Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lou Reed: Ugly People Got No Reason to Live

As a cub reporter in 1978, no different from Jimmy Olsen, really, I was sent by the Soho Weekly News to do a story on Lou Reed. They felt he was ashamed of his Brooklyn roots—a subject they figured would irk him. I knew little about Reed, mainly “Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed played to a roundtable of sycophants, including our Eurotrash photographer, all of whom who found it utterly hilarious as he insulted and belittled his sophomore interviewer. Like a nasty high school bully, he kept trying to get my goat. This included a veiled death threat. I came to regard Reed—now a cadaverous, shriveled old Brooklyn Jew—as somewhat overrated. Mainly attitude and pose, admired by people who mistake this for musical talent.

Reprinted from the Soho Weekly News, March 9-15, 1978:

Lou Reed stepped into the Lion’s Head looking as though he had just awakened from a long nap. Two members of his current band and a publicity lady from his record company followed behind.

“She’s just a chick, trying to dig her fangs into me,” he said, drawing a nervous giggle from the publicity woman. A round table was chosen and the first round of drinks was ordered. Lou ordered a double Johnny Walker straight, and after a few gulps he tried to recall a few memories from his Wonder Bread years, living on Kings Highway in Brooklyn.

“Everybody knows Kings Highway. It’s just one big highway where everything is.”

He never made it to Coney Island, but admits to having seen the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and even liking them. PS 192 was only four blocks away from the Reed household, but the trip was too hazardous to walk. “If you walked the streets you’d get killed.” To ensure young Lou’s safety, his parents had him chauffeured to school.

“They lined you up in a schoolyard with wire fences, no grass to walk on. The playground was concrete and they had lunch monitors. What do you wanna know this stuff for? People were pissing in the streets. A kid had to go to the john, you raised your hand, got out of line, and pissed through the wire. It was like being in a concentration camp, I suppose. Not having been in a real concentration camp, I...” His voice trailed off regretfully and there was a moment of silence.

“When I was about 11, I moved to Freeport, Long Island, where Guy Lombardo lived. What’s so fuckin’ funny about that? Guy Lombardo, man. He had this big boat that was docked on the water.

“I didn’t hear nothin’ in Brooklyn. The radio didn’t exist. Later on, in Freeport, I got the Sound of the Hound. Then Allen Freed hit town. He was sued by the Hound because he was calling himself the Moondog. The Hound won. Later, the Hound had a heart attack and died at one of the rock shows. He was great though.”

Reed cut his first record when he was 14 in a group called the Jades. The song, “So Blue,” brought in $2.64 in royalties.

“They called me up and said Murray the K is gonna play your record tonight. I said, oh my God, and we all tuned in to WINS, 1010 Loves You. We’re listening and listening and listening, and finally on comes Murray the K, except it’s Paul Sherman. He says Murray the K is ill tonight, and I can’t fuckin’ believe it, right, my big moment. So Sherman played it, he was an asshole. Not that Murray the K wasn’t an asshole, but if you’re going to have an asshole play it, you want the biggest.”

Lou Reed played the shopping center circuit on Long Island in various groups. After they sliced the blue ribbon for the opening of Roosevelt Field, Lou stepped out on the bandstand, one of 20 local acts. He doesn’t remember any of them busting through to stardom.

“This drummer I had once was a chick with a mustache. She became one of the Female Beatles. That was the last I heard of her. Not that they were a good group, and someone said they’re like the female version of the Beatles. They called themselves the Female Beatles to exploit it.”

As for Long Island, Lou seems to have each district pretty well pegged. Mention a town and he’ll give you the lowdown.

“Hempstead’s like the crotch of Long Island. It’s one big bus terminal with faggots walking around saying, ‘You in love?’ Great Neck is the Jewish Towers. If you run into a diseased criminal mind, it’s from Great Neck. Nobody goes to more great lengths to escape their upbringing than someone from Great Neck. Usually they become sadistic criminals who do senseless rape-murders on 4-year-olds. You find a little letter that says, “I was raised in Great Neck, what’ya expect. Hi ma.’ My lawyer comes from Great Neck. Everybody I know is from Great Neck.”

Lou built up a prized collection of rock and roll records during his childhood. While he was with the Velvet Underground, junkies broke into his apartment and stole everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor. He has since searched every oldies record shop in New York, coming out empty-handed. Nevertheless, he can still recite obscure lyrics by the Solitaires, the Nutmegs and other forgotten groups. He was never a big Frankie Lymon fan, but got a kick out of spotting him in a Carvel parlor, a week before Lymon’s death.

