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Waiting for the Man - Lou Reed

from REFLEX #26, cover date July 28, 1992.

Waiting for the Man.
Lou Reed interviewed by Neil Gaiman.

I.

When I was about fourteen I found a copy of a Lou Reed lyrics book in my local book shop. It was a cheaply-bound mimeoed affair, with a stippled caricature of Lou shooting up on the flimsy cover: pirate publishing.

I wanted it so badly, but I couldn't afford it (and the police had just busted up a junior shoplifting ring at my school and I'd had to return the copy of Lou Reed Live that Jim Hutchins -- the John Dillinger of the ninth grade -- had obtained for me at significantly less than the record store was asking for, so even that option was kind of out).

I stood and read it in the shop, typos and all. Went back for it a couple of days later, but it was gone.

I've been looking for it ever since.

II.

In 1986, back when I was still a journalist, I was in the press offices of RCA, with a friend who was blagging me a copy of Mistrial. [To blag: means to scrounge, obtain, mook.]

"Neil wants to interview Lou Reed," said my friend.

"Lou Reed? Jesus. I wouldn't wish that on a dog," said his press officer. "He's hell on interviewers. Walks out on you if you say the wrong thing. He'll probably just tell you to fuck off. Or not answer you. Or something."

Then they went on to talk about how a few years before a young hack had begun an interview with Meatloaf by asking if it the problem was glandular and never really got much further than that.

III.

It started out as an idle comment, over a lunch with an editor. I gave up journalism for fiction three years before, and mentioned that, while nothing could tempt me back, I'd always wished that I'd interviewed Lou Reed...

"Lou Reed?" said the editor in question, her ears pricking up. "Well, he'll be in Europe next month. But we were already thinking of maybe asking Martin Amis to talk to him."

But I'd volunteered and Martin Amis hadn't, and somewhere wheels were set in motion, or at least a couple of phone calls were made.

A month later the book arrived.

Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed. Ninety song lyrics, two poems, and two interviews -- one with Vaclav Havel, playwright, author and President of Czechoslovakia, and the other with Hubert Selby, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Some songs had small italic notes at the bottom of the page. Occasionally they clarified; often they infuriated.

'Kicks', a song about how murder alleviates ennui better than sex "cause it's the final thing to do" carried the annotation "Some of my friends were criminals", while the note for 'Home of the Brave' read, "My college roommate and friend, Lincoln, tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. He lived but lost an arm and a leg. He then tried to become a stand-up comedian. Years later he was found starved to death in his locked apartment."

IV.

I was in my local Woolworths, in the nearest dull little English town to me (which doesn't have a real record store, just a Woolworths, which is still a real improvement over a few years back, when simply possessing a compact disk could have got you burned as a warlock), looking for Magic and Loss, although I didn't seriously expect them to have it. I went through the Rs but there was just a copy of Sally Can't Dance with a crack running down the battered plastic of the cover.

I asked the shop assistant about it, who pointed me to the charts wall. Lou Reed's in the UK top ten?

I heard the sound of the Earth turning on mighty hinges, and of stars forming new constellations, but I wasn't going to argue. Maybe now, I thought, they'll bring out the Arista albums on CD.

My Rock N' Roll Heart's been unplayable for almost a decade.

V.

The first time I saw Lou Reed live I was almost sixteen. He was playing at the New Victoria, a converted London Theatre which closed down a few months later. He kept stopping to tune his guitar. The audience kept cheering and yelling and shouting "Heroin!".

At one point he leaned in to the mike and told us all to "Shut the fuck up. I'm trying to get this fuckin' toon right."

At the end of the gig he told us we'd been such a crummy audience we didn't deserve an encore, and he didn't do one.

That, I decided, was a real rock and roll star.

VI.

Three weeks were spent talking to WEA, Lou's record company. The interview's on. The interview's off. The interview's maybe on. It's going to be a phone interview. It's not going to be a phone interview. I'm going to be flown to Stockholm. I'm going to fly to Munich.

