Find all the interviews in the All the Poets series here.
LOU REED’S INITIAL STATEMENT of what was possible in more-or-less popular music — the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico — still resonates as loudly as anything released by the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix. Reed, the VU’s main singer and songwriter, put out a handful of influential albums with the group before leaving just three years later. Those LPs, along with his widely varied solo work, made him a key figure — maybe the key figure — for punk rock, post-punk, and the entire alternative and indie rock cosmos. Bands from Television to R.E.M., from Luna to Yo La Tengo are inconceivable without him.
Anthony DeCurtis, a longtime writer for Rolling Stone, recently published the long-awaited Lou Reed: A Life. DeCurtis holds a doctorate in American literature, and the musician’s literary influences and reference points are central to his narrative; at one point, he describes Reed as “a speed-addled, leather-clad Virgil,” guiding friends through the underworld of Lower Manhattan sex bars.
I spoke to DeCurtis by phone, for a posthumous installment of “All the Poets,” the title of which comes from one of VU’s best-known songs.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Let’s start, Anthony, by talking about the heft of Lou Reed’s achievement and influence. What kind of things did he make possible within the rock tradition?
ANTHONY DECURTIS: In terms of influence alone, Lou Reed ranks up there with Bob Dylan and Lennon and McCartney and James Brown. I don’t know if there’s anybody else in that particular pantheon. I mean, I think the whole heritage of alternative rock, from punk rock to post-punk, grunge, and whatever forms it exists in today, is rooted in Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
Yeah, I was having one of these sort of adolescent discussions with someone, I think it was Jonathan Lethem, about the key compass points: what are the key elements of rock and roll? And it came down to the Beatles, Dylan, Chuck Berry, and the Velvets: if you removed one of those four elements, you would have lost whole lineages.
Yeah, that’s fair enough. The Velvets, obviously, are different from the other ones, because they never had any hits. But that was part of their contribution: that you didn’t need to have hits … A rock band could appeal to posterity in the way that poets and playwrights and novelists and filmmakers did. There dared to be a strand of popular music that did that.
That’s a good point. I wrote a piece about ’90s indie rock the other day, and a number of Boomer friends were pointing out how insular that period was, with bands like Pavement making cryptic stuff — a generation talking to itself, or mumbling. It crossed my mind that VU might be responsible for that sensibility: that we don’t need to do anything except make music that we like.
That was the point that John Cale made, specifically, when the Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — that you don’t need to think commercially all the time, that the Velvet Underground was being honored simply because of the value of their work, you know?
Lou died in 2013. When did you start working on the book?
Well, shortly after that. I was being interviewed a fair amount about Lou. It was just people doing stories … And I was on a radio show in New York on WNYC — which is the local NPR station here — it’s hosted by a guy named John Schaefer and it’s called Soundcheck. And an editor heard it and got in touch with my agent, asking about the idea of my doing a Lou Reed book.
It was very soon after Lou died. I wouldn’t have done the book while he was alive — it just would have been too much trouble. He wouldn’t have wanted it done and it would have been a fight, and I valued my relationship with him too much. But, after his death, it seemed to me like a worthy project. We signed the deal in January 2014.
You had been a music journalist for Rolling Stone and others places, based in New York for decades. How much contact, over the years, had you had with Lou?
Well, quite a bit. You know, I interviewed him half a dozen times, and I ran into him constantly. I mean, it was quite remarkable. And we got along well. I think Lou did some things with me that weren’t common. I mean, I did public interviews with him on three occasions, and that wasn’t something that he was ever especially in a hurry to do.
He came down to the University of Pennsylvania where I teach, and we did a couple of things, but we did one thing at the 92nd Street Y here, and we did another thing when the film version of Berlin came out, and then I interviewed him for some print stories. We’d always have a conversation whenever we saw each other, and I think Lou liked the way I represented him, not to put too fine a point on it. Lou thought I viewed him the way he wanted to see himself, and that was, I think, primarily as a kind of literary figure.
