them in my head. A record, or a play, or a movie, or something like that. Or else I can just hear it in my head. I mean, my goal in life is to have my own bar and to hire myself. I don’t really drink, though. Not anymore.
Your songs always seem genuine and uncontrived, as if you’ve lived through everything you write about. As opposed to some pop songs –
The whole thing is that you’ve got to believe the singer. You believe Edith Piaf. You hear Maria Callas, and you believe it. With certain people like that, you just go “Whoa!“
They are both transcendent singers –
But they’re also great actors. Make no mistake.
Does that apply to you as well? Does the aspect of performance affect the songs?
Yes. Because I’m writing monologues for myself. “It was you, Charlie, it was you.” And there’s lots of ways you can do it. That’s why I can play around with the lyric of ‘Sweet Jane’ for the next thousand years.
But, you know, I love pop songs. Really sentimental stuff. Sure. ‘Pilot Of The Airwaves’. ‘Stay With Me, Baby’. Sure.
The old pop songs.
I’m sure there’s stuff out there. I mean, I like the song from The Titanic. As a pop song, it’s great.
Do you like the way that Celine Dion sings?
For that kind of a song, sure.
Enough to get the CD?
Oh no. It’s meant to be heard in a car. Or in a bar. Or as party music. It’s not meant to be actually listened to. It’s cry-in-your-beer music.
I was listening to Merle Haggard before we left. He is such a redneck. Oh my God, it’s unbelievable. You know, he’s singing [sings in low, Merle like voice] “My home has a neon sign above it…” Okay. Now in his case, you probably believe him.
He’s written a lot of songs for other singers. Would that appeal to you?
Sure. In Time Rocker I was writing for the actors and actresses and their voices, and not me. And I found it was really interesting, because we were freed from the limitations of my range.
Does it seem like a limitation to you?
There are places I would go to if I could. I cannot do what Al Green does. But Jimmy Scott – who I worship – told me that I was right there. And he was startled that I didn’t know it. And that meant a lot to me. Because I was trying to do certain things, but I hadn’t earned the right to do certain things yet. I didn’t do them in public. Not until I felt I really, really could do it. And that’s pretty much what I am doing now. But it took a long time to get there.
Do you have any routine around your songwriting – time, place?
Late at night. But I’m up anyway.
You say you don’t sleep. Because your mind is always going?
No. I just don’t sleep.
But you make use of those hours?
Sometimes. You know, I’m really lazy.
You said if you didn’t write down your songs, that they would go away. Might someone else get those?
[Laughs] I’m not into any kind of mystical thing.
No. I don’t know how it works. You can use all the metaphors you want. I have thought about this a lot and I haven’t made any progress. It’s a mystery. Which is great, actually. I like that it’s a mystery. It’s not something I can unravel. It’s like trying to figure out how we got here. It’s involved with that. It makes no more sense that the rest of it.
You enjoy the unknown quality of it?
I might as well. It doesn’t do me any good not to like it. I won’t make any more progress if I don’t. But I do know how to screw it up. So since I know how to screw it up, I know how not to. Just don’t do those other things. Stay out of the way. For instance, when I write, I don’t stop. I don’t stop to haggle over a word or a form or a ‘this’ or a ‘that’. I don’t stop. I go straight through to where the end is. Then I’ll go back. If I stop, that’s it, it’s over.
But you do go back.
Yeah, I go back. I rewrite.
Do you get any satisfaction out of the fact that many of your songs are classics, and have influenced and enriched a lot of lives?
[Long pause] I think they should build a statue to me. [Laughter]
In New York?
Yeah. In Central Park. Short of that, I’m not that interested. Do I know in my heart of hearts that it’s good? Does it do that thing? If it does that, I get satisfaction out of that.
Songwriting is phenomenal. I get a major league kick out of it. That’s the only reason I do it. I just want to have fun.