Music on another level, an interview with Lou Reed

Originally published on January 12, 1992.

Lou Reed's brilliant new album, "Magic and Loss" (Sire), which arrives in stores on Tuesday, confirms that he is one of the few rock survivors of the '60s who is still getting better at what he does.     

What Reed has done over the course of a 25-year career is put the seemingly incompatible worlds of literature and rock on a collision course, and proven they not only can survive but even flourish together.

"It's supposed to get better," says the 47-year-old Reed, oblivious to the fact that many of his peers are long since dead, artistically if not physically. 'It's a continuum. The same person is involved, the same style."

Reed's revolutionary approach to rock emerged fully formed on his first album, "The Velvet Underground and Nico," released in 1967 when he was singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band.

"I was an English major in college (Syracuse University), for chrissakes," he says while sipping coffee in his hotel room on a recent morning in Chicago. "I ought to be able to put together a good lyric at the very least. It would be embarrassing if I couldn't."  

"And I really like rock. It's party stuff, dance stuff and R & B stuff that we all grew up on and loved. But I wanted something that would engage you mentally, that you could listen to on another level. I just thought that would be the perfect thing in rock 'n' roll. That 10 years from now you could still listen to one of my albums because it wasn`t just a party record, but something that would engage you emotionally, intellectually, if not spiritually, on the level that a novel can.

"And because you also have music going on, you could do something that no other form could do, especially if someone is listening on headphones. You could really get their attention, tell `em anything, do it any way, really take them someplace. You`re joining the voice in their head with your voice-there's no one else there.

"It's a really interesting situation that doesn't exist anywhere else, not even in movies. Now they have cassettes with authors reading the novel, with little sound effects and some music in the background. They're scratching at the door. Next they`ll come up with the idea of what I`ve been doing all along."    

The night before, Reed had performed at the Goodman Theatre without his guitar or a band to back him up. He had committed what, for most rock performers, would be the equivalent of artistic suicide: reading from a newly published book of his collected lyrics. 

Reed, however, was accorded a standing ovation, and why not? Except for Bob Dylan, no songwriter has taken the rock lyric so far beyond the realm of hot girls, hot rods, cool surf and cold beers.

From his first album with the Velvets onward, Reed has shown a decided preference for subjects and characters-death, drugs, transvestites, pimps, prostitutes-that are about as welcome in pop music as the Black Death was in Medieval Europe. While Dylan pushed the rock lyric toward the surreal in the mid-'60s, Reed immersed it in the real by chronicling life in the dark, vile underbelly of his native New York City.

Among the lyrics Reed read from "Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed" (Hyperion, $18.95) during his Chicago appearance was "Heroin," a 1967 song so shocking for its time that it all but destroyed the Velvet Underground`s career just as it was beginning.

"I wrote this song in college," Reed said by way of introduction. "What do you think I was doing?... For 10 points..."

The listeners tittered nervously. Was he putting us on? Is this supposed to be a joke? How can anyone joke about heroin?    

Reed's deliberate, deadpan reading made it clear that it was anything but a laughing matter. Instead, the decades-old song still seemed scary, forbidding. 

"Heroin" is neither a sensational account of an overdose nor a celebration of getting high, but a vivid first-person narrative about a junkie's feelings of terror, power and confusion. It neither condones nor condemns, and is all the more chilling for its refusal to judge the drug or the user. Like the novels of William Burroughs and Nelson Algren before him, Reed's songs grant his collection of social misfits a measure of dignity even as their suffering and squalor are magnified.     

Frequently, the line between songwriter and subject becomes blurred, which only makes Reed's dark urban tales from the Velvet's days-"I`m Waiting for the Man," "Black Angel's Death Song," "Venus in Furs," "Chelsea Girls"-resonate more deeply. Later songs addressed drug and alcohol addictions, debilitating familial relationships and the violent breakup of a marriage.     

"I don't think I`ve backed away from any subject," Reed says. "Though I look back at some of it and say, 'Whoa!' I try to play fair. If I write that way about you, then when it comes to me, I have to write that way, too. That`s one of Lou's little rules. I've gotta play fair. I can't make myself come out the hero: 'You're all bad. Me, I'm cool.' Across the board, everybody has their bad day or their weakness. Nobody's perfect. We all know that. So it`s no big deal for me to say I`m not perfect by any stretch."    

But it is a big deal to lay bare those emotions on a pop record. Only a handful of performers have dared do it so consistently.

CHICAGO

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