SXSW Dispatch #3: Lou Reed's "punk aggressive steel street action"

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As I noted yesterday — or very early this morning, actually — the friendly interviewer-and-revered rock legend format of many recent sessions at SXSW has been one of the worst things to ever happen to the conference, sapping much of the fire and soul of the daytime discussions. And Thursday morning’s keynote with Lou Reed did not get off to a promising start as he sat down with his friend, producer Hal Willner.

“Lou Reed is to rock ’n’ roll sort of like Miles Davis is to jazz,” Willner said in introducing the artist. “Basically, with what he does, more than half a dozen times, he’s changed the direction of rock ’n’ roll -- with what he’s done with the Velvet Underground and ‘Transformer,’ which was recognized in its day, and then other things from ‘Berlin’ to ‘Street Hassle’ to ‘Metal Machine Music.’”

It was a fitting synopsis of Reed’s career, but even Wilner seemed intimidated to be interviewing such an accomplished artist, especially one who loves to play the role of the Prince of Darkness. “If my parents knew I’d grow up to work with Lou Reed, they’d have suffocated me then,” Wilner confessed.

“Instead they moved to Florida,” Reed quipped.

And so it went at first:

Willner: “I feel like Tony Soprano and his shrink. What’s her name?”

Reed: “Dr. Melfi.”

Willner: “That’s right. Talking about the anger you had toward your mother.”

Reed: Deadpan silence and a withering glare.

Willner: “Okay… um… I thought it was funny.”

Reed: “It’s a good thing you’re a producer.”

From there, Reed proceeded -- with some justification -- to sneer and bark at people who’d forgotten to turn off their cell phones, and to hype his latest project: director Julian Schnabel’s film of his recent concert performances of the 1973 concept album “Berlin.”

The musician asked how many people had seen the movie as part of the SXSW Film Festival on Wednesday. “Not even half. Good,” Reed snarled as he surveyed the raised hands.

As Reed told it, the album was universally derided upon its release as “the worst album ever made… It was used in a lawsuit by management to show why I shouldn’t handle my own affairs — I’d make an album like that.”

The disc, he said, “is all about jealousy, peaks of jealousy, and… [how] that attachment to another person turns into physical abuse because you love them so much.”

The fact is, at least some now-revered critics recognized the brilliance of “Berlin” back in the day, among them Nick Kent and Reed’s just-as-legendary nemesis and champion, Lester Bangs, who hailed it in one of his most memorable reviews in Creem magazine:

“What [‘Berlin’] really reminds me of, though, is the bastard progeny of a drunken flaccid tumble between Tennessee Williams and Hubert (Last Exit from Brooklyn) Selby, Jr. It brings all of Lou’s perennial themes -- emasculation, sadistic misogyny, drug erosion, twisted emotionalism of numb detachment from ‘normal’ emotions -- to pinnacle.

“It is also very funny – there’s at least one laugh in every song -- but as in ‘Transformer,’ you have to doubt if the humor’s intentional. ‘Transformer’ was a masterpiece at least partially by the way it proved that even perverts can be total saps -- whining about being hit with flowers, etc. -- and this album has almost as many risible non sequiturs as that did: the heroine gets up from a beating and says that it’s ‘no fun... a bum trip,’ and the protagonist’s plaints draw a laugh just when they’re most spiteful.” – Lester Bangs, Creem magazine, December 1973

But the interview began to become something more than a gripe fest about halfway through, as Wilner turned to questions that had been submitted by fans on the Web. Reed loosened up and began to reflect on his accomplishments, undercutting any hints of self-importance with the perfect old-school timing of a Borscht Belt comedian.

Here are some of his most noteworthy quotes:

* “What we were doing with the Velvet Underground was for me, as someone very aware of Leonard Cohen and Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, I saw an opportunity to write thematically about things no one else was even going near… human relationships and difficulties with situations and crime and dope and violence, all in a contemporary idiom. Nobody was doing that.”

* “People always want to know, ‘How do you write a song?’ I don’t know. I’ve wanted to know, too. If I could have done it, I would have had ‘Son of [Walk on the] Wild Side’ and I would own an island in the Caribbean. But I don’t know how to do it or how it works or why it works or what it has to do with anything.”

* “I thought eventually it was the thing of punk rock, punk soul, and it was the people who couldn’t play R&B, who hadn’t grown up in Austin listening to all those great guitar players every minute of every day, who grew up in the city or wherever, and they had that, but they were rock people, very pure – that’s the kind of music I wanted to make with the Velvet Underground. So we had a little fine system: No R&B licks. No blues guitar licks. Because we can’t play them…. We’re going to do this other kind of thing, and it’s going to be city, pure….

“Punk in the old days meant a coward. I meant punk aggressive steel street action. That’s what I meant, and there they were, like a lot of these bands last night. All that young guy stuff? That’s punk. No one did that, and now it exists, and it will forever, because where else are we going to put it? It’s there or jail.”

* “I have a B.A. in dope -- and a PhD in soul.”

* As a well-known devotee of hi-fidelity, if not an audio perfectionist, Reed was asked about MP3s, prompting a long rant about the failings of digital sound. “With MP3s, you have a lot [of music] available to you. The trade-off is it sounds bad…. The technology is taking us backwards. It’s making it easier to make things worse.”

Finally, as things wrapped up, Reed was asked what other musical instruments he wished he could play (saxophone and the MiniMoog Voyager analog synthesizer – “Imagine God showed up and said I will give you 9,000 new sounds. That’s my idea of heaven”); what he is listening to now (Japanese noise rockers Melt-Banana and Brooklyn singer-songwriter Joan as Policewoman) and the advice he’d give young musicians (“Keep the publishing”).

So there you have it, kids. And when Lou Reed speaks, you know you’d better listen.

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Jim DeRogatis

Jim DeRogatis covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via E-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 13, 2008 12:52 PM.

SXSW Dispatch #2: On parties, panels and Yeasayer was the previous entry in this blog.

SXSW Dispatch #4: R.E.M. is back (well, sort of) is the next entry in this blog.

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