Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

Lou Reed

by Bruce Pollock

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Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words. Bruce spoke with Lou Reed in 1974 and again in 1987.

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that Lou Reed (1942-2013) could sometimes be a difficult person to interview. But deep down, he was a sweetheart. I confronted both sides of the at times menacing and at times confessional Reed in my 1974 interview, which was meant for my book on songwriters, In Their Own Words, that he would eventually deny me the permission to use.

Like I said, a sweetheart.

By 1974, Reed had already made his mark as a mercurial icon of the lower depths with the Velvet Underground, with razor-sharp gems like "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Heroin," "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light," which contained one of his best snarky lyrics:

There are problems in these times
But none of them are mine


These were leavened with glimpses of his softer side, like "I'll Be Your Mirror."

His solo career started with a bump in the road, but his second album, Transformer, would produce a Top 20 single, "Walk on the Wild Side," in 1972.

Despite his outward posturing, I had a feeling I could get through to Reed. This was for posterity after all, a book on songwriters. Having studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, he was surely a literary man. But not, I was soon to learn, a particularly verbose one.

"Were lyrics the first thing you started writing, songs, or did you write before that?" I began, establishing the high level I would maintain for some 30 seconds.

"I wrote stories," Reed said.

An ambulance went by on Fifth Avenue, where we were doing the interview at his then-girlfriend and later wife (and later ex-wife's) apartment. I followed its siren as it faded all the way downtown. "I wrote songs too," he finally said. "When I was a kid."

"So, what led you into songwriting?"

"I had a job as a songwriter."

"Was it the result of going around knocking on doors and things like that?"

"No, I met somebody who said, 'You write songs. So and so could use a songwriter. A staff-songwriter. Would you be interested?' So I said yeah."

This would have been at the less-than-top-tier Pickwick Records in New York City, where his tenure was entirely forgettable. "So what brought this staff-writing period to an end?"

"I just split."

In T-shirt, dungarees, newly shorn head, deep-set, hollow, ghastly eyes, Reed stared at me across a bridge table in the living room. His tone was drab, ominous, no trace in it of connection - the special craft of the put-on master, never give yourself away.

"When you write now, do you have a discipline, set aside a certain amount of time each day? Do you take any sort of notes, like if you get an idea for a title?"

I count 25, 30 seconds. "If I come up with something good, I'll remember it," drawled Reed.

Earlier I had been handed a mimeographed volume of his poetry and lyrics; sensitive and raw, poignantly evocative pieces. I figured he'd be vulnerable in this area. "Do you have the same approach to writing poetry as you do lyrics?"

"I've stopped writing poetry altogether."

"Is this a conscious decision?"

"I just haven't had any poems to write."

"What kind of stories did you write as a kid?" I backtracked. "Did they seem to follow the same kind of mood as your songs?"

"I haven't written a story in a long time," Reed eventually replied. "Berlin's a story that's kind of in the same mood."

Berlin is one his newer works, a strange, haunting piece filled with variations on gloom. There is loss, gentleness beneath the sorrow, a pervasive feeling of ennui. Talking about Berlin finally got him to provide answers of more than a sentence.

"Berlin needed a lyrical approach that was direct," he said, with a trace of enthusiasm. "There could be no mistaking it, no head games. You didn't have to be high to figure out what was happening or be super hip or anything. It was to-the-point, whereas some of my other albums and songs had puns or double entendre. In other words, the difference would be, in 'Heroin' I wrote, 'It makes me feel like Jesus' son.' Now if the Berlin guy had said that he'd say 'I take heroin.' That's the difference. Like in 'Heroin' I say, 'I wish I was born a thousand years ago.' The guy on Berlin would say, 'I don't dig it here.' You can go through the whole album and he's always approaching things that way. He's consistently saying very short, straight, to-the-point, unmissable things."

Like a freaked-out Zen master, Reed's words can be misconstrued in several ways, but just look at the transcript so far. Time after time those short, straight, unmissable replies. He is the guy from Berlin, at least for the space of the interview. The question was, had the many complex emotions he'd lived through in the '60s, the drugs and suicides, the bad trips which scarred the Andy Warhol crowd, then his belated rise to fame, driven him into a psychological corner? And his response to it, like his songs, like his poems, were statements of an experience so devastating as to defy expression except by the most primitive of means? Reflecting a life where, after feeling too much for too long, the safest reaction was no reaction at all?

"Do you see this as representing a new approach to things on your part?" I said, on the edge of a revelation.

Reed dismissed the concept. "On my next album I may go right back to the other way."

Hence, Sally Can't Dance.