You know, Lou cared a lot about music, obviously, cared a lot about sound, but his deepest impulses, I think, were literary, and that’s probably true of me as well, in terms of my background, and I think he recognized that.
One of the key influences on Reed was the poet Delmore Schwartz. Give us a little sense of who Schwartz was and why he was important to Lou.
Well, Lou was a student at Syracuse University and Delmore kind of landed there — it was one of his last stops. Delmore launched his career in a very dramatic way. He was a poet and fiction writer and essayist praised by people like T. S. Eliot, but he had psychological problems and drank a lot, and went into a serious descent.
His friends, including people like Saul Bellow and Robert Lowell, worked hard to get him a position like the one at Syracuse, to save his life. Nonetheless, he was still a storied figure, and in many ways he was Lou’s first glimpse of a larger world. Lou’s upbringing in Long Island was pretty constricted. You know, obviously, Syracuse University is a good school, but it’s in the middle of New York state, also a little isolated. But here’s Delmore, a figure playing on a very big stage. And Lou studied with Delmore and they hit it off and drank together. Delmore became a vision of a possible future for Lou.
Delmore was also, like Lou, Jewish, and born in Brooklyn. There were a lot of similarities, and Delmore recognized that. Delmore recognized Lou’s talent, also. So I think this was Lou’s first sense that you can play on a big stage. Delmore was a famous raconteur. He would entertain students, including Lou, at this place called the Orange Bar in Syracuse, and I think Lou liked that performative aspect as well.
It’s interesting to read about how early Lou was writing songs, including some that later became famous VU songs. He does a fair bit of stuff before the Beatles had even released Help!, I think. Give us a sense of the influences and ambitions that are coming together in the mid-’60s, around the time the VU were taking shape — doo-wop, experimental music?
Lou was listening to and reading a lot of different things, and I think both of those came together in what was going to become the Velvet Underground. He had a radio show at Syracuse that was mostly avant-garde jazz, which was not necessarily music that was associated with him, but you can certainly hear that stuff in the first couple of Velvet records.
Of course, Lou loved classic R&B and doo-wop, that was the kind of music that really reached him, and maybe, in a sense, was his truest love his whole life. He also, around that time — this is not widely known or widely discussed — had a fair amount of interest in blues and folk music. According to his girlfriend around that time, Lou would sit around and strum a guitar, and do, sort of like, Dylan songs, really.
And some of those numbers on their first album are tricked-out folk rock songs, that have the Dylan-ish quality.
Absolutely, and even a later song like “Kill Your Sons” started out as a kind of Vietnam protest song. There’s an early song, I think it was called “Prominent Men,” which is also a kind of protest song. I think there’s also a harmonica on it. Lou would never talk about that, and would speak dismissively about blues and folk, but he was listening to it, and liked it, when he was a college student, as were many college students back then.
And Tin Pan Alley, too.
Well, there was an inevitability to that. It was the popular music of the day. Regardless of what you thought of it, it was hard to avoid.
I think the crucial thing early on for Lou was a formulation that he would repeat often — so often that people have stopped paying attention to it. Delmore Schwartz, who was encouraging Lou as a writer, really hated rock and roll lyrics, and this put a thought in Lou’s mind: “Well, suppose you had rock and roll, which I love musically, and you had lyrics that someone like Delmore Schwartz could respect.” And that was the key that turned the ignition — that became Lou’s project, really, for his whole life, but certainly for the Velvet Underground.
There’s one other element. The Beatles and Bob Dylan made it possible for smart people to like rock and roll. I mean, smart people liked rock and roll before that — but, now, if you were an English major, you suddenly didn’t have to hide your rock and roll preference.
Smart people and grown-ups, too.
Grown-ups, absolutely. That put another texture into that cultural moment, which Lou could perceive.
Part of what you’re saying, maybe, is that the Beatles and Dylan may have cleared some room for VU even though VU was not in any way Beatle-esque, and it doesn’t sound like Blonde on Blonde.