“There was a guy standing there looking very puffy. Someone whispered, ‘that’s Frankie Lymon.’ He looked like a butterball without the butter. One week later, kayoed. I felt like getting him some Domino sugar. ‘I’ll color it, just pump it up. Give that man all the Carvel he wants, give him a straw so he can inhale it.’ I was all ready to put him down, but he died too fast.”

Andy Warhol is someone Lou Reed doesn’t put down. He feels that running into Warhol in the mid-Sixties was the greatest thing that ever happened and still holds him in reverence. After various name and personnel changes, the band Lou was in caught fire when it was introduced as “Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Velvet Underground.” Warhol’s specific contribution to the Velvets remains unclear, and it seems he was more significant on a cosmic level.

“Andy was the greatest, Andy is the greatest. When we made a record, we put Andy down as producer. What that meant was Andy came to the recording session and stayed awake through it. That’s all he had to do, but there’s no one else. He put everything together, allowed everything to happen. Working with Andy was ecstasy 24 hours a day. A chance to do all your ideas and have someone make it all possible.”

The Velvets never got to play the Fillmore East.

“Anything connected with Bill Graham, I’d piss on. He was a lowlife Jewish asshole promoter that I wouldn’t shit on. His idea of a light show was to have a fucking slide of Buddha on the stage. He was managing Jefferson Airplane till their lead singer got knocked up and they brought in that other dumb bitch, Slick. Ass-wipe Graham has us on the bill, but he slipped in Jefferson Airplane because he’s managing them. After we brought in all the press.”

Times changed and Lou Reed played a sellout concert in San Francisco with Graham as promoter.

“Years later, there he was beating on the door. Winterland sold out like that. He said, ‘Gee, I’d like to have you back.’ I said, ‘Wouldn’t you like it, I waited for you.’ He had Frisco locked up for quite a while, and now he doesn’t. I would have waited till I was senile to get him and put toothpicks in his nose. It gave me a lot of pleasure to tell him no thanks, we’ll pass. Having him gelded would have been better. By now, I think he could have possibly become an adult. Bill happens to be a good friend of mine so I can joke around. That lowlife cocksucker.”

Not everyone in the music world meets Lou’s disapproval. He has a high regard for union officials, and remembers those who helped out early in his career.

“I would work for Elmer Valentine anytime, anyplace, under any conditions he wants. He owned the Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy. I think he’s one of the loveliest people. Aaron Russo is a real charmer, a sweetheart. I like Clive Davis. That’s why I came to Arista Records. You want me to get my phonebook?”

Reed proudly admits to holding personal grudges forever. Sometimes with good reason, and sometimes because the person’s face looks ugly to him. As the Johnny Walkers start to enter his bloodstream, his voice takes on a cranky tone. His record lady is telling him to wind down the “Lou Reed charm” while the band members watch in silent amusement. They make up his entourage and he looks to them for laughs. He claims that the only way he likes someone’s music is if the performer is good looking.

“I believe in glamour. You oughta stop the mind trip a little and get into the physical trip a little. If you think somebody who’s smart is good, you should see someone who’s smart and beautiful. Tom Waits? Why would I want to listen to him, he’s ugly and grubby. I don’t give a fuck if he’s good. It’s not Elvis Costello, where if you’re really smart you’ve got to look like a fuckin’ banker with fuckin’ glasses. People call him four eyes for a reason. How can you look at him and get off? When you go to the movies now, all the stars are ugly. Who cares about Dustin Hoffman? I want glamour.”

Lou had a tough time coming up with people whom he considers good-looking in contemporary music.

“Blondie’s not my type, although I’m sure there are people who find her attractive. I don’t like niggers like Donna Summer. Jeff Beck’s all right as long as you don’t look closely at his skin. Why doesn’t he get sanded? I think Bryan Ferry and Tom Petty look all right.”

Does Lou consider himself good-looking?

“I’ve been told I have my moments.”

Lou Reed is reluctant to talk about musicians he’s worked with, and starts to twitch around uncomfortably. Finally, he decides to get something off his chest.

