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Lou Reed: Sweet Jane, Venus in Furs, the Wild Side Demurred

Happened the way it always seems to. Completely innocuous , completely knocking your legs from under you. A random Facebook post: RIP Lou Reed. Quick Google Search, instant confirmation. Lou Reed, 71, unknown causes. Kinda like any John Doe, exactly like the definitive denizen of the squalid, sequined demi-monde would want it.

Lou Reed, with that fat pillowy bass line that moved from note to note slowly, spreading like that a stain across what would become a song, the high hat cool cat tatted and the soignee intonation about the transgendered Holly, who came from Miami, F-L-A, stopped you cold. The tumble down the velvet mineshaft of debauchery, gay love, high living and (literally) high times in platforms, sparkles, leather and gold lame, he excavated that “Walk On The Wild Side,” with colored girls who go “dodoDOdadododo...” like it was a midnight stroll on the Coney Island pier.

I mean, damn. Floating out of your suburban FM late at night, all that, then the most humid feeling jazz riffing on the coda to lure you into a blissful comfort of forgetting how far you are from the shore... It was a gateway drug to “Sweet Jane” and “Waitin’ On the Man,” “Heroin” and “Rock & Roll,” the Velvet Underground, Nico, nihilism and the Andy Warhol world beyond soup cans, silk-screened Elvises and society types.

Black leather. Peroxide blond. Razor thin. Whipsmart. Hard, uncaring. Behind those mirrored sunglasses. David Bowie wanted to be him. Rentboys genuflected at their notion of who he – that Coney Island kid – symbolized, as they turned their tricks and pretended they were gonna be something more than tidbits for old, rich men looking for personal pleasure in the shadows.

Talk about capturing the imagination. The difficult, perhaps even irascible street poet,  the anti-hero of a New York who would’ve knifed or laughed off Springsteen’s Jersey boy Well-read, studying with the acclaimed poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse after a stint of electroshock therapy to “cure” his bisexuality, Reed realized that the jagged edges cut the demimonde into the most compelling kind of poetry he could find...

So, he sought the night in Warhol’s Factory glare, the shooting galleries of Harlem and the realm of a brittle, brutal rock & roll that was being pioneered in the early ‘70s. Bowie became enamored of him, Lester Bangs love/hated him.

Me, Midwestern kid trying to figure it out, stood transfixed, terrified and unable to turn away. Probably just what he was going for; so brilliant, even his contentiousness and addictions, suggestive sexuality, dissonant musical side trips, epic operatics and industrial romanticism seemed somehow created for a massive subliminal undertow that would be cow-tipping the kids of the flyover for decades.

Or else, he was just a junkie and an asshole.

I was impaled by the latter, hardcore and sideways.

Ushered into a fancy conference room at Warner Brothers to interview the reticently caustic artist on the verge of his spare rock & roll snapshot of his fading scene and the brutal unseen now (back then) of New York for producer/engineer bible MIX,  Reed took one look at me, blinked twice and listened to my question about the elegiac nature of burying the questing Everyman, the way his downtown realm’s fabulousness was being paved over and washed away in a crush of striving and the metaphoric levels of his latest work, then stood without a word and... left!

Bill Bentley, the uber-publicist to the critically lauded and often combustive, walked in, bottle of water in hand to see an empty chair, a stunned girl and the confused electrically charged energy fizzling in the air. He could only ask, “Where’s Lou?”

'I don’t... know...,” I stammered, a credible writer who regularly contributed to Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Musician, CREEM, BAM and Spin. “I... uh... asked a question... and...”

What happened didn’t matter. I looked like William Miller in “Almost Famous.” I kept everything sex neutral. I asked smart questions. It wasn’t me, but what was it? And MIX? Well, that was the tech Valhalla. They wanted that story.

Turning on his heel. Bentley was gone. I sat uncomfortably, uttering the mantra of stunned journalists everywhere: “WTF” over and over like some alt-reality rosary. Were we done? What happened? If he came back, how would that be?

In what was a matter of minutes, but felt like an hour, the door opened. Reed walked in, black t-shirt slack against his lean, sinewy body, and took his chair. Nothing was said. Nothing was acknowledged. He just started talking, talking about gentrification, the City of New York having been wild and now becoming constricted, about being lost in the gutter and feeling like you can see the sky.

I didn’t ask many questions. Honestly, I was shaking and trying to not cry. He was intense and scary and everything you’d fear. Though now, he was just a guy, talking about a record, trying to invest enough truth without denting his soul or puncturing the things he wanted to keep for himself.