The simple fact of the matter is that Lou Reed would be inconceivable without Dylan. Lou had a complicated relationship with Dylan throughout his life, but there’s no question that — just as a singer, even — before Dylan, it would have been inconceivable for someone like Lou Reed to make pop records.
That’s a good point: that flat singing voice would have sounded off without the example of Dylan. VU also had a fraught and perhaps antagonistic relationship with California in general and Los Angeles in particular — the audiences, the bands, some of the music writers, and the larger West Coast sensibility, associated with Hippiedom and psychedelia. How did that play itself out in the VU period?
Well, there was a whole lot of animosity. On a famous trip that the Velvet Underground made to California, in 1966, they were supposed to do an extended residency at The Trip in Los Angeles that got shut down after two or three shows. They outraged the local media, and many local performers. The famous quote belonged to Cher: “They will replace nothing, except maybe suicide.” And Andy Warhol took that quote straight to the bank; it’s used in promotion of the Velvet Underground.
But then they went to San Francisco, and that was an even more fraught experience. They played at the Fillmore, and they aggravated Bill Graham, and they condescended to everybody, and Graham said they’d never have them back. And Ralph Gleason, who was the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and soon to be co-founder of Rolling Stone, described them as “Greenwich Village Sick,” which is a kind of funny thing for a critic in San Francisco to say.
Right, you’re saying that it’s homophobic …
Right, even in San Francisco, which was then the gay capital.
But despite this animosity, they ended up recording their third self-titled record, which sounds nothing like Pet Sounds, out here in North Hollywood.
And The Matrix in San Francisco became one of their regular stops, and some of the live stuff that came out of there is just prime VU.
Look, these things are complicated. Their run-ins with the official culture didn’t mean there weren’t cool people around who really responded to what they were doing. And, you know, I think around the time they recorded their third album, the Velvets, and particularly Lou, were interested in being more than a “New York band.” I think they had felt a little typecast by the Andy Warhol thing. Recording in California was a way to broaden their own perspective, and broaden the perception of the band. Those last two albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, are efforts to reach a larger audience, to one degree or another. I mean, they failed — spectacular failures — but nonetheless, there was a definite desire to be more than a cult band.
Right, to get out of the Factory.
Yeah, I think that was Lou’s motivation, in part, for getting rid of Andy Warhol, and getting rid of John Cale, and really trying to make the Velvets, in the best sense of the term, a kind of conventional rock and roll band, one you might actually hear on the radio.
Well, we’ve talked a lot about the Velvets, partly because I, like many members of my generation, consider them the godfathers of the alternative and indie rock movements. But there are still many decades left to Lou, and several hundred pages of your book. How does his solo output compare to that of the band, and what seem to be the high points for you, either tours or LPs?
For those of us who were living contemporaneously with Lou, there were obviously frustrations with the ups and downs and twists and turns of his solo career. I think, for younger artists, that has come to seem like … I won’t say exactly a model, but a kind of example of how you can be free as an artist and do what you want to do. If you want to just talk about high points, I would pull out Transformer, and of course Berlin.
Right, which was not considered a smashing success at the time.
A commercial disaster, but a record that’s held up extremely well. Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, The Blue Mask with Robert Quine …
New York, Magic and Loss, and Songs for Drella, which was a collaboration with John Cale. And Ecstasy, I would say.
Those records have a lot of high points, in different styles; it’s not like he’s just doing one thing over and over.
And I’m ignoring something like Metal Machine Music, which sparked outrage at the time, but has come to be taken seriously by the avant-classical world. And you have a Velvet Underground Reunion in there. That live record is not a masterpiece, but it’s certainly worth owning for anyone who cares about that band. Lou’s willingness to do what he wanted to do …
To paraphrase a song of his …
Yeah, doin’ the things that we want to, that’s exactly right, I think that’s how he saw it. And I think that’s how younger musicians have experienced him. When they think about him, they don’t think about whether or not he had hits, or one particular album, they think of someone who represented a certain attitude and approach to his own music that existed independent of commerce, you know? It didn’t disown commerce, but it wasn’t governed by commerce. In our world now, it’s very difficult to find anything that isn’t governed by commerce.
