Stop The Presses!

1980 Flashback: Lou Reed Tilts the Machine

Stop The Presses!

This in-depth interview between Lou Reed and Creem's Dave DiMartino (now executive editor of Yahoo Music) originally ran in September 1980. In light of Reed's sad passing on October 27, we are re-running it here as a tribute and rare glimpse at the man's complex personality.

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photo: Michael Ochs Archives

"There's a lot of very funny things floating around my albums."

What's left to say about Lou Reed?

Better yet, what's left not to say about Lou Reed? Most of the really important things have already been said by Lester Bangs, in these very pages; his "Dead Lies The Velvets Underground" of May '71 was the first really intelligent article I read about my (at the time) favorite band, and of course he never really stopped writing them – at least until his series of confrontations with Lou took on almost historic connotations, and by then the Velvet bandwagon was already overloaded with latecomers who, by their very lateness, missed the band's timeliness. And it was a shame.

Of course L. Bangs should have pounded out a Velvet Underground/Lou Reed unauthorized bio rather than a more lucrative Blondie quickie, but then that's his business. But if anybody has more obviously exorcised their personal demons through writing than Bangs has, particularly about Lou Reed, I've yet to read them. Conflict after well-documented conflict, those two are probably sick of each other, and maybe that's the way it should be.

When Lou was flown to Detroit in May and approached with the possibility of another CREEM interview, his response – and this I was later told by the local Arista person who'd set it up – was a dubious "WHAT???!!" He had to be assured, as it turned out, that we actually liked him and weren't waiting for the traditional CREEM encounter session where we'd call each other a--holes and leave separately, teeth gritted. But then this was a "new" Lou, or at least the 20th version of a new Lou: happily married to Sylvia Morales; healthy-looking, patient, pleased with his record company, and above all, cooperative. Maybe the title of his latest, Growing Up In Public, was more than the ironic statement it initially seemed; Lou was never the obvious child that, say, Iggy Pop continues to be, but his almost-seasonal personality changes have always hinted at a "delicate" stability that could be construed a many things, but never necessarily adult.

And this talk about exorcising demons. How else to interpret "Your mother is dying/And I god damn well hope you're satisfied" as anything but – as some one else put it last issue – Lou Reed on the psychiatrist's couch?

But subtlety has always been the most integral aspect of the Lou Reed persona, Metal Machine Music notwithstanding. And to believe for a minute that Growing Up In Public is Lou Reed perversely re-doing Harry Chapin's ‘Cat's In The Cradle’ is missing the point as sorely as those did who initially dismissed Berlin for its pomp and bombast. Lou himself once said "I do Lou Reed better than anybody," and for all the humor there, he put his finger on a vital point: "Lou Reed" is a character, much like the Candy and the Carolines he once sang about. And that these characters change – by the month, year or album – only affirms that despite all the accusations, he's never repeated himself. And in those rare instances it's seemed like he has, it's been with an extremely rare degree of self-awareness and purpose.

Personally, I think Lou Reed has created a more substantial, durable, and above all relevant body of work than anybody else that has recorded rock music – and that while Dylan's ‘Memphis Blues Again’ and ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ or Lennon's ‘I Am The Walrus’ now seem dated and faintly ridiculous in 1980, Reed's ‘I'll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ – among countless others – have a magic that time can't ever really affect. And the latest from him, particularly Street Hassle and most of The Bells, shows that while he may temporarily get side-tracked (Rock 'n' Roll Heart), his muse shows no sign of departing. If there's a Slow Train Comin', it's a sure bet Lou Reed won't be on it.

In a Southfield hotel bar, writer Mark J. Norton and I sit and await Lou Reed's arrival, wondering how much the upcoming encounter will be like pulling teeth and how much we should drink before it happens. When the Arista rep meets us, Lou is in tow, his only words: "Where's Sylvia?"

Sylvia, of course, is nearby, playing pinball. Lou leaves, finds, her, and returns. The Reeds – it is hard to believe, isn't it? – sit on a nearby couch, we smile and turn on the tape recorder... Lou's first words: "Where can you play pinball around here?" Upon being told where: "Is it in a crummy part of town? Can you bring a lady there?"

And Lou Reed is a happily married man.

