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“I don’t even know you. But I’ll get you while you’re sleeping.”
There’s a sociopathic glint in Lou Reed’s eye as he leans over a desk strewn with hotel stationary and fixes me in his sights.
“I’m in your house,” he continues. “You don’t believe me? Here. Call your house.” Then he motions towards the phone, sleeping in its cradle like something you really don’t want to rouse, pushes his chair away from the desk and throws his head back, the deeply lined features creasing into a grin.
No, we’re not in the middle of some particularly ugly face-off. Lou hasn’t suddenly reverted to his once legendary status as the most cantankerous interviewee in the world. Rather, he’s just spotted the ‘Lost Highway’ record label logo on this reporter’s t-shirt and has been moved to recite chunks of dialogue from the 1997 David Lynch film of the same name.
Lou’s in jovial form today – maybe because his significant other Laurie Anderson is also in town for her ‘Happiness’ show, maybe because his schedule is slack enough to facilitate checking out the Book of Kells and taking lunch in Roly’s Bistro. Anyway, here he sits in his Four Seasons hotel room in Ballsbridge like some ravaged Berkeley professor; sharp, funny, diminutive and well preserved for a 61-year-old with a pharmaceutical track record that’d scare the pants off Doctor Benway. Sure, history has writ its sonnets large in that craggy countenance, but apart from the bulge of pot belly straining against his offensively loud shirt, the man looks as fit as his devotion to Tai Chi would suggest.
At the point you join us, we’ve been talking mostly about Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of Lou’s last album, itself an expansion on the Robert Wilson directed POE-try project staged at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg a few years ago. By a quirky turn of events, our meeting has been set up by BMG, who are putting out the 31-track Reed retrospective ‘NYC Man,’ but Lou’s people have made it known that all interviewers must have heard ‘The Raven’ (released under the Reprise/Warners umbrella) or he’ll call the summit to a halt.
“You know who Julian Schnabel is of course,” Lou says, indicating the artist and director’s immaculate design of the deluxe two-CD version of ‘The Raven.’ Appreciate that package, ’cos there are very few – it’s very, very beautiful, and very hard to get.”
Appreciate it? I’m just happy to have made it this far. Reed famously likes to be in control of the interviewing process, and if the trade-off in any audience with the man means checking your agenda at the door, well, I can think of worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.
“Which is the one with Robert Blake?” Lou asks, returning to Lynch-nerd mode. “Lost Highway? That’s an incredible movie.”
And then he spouts the afore-quoted dialogue, before ruminating on the director’s mastery of the fear factor, the skin-crawling impact of scenes like the one in which Robert Blake claims the power of bi-location.
“The simplest devices can scare the shit out of you,” Lou reckons. “That one, or (the one where) you open the door and there’s a videotape. You play the videotape and it’s showing your house, inside. See, that is scary. That’s like, hello? Push some real buttons there. The thing is, all of this stuff is possible. He’s just running around having a field day pushing the buttons that operate that section (of your mind). Because the minute it’s conceivable . . . what everybody’s bad dream is, just as I’m going to sleep, I’m murdered in my sleep. Why? No good reason – the guy doesn’t like the way your eye looks. That’s the reason. ‘I hate your eye.’”
So what did Lou make of ‘Mulholland Drive?’
“’Mulholland Drive’ only works in a movie theatre. If you buy the DVD and watch it at home it’s horrible. The first time I saw it, it went into my top three movies immediately. When she (Rebekah Del Rio) came out to sing the Orbison song in Spanish, ‘Crying’ . . . oh my god! See, look, I’m not fulla shit; I get goose bumps from these things (Lou shows me his forearm, which is indeed coming up in gooseflesh), that’s how I tell a mix is good. I’m not operating by my brain; I operate on that level (points to his arm). And the fact that he’s now done it in a second movie (Lynch also used Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in ‘Blue Velvet’) . . . you just fall over dead.”
A lot of people fall over dead on ‘The Raven.’ A lot of people lose their marbles too – it might well have been titled ‘The Rave-on,’ given that Lou’s reinterpretations of the works of Edgar A.P. accentuate a psychodramatic bent that was way ahead of its time.
“Everything leads to Poe,” Allen Ginsberg once told producer Hal Willner, easily the man most qualified to helm ‘The Raven,’ having overseen both Lou’s last album ‘Ecstasy’ and the superlative 1997 Poe tribute ‘Closed On Account Of Rabies.’ And if David Lynch is one of the many sons of Poe, then Poe himself was a sort of literary Roy Orbison, creating operatic works out of a life bedevilled by tragedy.
