Illustration by Dan Evans
LOU REED DEAD AT 71. It’s never easy to take these things in. The perilously serious liver transplant operation he underwent earlier this year had somehow passed us all by and Lou’s insistence that he was “bigger and stronger than ever” and up every morning doing Chen Taiji seemed to be enough for us. Besides, if Lou was really poorly then he’d grumble about it, right? Lou loved a fucking good grumble.
The news yesterday came at us like a rabbit punch then, stealthy and devastating, and it is only hindsight that allows us to join the dots.
On hearing the news of his passing I experienced a wave of unexpected grief. I’d like to say it was the first time Lou had caused me consternation and set me into a temporal state of bewilderment, but that wouldn’t be true, for I have had the dubious honour of interviewing the man. Back in 2007 a transatlantic telephone conversation would take place between myself and the artist responsible for the decadent, Brechtian majesty of Transformer (alongside another untouchable genius, David Bowie), an album only slightly less magnificent than White Light/White Heat which is only a smidge less mercurial than The Velvet Underground and Nico which started the ball rolling. Make no mistake, Lou is as big a legend as they come and your records would be rubbish without him. No pressure then.
So I set about devouring a monstrous biography; I want to be thoroughly prepared because Lou is notoriously pedantic as well as taciturn with journalists, and nobody likes long silences. Well maybe Lou doesn’t mind them, or at least he minds them less than music writers. He hates us frankly and thinks we’re all parasites out to muckrake when all he wants to do is talk about guitar pedals. We are to parley about Metal Machine Music - a 64 minute melange of sped up guitar loops and deranged, cacophonous feedback - that nearly put paid to his career and saw him living out of a hotel like art rock’s own Alan Partridge for a year back in 1975. As with some of Lou’s other albums - Berlin being one of them - it is enjoying something of a renaissance after being so swiftly pilloried on its initial release by, you’ve guessed it, journalist scum.
I want to know what drove Lou to make this far out and impenetrable record and Victor Bockris’ Lou Reed: The Biography alludes to the fact that some copious amounts of liquid speed taken intravenously might have been involved. Having imbibed some courage of the Dutch variety I decide to plough straight in there, after all, there’s no point pussyfooting around with an iconoclast like Lou, he’ll only respect me more for my frankness. He might have annihilated other scribes with his deadly rebuffs but they were just a bunch of squares. We’ll get on, I know it. In an hour’s time we’ll still be chattering away like a long lost father and son combo - when Lou isn’t weeping like a child and opening up about his most intimate secrets and fears of course - and I’ll have to put the phone down on him eventually or the day will be lost.
“OH. IS THIS INTERVIEW ABOUT DRUGS?!” snaps Lou Reed on the other end of the phone to my first question.
Er, no no, of course it isn’t, Mr Reed.
“I THOUGHT WE WERE HERE TO TALK ABOUT THE MUSIC! NOBODY WANTS TO TALK ABOUT THE MUSIC ANYMORE!”
I’ve clearly not made a good first impression, and there seems to be somebody else here too. Another voice comes on the line, a female, and I hear the words: “You’re not allow to talk about drugs, you were strictly briefed on that.”
Actually, I wasn’t briefed at all, and I wonder where this woman has come from and who she is. I’m suddenly concerned about what else is off limits and I scribble a line through the words “electric shock therapy” in my notes. In the next 20 minutes Lou will make me feel like a turd of the first order being evasive, disingenuous and disinterested. He will take me apart with his passive aggressiveness. He’ll be terse and nasty, like Idi Amin after he’s just been woken up. At one point when I err a little, he’s ready and waiting.
“I CAN’T ANSWER THAT BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE QUESTION IS!”
When I ask if he’d recorded Metal Machine Music to get out of his recording contract, as had been suggested at the time, Lou delivers the line: “It’s such a great story, I only wish it were true!” like some automaton version of a New York comedian delivering the same punchline nightly, devoid of any actual feeling. The singer would clearly rather be doing anything else instead of talking to me right now and who can blame him? He’s going through the motions and if I were a living legend like him then I probably wouldn’t want to be talking to me either. It turns out to be the longest 20 minutes of my life, and as a fan it’s gut wrenching, while as a writer I’m quickly aware that the lack of anything quotable becomes the story itself. Lou Reed doesn’t have to be cooperative and the column inches will add further to his mystique. You’re not going to get that from the lead singer of Keane now are you?
Not half an hour after hearing the news of Lou’s death I receive a call on my mobile. It’s France24 and they want me to come down to the station to chat live on air about the great man. A taxi arrives at my door in minutes and I’m whisked across Paris and then sat down in a chair having makeup applied. It’s turning out to be quite a surreal day. I’m led into a studio and ahead of me is the newsreader broadcasting live on air, while across the table stands a grey haired man in an even greyer suit. He whispers across to me: “Are we going to debate?” I shrug, a little bit scared, and hope that’s not the case. Suddenly the news reader is addressing him about Georgia’s new billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and somehow I’m watching the news unfold in 3D before my very eyes.
Before I know it, the grey man is led out of the studio and the spotlight is on me and we’re on the subject of Lou already. Was I surprised by his sudden death? Of course I was, and I appear to be talking about liver cancer now, a subject I have to concede I’m no great authority on having never taken the Hippocratic oath. If I’m sounding wobbly it might be due to being thrown by the byline under my name which says I’m a writer for a newspaper I’ve written four articles for this year. If I didn’t feel enough like an imposter already then here’s surely proof.
Then she asks me about Lou’s activities outside of music. My mind goes blank. I flit through mental images of Lou gardening and Lou hang gliding but nothing seems to be sticking. All I can think about is Lulu, a much-derided collaboration from a couple of years ago with thrash metal’s most celebrated sons. “He was always keen to try something new,” I say, flustered, “look at the album he made with Metallica. It was much maligned but actually, I quite like it”. I suggest it will stand the test of time and be re-evaluated, all the while wondering if that will be the case at all. Here I am, a music journalist, sweating under the collar and feeling the full force of scrutiny once again, this time under studio lights defending the indefensible on live television. It’s what Lou would have wanted.