It’s interesting to read how he responded to reviews and sales, and how the various labels and managers took it. He makes records that really do try to be commercial, and then he does something that’s a total fuck-you to the people who would have jumped on the bandwagon after the last record.
Not to be governed by expectations, you know? That’s what it is, I think. Whether the expectations are that you have to avoid hit-making completely, or that you have to have only hits. I think he just traveled his own path, and there’s a real texture to the solo career. We could argue about these records, obviously — they’re not all masterpieces, and I think when you’re living contemporaneously with an artist, it’s easy to get frustrated. You’re waiting two or three years for a record and he makes one that’s not a great one, and you’re pissed off. But I think when you look at the overall arc of his career, it’s impressive.
Reed was sort of a famously difficult, ornery guy, who also seemed to have had real relationships, both friendships and marriages that, at least some of the time, worked and were loving. You have a great anecdote at the beginning of the book where he comes to speak at your university. But maybe the best scene in the book — which feels like it describes the complexity of the guy — is when he goes to Czechoslovakia, to interview Václav Havel, who was a huge VU fan. That VU-loving subculture was in some ways responsbile for the liberation of Czechoslovakia.
The Velvet Revolution.
Exactly, so tell us how weird and ambiguous that encounter was.
Well, I think it was very difficult, even after Lou got clean — maybe even more difficult — for him to give up control of situations. And so, he was going to interview Václav Havel for Rolling Stone, and I think it was hard for him to understand the momentousness of the occasion. Here is this prominent literary figure, who essentially led a revolution that freed his country, and that was in many ways inspired by the Velvet Underground. And Lou was treating it like a gig, you know. Havel is asking, “Gee, would you be able to perform in a club here?” And he’s like, “Oh, I don’t usually play clubs. I can play some songs for you.” And Havel has to say, “Gee, you know, there are a lot of people here who would like to see you, and if you just played songs for me, they wouldn’t be able to.” And finally Lou does it, and it’s a very important moment for him, and a very moving moment for Havel.
But Lou just fought it every step of the way. There’s an insecurity in him that was manifest there, a kind of rigidity, a desire for control … You know, “I can’t go on stage without a week of rehearsals,” or whatever, rather than just thinking this isn’t about the perfect musical moment, it’s about an important statement of support for this leader and for this country that was recently liberated.
The whole story you tell is quite complicated and fascinating, in part because, in the end, Lou ends up being moved by the experience, and has a human response that we don’t always get from him, an empathetic connection that didn’t come naturally to him, it seems.
I think there was always an expectation on his part that somehow he was going to be exploited in some way, or that the quality of his work was not going to be respected. And in a situation like that, it was just mind-boggling, it really was completely incredible. That was a very frustrating section to write … You’re trying to empathize, but you’re also going, “Jesus Christ, just do it.”
You close the book with his death, and the huge amount of warmth and appreciation, and, in some cases, forgiveness that greeted it. As somebody who’s listened to his music for a long time, knew him socially and professionally, and spent several years thinking about him and talking about him, do you feel he was misunderstood? Do you find yourself a little repulsed by his hostility? How do you close the page on him?
I think I try to see him in three-dimensional terms. I did know him, and we were always friendly. But I never, even in those moments, lost my regard for him as an artist. I hold him in the highest esteem. There are also some very grisly stories, and he did some mean and even despicable things, but, you know, he lived a long life. There was a kind of urge for redemption in him, for all of the terrible things that were part of his life.
“Despite all the amputations,” right?
Yeah, I think there was a desire to rise above them. And, you know, I think he did. It doesn’t excuse a lot of the bad stuff, but I think he tried to answer to the best elements in himself and create the best work that he could.
And look, this guy altered the course of popular music, there’s no question about it. His impact and his influence still seems very potent, and it’s likely to remain that way.