Lou Reed is supposed to be calling me any minute now. I'm scared out of my mind.
It would be bad enough if the guy was merely one of my all-time favorite musicians, and one of pop culture's most iconic legends—a towering figure who can be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan, James Brown, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Elvis Presley.
But my fear is all the more present because over the past few days I've been reading whatever interviews I can find with him to prepare. Just about all of the writers go to pains to mention what an asshole he was to them. And if they don't, it's clear from the tone of his answers how excruciating the interview was.
He stormed out on Fresh Air's Terry Gross after she asked him some straightforward questions about the Velvet Underground—the pioneering art-rock band he formed with John Cale, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison—and being middle-aged, saying, "This isn't working, OK? I'll see ya." When a reporter for New York Magazine asked him a question about his taking up photography, he responded, "That's so nonsensical it's beneath comment."
So I can't say I'm looking forward to our chat. I try to calm myself by listening to his latest album, Hudson River Wind Meditations, which Reed composed as meditation music. It doesn't help. The album is drone music, punctuated with feedback and distortion. It just agitates me.
Reed's publicist had warned me what questions to avoid. "Don't ask about drug use," she says. "He's been a health nut for the last 20 years."
"Also, it's good to keep it current," she adds. "People sometimes ask him about something he said 20 years ago."
I've been waiting by the phone for a week for him to call, enduring several false alarms and half-hoping the interview would never actually happen. But finally, on Friday, the phone rings. It is really him on the phone, as cantankerous as I'd expected.
The "Lou Reed is an asshole" theme is so well-worn, it's practically a genre of rock journalism, with the classic and best forms of it being traced back to Lester Bangs in the '70s. Bangs went to battle with Reed on several occasions—and his now-classic essays were as good as anything Reed recorded during that decade. Any similar articles today are really just imitations of the Bangs interviews, with Reed offering a parody of himself—or playing the role everyone expects him to.
I hate to write the same tired story that's been written so many times before, but, unfortunately, the guy really doesn't give me all that much to work with in the 10 minutes or so I talk to him on the phone.
It's not that he's a jerk, exactly—I've interviewed more uncooperative musicians—but it's clear from the start that this is the last thing he wants to be doing. Like most things, rock journalism is a formula. When you get only 10 minutes to talk to someone on the phone, what else could it be? You want a few snappy quotes to weave through an article that hopefully will have a unifying theme to it.
Reed has absolutely no interest in helping you complete the formula, which makes him both admirable and a pain in the ass. Maybe he just can't stomach having his quotes spun in all different directions, so he keeps giving interviewers the same story: I'm an asshole. Your questions are stupid. You're an idiot. I'm Lou Reed. Why am I talking to you? Are we done?
Here's the thing about this whole asshole schtick—I don't really believe it. He's certainly a grump, but Lou Reed is clearly not without sensitivity and humanity. Hudson River Wind Meditations was written as music for his own daily Tai Chi routine. In March, he joined David Byrne, Moby, and other musicians in New York to give a concert benefiting the Iraq Veterans Against the War. He's written incredibly sensitive music, imagining himself in the shoes of not just drug addicts and transsexuals, but a poor Latino kid who dreams of being a drug dealer. His collaboration with his former bandmate John Cale, Songs for Drella, about their mentor Andy Warhol, is one of the most touching things ever recorded—the damn thing has brought me to tears several times. Plus, he dates Laurie Anderson, and it's hard to imagine her putting up with his shit all the time, so the guy must have a softer side.
But he doesn't really show much interest in talking about any of it.
When I ask him whether he thinks the anti-war benefit had any effect, he shoots back, "I have no idea. Why don't you ask people?" I rephrase my question slightly, saying I was curious whether he thought it did any good. "Everybody's curious. Does it do something? Who knows. But it's better than doing nothing."
Then he gives me a little more: "President Vaclav Havel [writer and former Czech Republic president] once told me that music can't change anything. People change things. But music can change people and people change things."
He says the show was aimed at communicating to their New York friends. But nothing else I ask seems to get him talking. Other questions get short, bland responses.
