Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Deciphering Lou Reed on Election Night (my interview with Lou Reed the night Jimmy Carter was elected president in November, 1976)

Deciphering Lou Reed on Election Night
(From the States-Item, November 6, 1976)
The passing of Lou Reed on Sunday made me remember a night in November of 1976 when I was one of a handful of reporters who "interviewed" Reed in New Orleans. It was election night and I remember the evening had a surreal feel to it, as if Reed were above politics somehow, unconcerned with the ebb and flow of Capital power. Jimmy Carter won a close election against then-president Gerald Ford and the election results were trickling in on a black and white TV in a hotel lobby as Reed sat down to be interviewed. His girlfriend of the time, a wispy thin transsexual named Rachel, sat next to him smoking a cigarette, looking bored.

I was a big fan of Reed's, but it was hard to know exactly what was going on with the rock 'n roll singer that evening. He seemed barely lucid at times. At other times, some of our questions seemed to engage his interest. He may have been high, but I couldn't know for sure. I suspected the interview was mostly a performance, Reed acting  the part of a jaded rock artist, but I couldn't be sure of that either.  Getting a straight answer out of him was dicey at best. I didn't feel as if I had enough material to write a coherent article about the evening. What I ended up publishing was a list of his most lucid quotations. The  column that appears below was published on Nov. 6th, 1976 in Lagniappe, the weekend entertainment tab for the States-Item. It came out three days after the presidential election. I was a general assignment reporter for the paper at the time but my real interest was in writing rock criticism for the newspaper. 
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With the release of Rock and Roll Heart, Lou Reed becomes a prime candidate for Comeback of the Year in rock mag circles. Combined with Reed’s earlier 1976 album, Coney Island Baby, the new LP makes Reed one of the most prolific rockers of the year.

On election night ’76, Lou Reed was in New Orleans. Squirrelish, sullen Reed, trying hard to keep his rock and roll mystique together while a tableful of reporters picked his brain. As the “interview” wore on, it became increasingly hard for me to separate Lou Reed the performer from Lou Reed the person. The interview was a performance, too.

What did Lou Reed the person have to say that could be of any interest to New Orleanians? Not a great deal, and certainly nothing that could fit into a cohesive article. He was bitchy at times and droll at times. Mostly he was arcane.

He said he was teed off at RCA records, his former label, but refused to say why. He preferred to call himself “product” rather than “artist.”

“Product can talk about product and artist can talk about art, but product cannot talk about art,” he said. “That’s like margarine trying to talk about butter.”

Here are some other gems from our conversation:

“Robert Christgau (rock critic for the Village Voice)should be shot. Anybody that has the audacity to put a grade on Stevie Wonder’s work should be shot between the eyes."  (Christgau gives letter grades to new album releases, a process Reed finds degrading.)

“I don’t know what decadence is. A lot of business men are decadent, too.”

Lou Reed’s influences, both before the Velvet Underground and since then? “Everybody.”

His work?

Berlin.  “Should have been promoted more by RCA. My best album.”

Metal Machine Music. “Was misunderstood by RCA. They took it around to AM stations. Of course it didn’t go over. I like it a lot, play it all the time at home.”

Transformer. “We really didn’t know what we were doing in the recording studio. We didn’t realize what making a record was.”

 Coney Island Baby. “The other side of Metal Machine Music.”

Rock and Roll Heart. “I wanted to put a pacemaker on the cover, but I didn’t know what one looked like.”

Loaded.  “That was loaded with singles, that’s why we called it that. That album could have kept a lot of people working for a long time, but I left the band at that time and there was no one to play the music any more so they didn’t promote it.”

Does he still go to movies? “Naw. I get bored I can’t sit still in one place very long.”

Favorite magazines: “I think Ladies Home Journal is the funniest magazine in America. It’s like National Lampoon except it’s real. I also read Psychology Today and Scientific American. Last month Scientific American had a blown up picture of a cancer cell. It was just beautiful. You don’t have to read it, you can enjoy it just looking at the pictures.”

Politics: “I was for Carter but I was afraid that if people found out, they’d use it against Carter. I don’t think people in the arts should use their position to influence people. (Like Pearl Bailey did election eve, endorsing Gerald Ford). If the bad guys are coming over the hill I sure wouldn’t want Pearl Bailey to be Secretary of State.”

His favorite company: “Sony. I wish they would let me endorse something for them, I think they’re fantastic. Once they built their own pocket radios but they designed them too large to fit into regular-sized pockets. They just went out and manufactured their own shirts to fit the radios.”

His watch: (The interview was degenerating at this point). “I got this gem from Texas Instruments for $19.95. Why pay $400 for something that you can get for much cheaper? They are the best American company, almost in Sony’s league.”

New Orleans: “I love New Orleans. Last time I was here I stayed four days, but I could never live here. There aren’t enough cabs.”

New York: “Twenty minutes outside of New York I start to get scared. I can’t order out for pizza. Not that I do that all the time, but it’s nice to know you can. I don’t own a car. What would I do with it in the city? Besides, my license expired and I could never pass that test again. Parallel parking? Between those red and green pylons?”

Lou Reed’s worldview: “The way I look at the world, everything is black and white.”

Reed said some other profound things that I either didn’t write down or didn’t’ comprehend. His purpose for visiting the city was, of course, to promote the new album. But he plans to play New Orleans soon, possibly in the spring. He is currently touring with the same band that he’s worked with on his latest two albums.

Both Coney Island Baby and Rock and Roll Heart are vintage Reed, solid rock and roll from the pulse of New York City, two of the best albums of the year. He may be a little hard to understand across a table, but Lou Reed comes across loud and clear on vinyl.

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