Writing about your life is like that: a tightrope, balancing to keep from tumbling into an abyss of exposure where it all spins into a sensation that is more conjecture than truth or being so shut off that people can be brought into your work. You create to connect you build bridges to allow insight that draws listeners into deeper places, inculcates veracity in the harsh narratives and blighted romance.

“Lou really liked you,” Bentley said the next day. “He thinks you’re smart.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Awesome.”

What I was really wondering was when the cyclone that hit my stomach square would let me digest solid food without the pitch of being on a particularly choppy sea. My third fiancée laughed, reminding me of a disastrous meeting with an idol that ended with me yelling “And all those records I bought? I want my money back” as he gently pulled me out of an overstuff,ed superstar-laden dressing room at LA’s Forum following Roger Waters’ Radio KAOS Tour stop.

“The decision is yours: love the music and forget the artist or capsize everything. As much as you love music, this shouldn’t be much of a decision.”

God, that Dan Einstein was smart. And true. And right.

Reed, who’d once had a baby writer deal at Pickwick Music – one of New York’s last Brill Building publishing temples, had a wanderlust as a writer that took you places. The mental torment of Berlin, an operatic look at lust, addiction, abdication of morality and the costs of same; the industrial thrash of Metal Machine Music; the syncopated pop confection of “I Love You, Suzanne” from the almost leaning to the mainstream New Sensation; the John Cale neo-classical Songs for ‘Drella, an homage to Andy Warhol, and yes, Rock & Roll Animal, Transformer and New York.

It was always something. Sometimes inscrutable, raw, nerve-wracking, even mean. But like looking into a snake’s glittering eyes or at the glint of a switchblade, you couldn’t turn away. Maybe turn it off, but you’d never escape what had engaged, most likely disturbed you.

Great art often is the result of friction. That spark is as fractious in discussion as it is in the creation. Open the veins and the floodgates of debate, here we go. But you can’t show me a punk ass kid pissed off at the world or a may-be, may-be-not person struggling with their sexuality who won’t invoke la Lou, sometimes without understanding the depths the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer scraped.
So, I kept watching, asking questions when I could. HITS magazine gave me access for a no-incident phoner. The kind of quick and dirty festival of phone calls artists make to pimp the product. No revelations, no big bombshells. It was so clean and clinical, it was almost a letdown...

And then HITS sent me to Nashville, to start a country section that the locals never realized could help them. It seemed my rock & roll days were behind me. Reed, too, appeared to be mellowing. Higher concepts, deeper thinking, setting up house with the brilliant performance artist Laurie Anderson.

Lou Reed, with his mascara, rejectionist mantle and references to angel dust and turning tricks, was becoming the underworld’s eminence of Manhattan. He was still making music, synthesizing the scene into Magic & Loss, conceptualizing past work and teaming with Metallica. Like rust, artists never stop.

Not to mention the orchestral detours and photo exhibitions, plays and other explorations. Lou Reed, even needing a liver transplant, remained a burning if dissatisfied and restless creative force.

My last opportunity to speak with him came four falls ago. On a beautiful day in the Village, at a fancy French bistro that was anything like the squalor his post-Velvet Underground phoenix had risen from. Or maybe just like it, because while Warhol was intrigued by slumming, he was even more taken by the luxe.

Fifteen years later, he’d mellowed little. Ordering for both of us, he opened the conversation with the challenge of just why American Songwriter would want to interview him now... now when all he was doing was reissuing Berlin, and not all these other years when they obviously had snubbed his poetic and melodic genius.

As a full grown woman, used to artist tantrums and meltdowns, it didn’t even graze me. I smiled, wrinkled my nose and leaned back across the white linen-dressed table with the pretty flatware and returned, “Why, Lou... How dare you? How many times have you turned them down is more like it? You are impossibly to talk to, deny everyone and don’t entertain genius,  let alone fools.

“Shame on you,” I admonished, laughing. “Shame, shame.”

With his rat terrier curled at his feet, he knitted his brows and puckered his lips. The once sinewy body was looking more like the Social Securitarian on Miami Beach in the ‘80s, gone was the coiled whip tautness. I almost felt bad.

“I don’t understand,” he tried.

I was having none of the turn and retreat he used to keep people off balance.  “Surely you know requests are always turned down. Don’t you dare play like you’ve been ignored. You, who say no, should consider your hand in it. But that’s not why I’m here... I’m here to talk about your songwriting.”

