John Kelly

This was my first encounter with Lou Reed. It was written for the Irish Times in 2000 and the piece is as nervy as I was. I’ve run into Lou many times since and he’s a sweet man. One of my favourite people.

It’s the month of May in the city of Paris and Lou Reed is singing White Christmas.   It’s as good an impression of the high-pitched vocal dramatics of Clyde Mc Phatter as you’re likely to hear and suddenly we’re laughing – in both senses of the word.  Turns out the man with the fearsome reputation is as nice as ninepence and we’re getting along just fine.  Such are the stories about Lou Reed interviews that I’d been having worrying premonitions of silence, a stand up row and an empty tape.   But then, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about a celebrity – especially a walking urban myth like Lou Reed.  Everything’s cool. We’re talking about music and the music he fell in love with.

“At the time, pop music was really awful and there was nothing really to like over there. I liked rockabilly and doo-wop - The Moonglows, The Orioles, The Jesters, The Diablos – all these great names.  And Johnny Ace - he could break your heart.  I came into Roy Orbison really early too.  I liked Oooby Dooby and Down the Line and I was interested in the guitar playing.  And Roy Orbison was doing the guitar playing himself!  And when I tell people I liked watching Ricky Nelson, they say what? You liked Ricky Nelson? And I say, well, James Burton’s in the back!  The guy in the back playing the guitar is James Burton!  You’d always get to hear one of these amazing solos and I’d  wonder how the hell he did it?  That’s one of the reasons I learnt to play guitar – to be able to play like that.   I would try, over and over again, to play the solo from Hello Mary Lou and My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It – to no avail.”

Growing up in Long Island, Lou Reed joined his first band at the age of 14 and recalls that all he had to do was stand in the back in the back and sing “ooo”.  Various bar bands followed through High School and although Reed was writing the material, he was still in the background, just delighted that anybody would have him in a band in the first place.  In later years however, at the University of Syracuse, Reed’s writing took a turn.  He befriended one of his teachers, the poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz and new possibilities began to reveal themselves.  He became interested in direct and simple language and hoped to write a novel.  He also began to conceive of ways to set serious lyrics to rock music and so it was that he was arguably the first artist in the rock field and from outside the folk tradition to concern himself with the literary, as opposed to the pop lyric.

“You’re going to find doo-wop, rockabilly and all of that lying directly underneath what I do.  But if you get into the story part of it, it will lead you back to Brecht and Weill and people who tell stories.  I’m not out of a folk tradition.  I was modestly interested in it, but only from the point of view of finger-picking – not the lyrics oddly enough. I come from Doo-Wop and Rn’B and grafting on lyrics coming from a poetry/novel background.  If you get interested in me it can lead you to William Burroughs, it can lead you to Ginsberg or Hubert Selby or Raymond Chandler or Delmore Schwartz.”

Certainly there had been good lyrics around long before Lou Reed, but for the most part they had an entirely different function.  Reed’s intention was that his first person narratives would have the power of short stories and might tackle subjects from well outside the remit of pop. And while not disputing the quality of the much loved songs of his youth, Reed acknowledges that the pop songs of the day were not, by and large, noted for their words. His vision did not include recycled versions of the “moon in June” formula.

“They were words that were good enough for pop.  Some songs stand up like Save the Last Dance for Me by Doc Pomus – but in general it wasn’t what I’m at.  Which was kind of great because here was this huge unchartered continent sitting there and I’d think waoh! You can do anything with this!   Just anything!  They haven’t tried to do anything with it yet!  Now, some people would say that you’re not supposed to either, that you ruin it when you do that.  Some people say that you take all the fun out of it by putting serious lyrics to it.  But you know, you don’t have to listen to it.  Or you don’t have to listen to it that way – it’s there if you want.  But I don’t think you ruin it – after all there’s all the other stuff too.  But here’s an alternative !  Alternative music right there!”

Lou Reed has always taken rock music seriously. And rock music always returned the compliment. But one notable occasion when doubts were expressed was when Reed released Metal Machine Music – an album with no words, no songs and a lot of feedback.  In hindsight it’ clear that Reed had been listening to Pharoah Sanders but it’s also clear that he was well ahead of its time – groups like Sonic Youth catching up much later.  But, that album apart, Reed remains a word merchant believing that music expresses only what words cannot.  And the primacy of the word in Lou Reed’s work is matched only by a love for relatively uncomplicated rock music and its famous three chords – some would argue a rather limited form.