“Consider what he did,” Lou says, thumping the table for emphasis. “The first detective story. The first science fiction story. And if that’s not enough, I’ve got it with me, I could’ve showed it to you, he’s got this thing called ‘Eureka’ which is a prose poem about the creation of the universe and astrology and planets and the system, and in it he postulates the big bang theory – I’m serious, I swear to you. I found this out through a newspaper article. And he was made fun of at the time. TS Eliot later criticised (him) and said, ‘Poe should stick to writing; he doesn’t know shit about this’ – y’know, creationism and all of that. Then times change, here comes the big bang theory, that everything comes from this explosion from something so small, a sliver.”
Poe’s precognitive instincts are a given, but with its complex systems of sub-clauses and sidebars and qualifiers, his prose does not exactly trip gaily off the tongue like some gothic Doctor Seuss. To get around this, Lou granted himself complete poetic license to rework those writings for ‘The Raven,’ leaving it up to trained actors like Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer to preserve the integrity of the texts in the spoken word sections.
“His use of language, I mean, great American writer,” Reed considers. “The country I hope would get off on ‘The Raven’ the most, understand it the most, would be the Irish, of anybody in the world, here, this country. If this country can’t get off on the language in that record, then there’s no point in doing these things.”
How deeply did Lou research the Poe canon?
“I didn’t read all of it, I read a lot,” he says, “and I’m pulling from a lot of things; anybody who wants to go through anything in there, they’ll see. It’s not verbatim by any stretch, and ‘The Raven’ in particular is not verbatim. One of the actors, I forget who it was, said to me, ‘Did Poe say ‘Sweaty, arrogant, dickless liar?’ I said, ‘Nooooo – Poe didn’t say that, Lou said that!’ Trying to make it understandable and translate, y’know, he’s got such a huge vocabulary and I was going over these really archaic words that are very beautiful, very specific, but I can’t even imagine who would know what he meant then, more so now.
“And the position that I took was that most of the male protagonists in Poe, if not all, are the same person, whatever name they’re under. And conversely the female character is usually the same. So, one way to do it, I was gonna have old Poe talking to young Poe, saying, ‘You could’ve.’ Or as in ‘(The Fall Of The House Of ) Usher’: ‘If you had, she’d be alive, but you didn’t, now she’s dead. Nothing you can do is gonna change that.’ Which leads into ‘The Raven’. Think of it: ‘The Raven’ is Usher; it’s the same thing. ‘She’s gone. Nevermore. Out of your life, no matter what, not if you stand on your head, not if you took every drug in the world, there is nutten, you fucked it up, serious, This is real life, this is not kidding around, gone, out, over, no matter what you do, that’s it.’ And he hallucinates, and the house is on fire – his psyche – and in ‘The Raven’, (he’s) just being tortured. You know, I have him sitting there smoking crack, having scotch, smoking cigarettes, and it’s like, ‘What’s that noise?!’ Now everybody – well, maybe not everybody knows – but who wouldn’t understand what it’s like?”
Yeah, well, paranoia’s a universal language, I suggest.
“Poe is a universal language,” Lou retorts. “The characters running around in Poe, they’re always getting away with something, they did something, something frowned-upon, let’s put it that way. They stole something, they poisoned somebody, they killed someone, they stabbed somebody. They lied. Anything. It’s like ‘Colombo,’ they’re out the door and (they) suddenly stop and fuck it up. On purpose. Or fuck it up for reasons that are incredibly human but psychologically fascinating, and Poe is the master if that. And I’m convinced, out of Poe comes Burroughs, out of Poe comes Selby, all those people in a direct line.”
Baudelaire certainly loved him . . .
“Translated him. And championed him. Sure. Why wouldn’t he?”
At this point, having established just why Poe fascinates Lou so, I make to ask him one of the other questions on my list, but he point blank ignores my interjection and is off again, synapses firing, pondering the subject of old Edgar’s appearance.
“You know, there’s only one or two pictures of Poe,” he says, “that’s it. “You know that kind of weird one where it’s like, what kind of a head is that? What kind of angle did this photographer take him at? Poor Poe – in and out: ‘Edgar, sorry. You don’t have any more money? We’ll have one where you’re forehead is like – you look disproportionate. But you are disproportionate! Why don’t you write something more positive!’”