Well, Lou, have you been touring with the same band you used on the new LP?
Oh, sure. Some of those guys have been with me since '75. They've been with me for a long time.

What happened to [saxophonist] Marty Fogel?
He went off into the world of jazz. His ears were gonna start giving out. He always used to play with earplugs. [smiles]

I was hoping you might have continued the collaboration you started with Don Cherry on The Bells. How's your relationship with him; are you good friends?
We're cordial. I don't hang out with him, he doesn't hang out with me. He's never in the country. He's a really sweet guy.

What music have you been listening to lately? Have you liked the Cherry and Ornette Coleman stuff for a long time?
Oh yeah. I mean when I was in college I had a jazz show. I used to be a disc jockey; I could program my own records. I used to have ‘Excursion On A Wobbly Rail’, by Cecil Taylor as my intro Theme. I liked Ornette Coleman a lot, and Don Cherry a whole lot. I used to always go see 'em at clubs, the original Ornette Coleman Quartet – with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden.

Do you like the two Old And New Dreams LPs then? Have you heard them?
No. But there's two cuts by Ornette that beat practically anything I've ever heard, One's called ‘Ramblin'’...

Yeah, a great tune...
Yeah, I read that he played in Little Richard's band – it's really amazing. And Hendrix supposedly played in Little Richard's band, too. Little Richard had a mean band, man; I think it was the same band that Larry Williams had. I mean it's interesting the crossover that goes on there, you can hear it on ‘Ramblin'’, It's just POW! [Lou raises his fist] To this day, I can listen to that thing over and over. I love that thing. And also ‘Lonely Woman’. The whole harmonic idea on that just killed me. Don Cherry knows how much I love that line in there, in ‘Lonely Woman’, and I asked him if he'd put it in ‘The Bells’. And he quotes that line in the intro, a passage, if you listen carefully. I just think it's so great. I mean, I love practically everything Don Cherry does; I just love the way he plays the horn. I don't care much what he's playing, I just love listening to him, especially his tone.

I had had this idea when I first discovered electric guitar: wouldn't it be incredible if you could play like Ornette Coleman on the guitar? That was some of the initial attack, something like ‘European Son’ grew out of that thing. Like when Ornette came out with that experimental record?

You mean Free Jazz?
Yeah, I thought what would happen if...Like I saw him on Saturday Night Live and he did this one little thing that was just incredible, per usual, with two drummers.

Yeah, I saw that.
Wasn't that incredible? Jesus Christ, is he good.

What do you think of his things with James "Blood" Ulmer?

You haven't heard 'em? You should. Have you heard Lester Bowie's brother with Defunkt, or James White?
[To Sylvia] Isn't that the person you know? [Sylvia nods] He was in Ornette's band?

No, James "Blood" Ulmer. The same sort of thing that was on Saturday Night Live. In fact he just put out an album Ornette played on (Tales Of Captain Black, Artists House).
Really? Is it out in the store? Can I get it? [Cooperative writer has a tape of the album in his car, promises to give it to Lou after interview. Much thanks]

Great. I mean, you have no idea how much I love that stuff. It's so hard to keep track of albums and names, ya know? I can understand why people who might not have liked my albums in the past might buy them now, if only because there's so much going on that when they walk into a store, they see my records and say "Oh I know him!" And it's just so hard to keep track of everybody. It should be easy for me, because I know this-and-that, but it's not. If anything, it gets harder for me, because I get hyped so much by people saying this and that that I just try to stay away.

But ya know, what's on the radio is such a drag, because if you hear something you really like, they won't tell you who it is. I've even called stations up and they don't know. I mean, I go back far, back to listening to jazz stations, where they'd even tell you who all the musicians were. I guess with rock records they don't think who the musicians are is important. And in most cases it isn't.

Have you been listening to any new rock?
Yeah, the new Eric Clapton album.

[Mark Norton conveys astonishment: "Why??"]
WHY?! Oh my God!! Because when he's on – I mean, I love his particular style of soloing. It's a style a guy I worked with called Danny Weiss does, this thing called "chicken-picking." Well, I can't describe it to you. Tony Joe White did a solo on the record ‘Polk Salad Annie’, that little guitar solo in the middle of the record is like that, except you speed it up a little.