First thing you learn is that you've always got to wait.

Somewhere in there, at Lou's request, to prove my credentials, I handed over a pile of books and comics to Sally, the publicist at WEA. She seemed kind of impressed, so I decided not to mention that I could have been Martin Amis.

I'd seen the video of Reed's What's Good at 3.00 am on MTV while channel-hopping (European MTV is the only channel in the world worse than American MTV). Visually it was stunning: it looked kind of like Matt Mahurin's work, only it was in colour. I asked Sally who made the video, but she didn't know.

Days went by, and D-day was approaching fast, while we waited for word. I'm probably going to Munich. I'm almost definitely going to Munich.

I've never been to Munich. I've never met Lou Reed.

Friday, 5:30, I'm not going to Munich, and the interview's off. Cancelled. Kaput.

I went to bed for the weekend.

VII.

I was fifteen and playing Transformer in the art room at school. My friend Marc Gregory came over, with a request. His band covered 'Perfect Day', but he'd never heard the Lou Reed original. I put it on for him. He listened for about a minute, then he turned around, puzzled, looking uncomfortable.

"He's singing flat."

"He can't be singing flat," I told him. "It's his song."

Marc went off disgruntled, and I still believe I was right.

VIII.

Monday morning: after it was all over, the interview was suddenly on again. Maybe.

Monday evening, I was sitting in an office in central London with a sore throat, a telephone microphone and someone else's Walkman, waiting for a possible phone call from a concert hall somewhere in Europe.

The owner of the Walkman, a music journalist, turned up to show me how to press the record button. "Lou's meant to be a better phone interview than he is in person, anyway. I suppose he feels that he can always hang up on you," he told me, to cheer me up.

I've always hated phone interviews. This does nothing to cheer me up.

IX.

Let's put some cards on the table here. Where Lou Reed is concerned I lose all critical faculties. I like pretty much everything he's ever done (except Disco Mystic, on the A side of The Bells). I even like Metal Machine Music, sometimes, and that's four sides of tape hum on the kinds of frequencies that drive animals with particularly sensitive hearing to throw themselves off cliffs, and cause blind unreasoning panic in crowds.

X.

It's 7:30. The phone rings and it's Sylvia Reed. Lou's going to have to be on stage at 8.00pm. Okay? No problem.

There's a pause.

Lou Reed's voice is charcoal-grey, detached, dry.

XI.

How did you decide which song lyrics to put in the book?

Well, I've always had the view that the lyric should be able to stand alone before it gets married to music. I just got a list of all the songs, and picked out the ones I thought stood alone the best. If I even had a question about it I just took it out.

The other thing was whether it contributed to a narrative form. There's a narrative link that takes you through three decades, so they follow each other and make sense -- certain themes became really apparent that you might otherwise not be so aware of.

Things like the sequence in the middle of the book, where you have a lyric for your father, your mother, your sister and your wife?

Yeah, that's an interesting little section, which actually comes from an interesting album, which had a lot of things like that on it. I hadn't really realised it until I started looking back.

That was Growing Up in Public?

Yeah. It certainly did apply.

That was one of the Arista albums. Are they ever going to release them as CDs?

I tell you, that's a really good question. I don't really have any real connection with them. In fact there's a compilation album gonna be coming out, and we had a problems trying to locate the master tapes from Arista. They're corroding someplace in Pennsylvania...

I've been told by a secondary source that they will [be coming out] but I don't know how seriously I can take that.

I remember how badly those albums were slagged off when they came out. But in the light of last few albums, it's seemed like the Press has been reassessing them...

Aw... (laughs) I haven't seen any reassessment, to tell you the truth. I just remember getting bashed for them. But what is funny is that someone will bash them, then pick one out and say "this one was the exception" and then another person will be bashing them and that won't be their exception, a different one'll be their exception.

I think it's possible some things are easier to view with a little distance.

Some of those albums that people say were so bad are among my favourites.

You've chosen 'The Bells' as your favourite lyric...