He just looked at me. It wasn’t check or mate or king me. It was a moment, suspended like the ones spent in that empty conference room, intoning “WTF” over and over as the seconds clicked away.

To a passersby, we no doubt looked like old friends or confidantes sharing a late afternoon meal. To the wait staff in their short black coats and napkins crisply folded over the forearms, a couple engaged in fairly thoughtful conversation.

In reality, we weren’t adversaries, because I wouldn’t spar. But there was a rift he seemed to like to sow, and he figured by salvo-ing early, he could have the dynamic he wanted. He’d not banked on the impact of our first dance, nor the passage of years and experience. His master plan was not working out.

It turned out, he enjoyed it. We talked and talked and talked. About literature, about inspiration, about motivation, about life. I didn’t remind him of the imploded first interview, for why recall a horror when you’re trying to harvest a bumper crop... He teased me about how Irish I truly am.

At the crux of the conversation was the reissue of Berlin, the chaotic, nervy concept project that followed his breakthrough genderbenderdefender  Transformer,  produced by Bowie at the height of his Ziggy Stardust zeitgeist. Beyond the disco/downtown anthem “Walk on the Wild Side,” it had contained “Satellite of Love,” “Make Up,” “Vicious” and “I’m So Free;” it launched a superstar.

Who then committed commercial suicide. Or as the conversation went:
When you made Berlin… you’d made Transformer…
Yes, the worst thing anyone has ever thought of doing.

Then why did you do it? Such a hard left. It was brave…
Not really. That’s the last thing I’d say. Really, that’s what got written, so that was that.
That’s what got written down. That was what was there. I’m happy to get any idea about         anything. It’s so hard.

So hard. Indeed. Or not. Or maybe. That’s the reality of the non-negotiable of Lou Reed. He was brittle, unyielding, yet quick to give. Inscrutable, perhaps as a defense; ornery as a flavor. And you never really knew, which is – as much as the downtown decadence -- why I kept coming back.

Indeed, there I was in lower Manhattan, watching him indulge the people strolling by after their double takes and the double back to have “their moment with Lou Reed.” To the hoi polloi, whose faces you’d think he’d chew up and chew off, he couldn’t have been more gracious.

As for me, I was no fool. I knew to never let the line go slack, concentrating solely on the thin man before me. Allison Moorer knew where I was and what I was doing: she and Steve Earle walked by to try and prank me, I never saw them.

The beautiful Elysa Gardner, USA Today’s East Coast Theater and Music Critic, emerged from a cab, paused and made small talk with me. Even then, I never broke the moment. Poor Elysa, an accomplished critic, hadn’t had that first difficult engagement: Reed got the first question, deemed her insufficiently prepared and sent her away.

Such were the wages of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s leading cantanker. As that most rock & roll of effects, the bitchiness wrought its own kind of respect. It imbued the music with that cutthroat anarchism, an acid burn without mercy.

In that, it’s easy to forget his own roots were in doo-wop. He was a romantic at heart, callous though he came off. Those shredding rockers and dour minor key slow ones were steeped in the yearning of one who says he don’t give a damn because he can’t possibly show you how he really feels.

That was the crucial irony. Talking about his little dog, his tai chi teacher, the mentor who read him Finnegan’s Wake, there was no camouflaging that tender heart. Ahhhh, the rat bastard of rock & roll: in the end, just one more tramped soul yearning to kick out whatever stood between him and what he was after.

A taunter, tempter, chastiser, celebrator of the thrown away, the abject and the desperate, Lou Reed forged a new world order where he transformed the ones rejected by the mainstream into heroes by virtue of their inherent anti-hero sensibility.

Sitting in Bongo Java, Nashville’s original hippie coffeehouse surrounded by Christian college kids studying for their Music Business degree, I marvel at how upside down this moment really is. I asked the girl taking my order if she liked music and she shrugged; “You might care that Lou Reed just died,” I shared, thinking it mattered; she just smiled and blithely responded, “Well, okay, you have a great day...”

If the indifference had been just a little snotty, something tells me Lou woulda liked it. The benign out to lunch, though, suggests the battle’s lost. For me, I’m gonna have to be content with him calling me his “Little Irish Rose.”

As “Satellite of Love” plays and its fingersnaps rising from the track suggest “West Side Story” through psychedelic pop , I’m caught between “Rocky Horror” and that same vertigo I felt in the Warner Brothers Conference room many years ago. Something tells me this one’s gonna last a whole lot longer no matter how many needles I run through White Light/White Heat or New York right now.

for that last interview – and it’s a doozy – click below