INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo NOVEMBER 2016 - by Mark Paytress
THE LOU I KNEW: "HE WAS SMART. LIKE, TOO SMART
Perverse? Pshaw! Cantankerous? Au contraire! Life partner Laurie Anderson was privy to a Lou Reed denied to interviewers and even fans. She remains our best conduit to who he was, and why he did what he did. "I never saw the blackness," she tells Mark Paytress.
When Laurie Anderson first met Lou Reed, thought he was British. Anderson, best known in the UK for her surprise 1981 hit single, O Superman, was the adopted New Yorker who told stories via her cutting-edge use of technology and multilayered, mixed-media performances. Former Velvet underground frontman Reed sang tales from the Big Apple's underbelly, his laconic drawl and plaintive chord sequences among the most familiar signature sounds in rock. To Bowie, Lou Reed was 'King of New York'. To Laurie, he was barely visible at all.
"I know, I know!" she laughs. "You would be surprised how big New York is - and how small-minded we are. We have our scenes - the fashion world, the art world, the punk world, the academic world - and those worlds don't collide that often. I don't know why. I'd seen him around a little bit but he was not exactly on my radar. When I met Lou, I was still kinda in my art world phase. But, yes, I did think he was British."
Laurie Anderson is at the summer home in springs, a hamlet on Long island, that she shared with Reed until his death there on October 27, 2013. Having just overseen the release of The RCA & Arista Album Collection box set, she's currently working on Lou's unfinished tai chi book But first, before the interview settles, there's an unruly dog to deal with. "Willy! WILLY!" she shouts, dropping the phone. A minute later, she's back. "The dog just about killed a rabbit," she says apologetically. Happily, it turns out that Willy - dog-lover Lou's last mutt - is more bark than bite. Maybe that was Lou too. Now sixty-nine, Laurie speaks of him with a warmth and a candour that's a testament both to her attitude towards life and death, and to her love and admiration for the man whose presence, she says, is with her every minute of every day.
Lou's reputation always preceded him. You must have known something of it...
Some things, yeah. We met in Munich at a festival organised by John Zorn commemorating Kristallnacht. He showed up in a rehearsal that I was doing and asked if I would read something for his performance. I said, "Yeah, sure." It was Warhol's Dream [A Dream, from Songs For Drella, 1990], a fantastic piece of writing. Afterwards, he said [raises voice], "That was great! That was just how I would do it!" I thought, OK, who is this person with this kind of self-confidence?
For about a year, Lou would say, "Let's go and do something," but I was on tour or else just didn't have the time. Then one day he said, "Let's go to the AEF" [the Audio Engineering Society Convention, October 1993]. I was going anyway, because I'm a geek - and so was he - so I said yeah. We looked at microphones and gear and he was so serious about it. I was really, really impressed. Then we talked about computers. He really liked some of the programmes I was using. We were just having fun talking. I had no idea this was a date. Afterwards, we went out for dinner. He said, "Can we go to a movie?" I said, "Sure." Then he said, "Can we go for a drink?" I said, "Sure." Then he said, "Can we go for a walk?" I said, "Yeah. "We were never apart after that.
Was it one of those 'Where have you been all my life' moments?
It was. That day, I realised, Whoa, this guy is so interesting... I have to say, after twenty-one years, there was not one single moment when I was bored, not one moment when I knew what was coming next.
Lou must've also been a challenge.
Yeah. Anyone who's been part of a couple will know that it's not all perfect. But Lou was so generous. He was the most generous person I ever met. And he was a great appreciator of people, who demanded a lot of things from them. I always remember this guitar player at one of those benefit events he did. She did this solo then came off stage and passed Lou hoping she would get some kind of encouragement or compliment. She said, "What do you think?" He paused and said, "Is that all you got?" She was totally crushed! But when she went on again about twenty-five minutes later, she just killed. She looked at him again as she passed by and he said, "That's what I'm talking about." He really looked for the best in people, and he helped them achieve it.
In what ways did he help you?
He helped me so much in so many ways.He taught me about writing, about love, about family, about tai chi and power. And the crazy thing is I'm still learning from him...
Through the work?
Yes, and through thinking about the meaning of what he said. When somebody's life is over, you start to realise, Oh that's what he was doing! Look at the way he cared for his hundred-and-one-year-old cousin and made a movie [the 2010 short Red Shirley] about her. He recognised she was such a bad ass and he wanted to celebrate her. He had so much fun with her and teased her relentlessly. He was the most tender person I've ever met, and the kindest.