Do you like J.J. Cale, too?
Umm...some of it. Some of it gets a little too mellowed out for me – you know, where everything sounds like it's 5:30 in the morning. Well, no, that's not really true. But I like Clapton, there's some solos that are so fast it's unbelieveable. Not bulls--- fast – I mean sometimes I have to stop and play it back. I listen on tapes so I can do that, 'cause I love to go back to something that's good. I hear a passage and I say "Where's he gonna go from there, I mean it just can't be done..." And sure enough. I mean, my God, after Hendrix, I guess, he's the only guy who can use a wah-wah pedal.

Yeah, that album I listen to, but not all of it. I mean not all of particularly any album, except Stevie Wonder, I guess. Stevie Wonder, I mean you can go track by track and there's bound to be something on it. [Pause]

Somebody said something very weird to me about Stevie Wonder. They said that the trouble with Stevie Wonder is that his only experience is, uhh, sex and recording. He hasn't really experienced much else. Now I don't know about that, 'cause I saw this picture of him with his hair all done up. Somebody really works over him, I mean they must do it to him in his sleep, or else he does it himself. Warhol gave him a Polaroid camera as a present for his birthday, and it was really funny.

But he's got this great advantage in the studio. You can hear it. Did you ever notice how immaculate his albums are? He always has the best bass sound, it's just incredible. Like on ‘Living For The City’, which I think is one of the more incredible things ever done by people as we know them .The bass sound on that – I mean, I think it's a Moog, I don't think it's a real bass, but WHEW! what a sound...

Like Stevie, do you ever record your own music at home, by yourself?
Not any more. I used to, and then I just didn't see any reason why to do it when I could just go in the studio and really hear it back. It's like I know it's there all the time, it's not gonna disappear. I know that with this inspiration, or whatever, there'd be another one just like it around next week. There's no sense in just having 40 good ideas around, right? 'Cause then I'd have to sit around and say "Gee, gee, which one should I do?" I can hear it in my head, and that's the main thing, It's gotten to the point now where I know what it's gonna be, I can hear it, and I don't wanna have to put it on tape. It used be that I'd put it down on tape because I thought it would go away, but finally, the really good ones don't go away. And also, it's a lot more fun doing it with somebody else.

You really think so?
I don't like playing alone, I like a band situation. I enjoy playing with the guys. I'd much rather sit around with [keyboard player Michael] Fonfara and say "Oh wow, listen to this," and then he'll play something on top of it. And that's fun. Myself, I just sit around with my own input. And I know my own input, so I enjoy other people's Input.

Are you saying you're starting to feel limited?
Oh, no. I've got plenty of my own ideas; I just enjoy other people's ideas. I think they round out my own ideas. I mean the Turk [Fonfara] might hear something and I'll say "Put one of your weird chords to it, put a little jazzy thing here, or an Erik Satie thing there, Michael." And I mean he can do that, and I can't. I mean, I can hear it in my head, I know what I want – do you know what I mean?

But as good as your band may be, don't you think there are some sounds you may want that no one'll be able to produce but yourself?
Oh, yeah, but then I play 'em. I'll give you a for instance: like in ‘My Old Man’, there's a little break towards the end, before the vamp out, and there's a little guitar solo, OK? I'm doing that. As soon as the drummer finishes the fill, the other guitarist takes over and plays the line I told him. But that little section – it's just a little, teeny section – that I do, because I felt it, I knew what I wanted. And we tried various guys taking a crack at it, but we ended up using me 'cause of the way I was hitting it. There are certain kinds of rhythms that I've never heard anybody but me do. And it's such a simple idea, I just don't understand other people not being able to do it. But I do have a certain discipline, an, uh, uninhibited approach.

Then out of the things you've ever recorded, what's the best example of the guitar sound you've enjoyed most?
On ‘Keep Away’. That rhythm guitar that's hitting the offbeats? That's me. I love that. I just don't understand why other guitar players...[pause] If you think drum, for instance, I'm doing all those little messes of paradiddles – BUMM/BUMM/BUMM/BUMM – on the guitar.

Or the idea of a rhythm guitar part having a melody. I mean that's what ‘Sweet Jane’ was. Well, we were talking about parts: I always try to set up a rhythm part that's also riff, a rhythm part that if somebody just heard that, they'd like it. A rhythm part you could sing to. It's not a note, it's a chord part. In jazz, ya know how a lot of really good jazz guys can play the whole thing with just chords?