Which is something they’ve been saying to Lou Reed since the dawn of the Velvet Underground, an assembly of unsavoury characters who looked – and sounded – like the house band from ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’. ‘The Raven’ is far from Lou’s most coherent or focused record, but it is the kind of mad-as-arseholes grand guignol enterprise we see all too little of these days. Plus, it works as a sort of encapsulated anthology of the many styles Reed has attempted over the years.
“If you want a map . . .” Lou chuckles. “It’s kind of funny, I thought of that too, I said, ‘Oh my god, just look at this – there’s the highway, there’s the left turn, there’s the right turn, it’s all over the place.’ I put things in at the end like ‘Guardian Angel’ and ‘Who Am I’ which go off in a more positive direction than Poe. Poe would not have written ‘Guardian Angel’.”
But he could’ve written ‘The Gift’ or ‘Harry’s Circumcision’. And separated by century or more, the ‘Berlin’ standard ‘The Bed’ and Poe’s ‘House Of Usher’ get along like (excuse the metaphor) a house on fire. Then there’s the strangely strange reworking of ‘Perfect Day’ sung boy-castrato style by an alien androgyne by the name of Antony. Elsewhere, Bowie and the McGarrigles cameo on ‘Hop Frog’ and ‘Balloon’ respectively, two tunes that sound like they were hatched in the back of Max’s, while ‘I Wanna Know (The Pit And The Pendulum)’ introduces the Blind Boys Of Alabama to the existential agonies of ‘Magic And Loss.’
Hal Willner’s done a remarkable job of synthesizing all these musical and theatrical elements into one sprawling epic that seems to pay equal tribute to Roger Corman’s 60s film adaptations of Poe and the producer’s own love of the Firesign Theatre and the Beats.
There’s even a return to the industrial brainstorms of ‘Metal Machine Music,’ often considered (a) an avant garde masterpiece that predated Einzturzende Neubauten and Test Department by almost a decade, or (b) one of the most unlistenable records of all time. The new piece is entitled ‘Fire Music’, and played at child-scaring volume, is one of the most intense aural experiences you’ll have this year.
“If you ever hear it on good speakers, it’s awe inspiring,” Lou says with characteristic humility. “I’ve been trying to write a sequel to ‘Metal Machine Music’ for a very long time and be able to take up where I left off. They’re both in real time you know. When I stop is when it stops.”
He’s not kidding. It stops like a car hitting a wall.
“Yeah. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
But it’s impossible to listen to ‘Fire Music’ without considering it was recorded on September 14th, 2001, when New York was on total Armagideon time.
“Yeah, when I recorded it, it was the 14th, I was looking out the window, so when people say, ‘What do you think of September 11th?’ I say, ‘Check out ‘Fire Music’. You know, ‘Metal Machine Music’ was re-released (for) the 25th anniversary, I remastered it. But Zeitkratzer, an avant garde orchestra in Germany, said, ‘Listen, we did a transcription of ‘Metal Machine,’ we can play it.’ I said, ‘No you can’t.’ And they said, ‘Let us send you a sample’ and they did and they could. Not using electronics, these guys are into harmonics and they just figured it out. And I know that record, I made that record ’cos I loved it, not to do something negative. So I flew into Germany and played with them in the Berlin Opera Hall, ‘Metal Machine’ live, it’s amazing, there’s a tape of it too.”
Wasn’t that album the proverbial big in Japan?
“Oh yeah. In Japan, the president of the record company liked it! This is one of the strangest things I ever had happen to me. In the United States they said my career was over, finished, ‘You’re done, you’ll never record again.’ I go to Japan, I’m getting off the plane and they’re playing ‘Metal Machine Music,’ at the airport, in the lounge. I got off the plane and I heard, ‘Raaaaaarrrrr’ and I said, ‘Unbelievable. So cool.’” It makes sense when you consider Japanese films like ‘Tetsuo – The Iron Man.’ Has Lou seen that?
“Oh sure, I and II. Of course it makes sense, but it also makes sense if you listen to Ornette (Coleman)’s ‘Free Jazz’ improvisation. My idea was so simple; it’s even simpler than that. I like guitar, I like melodies, I like feedback in particular, but I didn’t want to be constrained by a song structure and I didn’t want to have to keep a steady tempo and I didn’t want to have to play in any one key. I wanted to make music that was long enough that you could get into it, cos I wanted to get into it, not just stop in three minutes. And I certainly felt it was time for part two, and ‘Fire Music’ was a foray into that.”