“You guys don’t really know what you’re dealing with when you deal with me,” he fires in my direction. “You oughta fuckin’ kiss the ground that you’re walking on that I’m even talking to you. I’ll chew you up on any level you want to get to. You’re a fucking moron, and you oughta fuckin’ know it man, ’cause you don’t know what you’re talking to, or how you’re talking to it. Now I’ll go right back into playing Lou Reed for you.”

He whips his head around and clicks his teeth.

Are you Lou now?

“Uh huh. But you just realize, that if there’s a God, you’re going to pay the penalty of death in hell.”

“Behave yourself, Lou,” says the record lady, matter of factly.

Lou turns to me, distorting his face with a sinister grin.

“If I wanted to get you, I’d go behind your back, dummy. Now do you know who’re you’re playing with? I’d sneak up behind and stab you in the back. If you put someone in the hospital, they’ll sit there thinking about you, so the trick is to put someone beyond the hospital. That way you’ll never get me back.”

Lou asks that questions be directed to his musicians, but interrupts their attempts to talk. “You have the opportunity of a lifetime to ask them any questions you like. You’ll be disgusted to find out that he and I get along,” he says, winking at his guitar player.

A plate of fettuccine alfredo arrives, and sensing that he may have been a bit vicious, he offers me the entire plate.

Lou Reed recently moved back to the West Village after a stint on the Upper East Side. He’s proud of his new location because of the Stonewall riots that occurred on the block a few years back. He has a spacious high-ceilinged living room with a skylight and some leftover East Side furniture. A dozen guitar cases are piled up in one corner. Not a trace of Nazi paraphernalia or torture equipment in sight, contrary to rumors. Not even a wet towel.

He’s proud of his new album, Street Hassle, and plays it for my benefit, singing along. His two dachshund dogs act satisfied as they roll around, seeming to enjoy their master’s new album. Lou’s “pride and joy” these days is his new Sony video equipment.

He prefers shades of red and blue, or “anything but a natural tint.” After training the camera on people’s faces and playing with the color contrast, Lou decides to watch some TV. The star of the program is none other than Lou Reed, coming live over the closed circuit set. Sitting on the couch, he cuddles the dogs to his face while glancing over to watch the scene. He’s become quiet and withdrawn.

“The interview’s over now,” he says.

© 1978, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman


  1. What do you say to that? He sounds like a magnificent scum bag. Or is that just his persona?

    This is great thanks for posting!

    I once law Lou Reed wandering the streets alone near 57th street. I passed him as he stared hypnotized into the window of a closed childrens shoe store. He seemed creepy and really out of it.

  2. I like most of his music, but the one time I saw him, I let him pass without saying boo, he looked like a scowling eye-shaded seventy-eight year old skell down on his last fifty-eight cents looking for a greenhorn to roll. To think that's a look he's proud to have honed. Glamourpuss!

  3. Wow - how do you connect Frankie Lymon and Tom Carvel? LOU REED! So was Lou in the Beech-Nuts? This is great.

  4. Jesus. What a jerk.

    My dad worked with him on the One Trick Pony Movie. Lou was always too busy shooting up or stealing the prop mans' booze to come out on set when it was time for his scenes. The prop man got tired of listening to Reed talk about how Sylvia (his ex wife) taught him Karate, and beat his ass one day.

    Now I see him walking around the village with Laurie Anderson. He looks like he's ready to die, but not in a good way like Keith Richards.

    Hail, Hail Rock & Roll.

  5. Truly, truly amazing. I read a recent interview with the illustrious Mr. Reed and he's still insulting anyone who doesn't bow down before him. He's an angry and sad man and it's a wonder how or why anyone would respect him or his esteemed "work".

  6. I love Lou Reed's music and I think he must have some talent since he's been basically allowed to produce anything he wants for the last 40 years.

  7. What a sac on that guy. He's got nothing on Sinatra, though...

  8. I cant believe I've never seen this interview before! Great stuff!!

  9. Thanks for posting that. Not only because it's timely and interesting. Also because I am thankful someone has the balls to say what I have always felt -- Reed was highly overrated. (So, IMHO, was the Velvet Underground.)

  10. Great musician, but not much else. He had a reputation for being rude to the media, and this is the first time I've seen evidence of it.

  11. Over-rated or not, I grateful for the records he put out. Lou's personal nastiness was perhaps a demon, essential to his creativity---such as it was, Elvis (Costello) is entitled to a last laugh.

  12. All those early records and rock bands and the goof still couldn't keep a tune? How did you not smack that mouth?