Right. Which might explain why you like the early Ornette stuff so much...
Some of his harmonic ideas, Jesus. When you first hear him, you tend to say he can't play – but that's not true.

That's what a lot of people said about you a long time ago...
I've always had really good musicians. I've got great taste. Because I really love this stuff; it's like some people like wine, I like rock 'n' roll.

[Don't ask why but we go off on a tangent about Japanese calculators and micro-electronics briefly. Then a discussion of recording techniques.]

Why no binaural sound on the new album?
Why did I stop? Well, because I was interested in the spatial relationships of that technique, right? Why I stopped was be-cause I didn't wanna go to Germany anymore. I wasn't crazy about going to Germany in the first place. And the real reason, was that I liked the technique, but I didn't like the board. In other words, I liked the spatial sound in The Bells, and I like it on Take No Prisoners, but what I don't like is the drum sound. I don't like the guitar sound, I don't like any of the sounds they got, across the board. Because they don't have good boards.

And the new album?
Oh! [smiles] That board at Montserrat [where G.U.I.P. was recorded] is a quarter-of-a-million-dollar board, and it's hot rodded. The sound of that thing, that to me is the greatest sound I've ever had. But I miss that spatial thing. I mean, my dream, for me, would be a binaural, direct-to-disc digital done at Montserrat. And that's not about to happen; I don't have the money. And they don't have the set-up, either. The digital people don't wanna hear about direct-to-disc, the stereo people don't wanna hear about binaural because they got killed on quad, and so it's like none of those people wanna talk to each other. And as far as a rock record goes, I think what you really need with a rock record is good sound. For all the spatial this-and-that, you really just want a good bass sound. If you don't get it, nobody's happy.

So you think the new one is your best-sounding one yet?
Oh absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I think Rock 'n' Roll Heart is the next one that sounded pretty good, and then I'd have to go back to Berlin. The first solo Lou Reed album sounded terrible – and the reason it sounded terrible it because it was done in Dolby and they lost the master decoder on it. So the album was actually put out without being decoded. Can you imagine? And nobody knew it at the time. Then on the next album, Transformer, the studio lost the master tapes for Side Two.

Why does this stuff happen to you, Lou?
Nah, these are just things that you run into. As far as I'm concerned, the more control I have, the less chance there is of something going wrong. Because I know that I, personally, will be on top of my own case. A lot of people need to have somebody else do it, because they themselves wouldn't be on top of their own case, or they wouldn't have enough knowledge to know how to be on top of their own case. They might mean to do well, but they could just get f---ed in so many ways that they wouldn't even know where to start to look out, and by then it's all over but the shouting.

Would you say that right now you're more "in control" than you've ever been?
Oh sure, yeah. Of myself as much as anything else, ya know? I was a bit erratic before – you get tired of fighting with people sometimes. And to avoid going through all that, I mastered the art of recording known as "capture the spontaneous moment and leave it at that."

The best example of which would be...
Coney Island Baby is like that, The Bells is like that. Most of my stuff is like that – that is, you go into the studio with zero, write it on the spot, make the lyrics up as the tape's running and that's it. And then your learn the record afterwards. BAM! That way, no matter what the sound was, my records came out my way. And they sound that way. The thing is, what I wanna get on my records, since everybody else is so slick and dull, is that...moment. Most people don't get to hear that, but you can hear it on a lot of my stuff.

Has anything in retrospect really surprised you? That you can't believe you actually played?
No. No, we're really good. [laughs, then pauses] No, I'd be surprised if we couldn't do it. Not only surprised, I'd be shocked. I mean anybody grounded in the stuff we're grounded in should be able to go in and do a hundred of 'em. I could do it all day. The Bells was done like that, those lyrics were just made up on the spot and they're absolutely incredible. I'm very adept at making up whole stories with rhymes, schemes, jokes, the whole...

