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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Lou Reed Goes Solo

Decades before he met his new best friends Metallica, Lou Reed departed one of the most influential bands of all time - the Velvet Underground - to embark on a remarkable if ever-contrary solo career. Steve Turner talked to him in London for Beat Instrumental magazine--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Lou Reed looked out of his seventh-floor window down onto six floors of other people's windows. He asked what the weather was like outside. It was as if we inhabited completely different worlds and had by chance met in this hotel room. I explained that it was nice out there. It was sunny yet cold. It was good for the time of year. "Does it snow in London?" he asked. I told him that it did, and he remarked that New York also has snow.

He's a hard person to talk to, this Lou Reed. He answered the questions but rarely added anything extra. At one point in our conversation, when I suggested that it must be hard for him to meet a songwriter he really admires, such as Ray Davies, he said, "It's hard to meet anybody." That's an insight into Lou Reed.

He lives in New York, where he's lived ever since childhood, but doesn't indulge in the city overmuch. He talked of going to the movies and then listening to people comment on the film afterwards, but has to admit that this is rather a passive occupation. He doesn't go to any rock shows and seems to enjoy telephoning his friends who live in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "I don't do much, if anything. I just wander around and, lo and behold, a song appears. Afterwards I'm left very empty."

I told him that he's a victim of the electric age - a passive recipient of information who only enjoys conversing when there's a telephone cable in between. He protested and said in his defence: "I'm not a hermit, you know. I have my friends." It seems that Lou is essentially an observer of this life, and the results of this are shown in the songs that he wrote for his band, the Velvet Underground. I asked him whether he considered himself to be a journalist his lyric writing. "What's a journalist?" he asked, but I knew he knew.

In fact, Reed knows quite a lot about the art of a journalist. "I took a journalism course in college," he told me. "However, I quit it after a short time. They said my writing was biased and that I wasn't objective." Reed had been songwriting since high school and was a real rock 'n' roll freak. There was a form of journalism open to him in which he could be subjective. This was rock music.

If I'd have been around thirty or forty years ago I would have written a novel. I still wouldn't mind writing one. However, this age seems made for short things." For Reed at least, songs were those "short things". He's never been involved with maxi-numbers and favours Top 40 rock to most of the underground. He feels that the latter category has become full of pretentious lyrics and boring drum solos. The former is still "nice and simple" for him. He thinks that the best poetry belonged to the early rock era.

It was following the journalistic course that he took up drama. "Then I realized that through songs I could be an actor and give myself a really good part. You could be the director as well. Drama school was fun. Plays are long songs with a lot of different characters." The day before our interview he had been to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see The Balcony by Genet. He had walked out halfway through. It lacked a theme, he felt, as well as being a boring production. "That's what I kinda like about rock 'n' roll,'" he said with enthusiasm. "It's so direct. There's no metaphysical bulls**t."

Somewhere around this point his producer, Richard Robinson, knocked on the door and Reed ambled over to open it. "You've broken in at number 95 in Billboard," he told him referring to Mitch Ryder's cover of a song. "Isn't that just great!" said Lou and slapped his leg with the excitement of the moment. He came back to me smiling. "I've finally made the Hot 100!!." Apparently this is no small moment for him, as he's always wished someone would record his songs because he feels they have that potential. "I'm 95, God help us," he repeated shaking his head as if to stir the fact well in. "I'd love to have a number one," he added when it settled.

The Velvet Underground split at a point when the American press were raving about the standard of their performances. There were severe management difficulties or as he put it: "I was being done." He admits the band was going well. He knew because he felt it and because other people told him. It was just that he'd do better on his own. "It was a good time to quit."

He showed me a book he's been reading called Killer In The Rain by Raymond Chandler, because he thought it was a discovery for him. He doesn't ever do research for his songs because he feels that he's subconsciously accumulating ideas all the time. He suggests that he might someday write a detective song as the subconscious result of the Chandler book. Then he stopped a minute as though startled by his own glib example.

"That'd be great, wouldn't it?" he beamed: "A song with characters, a plot and suspense which left people thinking... 'Who did it...?'"

That's the way a song comes for Lou Reed. It gives him a way of meeting people.


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