My only direct contact with Lou Reed was in 1998, the year PBS aired the documentary “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart.”
I interviewed the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who then told me he’d do all he could to get Reed to talk with me. A few appointments were made and postponed before I was allotted 10 minutes on the phone — minutes allotted begrudgingly.
Reed was curt and cold and grumpy, clearly disinterested in talking much about the film or his past. Five minutes would have been enough time to get out of him what he wanted to say about “Rock and Roll Heart.”
Cashing in on a tip from his publicist, I asked him about the live album he was about to release, the semi-unplugged “Perfect Night: Live in London,” specifically the guitar he played. He spent the remaining five minutes talking with some measure of enthusiasm about the sound he got out of that guitar and the amp it went through, a lot of inside-baseball guitar-geek stuff — an appreciation of something new.
Ten years later, I was in a room with Reed when he delivered the keynote at the 2008 South by Southwest Music Conference. In front of a full room, he sat and chatted informally with his close friend and collaborator, producer Hal Willner. Reed was at ease and charming in an irascible way. He also answered questions that had been solicited via email, revealing a personal side of himself. From my report on his speech:
• Some contemporary bands he listened to: Dr. Dog, Melt Banana and Joan As Policewoman.
• His advice to new bands: Don’t sign a label deal unless it’s really lucrative. And never, never give away publishing rights.
• Instruments he would have liked to learn to play: the saxophone, so he could make sounds like Lee Allen; and the mini-Moog Voyager, which, he said, is like “God dropping 9,000 new sounds onto your lap.”
• About the “soul” of the Velvet Underground: “We had a rule, a fine system — no Southern sounds, no R&B, no blues guitar. We were going to be ‘city-pure.’”
And, once again, he turned on the enthusiasm when the topic turned to technology and change within the music industry.
I wrote at the time that Reed was particularly decisive when talking about sound technology and the profound inferiority of MP3 files. If you want to record music that really sounds good, he said, you have a problem, and the problem boils down to having the money to afford the best equipment. If you want to buy and listen to music that sounds really good, he said, you also have a similar problem: finding the receivers and speakers that can deliver really good sound.
His money quote: Technology is taking us backward. It is making it easier to make things worse. “If no one knows any better or doesn’t care,” he said, “it’s gonna stay on a really, really low level, and people who like good sound are gonna be thought of as some kind of strange zoo animal.”
Reed himself was some kind of strange zoo animal. Willner introduced him as the Miles Davis of rock ’n’ roll. Reed said of himself that day in Austin: “I have a B.A. in dope and a Ph.D. in soul.”
He also had a keen intellect, a voracious appetite for exploration and adventure and, apparently, little time for nostalgia and cheap sentimentality. Thus, I suppose, his thin patience for talk about the Velvet Underground and its vast influence.
His death on Sunday at the age of 71 came as a shock to those who weren’t aware of his recent health problems (he had a liver transplant in May). And it unleashed a tide of eulogies, appreciations and tributes from fans and critics and fellow musicians, many of whom cited his deep influence on their work and expressed an appreciation for his unique vision and his artistic fire.
Many of those mourning his loss are much more familiar with his music output than I am. Like many music fans, I was introduced to Reed when “Walk on the Wild Side” became a hit in the early 1970s. That took me back to the groundbreaking Velvet Underground. I wore out copies of “Transformer,” “New Sensations” and “New York” and cherry-picked songs from other albums (“Berlin,” “Sally Can’t Dance”) for compilation tapes. Other than that, not much of what he produced, especially since “New York,” spoke to me at any significant level.
Nonetheless, I had to explore and admire whatever Reed indulged in, even those projects I thought were spectacular failures, like “The Raven,” a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe he co-produced with Willner. A quote attributed to Reed has been shared several times in blogs and social media since Sunday, and it reflects his assumptions about his relationship with his audience: “I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.”
And if you don’t, well, too bad. I’ll see you at my next project.
In a world where nearly every pop star who puts out a recording refers to himself as an “artist,” Reed truly earned and deserved the title. He feverishly nurtured his muse, trusted his impulses and ran with them, catering to no one’s expectations but his own.
There’s a YouTube video of Reed conducting a Q&A at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June. Over the course of eight minutes, he answers a variety of questions, expressing his thoughts on politics, music, advertising, social media and his influence on music. He is asked to respond to a quote from punk-fashion pioneer Vivienne Westwood that the world today is low on culture. Reed’s response reflects his enthusiasm for embracing change and indulging in something new and his low tolerance for nostalgia.
“I think the world is just opening up to culture, new culture for new people, new ways of doing things, new fashions, new everything,” he said. “It’s just a generational thing. Everybody older always says, ‘Well, it was better before.’ I don’t think it was better before. It’s different now. You’ve got all these young people trying another way of doing it, and they’ve got a different mindset. It’s certainly not a low. That’s not fair. If you said that, then you should go back to Shakespearean times. That was the best. It’s been downhill ever since.”