Yeah, we've heard Take No Prisoners...
[Smiles] It was my dream, ever since I first heard the binaural technique when I was In Germany, I said I've gotta be the first guy to do a live show like this, I gotta." And then we had it there, it was in New York. It was one of my plans that actually worked, I had all the right people in all the right places, I had the freedom to do the whole thing, there it was. And of course there wasn't a chance of airplay, Clive [Davis, Arista president] just said "Oh, Lou!!" but it wasn't a matter of that. See, I had total control. They could've put that album together so you could play it on the air, but the album I gave them, it was pointless for anybody to say to me "Go back in the studio and edit that out," because if you edited that out [laughs] you'd have three-quarters of the album and one long bleep. And so that's the advantage of having control.

There's also a Part Two in the vaults, but there hasn't been any uh...public demand for it, so I guess that's where it'll stay...

Okay. What do you think of Rachel Sweet's version of ‘New Age’?
I haven't heard it. I met her last night for the first time, what a nice little person. [pause] That sounds denigrating, "a nice little person," I just meant she's really short. That's one of my favorite, favorite songs. I wish I'd done the vocal on the album [Loaded]. That's one of my real favorite songs. I didn't know she had recorded it, but she came up to me and said "Why'd you put 'Robert Mitchum' in a song?" and I said "You noticed!" "And rhymed it with 'Catch 'em'?" and I said "Isn't that terrible?"

I don't know, there's a lot of very funny things floating around my albums. I would love – well, not that much, but that's a song I really wish I had more time, money and control to produce right, ya know? I had a big Spector-like production in my head, like when the bass takes the solo on the way out that was supposed to be big baritones and tubas and all that.

Who produced that? Adrian Barber, Geoffrey Haslem?
Adrian Barber... [pause] Those were terrible times. I left before the thing was even mixed. They took me out of a lot of it. And on the album they even took away the writing credits to the songs. I sued.

I remember it confused me when it came out – I didn't realize that Doug Yule was so "responsible" for the Velvets' sound.
I didn't realize it either. [pause] I expected it.

What did you think of that Velvet Underground Squeeze album?
I never heard it.

[Right. A little more discussion about spontaneity in the studio, and the subject is changed.]

A lot of people think that Growing Up In Public is Lou Reed "baring his soul" autobiographically...
Well actually, my mother's not dead [‘Standing On Ceremony’], my father never beat my mother [‘My Old Man’] – you've gotta take it, like, I'm a writer, you know what I'm saying? I take a thing and...I'm not restricted to me. If I was restricted to me, it'd get very dull for me. I create a character – and that may or may not apply, to me. Whether my mother's dead or not really doesn't matter, it's the attitude I'm interested in. I wanted to express a view, so I manipulated the events to justify the view.

Would you say that that "view" is consistent through the whole album?
Sure. Everything in that album is about one particular character why he's that way and what causes that kind of viewpoint, that kind of attitude. And I think it's a fairly prevalent attitude and viewpoint that a lot of people grow up with, that I've seen in a lot of people around me. Not necessarily in myself – although that's always possible, too. But I'm certainly not restricted by me.

Should I draw from this album that this character's to be pitied, that he's an asshole? Or do you just want me to draw my own conclusion?
Yeah, But I don't see anything pitiful there. I think of the whole thing as being on a very up note. Like he's going ahead, like he's found the perfect lady with the incredible grace.

But of course with the fact that you just married Sylvia...
Inferences could be drawn.

And you like that ambiguity, don't you?
Only in some things. But I wrote that song [‘Think It Over’] specificially for Sylvia. See there's this quote in there from Annie Hall, when I said she said "Well La, Dee, Dah, Dee, Dah"; that's for Sylvia. But I was also thinking of Diane Keaton, you know, when she kept saying that to Woody Allen: "Well La, Dee, Dah, Dee, Dab." And then she's not there anymore and he goes with this really dumb dumb lady, and the whole lobster thing happens again, and she just looks at him and says "What's wrong with you?" Where before it was such fun, now it's pretty awful and excruciating. And she's very pretty but she's so dumb, just – well, it would be death, it would be death. And you miss that "Lah, Dee," so I thought I had to stick that in a song 'cause that's too good just to leave in a movie.

Speaking of literary things, do you keep a lot of journals or writings at home?
I used to, but I stopped doing that, too. It's enough that it's in my head. I like to leave things in my head because at some point, maybe there's a novel or something in there gestating.