I tell him that the music he wrote years ago still has a great effect on people, but that material was written during a much different time in his life. I ask him whether his feelings about that music have changed much—whether it's weird to be playing something live that he wrote when he was in his 20s. "Some of it's 30 years old," he says. "What do you think?"
Does he hear his influence in contemporary bands? "Every once in a while, I hear something and it sounds familiar. But my ideas have all been pretty simple."
What does he think of his influence? "I don't know. You were the one who asked the question."
Well, do you feel ripped off or flattered? "I feel flattered."
Has his approach to songwriting changed over the years? "The way I do things is pretty much the same. I don't understand the process. I tried to figure it out and I can't do it. The most I try to do is stay out of the way," he says.
Why did he start doing Tai Chi? "I wanted a form of exercise that was aesthetically interesting and engaged the mind and taught self-defense," he says.
Hudson River Wind Meditations was recorded using some new computer programs. "I made it for myself. I had people come over and meditate," he says. Their responses prompted him to release it.
He won't be playing anything from Hudson River at his show at the Tennessee Theatre, but you will likely hear it over the loudspeakers before the show. Nor will the concert be a performance of his 1973 album Berlin, which Julian Schnabel directed a concert film of last year. Reed's touring band does include Steve Hunter, who played guitar on Berlin.
I'm not an especially good interviewer. I do best when the subject wants to talk and I just steer the conversation ever so slightly. I find people who are largely ignored make for the best interviews, as they spill their guts to someone genuinely interested in what they have to say. But guys like Reed don't need a sympathetic ear. He communicates through his art and has no interest in playing interpreter.
But Reed's influence looms large over today's music. Starting with the Velvet Underground, Reed forged a new kind of music, one that focused on the ugly side of American life, contrasting starkly with the hippie culture of the day. Inspired by literature, visual art, and the avant-garde, it romanticized decadence and spawned glam rock and underground rock. Forty years later, it's hard to imagine a cooler band. During his solo career, Reed's made some weird, bizarre music that has at times left his fans befuddled and angry. Metal Machine Music was a double album of guitar feedback, which Reed called symphonic but critics dismissed as a noisy fuck-you to his fans. (It has since been sampled and held up as inspiration for trance music.)
I called a few local musicians to find out how Reed has influenced them. "He's just one of those people who is a part of your life," says country-rock singer Leslie Woods. "I've never really thought about how he influenced my music. He's part of this psyche of where I am and what I do."
Peter Holsapple of the dBs has called Todd Steed "the Lou Reed of Knoxville." "I hate formulas and Lou obviously does, too," Steed says. "The Velvets records have always been inspiring to me for that very reason—they broke the formula for songwriting and what a rock band could be. They were very basic and almost primitive as musicians, but that worked in their favor, ultimately. That, also, is inspiring. Find how to make what you have work. It's all about ideas and Lou has them."
Carl Snow loves a lot of things about Reed, including many of the great guitar players he's worked with over the years, such as the late Robert Quine. Snow emulates Reed's narrative lyrical style. "Lou is a narrative writer," he says. "He's the guy on the street, looking at people. Lou to me is honesty. He doesn't hold anything back. Lou taught me not to worry about who I'd piss off."
"It's honest music. He's written so many songs that he couldn't get away with if he just didn't mean it," Snow adds. "There's a sense of ownership in all his songs."
But you can't be honest without sometimes—or, perhaps, all the time—being an asshole. So with reporters, at least, Reed is true to his art.
"If you go through life and nobody thinks you're a jerk, you probably haven't done anything worthwhile," Snow says. "If everybody thinks you're a saint, you've been lying the whole time. The troops in Iraq have a saying, ‘Embrace the suck.' That's Lou, kind of. ‘Welcome to my world. It's shitty in here. I might throw things at you. But it'll never be boring.'"
As my 10 minutes with Reed winds down, he gets impatient. "Are we done?" he asks. It's not really a question, since he's not asking my permission to go. It's more like he's just letting me know I've got nothing to remotely interest him and I'm wasting his time.
Yeah. We're done. I thank him and hang up the phone. Once again, Reed doesn't defy expectations.