Reed, between the lines
Looking for clues to Lou Reed's present state of mind on his new album, Ecstasy? The cranky rocker says you're wasting your time.
It's media day for Lou Reed's new album, Ecstasy, as well as his new book of lyrics, Pass Thru Fire, and outside his office on lower Broadway, it's sleeting. Perfect. What better weather for talking to the old transformer than cold, slushy and gray?
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Upstairs, the converted-loft office on the 12th floor is large and spare, and Reed himself stares down from just about every wall. Most of the pictures are concert posters and framed photographs from album-cover shoots (like the one for 1976's Coney Island Baby). Reed's publicist and personal assistant peck away quietly at keyboards. Reed's small rat terrier, Lola Belle, snores on a comfy black-leather sofa—another nice touch. Squeezed between the couch and the wall is a bookcase that contains, among other intriguing mementos, the engraved program for an evening honoring Václav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, at the White House, during which Lou performed. Whatever you can say about Reed, one thing's for sure: He's no rock & roll animal anymore.
After a long delay, a reporter from a Canadian music-television program stumbles out of Reed's inner sanctum looking dazed, like he's just spent an hour licking shiny boots of leather. It's easy to understand why he'd appear that way: Reed has little use for journalists and is notoriously cranky in interviews. The subject himself is, as usual, dressed entirely in black, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a brocade-leather jacket that screams early '80s. His hair is a helmet of tight black curls cut into a near-mullet. Lean and wiry, he looks almost like a neighborhood guy from Brooklyn, where he was born 58 years ago, or maybe one from where he grew up, in Freeport, Long Island—the type who owns a garage or a small video store and plays in a band on weekends. But then there's that magnetic field of fuck-you vibes that surrounds him; and there are his eyes, which can go dead in a heartbeat if he doesn't like a question. These are set in a face that retains hints of its youthful visage but has fallen into leathery folds of skin, like a reptile's. Peering out through steel-rimmed glasses, twisting his thin lips downward, Reed calls to mind a turtle—a turtle armored by the shell of his own celebrity.
There's more to him than that, of course. Reed is an object of fascination for more than just the average music fan. He's one rock star who works very hard—all his protestations aside—at being recognized as an Artist. He studied, after all, with the poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University; and he was discovered, with the rest of the Velvet Underground, by the pope of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, while playing at a West Village dive on the very night the club manager decided to fire them. Reed has always cultivated an aura of unassailable integrity, whether seeking the embrace of culture high or low. And after so many years of doing things his way, you sense that he's just as determined to control posterity; he certainly won't settle for a berth in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (to which he was inducted, with the Velvets, in 1996). Not that Reed would admit to wanting anything at all. "I don't give a shit," he laughs when asked how he'd like to be remembered. "I'm just trying to make the rent."
Yet there is the matter of the new book, his second published collection of lyrics. And there is the fact that he was the subject of a PBS American Masters documentary, which put him in the company of such cultural heavyweights as James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein and Norman Rockwell. Reed's projects have included such arty BAM fare as Songs for Drella, a Warhol remembrance that reunited him with former V.U. bandmate John Cale, and Time Rocker, a collaboration with avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson about a mad scientist being chased through time. This summer, an exhibition of Reed's photographs will open in Cahors, France. And a part of the Reed legacy, a collection of Velvet Underground memorabilia, is already on permanent display in at least one institution: the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He likely wouldn't mind if MoMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art got into the act.
Or maybe the State Department: Reed has to be one of the few rock musicians with a foreign policy. Recently, he canceled tour dates in Austria in protest of the election of the far-right Freedom Party to the country's governing coalition. ("People can vote for whoever they want," he says, "but that doesn't mean I have to go near them.") He's certainly one of few rock stars to hang out with world leaders. In 1997, he took Havel and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Knitting Factory to hear John Zorn. Albright & Co. apparently annoyed the band; Zorn told them to "shut the fuck up" from the stage. "It wasn't her kind of music," Reed confirms. "She was in the wrong place, and was told so. But President Havel loves jazz, and that's why we were there."
Ever in command, Reed sits behind his desk like a director of human resources screening applicants. The new album is about to be released, and as with any Reed effort, you wonder how much Ecstasy has to do with his real life. In spite of its title, it's more downbeat than his previous studio album, Set the Twilight Reeling, which was dedicated to his lover, Laurie Anderson. And though Ecstasy is elegiac, it isn't like Magic and Loss, which detailed Reed's coming to terms with mortality. Instead, Ecstasy is full of expressions of regret and opportunities missed; it's less about loss than it is about growing old and growing apart from the people and places you love. In one song, "Modern Dance," he seems to be mulling over leaving New York. Is it true? "That's just an illusion. It's hot in here," Reed says, as he jumps to open the window.
