Rock is littered with loud mouths, with stars whose acidic wit can reduce a dictaphone to jelly with a well-placed one-liner.
But no one could top Lou Reed. Famously irascible, the songwriter seemed to wrap each pull quote in barbed wire, but alongside this were moments of genuine insight - into his own work, and that of the artists who most inspired him.
In 2008 Lou Reed took his famed solo album 'Berlin' back out on the road. Clash were able to gain interview time with the iconoclastic New Yorker, and a youthful Rob Monk was swiftly dispatched to extract what he could.
So here goes…
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Hi Lou, how’s it going?
Good, and you?
Yeah, I’m not bad at all – so you’re just back from touring? Whereabouts have you been playing?
Memphis, Nashville, West Virginia, North Carolina.
No, a completely different show.
Are you looking forward to coming back to Europe with ‘Berlin’?
No, I just hate the idea of it.
Really, why’s that?
I detected a certain sarcasm.
Why are there no dates in Berlin?
I think we played Berlin already.
I mean this summer.
I don’t know. Do you want to talk to my agent about booking?
No, I’d rather talk to you about the album and the tour.
Why, thank you.
It’s one of my favourite albums actually.
Is it older than you are?
It’s four years older than me.
When did it come out?
It came out in 1973. So three or four years older than me.
How old are you?
And it’s older than you are?
Came out in ’73 right?
It’s the 35th anniversary of the album this year isn’t it?
I guess so. I don’t actually keep track of things like that. Someone has to.
I guess some people do… How important is it for you to be able to tour the album when you didn’t tour it in the ’70s?
Well, one has nothing to do with the other. But this is a lot of fun. Horns and strings…
And you have original members from the album such as Bob Ezrin and Steve Hunter?
Yes, we have the original arrangements and Hunter on guitar. Hunter is pretty astonishing…
I’ve seen the film that Julian Schnabel made of your 2006 shows of ‘Berlin’…
You saw what?
I saw the film. I saw it a few weeks ago.
You saw it where?
At a press screening.
Hmm. You know every place that we’ve shown it I was there to check the sound out before the film came on because most theatres they have it too low…I hope that wasn’t the situation.
No, it sounded fantastic. And I’ve not seen the show live so the film looked amazing and I really liked the set design, the way it looked and also the dramatised sections. It looked really good.
Well, thank you.
Were there any plans to make those dramatised sections longer?
Are you on a cell phone?
Yeah, I am, yeah.
Cos you’re cutting in and out.
Not sounding too good?
It’s just sometimes hard to hear you. What was the question again?
I was asking about the dramatised sections of the film.
Lola Schnabel’s films?
That’s right, yes. Were there any plans to extend those and make a longer film?
No, it was just to be part of the texture of the whole thing.
What did it mean to you to tour the album after so many years?
I just told you. I’ve got Hunter, I’ve got strings, got horns…a choir. It’s really cool. Really fun.
And it seems like the attention paid to the album has turned around a lot since the ’70s because back then it took a bit of a hammering from the critics…
Let me make one thing really clear to you: I don’t write for critics. I have no interest in what they say. Nothing has anything to do with them at all. Period. Over. I don’t write for them, I’m not interested in what they say. I’m not interested if they like it, I’m not interested if they don’t like it. I like it. So you don’t have to ask me about what I think about the reaction and the blah blah… let’s just talk about ‘Berlin’, not the opinion of critics.
Okay. Where did the idea for ‘Berlin’ first formulate?
My friend Susan Feldman runs St Ann’s Warehouse [New York’s cutting edge performance space] and thought we should stage ‘Berlin’ or just play it with the band. And she asked every year.
For how long?
Do you really want an answer to that question?
Yeah, I do.
I don’t remember. But she asked again and I wasn’t doing anything and I thought you know maybe this would be fun to go and do that. And then it went from there.
Is it more important than some of your other albums to stage it in that way?
What do you mean?
With the orchestra and lots of different people involved…
I still don’t know what you mean. I told Julian that I was thinking of performing ‘Berlin’ and he said, “I should make sets”, and he was making a movie at the time in France and he said, “but I should direct it.”
Did you know Julian for a long time before? He’s a good friend of yours?
He lives across the street… I was in a store today where they have Damien Hirst Warhol jeans. That’s unbelievable.
Damien Hirst Warhol jeans?
I didn’t know Damien Hirst made jeans. Must be branching out.
It says Damien Hirst. Maybe there should be some Andy Warhol/Lou Reed jeans, Jesus!
They’re not 501’s but these were… these were…
Did they have a print on them or something?
They had something on them. They were great!
