|I crossed Hyde Park one spring day in 1998, to meet Lou Reed in a Park Lane hotel. It was my second encounter, having invited him to Abbey Road for one of the early Q Awards ceremonies. The following is a fuller transcript than the article I wrote for Mojo, June 1998. He was a reluctant interviewee who required some warming up and flattery. He sometimes tried to bore his interviewers into submission with a mass of technical talk about guitars and amplifiers. (He begins to do that here.) Failing that he deployed sarcasm or contempt. (There is a touch of the former in this piece.) I grew up idolising Reed and am still thrilled to have met him. But I remember leaving that hotel feeling happy it was over.
PDN: Are you still off the cigarettes?
LR: No. Sad to say. I stayed off for a while. But I’m not looking on it as a failure, I’m still trying.
The all-star version of Perfect Day has dramatically raised your profile in the UK. The video was on Top Of The Pops every week.
My God. What can you say about that? But I haven’t been here [in London] so I don’t know, I really missed everything. But what a nice thing. It’s a shame not to be around when things happen like that. I was very happy with the way it turned out. The one I wanted that wasn’t there was Curtis Mayfield, which would have been a major thrill for me, but he was ill. And it was fun with Dr John: ‘Poy-fect day…’ It was amazing to hear Dr John singing it. I love the video, it seemed seamless. The big fear for me was that it would be like We Are The World, which would be like the anti-Perfect Day. But they did a great job. It was a BBC project, done for charity. They were doing a celebration of, I dunno, 2,000 years of broadcasting or whatever it is. They had an idea of using Perfect Day and said the profits could go to Children In Need, and we went on from there, the rest is history. I had approval over everyone who was in it. They seemed like nice people I was working with. It flowed, it sounded like one breathing unit. And I guess it’s been on the radio? It’s never been released in the States because there is no BBC in the States. But so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut says.
Did you enjoy the respect you were getting from all these guest artists?
Oh no, it was terrible. It was terrible to have such great co-operation from such wonderful people. It really put me off, as you can imagine.
In the Valentine’s Day issue of Britain’s Big Issue magazine, many people voted Perfect Day their most romantic song.
Are you making that up? Did they really? That makes me feel so good. That’s lovely.
It rather ruins your image as the Prince Of Darkness, doesn’t it?
I don’t know if… that image is almost 20 years old. I really should have been the Prince of Light and Darkness. I guess the other stuff, because it was in rock’n’roll songs, might have seemed more startling, but it was always pretty well balanced, I thought. Maybe not equally, I never kept score, but it was never just unrelieved tension. It’s interesting it’s taken until now for people to go back and pick up on that. There may be people who’ll be surprised to know I’m the guy who wrote doop-de-doo [ie Walk On The Wild Side]. I think it’s so funny. Who knows what else they’ll find if they keep looking? Before the records go out of print, anyway. I mean, Perfect Day goes all the way back [to 1972’s Transformer album], and if you like Perfect Day there’s quite a bit more where that came from.
What do you remember about writing Perfect Day?
What I remember about writing it is being happy about the chord structure. For me it was complicated and I loved it when the chorus kicked in. Two other songs with structures like that are Candy Says and New Age [from The Velvet Underground and Loaded], lots of minor chords floating around.
Are you still in love with New York?
Sure I love New York. Do you love London?
Your new live album, Perfect Night, was made in London, wasn’t it?
Yeah, I was in The Meltdown Festival because Laurie Anderson invited me. I’d been flailing about because I had this great acoustic guitar I’d fallen madly in love with, and I wanted to play it electric but was having problems. Amps made for acoustics have always sounded terrible to me. So I called my English friend Pete Cornish and he built a box for me called the Feedbucker® and it worked, this unit solved all my problems. It’s a lovely sound. I remember once walking into an amp factory and there was a quote there from Segovia: ‘The electric guitar is an abomination.’ And I thought, Well, if that offended him, putting a pick-up on an acoustic would drive him wild. I sat down with the guys in the band, and said, Let’s throw out our old set. What would sound good with this? You’re not going to get a powerchord out of this, but you get something else that’s interesting.
There are three new songs from a play called Timerocker. What’s that?
I wrote it with the director Robert Wilson. It’s more or less based around H.G. Wells’ Time Machine in the sense that they’re looking for a friend of theirs and they really don’t know how this machine works so they go back and forward in time, and they get separated. It’s really about their relationship and what is time. Not that I think we’ve reached any earth shattering conclusions but it’s very beautiful. I’m so in love with Timerocker that I hate the idea of it sitting out there not being recorded by anybody. It’s been torturing me, what to do with it. There was talk of a cast recording but that hasn’t happened yet. And London hadn’t even seen it. For reasons I have no knowledge of, these productions never make it to London.
Do you still work hard, as Andy Warhol urged you?
Oh yeah. If he had a philosophy that was it. Work, and nothing but. I think in that context I’m incredibly lazy and it depresses me. I don’t work enough. I should be doing at least twice what I’m doing. An album a year, that’s nothing. That’s not much of an outlet. But people aren’t about to go out and buy two or three, so there’s really got to be some other things going on. An album, working on a play, doing something for a movie, trying to write a book…
Are you still keen to expand the subject matter of rock? Your recent albums Magic And Loss, and the Warhol requiem Songs For Drella address bereavement, which is rare in popular music, except in a Tell Laura I Love Her sort of way.
Well, if you don’t think of it as popular music, that helps. Since I’m not really popular, maybe there’s your answer. I’ve never been popularpopular, anyway, that’s never happened. There are seemingly so many subjects out there. I thought Songs For Drella would open a whole new genre of musical biography on CD. There are so many people it would be interesting to learn about through music. Drella didn’t get a response but I still think it’s a great idea, and why other people aren’t doing it, go ask them. I think it’s a shame. There’s so much else you could write about. It’s strange that so many subjects are left out… You would think everybody would do that. No one really has done a rock’n’roll version of The Naked Lunch. Like, where is it?
What are your favourite cover versions of your work?
Maureen Tucker did a version of Pale Blue Eyes that I really liked. U2 did a beautiful version of Satellite Of Love, and so did Annie Lennox when she was with Dave Stewart. Duran Duran’s version of Perfect Day I thought was very beautiful too. Cowboy Junkies’ Sweet Jane, I always like what Margo Timmins did.
Do you think some of your solo work will get the same belated recognition that The Velvet Underground did?
I don’t know. Look at Perfect Day, it sat there for however long. I don’t know how things work. I think there might come a time when people notice Magic And Loss a bit more than they have, or notice the Berlin album more than they have, or Timerocker for that matter. But these things do take time.
Do you enjoy surveying your past work to choose songs?
There’s four or five hundred to look through. But it was fun to do that.
It must be a relief to find your old work still stands.
I’d always intended it to, but you never do know, do you? I’ve always tried to make it so it wouldn’t be tied to a time period, and after pawing around for a while, they weren’t.
You’re still writing prolifically; is it hard?
Well I don’t like to repeat myself, and I often find myself humming something, and it turns out it’s either something I already wrote or worse yet it’s somebody else’s something, so I have to be careful there. I’m pretty much the way I’ve always been, I’m delighted with anything I’m given a chance to run with as opposed to nothing.