“Yes, I think in some ways it’s a little restricting. You start getting too many chords and it’s not (rock) that anymore.  That’s why its fun to collaborate with someone who maybe knows a lot more and see what happens.  But then I always like to hear that beat and I think it has something to do with the rhythmic beat of the heart. One of the songwriters I like is Shane MacGowan. Oh he’s a talented rascal that one! And see it doesn’t always go to where you think its going to go.  It’s right over there and he’s got a lot of it.  It’s spilling out of him.  Periodically I’ll be at a movie or something and there’ll be a song and I’ll think that really good and sure enough guess who? ”

And so to that voice.  Lou Reed, like Shane McGowan, cannot be said to possess a great voice in the John Mc Cormack sense.  And yet he is, to my mind, a very great singer. Reed has developed a way of putting the songs over despite his own limitations and gives he gives much of the credit for that to the great Jimmy Scott.  Scott, a relatively unknown jazz singer is perhaps the most astonishing American male vocalist ever. 

“I think they should have a statue to Jimmy Scott.  I don’t see how anyone who can sing like that is considered unknown outside of jazz circles.  You know he went on tour with me and that’s where I got my formal singing lessons.  When I was with Jimmy, that’s when I finally learned how to dive into that pool and discover that I could do certain things and that I had the ability to do it.  I discovered that I had the main ingredient – that I was there, that I was connected, that I was singing from the heart – and the rest was technique. Every night we’d do a show and Jimmy would be out there doing this impossible stuff and then he would look at me for me to come in and do something.  Now Jimmy’s a very sweet man and he did that because he said I could do it.  He said “you’re there, you can do that, don’t even bother with that question.”  I said “Ok.  You’re Jimmy Scott. So I listen to you.”

No such doubts about the songs however and such is the constant over-use of Lou Reed’s better known numbers that some of them have perhaps lost all meaning by now – for example the beautiful Perfect Day  recently almost done to death by the BBC.   And as for Walk on The Wild Side – one can’t help wondering if witless DJs really know what it’s about.  Yet these are still extraordinary songs and there are many others, all of them adding to a myth of huge proportions.  Any encounter therefore with the man himself brings with it so much baggage and so many questions  – The Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Holly, Heroin, Transformer, David Bowie, Berlin and so on.  And if Lou Reed, the first person of the songs, is the same as Lou Reed in reality, then I really ought to feel rather more uncomfortable than I do.

“Sure.  Yes.  I want you to believe every single word is true.  That this is all really happening.  This is all real.  I’m that person and I’m talking directly to you – nobody else. The assumption of a character’s voice is really fun. But sometimes they linger on.  Sometime they’re so close you kinda wish you hadn’t opened that door.  It’s hard to close it sometimes.  You know I like acting.  I mean I really, really like acting.  It’s all about acting – being it.  I can understand what method acting is from all of this.  If you’re singing something sad, think of something brutally sad, something you try not to think of normally.  When I was in college I took film and journalism but I didn’t take acting. I took directing.  I didn’t think I could act – but I would act in private – acting out Beckett !” 

Lou Reed still lives in New York, a city as he describes as being like his DNA.  It continues to be his inspiration and he devotes his time to writing and perfecting the sound of his guitar in his studio The Roof.  He is quite obsessed with guitar sound and is particularly proud of his current live album – Perfect Night in London – emphasising its “clear as a bell” quality and absence of feedback as much as the songs themselves.  He feels that the current album shows that he has now achieved what he set out to do – to bring together good American writing and good American rock n’roll.  And Lou Reed is still intensely and disarmingly loyal to both.

“It’s usually five o’clock in the morning and I make it so its really quiet.  Make it so that there’s nothing that will interrupt you.  And then just sit and drift off and try to lower all those other voices down and clear your mind and see what’s there – not push it - just make it possible for this thing to come out and take a walk.  I start with a title.  A place to put your hat. And that’s the interesting thing about it for anybody who is interested in trying it.  The language is available to all of us. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil and off you go.  Just like a rock song.  Anybody can play those three or four chords – anybody – I don’t care who you are.  We can all take a swing at it – it’s a democracy.”

© John Kelly

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