The American Songwriter Interview: Lou Reed

Photo by Timothy Greenfield

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Videos by American Songwriter


I don’t believe you. Again, it’s a question of quality. You won’t accept less than great.
I wrote a little thing called “Banging On My Drum,” “I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m having lots of fun…banging on my drum.” That was the whole lyric, and it’s really a fun song…

Yeah, Chuck Berry.
Of course. From there to Magic & Loss… They’re all tied together. The unity of rock.

I believe that. If you’re just lofty, that’s precious.
I’ve never been lofty.

You have your moments…
I know, but never lofty. That’s not the word I’d use.

Pick your word.
Umm…I’ve tried to fly into the sun. Like Icarus. Look what happened to him.

When you went back to Berlin, how did it compare?
I had nothing to compare it to…I don’t sit around listening to my own records. I didn’t re-experience Berlin. It was more like landing on another planet. I recognize that. You know what writing is: it’s an amalgam. It’s many things.

But there’s always truth in the amalgam.
Yes. There has to be truth. If you don’t believe it’s true, it’s a waste of time. You have to believe the person singing is capable of what they’re singing, [that] they’re telling the truth. Why else would you be doing it?
In my stuff, the guy is…what’s the word I’m looking for…flawed.

Philip Marlowe is flawed. I think, “Wouldn’t it be great to be Philip Marlowe, except rock?” Because Philip Marlowe is. I thought when we did the autobiography of Andy [Warhol], it was such a great way of learning about somebody that soon other people would be doing it. There’d be a whole genre of biography CDs. Didn’t happen.

You have to have a life to support that.
Malcolm X? Martin Luther King? John Kennedy? George Washington? Bach? Are you kidding? There are all these people you could tell what they did, how they did it, their story. It’s art, not a piece of fluff.

But you believe in heft… depth to the truth.
You have to visualize a really vivid, very quick [truth] where you can feel the attitude of the person you’re singing about. It’s very 3-D. You have to be able to picture it. For me, the red Porsche hopped over the curb and ran over the small dog. That’s real quick. There you go. You’re a hard person to flame, standing over the pizza oven…

We can do this all day. One of them will work. There’ll be another one… on a good day.

And you write ‘em down?
Used to. Then I just stopped. They don’t come back either. That’s what’s really strange. I know if I don’t write it down, gone forever. So I listen to in my head for me. They go wherever they go.

For yourself.
Broadcast from Radio Lou. Listenership: 1.

That’s all you need if it’s truly about creation…
Whatever it is. I’ve never understood it. I gave up trying to understand it. Didn’t get me anywhere. It was a long time ago…

Ever feel like it spins you around?
Well, it takes two to dance. Two willing partners. You can’t have one person being recalcitrant.

Is that the muse?
Whomever. Sometimes, you lose interest. It’s more interesting to do tai chi… to do a spinning kick with a spear.

A spinning kick with a spear?
I was doing that this morning. Tai Chi Chen with master Ren Guang Yi…

One last question.
Go ahead. I like you, Little Irish Rose.

When you look back on your work, do you ever startle yourself… ever look at something you’ve written and think, “Damn…”
I never do that stuff.

But going in to do this…
Many “holy shit” moments.

In a good way?
You know, “Oh, my God… look at that.” You certainly laid that one out.

Berlin was a staggering record.
Does it hold up? Hmmmm: “Lotta ways to say that…” “How do you do that chord change?…,” “Wow, didn’t hold much back on that one…”

On the other hand, I was never arrested for breaking someone’s arms. You know why? Because it never happened. That’s called writing.


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