That didn't always come through in public...
People forget that Lou was a writer, that he wrote the Lou Reed part too. It was hilarious. All his friends knew what he was doing. It was fun, sometimes it was useful and it was cool - but it was writing. He was writing the rock'n'roll part of his life. And when you're a writer who's also living out that role, that's very interesting, a potentially crazy thing. Some writers go mad. They get caught up in the character they created and start thinking they are that person.
Did Lou do that?
Lou was never confused about it. Never, not for one second. He knew what he was doing even when people around him got confused. I think Lou helped [Andy] Warhol separate the private person from this iconic thing that was being served up to what they were trying to sell, because it was connected to the commercial world, creating a plausible person who was sexy and crazy and made you want a jacket like he'd wear. And Lou was that in some ways, too.
He was very smart, like, too smart. You'd think, How do you know all that! So much of it was intuition. And he was very dedicated to his teachers - and he had many. Our main teacher was Mingyur Rinpoche who we both studied with for many years, as well as Ren Guangyi, a tai chi master. Lou always sought and looked for teachers. Delmore Schwartz was his first teacher and he wrote some beautiful things at the end of his own life about what it meant to fall in love with a writer. I think Lou learned a lot about writing the self through him.
In The Power Of The Heart from 1988, Lou sings, "You look for sun and I look for rain." I wonder if that Georges Simenon quote about writing being "a vocation of unhappiness" might help explain Lou?
I can't explain Lou to us - really! But if you ask, "What makes a person go?" For Lou, if I had to guess with a gun at my head, it would be to make things beautiful and dangerous and true. He always tried to do that, always with a serious work ethic. The way he worked on tai chi was just so beautiful to see because he had such grace and he understood energy. He studied energy. He'd learned how to use it and he used the same principles in tai chi as he did in his music and in his life.
He often spoke about writing the great American crime novel. Why didn't it happen?
Writing for him was tedious. He was really good at so many things, but sitting down and having the discipline of a writer, he didn't have that. The songs were in his head. He would wake up, take them out and put them on his computer. I couldn't believe that. They were composed in his head. He'd never start with a piece of paper and go, "Hmm, The Raven page one!" I have to say he was a genius, I really do, because I'd never seen anyone else do anything like that. That's really impressive.
When Lou died, his publisher said they'd given him an advance for his tai chi book but he never gave them the book! So I decided I'm gonna try and pull together things Lou said with his beautiful tai chi photographic studies and put it out. It's called Art Of The Straight Line. He was incredibly articulate about tai chi but he wrote only a tiny fraction of it, so we're going to include material from his fellow martial arts students and friends. It's a huge privilege to finish something that he really wanted to do and tried to do but he just couldn't.
"I thought of the past, you thought of what could be," is another line from The Power Of The Heart. Is there a suggestion of him being imprisoned by the Lou Reed character...
Oh, he could get it off his back, he really could. I don't think that is what he meant. You have to be very careful with a writer like Lou to assume that anything's autobiographical. He was not a confessional writer, in like, 'I am singing this song to you, the one I love', which is the dynamic of most songs, though he certainly could speak very well and eloquently for himself. This is a novelist looking at all of these different characters.
I choose to see [The Power Of The Heart] as completely autobiographical because I know where every phrase came from. I know what those waves snapping back looked like, where we sat on that beach and what we did. It's a universe that song. [Pauses] You know, people thought I was the nice one, changing crazy Lou Reed. I was not the nice one! He taught me everything I know about how to be kind. I was awestruck by his ability to see when people were struggling and help them. He did that to me countless times. He really wanted people to make great stuff.
He did that with me for every single project I worked on, but not in away that was bossy or trying to leave his stamp on something. He also helped me so much on a record once [Homeland] that was giving me so much trouble.He said, "I'm gonna come and sit with you in the studio and I'm not leaving until you're done." For some married couples that would be the kiss of death! But he came back from his Berlin tour, cancelled a bunch of things, and sat in the studio with me. I'll never forget what he did.
You mean producing, playing,writing?
All of that, emotion, mixing...
During your twenty-one years with Lou, was there a major shift at his emotional core? Are we talking about a journey from blackness into the light?
