The American Songwriter Interview: Lou Reed

Photo by Timothy Greenfield

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Do you think the truth or the connection point is pretty true to all those things? Or does it shift with the medium?
It’s the same. Guaranteed. Look, being a songwriter…We met a guy in Chile the other day, a cartoonist. Laurie had done a show, and I’d played guitar. The guy created a cartoon out of it. He came the next day with it, and it was really good. A whole page thing, interpreting songs… And he said, “I’m a cartoonist.” I thought, “That’s a fun thing to say about yourself…” Like, I’m a songwriter. I do a couple things. One of them is being a songwriter.

I saw your show at Hermès. The pictures of New York.
It was also in the Kasher Gallery. There was a book available. That was book number one. Now, there’s book number two, which is also out. I’m working on book number three.

Do they come from the same place?
Yeah…

Can you say where that is? Can you define it?
Nope.

Do you know where it starts?
If I could, it would mean I could do it whenever I wanted-and I can’t. I have no idea how to go about it. I really don’t. I get asked all the time… Believe me, if I could, you’d’ve heard “Son of Wild Side” by now.

Would you go back? Expand on that reality?
No…I’m not in the same place.

And yet you went back to Berlin. There was a film. And it’s so impossibly evocative… Was it a homecoming? A reclamation?
It was a performance.

Right…
Going back to that thing of all things… My major interests are the lyrics of that. It wasn’t the Velvet Underground. No, [Berlin] was something else: the one that almost sunk the ship. Funny… That’s the one to go back to?

Were you driven to it? Or pulled?
Susan Feldman from St Ann’s… I’ve known her a long time. She’s asked me this every year for a long time. Susan’s the reason John Cale and I did Songs for Drella. I’ve done a lot of things for Susan. I did The Raven for Susan. She’s the only person who would have us…and I love that she does. I was there with Laurie, Fisher Stevens, Richard Belzer-doing readings from my thing-The Raven, which is rewriting Edgar Allen Poe. That was really fun. So much of the language is hard to understand…A lot of words were arcane when he started writing, architectural terms. Then the rhythm of it all-and he did the first detective story. But also the psychology of Poe. “You were made for him…” Susan said, “Why don’t you do this…?” She was like “I love [Berlin] so much. Why don’t you just do the whole thing from beginning to end, the way the record is-the way you meant it to be?” I was out of work again, so I figured, “Why not? Maybe it will be great fun.”

Was it?
Yeah, great fun. When we toured Europe, I really had it down. The one that’s on film with Julian, that’s really just opening the door… That’s why Bob Ezrin was conducting. He didn’t want to be onstage. I said, “Well you have to…I can’t do the guitar and those cues and those words… I can’t.” Turns out I could; but at the time, I needed a guiding hand. There’s a lot going on. Bob still has the arrangements. Those aren’t my arrangements. I wrote the songs and the melodies, but all the arrangements were Bob’s. The core band is my guys, and then Steve Bernstein and the horns, the strings… that’s [Hal] Wilner. The choir: the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Rupert Christy was all the keyboards, all the synthesizers, if you want a breakdown, and Anthony Dejewell would work overtime with the choir…

Not too many [songwriters], when they write songs go for broke. When someone does who’s really good, it’s astonishing. There’s a reason a three-minute song can devastate you, or make you get up and dance, stop what you’re doing and go, “What is that?” It just hits you. And it’s a very potent thing you’re playing around with. Some people don’t like that: they don’t like the subject matter, what it’s about-they don’t like the musicians. I’d always say, “Well, you know, the ending of Hamlet‘s not so uplifting…What do you think about Othello and Desdemona? What can we learn from this?”

Now there’s jealousy. And Berlin, if it’s about anything, it’s about jealousy. Talk about a universal emotion?! No one hasn’t been jealous; amongst all the other things, but big time, the guy’s jealous! He’s being killed by jealousy. A lot of things are going on on top of it all….The green-eyed monster it is.