Yeah. I've always been very affected by it. And as I get older, and I get a view on the lyric a bit more, it becomes more meaningful to me.

So does the subject of the lyric change for you in retrospect?

Sure. Later on I find out what it was really about. Lots of times I'll think it's about one thing and as I get a little distance from it -- and by distance I mean like, say, seven or eight years -- it suddenly becomes very obvious to me it was about something else entirely.

It happens especially on stage. Periodically I do something older and I suddenly realise "God -- listen to what this is about. I can't believe that I said this in public."

Some of the lyrics that you've mentioned are really incredibly personal, and pretty accurate -- so obviously so that it's always kind of funny, over the years, people continuously asking me, "Are these things based on reality?" I thought it was so obvious that they were.

You've said in the past that you started out wanting to try and bring the sensibility of the novel to the rock 'n roll single...

That was always the idea behind it. There are certain kinds of songs you write that are just fun songs -- the lyric really can't survive without the music. But for most of what I do, the idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist's eye to it, and, within the framework of rock and roll, to try to have that lyric there so somebody who enjoys being engaged on that level could have that and have the rock and roll too.

Sometimes some songs take years to get right. You do it and you just know it's not right and you can't get it right so you leave it. I think you can only do your best with it and sometimes your best isn't good enough. At which point you have to give it a rest. Because then you start doing really strange things to it. And when it starts going that far astray it's time to go away from it.

Do you notice much difference between doing the public readings, and doing the concerts?

The guys aren't there: there's no band. On the other hand the humour in the lyrics is much more obvious. And some of the edge in the lyrics is also a lot more obvious...

I've got a new album out right now and there's a song called 'Harry's Circumcision', which you can take in a couple of ways. And one of the ways is that it's funny. I think I get classified in the black humour section... which I don't really think is true, myself.

Who made the video of 'What's Good'?

Isn't that something? Isn't that just something? He's so great. He's the guy who took the cover photo...

Matt Mahurin? It looked like his work. He really brought out the humour of the song's imagery. 'Mayonnaise soda, seeing eye chocolate...'

When I got together with Matt I was so glad he was able to do it. I said, Y'know, I've tried to put these really quick visual images that you can get really fast, and if we could just illustrate some of them that'd be great. That's what he did.

It's like the storyboard for the song.

Literally. When he first sent it to me it was a storyboard...

it's the first video to feel like a Lou Reed song. I mean, there was that robot-ripping-its-face-off video...

'No Money Down'. Yeah. I thought that was really funny, that one. But yeah, as far as capturing what a song's about, this is the first one. This one actually does get it.

It adds something to the song.

That's what we thought. I mean the thing is that Matt understood it without me having to say anything, which was really great. Usually videos are pretty painful to do. But this one was actually fun. It was nice to see it realised.

Also I didn't really have to, like, really play Lou Reed in the video -- and that gets pretty tedious.

Fifteen minutes before I'm on stage, just so you know.

Five minutes more, then?

No, I mean, you can go for the whole fifteen if you want.

Thanks. In the article on Vaclav Havel, you talk about the Lou Reed persona as something separate from you. Is that how you perceive it?

Well, it's something I use to keep a distance. Put it that way. But I would say it got out of control, and I've been deconstructing it. Which is really kinda funny, Neil, because I can go from this leather-jacketed street guy from New York, and then I show up and the next thing I hear is "What are you talking about? This guy looks like an English Professor." It's actually hilarious.

Do they want to see you still shooting up on stage? Or in make-up? Or in shades and leather?

It depends what time they tagged into me. Some people are forever in the Velvet Underground thing, or the Transformer thing, or the Rock and Roll Animal thing -- someplace around there. They'd like it to still be that. But I was only passing through.

It's "You're still doing things I gave up years ago"?

(Laughs.) That's right. It is, isn't it?

Were you surprised by the commercial success of Magic and Loss?

Astonished would cover it. It's very strange. In a sense it's my dream album, because everything finally came together to where the album is finally fully realised. I got it to do what I wanted it to do, but commercial thoughts never entered into it, so I'm just stunned.