What a great idea. Right now I’m looking at some remarkable pictures by Nan Goldin. For a show she’s going to have at the Tate. Getting off ‘Berlin’ for a minute…But let’s go back to ‘Berlin’.
Yeah, let’s go back to ‘Berlin’. Creatively speaking how much of a link is there between ‘Berlin’ and your other work, or does it stand alone?
No, it’s part of the whole thing. If you think of everything as a bunch of vignettes, it slides right in.
I’ve been listening to your music for years and ‘Berlin’ for me stands apart in a certain sense. Perhaps because the songs are more personal? I’m not sure… To me it seems more personal, less of a commercial record.
You’re not saying my other albums are commercial are you?
No, not at all.
How could you even dream or think something of someone who is as uncommercial as I am?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with commercial, anyway.
Well, there you go. Are you commercial?
Er, no I’ve got about 10p. The only reason I’m doing this is because I love your work so much. I’m actually at a festival.
I’m at a festival that is named after one of your songs.
In England. In Sussex.
All Tomorrow’s Parties.
I thought that… I played at All Tomorrow’s Parties but it was in California.
They move it around.
It was a great festival. Are we talking about the same festival?
Yeah, I think so. It moves around. You know Pitchfork - the website? They are curating it.
Well, sure… So you’re at the festival? Have you got the ‘Berlin’ CD?
I’ve got the record.
Wait till the DVD is out. It was pretty terrible when they first made CDs…it sounded horrible. But they’ve got a lot better.
I prefer records.
Do you have a record player?
Yeah, I do.
It’s pretty old. It’s a Gerrard stack. ’70s. Pretty cool.
Do you have a vinyl ‘Berlin’? After all these years?
Well I didn’t buy it at the time. Cos I wasn’t born but…
(Laughs) Well that’s good. Do you know who Nan Goldin is?
No, I don’t.
She’s a great artist and photographer and she’s gonna have this great show at the Tate.
In New York?
No, no in London. She’s great.
Because you’re quite involved with photography now aren’t you?
I’m going to have another book out soon.
Are you concentrating more on photography at the moment than music?
No. It’s just whichever way whatever. It’s kind of hard going from one to the other; memorising different systems.
What about any new projects musically speaking? Any plans for new albums, new records?
Well I’m making some new music for a Tai Chi DVD and I’m writing a couple new songs. When we were touring I was writing new songs… but I don’t have enough for a CD. It’s a very slow process.
Who’s your favourite new group?
Hot Chip. They’re pretty good. Have you heard of them?
I just saw a band called Sebadoh. Do you know them?
You’re really dropping out.
I’m in a chalet kind of thing.
Okay, we have about five minutes left… You’re a nice guy.
Oh, cheers. This isn’t the easiest interview ever.
I got lucky. Getting you.
Well thanks; it’s not the easiest of circumstances I must admit because I’m at a festival with my phone.
I appreciate the effort. Last question. Do you still like Portishead?
Yes the album’s really good. After about eight years of waiting.
It is really good.
You like it?
I do like it. I like it a lot.
What other bands are you listening to at the moment?
I like Dr Dog. They’re in Philadelphia, they’re really good. Bon Iver. There’s so many out there. All these crazy Japanese groups, I mean my God! Melt Banana, Boris.
Melt Banana are amazing.
I wonder how long they can do that.
It looks quite tiring.
Yeah, my God! I wonder if Melt Banana came from the Velvet Underground’s Banana?
It could well have done. You’re probably sick of talking about the Velvet Underground but how much of their influence is still out there?
How would I know?
Well you were in them.
Well yeah but I don’t measure. I have no idea. It would be better to ask people in bands.
There was that famous quote about…
Oh I know.
Yeah that thing that always gets reeled out about everyone who bought the albums…
That was Eno I think...
[Brian Eno once said: “Only a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but all of them went out to form a band”] I know a lot of bands still listen to the Velvets, but I think ‘Berlin’ means as much…well to me anyway.
Well it meant a lot to me too. More than you’ll ever know! You have no idea.
What was the pressure on ‘Berlin’ after making an album like ‘Transformer’? Why were people so shocked by it?
I think… although you find things like that in novels and plays for hundreds of years, that kind of plot… for some reason that I don’t understand to this day having it out on vinyl was considered, I dunno… very left field or something. And it was considered violent and depressing and this that and the other… so, I don’t understand it to this day. You know, it’s about jealousy.
About human interaction?
Well, yeah. But I mean in 'Othello' he kills Desdemona. What do you think about that? In ‘Berlin’ the lead guy is not a king or a general. (Laughs) He’s just a bloke like me.
Words: Rob Monk
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A version of this article first appeared in Clash Magazine back in 2008.
The latest issue of Clash Magazine is available to purchase online - click HERE for details.