From this vantage point on Broadway, you can see to the Bowery and the East Village—all-important territory in the Lou Reed legend. "Look at that," he says, pointing out the window. "Who'd want to leave that?" In fact, Reed is probably out of New York as often as he's in it. He's just returned from Hamburg, where he's been working with Wilson on another project, a theater piece about Edgar Allan Poe called Poe-try. Apparently, he's still jet-lagged. Watching him now brings to mind another of his new songs, in which he seems to be observing young lovers in the streets of the Meatpacking District from a building above. But be careful not to fumble the words when asking him to elaborate, or he'll grumble, "No lyric sheet, huh?"
Reed has written much about New York over the past 30-odd years; has his perspective changed along with the city? "I hope so," he replies. "I mean, things evolve—including me." His new album seems to express a more detached perspective than his previous efforts. "Oh, I don't know about that," he answers. "That's a question for Freud. I don't think about things that way—'maybe this is too attached, or maybe this is too detached, or maybe this is six feet too far to the left.' When I write, it's a different state of mind; I don't really understand the process. Not that I'm comparing myself to Shakespeare," he says with an exaggerated roll of his eyes, "but what does it mean, 'To be or not to be?' Is it a negative feeling? Are you talking about existential choice? Why isn't the line 'To be or maybe?' You're stuck with the words, but there's also the music."
Reed stays true to his rep for resisting all interpretations of his writing. "There's so much; how much more would you want to know?" Well, some songs on the new album seem to express regret about not having children—is that something he feels? "I wrote a song called 'Lonesome Cowboy Bill'" he counters. "That doesn't mean I want to be a cowboy." True, but Magic and Loss quite clearly is about the death of his friend, songwriter Doc Pomus. And Songs for Drella could be a chapter in Reed's autobiography. Still, he won't budge.
What he will share is that music is most important to him; clearly, the process of making it is what he loves best. Reed's an audio freak who finds enormous pleasure in discussing recording devices. While he won't discuss reflections of his life in his lyrics, he talks more freely when he relates his history to music (waxing rhapsodic about his first guitar: "A Kent! The worst guitar ever made!"). But then again, maybe not. When asked how being with Anderson has changed him, he complains that the question is among the top three he's always asked. But then he answers, "I wouldn't have bought a Kurzweil 2300 [keyboard] if it wasn't for her. She's costing me money." In general, he says, "I don't talk about personal things. I write about them, or it seems like I'm writing about me. And I don't answer well. It's the same way I feel about having publicity pictures taken. I'm not a model."
Such sentiments aren't surprising for a rock star, nor are they out of character for someone as in control of his own image as Reed is. Although he insists that he doesn't give a shit about how he's remembered, he is, in fact, very busy constructing his legacy. And two key figures in that story are his mentors: Schwartz and Warhol. He's happy to talk about them, within limits.
Schwartz, who was an alcoholic and on a downward spiral when the college-age Reed encountered him, had been a star in the New York literary scene of the '40s and '50s; the main character in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift is supposedly based on him. Schwartz also figures prominently in Reed's song "My House," from 1982's Blue Mask. "He wasn't in the best of shape when I met him," Reed says, "but I didn't know that. And I don't know if it would have mattered. He was such a passionate man, about literature, about poetry. He had a scar on his forehead, which he said he got in a duel with Nietzsche."
Of Warhol, he says, "Andy made it possible for me to have an outlet for the kind of songs that I wrote. If he hadn't, who knows what would have happened." Still, Warhol was an iron disciplinarian with a genius for fostering codependency, and it was difficult for anyone to break free of his orbit. Songs for Drella is, in part, the story of that struggle. The song "Work" especially echoes that tension; in it we hear Warhol tell Reed that he's lazy. Did that ever bother him? "What, calling me lazy? It's true," is all he'll say.
You get the feeling that Reed may have learned the value of self-mythology from Schwartz, and the advantages of being opaque from Warhol. It's a strange combination of traits, uniquely New York. Reed turns the tables on anyone he talks to, and doesn't hesitate to offer his opinion on anything, from the tape recorder used for the interview to TONY's film section. He expects as much from his fans, who generally leave him alone when he's walking down the street, but will stop to tell him "if the picture in Time Out is lousy." And he says he listens; they are the keepers of the flame. "They're out there, armed and ready," he says provocatively. Should that be taken as some kind of warning, given his strong distate for journalists? Or does that mean he cares about how he's remembered, after all? "You know, I have this idea for my website, a column where I rate critics." Like a Michelin guide? "Exactly," he replies. "That will be my legacy."