Speaking of Ornette Coleman, the free jazz legend guests on ‘Guilty’ from ‘The Raven,’ not Lou’s strongest song, but for him one of the highlights of sessions.
“Willner and I actually cried when he played,” he recalls. “He did this track once. And I went out and I said, ‘Look, you don’t have to do anything else, that’s fine, that’s your first one, that’s it.’ He said, ‘Nooo!’ then he outlined how he was doing six or seven of them. First with the guitar, then with the other rhythm guitar, then the bass, then with the drum, then with the vocalist, and then he was gonna do one overall one.”
Coleman featured heavily on the soundtrack to David Cronenberg’s adaptation of ‘Naked Lunch,’ and listening to his white-hot extrapolations brings to mind Norman Mailer discussing Burroughs’ masterpiece in his collection ‘Cannibals And Christians:’
“Once, years ago in Chicago, I was coming down with a bad cold,” Mailer wrote. “By accident, a friend took me to hear a jazz musician named Sun Ra who played ‘space music’. The music was a little like Ornette Coleman, but further out, outer space music, close to the EEE of an electric drill at the centre of a harsh trumpet. My cold cleared up in five minutes. I swear it. The anger of the sound penetrated into some sprung up rage which was burning fuel for the cold. Burroughs’ pages have the same medicine. If a hundred patients on terminal cancer read ‘Naked Lunch,’ one or two might find remission. Bet money on that. For Burroughs is the surgeon of the novel.”
“That’s very, very funny,” Reed says when I paraphrase Mailer’s passage. “We had other saxophonists come in before we got to Ornette, and it’s supposed to be a bad key for horn players – ask around – (but) for Ornette it was . . . nothing. Nothing. He’s so facile. The minute he plays, it’s him, it’s Ornette-land, and you can’t say, ‘Oh, I like this section of this take and this section of this’, you can’t do that with him because he has long thoughts, it doesn’t work.
“Y’know, the minute he showed up he said, ‘I forgot to bring the right reed. This reed I have won’t sound so good.’ So I said, ‘That’s okay, we’ll send someone out for it. You just play and eventually we’ll get the other one here.’ And there he is – he forgot to bring the reed with him. I can identify with that. You know what I mean?”
He grins a wry grin and considers the vagaries of not just bringing the wrong reed, but being the wrong Reed:
“Nothin’ new there. Showed up on the wrong day at the wrong place; done it myself a number of times.”
Then he shakes my hand, inscribes Julian Schnabel’s exquisite packaging and bids me a good afternoon.
Reproduced with permission
One of Ireland’s foremost music and pop culture writers, Peter Murphy (b. 1968, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford) got a taste for journalism at the age of 17 when he won first place in an EU sponsored competition for young essayists. After ten days of being wined, dined and chauffeured around Europe on someone else’s tab, the only proviso being that he file a report at the end of it, he figured this was the way to live. But first, he had to get the rock ‘n’ roll bug out of his system, and spent most of the next decade playing drums with a succession of bands. He quit music to become a journalist in 1996, quickly establishing himself as a senior contributor to Hot Press. Since then he has written over 30 cover stories for the magazine, accumulating a portfolio of interviews that includes Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Willie Nelson, Radiohead, Public Enemy, Shane MacGowan, George Clinton, Sonic Youth, Television, Henry Rollins, PJ Harvey, Richard Hell, David Johansen, Warren Zevon, Wim Wenders, Iain Banks, Will Self, William Gibson, Billy Bob Thornton, FW De Klerk and many others. His work has also appeared in the Bloodaxe Books anthology Dublines, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) plus international publications such as Rolling Stone (Australia) and Request (US). Miscellaneous assignments include writing the programme notes for jazz legend Miles Davis’ art exhibition hosted by the Davis Gallery in Dublin (2000), collaborations with cult author JT LeRoy for the American magazine Razor (2002), and co-producing Revelations, a two-hour radio documentary about The Frames (2003). He is frequently employed as a rent-a-mouth by the BBC and Irish national radio and television, is a contributor to the online archive Rocksbackpages.com and more recently gave a talk entitled Nocturnal Emissions at the ReJoyce symposium in the National College of Ireland, tracing the influence of James Joyce’s writings on Irish music. He has also been invited to contribute an essay to the liner notes of the 2004 remastered edition of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, and is currently writing his first novel.
|STARK RAVEN MAD
Lou Reed Gets Poe-Faced
Interview by Peter Murphy
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