I’ve read all of that Poe, who is also a master of knowing about paranoia, ache, loving, unrequited love. On The RavenBerlin is great and all, but The Raven? Oh, God…Elizabeth Ashley. No one got to hear this, and it’s sad, because she is epic in this.

We worked so hard on these guitar things, these electronic sounds. It’s awesome. And she’s behind it all. She’s a volcano. It’s wonderful to see someone turn emotions off and on like that.

If I really had my way, I would’ve started out as an actor and stayed there. Or write-write myself a role, write monologues.

My lyric book is coming out. They’re going to put The Raven, stuff I’ve written since it was [first] published. Brando in the car, talking: “I coulda been somebody…I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which, let’s face it Charlie, is what I am. It was you Charlie…”

You could hear it. It’s so obvious. Why’d you do specifically that?

Or Liz doing Blanche DuBois [sings the line] : “I have always depended…on…the kindness…of… strangers…” There you go. But you have to write that book that well. It’s an obvious thing to do with music…

In a weird way, it is obvious.

It’s so obvious; it fails to qualify as an idea. My teacher, Delmore Schwartz, wrote this story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is a line from Yeats…and, like, in five pages with very simple language; it’s one of the most devastating short stories. T.S. Eliot wrote him a letter, saying, “This is one of the greatest pieces of writing.”

There’s not one polysyllabic word in it. I said, “You know, if you can do this, why would you do anything else?” I mean, wouldn’t that be something? It’s just so obvious.

What else would you do? [A man scuttles across the street diagonally]

What is he doing? He was doing hieroglyphics or something in the middle of the street; guess he decided it was better to cross it. You could write a song called “People Watching”…It would be so easy, but not as interesting as actually watching people.

A song is like a short story, only in half the time. It’s a very short amount of time. That’s what lyrics are: the shortest stories.

It’s funny. You think you’re well-read ‘til you sit down with another person, then you find out… That’s how I feel. I’m not as well-read as I’d like. I could only read Finnegan’s Wake when Delmore read it to me. When he read it, it was great. But alone, it was very hard… you had to read it with a dictionary. Just the sound and the poetry was so thrilling.

It’s weird. I’m Irish, so it’s part of the canon…
One would think…

Completely different experience sitting on a page versus being an articulation.
Someone really smart, who really knows Joyce…like Delmore. When you devote your life to it: He had all the books and they’re all referenced with the arrows, and this to that. He was deep into it. If you’re not going to get that deep into it, you’re not going to get as much out of it.

But when someone that deep reads to you, you get their knowledge of cadence and what it all means.

My Dad loved Finnegan’s Wake, so he read it to me growing up.
He’d read it to you? That was very special.

Well, we’re Irish. That was part of the steepage.
One of the greatest books ever written. It’s up there with The Bible. How many books are up there with The Bible? Ulysses? You have to include Ulysses, so that’s two for Joyce. You’d have to put every Shakespearean play up there…

Now what happens when you include songs? “Mack the Knife”? “The Seven Deadly Sins”? Who I’m I talking about…Weill… and…

You got me…
We can Google it. Weill’s writing partner?

It’s funny. When the [album] advance came, I’d forgotten how… compelling? No, uhm… operatic this was…
In what sense?It was such a tiny, finite story, yet such a huge reality it became intensely intimate. I was thinking, if you go over it, it’s really three people: Caroline, the guy and Jim. That’s three. Then you have Lady Day, Caroline’s fantasy.

Three. The triangle.

When I started acting and directing, triangular staging… You can always look for that. Wherever you’re standing in the world…

Wilner knows everything. You can call him up and go, “Who wrote… what year…what color is the label…” He’ll know.

It’s amazing. It was…just, uhn! [Wilner’s research arrives via iPhone] Kurt Weill was a German, and is an American composer, who worked in the ‘20s until his death. He has the same birthday as me.

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