Interview by Joe Smith
Lou Reed was interviewed by phone on March 20, 1987. At the time, Joe Smith was writing Off the Record–his oral history of rock and roll.
From 1986-88, Joe Smith interviewed more than 240 music artists and executives. Then in 2012, he donated a trove of 238 hours of interviews on cassette tapes to the Library of Congress. Listen to the full interview catalog.
The Animated Transcript
You know like sometimes, you’ve got to be in a place. You’re just another guy. You can just blend in. I live out in the wilds of nowhere, out in Jersey. Even there, there’s sometimes problems. College students like journey out there and show up at 11 o’clock at night, on my porch, looking into the door not saying anything. My wife and I are sitting there; it’s really creepy.
Are you …?
I’ve gone out with my shotgun. This is hunting country out there. You better run.
Do you ever regret that you were never totally in the mainstream, that you were out there left wing most of the time in your career?
No, I started out with that in mind. People didn’t know certain things about me, which… I was out of creative writing class in school, Syracuse University; had a B.A. in English and wanted to write the great American novel but I also loved rock and roll. I was in bar bands all through college, playing fraternities and have to know all the songs in the top 10. That kind of thing.
What are your recollections of that Velvet Underground time? You guys were avant garde, cutting edge, new stuff. When this record came out; all of a sudden, there’s this kind of recognition?
Well there wasn’t any recognition. What there was, was a lot of bad press. I got a little puzzled at how savage the reaction against us was, when we got it, especially when we performed live and left New York. Like you know, “how savage and decadent”, da da da da; “look at what these songs are about; ‘Venus in Furs’ is about all of this.” They didn’t even know “Venus in Furs” was a book; I didn’t write it. I just said it would be interesting to take this book and put it in a song. I just wanted to cram everything into a record that these people had ignored, which left you everything.
The other thing that killed me was stuff like this had been in novels so long, it was like nothing. I write a song called “Heroin”, you would have thought that I murdered the Pope or something. It should have been, “now we can get a lot of people who have talent for writing and everything into rock and roll. We’ll all write about really adult stuff.” That was what I wanted to do, is write rock and roll that you could listen to as you got older, and it wouldn’t lose anything; it would be timeless, in the subject matter and the literacy of the lyrics.
We didn’t expect to sell records. That’s not what we were doing. It would have been great. It would have taken a lot of financial pressure off us. It’s not like we had money. What we had was ambition and a goal. That’s the thing you can do when you’re really young.
What was the ambition and the goal?
Oh. To elevate the rock and roll song, and take it where it hadn’t been taken before. I’m saying like from my point of view and I know this sounds pretentious but I just thought the other stuff couldn’t even come up to our ankles; not up to my kneecap, not up to my ankles, the level that we were on, compared to everybody else. They were just painfully stupid and pretentious. When they did try to get in quotes: “arty”, it was worse than stupid rock and roll. What I mean by stupid, I mean like The Doors.
You never felt Lennon and the Beatles… did you feel that they were in a league at all?
No, I never liked the Beatles. I thought they were garbage. If you said, “who did you like?” I liked nobody.
In the old days, the Velvet Underground, we had engineers who would walk out on us. They would say, “It’s too Lou Reed, this is terrible. You know I’m going to turn the tape machine on, you guys call me when you’re finished.” I’ve spent a lot of years since then, trying to figure out a way to be able to do what I did then, without going deaf. I actually went and had my ears tested just to make sure. The guy who was testing me was a fan, which was nice, so he took the test a little further just to assuage any doubts I might have. He said, “no, you have the average high end loss for a New Yorker.”
God, it’s true.
Right; for a New Yorker. It was very funny.
I had a lot of problems in the studio because of my background with engineers, see. A lot of my records sound like they were recorded completely dry and no one did anything, and that in fact was what it was because they would go to touch a button and I’d go, “what are you doing, man?” I have faith in my own vision, and didn’t want them to tamper with it. I thought my thing coming out badly recorded this way, is better than if these people take my voice and try to make me sound like a 14-year-old. They thin it out. I would tell them it’s like you tell a photographer, “don’t retouch this too much.” These lines, they mean something, I’m an adult, man. Don’t thin my voice out and make it like that high shit. This is the way I sound. You’ve got to get people to understand that because they take the nuance and character out that makes the lyric believable. It’s an important thing.
The Full Interview
Lou died on October 27, 2o13. He was 71.
Generally resistant to authority and prone to mood swings, Mr. Reed troubled his parents enough that they assented to a doctor’s recommendation for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens; in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment. – New York Times obit
Freeport High School, Class of 1959
Lou Playing at Syracuse
People Lou Didn’t Hate
So, Lou could be salty. And, as you heard in this interview, he wasn’t afraid to comment on just about anything. Here are his thoughts on some other notables–unlike the Beatles–that he respected:
“The guy has a real wide palette to play with. That’s all over Yeezus. There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit. But the guy really, really, really is talented.”
“His music to me was entertaining, as was his stage act. But the thing was, he was such a bitchin’ guitar player that, that was enough.”
“Satellite – that’s David. David is amazing at background vocal parts. The high note at the end, very few people could do that. I just love when he did that. I mean, what a move!”
“I was next to the greatest artist of the 20th century. Not that I knew that at the time. But you’d have to be profoundly stupid to look at Andy and not say, ‘Wow. Look at that.’ … He was an astonishing person in every way.”
“When I read Burroughs, it changed my vision of what you could write about, how you could write.”
The Velvet Underground’s Debut Album
The Village Voice didn’t take too kindly to this seminal record:
“The Velvet Underground is not an easy group to like. Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones “Hitchhike” in “There She Goes Again.” The lead vocal on other songs sound distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the material is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” are pretentious to the point of misery.
But the Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is an impressively understated vignette about scoring in Harlem. “Venus in Furs” is fine electronic mood-manifesting. “Femme Fatale” is an unearthly ballad subtly fuzzed-up to drive you mad fiddling with bass and treble switches. Nico’s voice is harrowing in its pallor, but chic, very chic.
Most important is the recorded version of “Heroin,” which is more compressed, more restrained than live performances I have seen. But it’s also a more realized work. The tempo fluctuates wildly and finally breaks into a series of utterly terrifying squeals, like the death rattle of a suffocating violin. “Heroin” is seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock ‘n’ roll.” – Richard Goldstein, The Village Voice
Reed was almost as famous for his temperamental relationship with the press as he was for his music. Watch three quintessential examples:
Lou Reed kicks off our episode talking about shotguns and scaring off fans. In 1982, he released “The Gun.”
Carrying a gun
carrying a gun
The animal dies with fear in his eyes
with a gun
Don’t touch him,
don’t touch him
stay away from him, he’s got a gun