I never saw the blackness. When I met him, I made a very conscious decision not to meet the young Lou Reed. I tried to be in the present with the person I'd met. Yes, he had a lot of anger, but it was like really interesting crazy writer's anger. When Lou died, David Bowie said, "Make no mistake, Lulu [his 2011 collaboration with Metallica] is Lou's masterpiece." I thought, Wait a second, I can hardly listen to Lulu, it's so angry. David said, "It takes people twenty years to hear Lou's music, to understand what it is and accept it. It's not about pleasing people, it's really challenging, so go listen to Lulu again." So I did, and I was like, Whoa, this is an American [King] Lear! This is rage, pure rage. It's so pure. I didn't see that when I first heard it. It was connected for me with his illness. I thought, Oh gosh, the interferon, it can make people crazy. I just didn't realise what he was doing.
The album's nineteen-minute epic finale, Junior Dad, suggests that the problems of Lou's youth never went away.
I don't think they ever do. But I don't think Junior Dad was digging back and expressing any of that. People reach to that to explain things. Lou used a lot of the things that happened to him as a child as a way to understand what was going on in life. We talked a lot about the difference between retrieving things through psychoanalysis and meditation because there are approaches to meditation which encourage you to recognise the subconscious, those levels where for many people there are primitive and primal fears. These are reachable in different ways, including music, vicarious frightening music. You can use that stuff and find a way to face it. Lou was very much about that, about using those tools, and using his own past.
And it wasn't about fixing things, it was about acknowledging them. Fear is probably the one thing we all have in common. And when a writer looks at that in away that isn't scripted, that has all the primal terror in it, and yet who isn't trying to make it right but is just trying to describe it, it is hair-raising. And that's what Lou did - in so many ways and on so many levels. He was one of the few people who was able to do that.
What did Lou have on his shelves and walls? I would like to imagine Raymond Chandler first editions and old posters for Warner Brothers movies.
Oh no, he wasn't a collector at all - except for swords and weapons. I have inherited a giant weapon collection!
I spoke to Lou at Trident Studios in September 2013, at the end of that last batch of interviews, and he said he had hundreds of film noir DVDs...
Yeah, he did have those. But there's a difference between collecting and having. He wasn't possessive. He'd give things away if someone asked for something. He did have a lot of books. We've been going through his archive and there are some beautiful things. I don't want to move them. I love seeing them, and the way he thought about them and arranged them.
What was Lou like in his last months and days?
He was a magnificent old man. A lot of people get tired and cranky and resentful if they get ill, especially if they get ill before other people do. He only got to seventy-one but still he was so graceful about that. He was such an inspiration. All of our ideas about what death was and is changed from watching him. I wish he could have lived 'til ninety. I would have loved to have known him at ninety...
Lou will always be synonymous with New York but he chose to die on Long Island where he could sit in his hammock and gaze at the skies. Was this a return home?
We only came here for little bits of time. That's where I am right now with our little dog [Willy] and, yes, there is a hammock. But Lou was a New Yorker to the end. He would never consider moving here. What we both fell in love with here was the ocean, the mighty Atlantic. Lou was a real water baby. He was a wonderful swimmer and nothing was more fun for him than jumping in gigantic waves. He loved the ocean's size and power and he wrote about it.
Was nature his higher power?
Even back in his Velvet Underground days, Lou always seemed to be spiritually aware.
He was the most advanced person I've ever met in terms of his mind and his ability to express it. His life was about learning as much as he possibly could, on every front, then letting it explode through his heart. Nothing was done on an intellectual level. He was a smart person but it was all about being able to feel.
I'm from a colder tradition: What does it mean? How can I rationalise it? Lou was intuitive and emotional and I've tried to learn from it.
Is there one song of Lou's that might bring us closer to understanding the man you knew and loved?
Well, I used Turning Time Around [from Ecstasy, 2000] at the end of my film [Heart Of A Dog, 2015]... One of my nieces was just killed in a car crash on her twenty-fifth birthday and it's the first death after Lou's that I've had to look at. At her celebration last week, I played a strange arrangement of Lou's Doin' The Things That We Want To [from 1984's New Sensations). It's because Lou is all about energy and life and goin' on. It's the reason I'm not in a puddle right now, like, Why is my partner gone? Every minute I feel his presence, him going, C'mon,make that, Do that, Think that, Go over there, What's that? Don't waste your time! So that's another beautiful song, but... they're all great.