In the book, the notes at the end of the songs have a certain laconic teasing quality....

If by teasing you mean I tell you a little bit and you would have liked to know a little bit more, then yeah. I thought it was just enough to let you know what was really happening and tie things together so you saw that there was a narrative. As though it was a novel except told in lyrics, and the little annotations were things that tied it together and gave you a little push onto the next one and also told you something that'd make you sit up for a minute. But I didn't want to go on too long with that. That'd be another book.

Are you ever going to write it?

I'm interested in writing a book. But not about me.

(Dings and twangs in background. People seem about ready to go on stage.)

If there's one difference between the early work and the current stuff, it's in the persona of the singer. Previously Lou Reed was off on the sidelines: "I just don't care at all" "Makes no difference to me". More recently there's been a willingness to be involved and affected....

Yeah. I took a stance about a couple of things.

Why?

I thought I'd earned the right; that I knew enough about Life at this point, and had gone through enough where I thought stating an opinion about a thing or two would not be soapboxy or preachy but was just hard-won experience trying to communicate to other people.

In a lot of the stuff that I wrote about there's no overt moral position, but what's being described speaks for itself and I don't think it needed me to say anything about it -- I don't take a superior view or any kind of elitist view toward any of these things: it's life, and that's what we're talking about.

But over the last couple of years there has been a change, in the sense that I think I am capable of taking positions that I'm not going to change my mind about.

I think I can justify my opinions. They're hard-won and heart-felt.

You're still in rock and roll after more than thirty years. Do you ever see yourself stopping?

I just love doing it. This is like a new art-form. You know, the CD, where you've got up to 74 minutes. It's odd to me that the last three albums all timed out at 58, 59 minutes, without aiming for it.

To have, instead of 14 or 15 disparate songs, to have this something about one thing you can really sink your teeth into, is interesting: it might be interesting to do a two CD set, the length of a Broadway play, I suppose.

I think on Magic and Loss -- eventually you have to take a swing at the major themes and certainly loss and death is one of them.

They say that Sex and Death are all we've got to write about...

Those are the basic themes. There's a reason they're there, but I think every generation has to have them reinterpreted for them.

Also, while I don't understand the process in great specifics, I do understand what talent is, and what a strange thing that is, and I've been trying really hard to set up situations in which it can flourish. And that's the obligation I feel. To try to be true to the talent and make it possible for it to function.

"In dreams begin responsibilities"?

Oh sure. Absolutely. I have a dream too. And it turns out that a lot of the responsibilities involve not letting it become corrupted or compromised. Which all comes down to things you have to do in your personal life. That's why I was fascinated by talking to President Havel...

(Over the phone I can hear buzzers going off. It sounds like Lou ought to be on stage around now. Fifteen minutes are well up.)

...I had to ask him "Why didn't you leave? You could have left. You could be teaching at Columbia -- you're a famous playwright". He said, "I live here."

Did that reflect your attitude to New York?

It's exactly my attitude to New York. That's why I was asking -- I related to it in my own small way.

You're being buzzed, Lou.

Yeah.

(He seems perfectly happy to keep them waiting. "First thing you learn...")

The thing is, I have my dream too. I'm glad my wife was there when I met President Havel, because otherwise I'd just think I dreamed it.

So where do you see the future going?

I want to take the writing further. I think that an album every three years isn't enough. I'm at the point now where I think I know what I'm doing.

As a writer?

Right. The Havel piece was hard.

Good writing ought to be hard.

You have to really want it. If you don't, it's sloppy. It's actually offensive -- you'd be better off driving a truck.

I got to run...

XII.

Between Thought And Expression isn't a badly-transcribed, pirated flimsy-covered book of the lyrics of Lou Reed. But what the hell. It'll do until one turns up.

Neil Gaiman

PS: Rock And Roll Heart, Street Hassle and Metal Machine Music all turned up this week on CD. Maybe there is a god.

ENDS.