Love Lou Reed, or Leave Him

Lou Reed struck me as crochety. He'll probably hate reading that, as well as this headline, given that prior to our talk, 1) I was instructed to refrain from asking any personal questions, and 2) it describes him, not his music. He answered every music-related question I proffered in a world-weary, resigned tone, shooting them down with remarks such as “Does this have something to do with Metal Machine Music? Or is this a psychology test?” or “That's such a music-journalist question,” as if he had to suffer stupid journalists on a daily basis.

But the fact is Lou Reed is a difficult interview. Lester Bangs said it first and best: Reed manages “to live up to his reputation for making interviewers uncomfortable. He fixes you with that rusty bug eye, he creaks and croaks and lies in your face, and you're helpless.”

Be that as it may, people aren't going to attend his appearance at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on Friday to listen to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's music. They're going to listen to the man who spoke-sang about prostitutes, transexuals and heroin in gritty New York streets have a conversation with music producer Bob Ezrin, who has worked with Alice Cooper, Kiss and U2. For all we know, the ex-Velvet Underground front man will even talk to Ezrin about their own collaboration: Reed's much-maligned solo album from 1973, Berlin. There's no way we can predict any of that, though, because when I asked about Berlin, Reed responded with another dead end: “I'll save that for the conversation with Ezrin.”

I pressed on; in 1973, Rolling Stone magazine called Berlin a “disaster,” and past interviews have quoted Reed saying he's sick of trying to vindicate it. “I never said that,” Reed says now.

I read that Reed hates looking back on what's been done before, but he lets a personal tidbit slide: “Every once in a while, with someone I respect, I do sit down and talk about things that have been accomplished.”

Any mention of Metal Machine Trio, however, and Reed perks up. The project—a takeoff from Reed's 1975 experimental-noise album Metal Machine Music—is a collaboration with sound artists Ulrich Krieger (also a CalArts professor) and Sarth Calhoun. Years ago, while living in Germany, Krieger was so inspired by Reed's album—composed only of layered electric guitars and an amplifier—that he asked for permission to create an orchestral arrangement of the set. “I was astonished at how brilliant Ulrich was,” Reed says. “It was wonderful to have someone understand [Metal Machine Music] to the point they could notate and arrange it.”

For Krieger, Metal Machine Music was inspiring because it brought together the sonic richness of orchestral music and spontaneous approach of free jazz—and yet, it was still rock. “It combined the three worlds I was really interested in at the time,” he says. “And I always heard it as an orchestral piece on guitars.”

Eventually, Reed and Krieger decided to collaborate with Calhoun. Their latest collaboration, Metal Machine Trio: The Creation of the Universe, will be showcased at Cal State Long Beach, starting this weekend and continuing through April 15. It's not Metal Machine Music anymore—far from it. “This is an ongoing improvised idea,” Reed says. “We're creating new [songs] using different electronics and different sounds.”

Maybe it's age, or that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tag, but so far Metal Machine Trio's reception is way warmer than the album that inspired it. “Noise rock isn't a far-out thing these days,” Reed says.

And then there's that idea of freedom: “[Metal Machine Trio: The Creation of the Universe] is a great thing to meditate to; it doesn't have a steady rhythm. There are no lyrics to get in the way and make you think, 'Oh, it's about baseball; it's about vampires.' . . . It's there to free up your way of listening.”

And free from journalist-y questions, as well.


This article appeared in print as “Lou Reed Is a Bitch to Interview: But you know what? He's Lou Reed, so I got over it.”

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