What are you going to do about that? Are you going to keep playing, or are you serious about writing a book?
Oh, no. I intend to keep playing for a while. I mean, I'm a long-term person, I prefer doing this to anything else. Period. It's not like I'm doing this so at one point I can get into that, that's not my situation at all. I love making records and I love being in a band, performing. If there's a novel or a poetry book sitting around, well OK.

But for your own edification, one of my business people got in touch with the biggest songbook people and they didn't wanna hear about me. The only people that know about my lyrics, since I never printed them, are people who are Lou Reed fans. Other than that, it's not like a Lou Reed fan can take a lyric sheet to someone and say "Look at that"; they can't do that. They can take the record and say to someone "Well here, listen to this," but then someone will listen to it and not hear it, because people don't listen.

That's why I was curious why you did include the lyrics in this one...
Yeah, well first of all, the people around me insisted on it. And second of all, I thought it was a good idea because the lyrics are, like, really complex in there. It would be asking too much for somebody to take "gilt-edged polymorphous urban" and get that – and not only that, but to get the pun on "gilt." That's a little much. Hence, the lyric sheet. See, usually I was against lyric sheets, being a reverse snob – you know, that a rock 'n' roil record shouldn't have a lyric sheet. But the thing is, I don't write rock 'n' roll lyrics like other people do. Mine deserve a lyric sheet. And I think the people that buy my records really wanted one and really appreciated it.

AND WE CONTINUE, talking about the mechanics of his Rock 'n' Roll Heart tour and all its TVs, Lou's ultimate electronic-dream stage show – a $45,000-a night rear-projection color video system, "like when you wanna see the Ali fight live," says Lou. Also the much neglected Nelson Slater LP Lou produced on RCA, and its masterpiece track ‘We’. "That’s was one of the best things I've ever done," says Lou. "I think we sold six copies." While we talk, Lou mentions the word "control" five or six more times.

Lou, uhh...with all this talk about being in control, it sounds like you're getting into est or something...
[a long pause] You may be surprised about some of the things that I'm into, but that's not one of them. [another pause] But what's always amazed me is the people who are into that. I mean, there's these closet est people all over the place. Perfectly normal people, you've had a decent relationship with 'em and thought they were intelligent – the next thing you know they're saying "Lou," and finally confiding in you. It's like in The Power Of Positive Thinking. And I wish they'd never told me.

For instance, there's a person who shall go nameless, a person who I thought was a good engineer until the facade dropped. We were working together, and that's when I guess you get to know people, for better or worse. I used to wear sunglasses to try to avoid that sort of thing – and they're always good if you wanna go to sleep, too. So anyway, he said, "Lou, ya know something, I've got something that you'd really like." And always gotta be suspicious when somebody says that, so I'm starting to get, wary now, and I say, "Wha?" He says: "Ya ever heard of est?"

Now he was the third person within a week to tell me that. The other one was a coke freak, and he showed me this little pamphlet from the est people. And I mean here's this guy who has a hole through his septum and he's telling me "This is the way, man." I mean, sure there are est people who've got their act together, but anyway the guy says "I've taken this est course three times already." And I said, "Oh, that's nice." And he said: "It's really good for you, You'd really like it!"

And it always worries me that people actually think there's something wrong with me and what I'm doing. What is this thing that they want me to correct? So I'm immediately put off because I'm being criticized and all that. I'd rather he'd just say "Ya know, it'd be nice if you'd laugh at my jokes once in a while." Now I can take that, I can handle that kind of lightweight criticism...

AND THE INTERVIEW is over. Lou and Sylvia stroll over to the nearby hotel arcade room. Norton pulls out his camera: "OK if I take some pictures, Lou?" Sure, says Lou.

Lou struts over to a pinball machine, complaining about it. "They've got the whole tilt rigged up on these things so that if an old lady leaned on it, it'd tilt." He sticks a quarter in, plays a ball, pushes the machine; a fraction, and sure enough – the tilt light pops on. The game is over.

"Did you see that?" Lou asks. Sylvia shakes her head. Lou turns to Norton. "You saw that, didn't ya? Jesus!"

Norton, with the camera, asks once more: can he take a picture of Lou in front of the machine?

"No problem," says Lou, positioning himself. "Just make sure that no one can see the score."

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