The Scary Genius That Was Lou Reed

Lou Reed

Lou Reed, who is reported by Rolling Stone to have died aged 71, was the most terrifying rock star I have ever interviewed. Partly it was his look that was so unsettling: all those amphetamines in his rock n roll years had taken their toll. His sunken cheeks, intense staring eyes and perpetually macerating jaw gave him the look of a malevolent praying mantis in a poodle fright wig. Partly it was because he took especial delight in giving the journalists who came to see him as hard a time as possible especially if, as I was, they were young, nervous and clearly out of their depth.

Before the interview I’d asked Tony Parsons to give me a steer on what I should be asking him. Parsons said the key thing was the quote someone said about how in the early days The Velvet Underground had only sold 30,000 records but that everyone who had bought them had gone off and formed a band.

The reason it’s quoted so often is because it’s almost true and certainly apposite. Listen to the dark, discordant sound of The Velvet Underground & Nico now and it seems so much fresher, less obviously dated than, say, Love’s Forever Changes or The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper or Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of the Dawn even though they were all released in the same year 1967. There’s a reason for that. The Velvets, being from New York rather than the then fashionable West Coast,  were cussedly setting themselves up as the antithesis of the namby-pamby, long-haired peace and love types of the psychedelic era. They were the original garage rock band the precursors of punk, grunge, and, more recently of White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys.

Anyway, Reed had been asked this question about a billion times and certainly wasn’t going to indulge this “tad” journalist, as he called me, by trotting out some pat answer. “Who said that?” he said, fixing me with that mantis stare rendered all the more unsettling by his metal framed oblong specs.

“Ummm. Errr.” I said, blushing.

“Who said that?” he said, accusingly. He wasn’t going to let this one lie.

“Er. Was it you?” I hazarded. (Actually it was Brian Eno. Yeah, it’s easy to check these things now but in those days there was no internet and you were only as good as the cuts you could get from the newspaper library)

He did warm up a bit later, actually to the point of asking me what I thought his best song was. I named his bleakest and most depressing. The one from Street Hassle about trying to get rid of the body of someone who’s just O-Ded in your flat. “Hey that ****’s not breathing..” it begins. This seemed to cheer him up immensely. I liked him very much.

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