Yet I had gotten him talking at last. "That's why I get a kick out of publishing poetry in rock magazines," he said. "I mean, I've been in the Harvard Advocate. I've been in some of the heaviest. But I get a kick out of being in the rock magazines because that's the people I want to read the stuff, not the people who read the Harvard Advocate."

At which point he suddenly opened up about his songwriting process.

"I write very fast. The lyric part of it comes in one clump. I like to leave the lyrics for the very last possible minute and then just sit down and zap, go through them. Just take each song and put a lyric to it, put it away. Take the next song, put a lyric to it, put it away. Do the next song. And just not even look at them. I look at them later to check, because I know the basic thing is perfect, for me. Sometimes one or two words have to be changed. The real danger is that maybe I'll be tired... and my handwriting is so bad."

"That you won't be able to read a few words?"

"I won't be able to read the whole damn thing!"

And then we segued into talking about prose.

"Dorothy Parker - now if she wrote a song, watch out! That would be something else because she was right on target. I mean, just a little short story about a guy and his wife, where he's reading the newspaper and she's setting the table and they've got nothing to talk about - that story's unbelievable, so painful sometimes you just have to put her away or she'll drive you through the wall."

I asked him if any songs had ever affected him that way.

"'Mother' by John Lennon," he said. "That was a song that had realism. I mean, that did it to you. That's about the only one I can think of on that level. When I first heard it, I didn't even know it was him. I just said, 'Who the fuck is that? I don't believe that.' Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn't kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song."

"Do you think you'll get further down in your songs?"

"I think I've gone as deep as I want to go for my own mental health," Reed replied. "If I got any deeper I'd wind up disappearing."

"I mean at one point you seemed to be really into describing a certain kind of scene, and making it very real for people who thought they knew about it, but didn't really know about it."

"Especially for people who didn't know about it at all," Reed chimed in. "Well, people might have heard of the East Village, but that's as far as it went. But I brought a little taste of..." Catching himself, he held back. "Ah, maybe that's pretentious. It's just I wrote about what I knew about."

Nevertheless, Reed was more than happy to revisit St. Mark's Place; Saturday night at the Dom, 1966.

"That was the beginning and everybody was quick to jump on the bandwagon."

"What would you call that, the Lower East Side experience?"

"It was a show by and for freaks, of which there turned out to be many more than anyone had suspected, who finally had a place to go where they wouldn't be hassled and where they could have a good time."

"Did it surprise you that this crowd was out there?"

"Well, you see, what it was - Andy had a week at the new Cinematheque when he could put on whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to put on was us... with films and stuff. And the people who showed up - everybody just looked at everybody else and said, 'Wow, there are a lot of us.' So, we knew they were there."

Soon Reed was breaking out anthologies of his essays and poetry, showing me reviews of old albums and performances. "Ralph Gleason, the dean of American reviewers, wrote in a review, I'll never forget it: he said the whole love thing going on in San Francisco has been partially sabotaged by the influx of this trash from New York, representing everything they had cured. When we went to Frisco, Bill Graham was doing his Fillmore and he had a light show, right? So, we walked in and we saw a slide of Buddha and we said, 'That's gotta go!' They hated us, said we were the lowest trash ever to hit Frisco. Let's say we were a little bit sarcastic about the love thing, which we were right about, because look what happened. We knew that in the first place. They thought acid was going to solve everything. You take acid and you'll solve the problems of the universe. And we just said bullshit, you people are fucked. That's not the way it is and you're kidding yourselves. And they hated us."

Then he pulled out the Rolling Stone review of Berlin. "It's one of the worst reviews I've ever seen of anything. I got one paragraph saying I should be physically punished for putting out the album," he said. Reactions like that go a long way toward explaining Reed's hostility toward the press in general and reviewers in particular.

In the days between that interview and the next time I spoke with him, in 1987, Reed's albums were met by glowing reviews. See: Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, The Bells, The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations, making him the definitive poet of New York City's mean streets.

I wondered if all the accolades had mellowed him.

They hadn't.

"Well if you listen to the good stuff you've got to listen to the bad stuff," he said. "And some of it is written by the very same people. I know this sounds arrogant, and I don't mean it that way, but I really feel like I'm beyond criticism. I know what my shortcomings are. I'm the one who knows how much I missed by. I don't expect to learn from critics. What I expect to learn I learn from the audience. I've learned a lot of things from audiences. Sometimes I play these songs too long. And they let you know. Very often they're right.

"I think of myself as a writer. I take the writing really, really seriously. Some people get caught up in this garbage end of it. That used to really depress me. But then I thought, you're in public, what else would you expect? But the writing part, divorced from what color hair I had or what I was wearing what year, that's the most important thing to me."

June 20, 2019
Lou Reed Songfacts
The Velvet Underground Songfacts

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