THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art—Chapter 1: Lou Reed
By Dan Ouellette
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES is the work-in-progress book on Medium that continues for several weeks with archival articles on rock stars such as Frank Zappa and jazz greats including Wayne Shorter. The writing originally appeared in print magazines and newspapers that are now relegated to the landfill. (See the LANDFILL CHRONICLES preface on Medium.)
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES
CHAPTER 1. LOU REED
Face-to-face conversations on Lou’s latter-day solo studio albums: Ecstasy & The Raven. It will be a four-part LANDFILL CHRONICLES weekly series on Lou from articles published in print from 2000 to 2003. While still a legendary figure at that time, he was not widely covered in this most recent creative journey that he believed resulted in the best work he had ever done.
A native Northeasterner, I spent my writing years in San Francisco and Oakland until moving back East to New York City in 1999 to the realm of Lou’s artistic life.
Beginning to See the Light
On a fall evening in New York in 2001, my wife and I are just about to leave the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since moving to New York from San Francisco a few years earlier, we make it a habit to attend the weekly string-quartet performances held in the mezzanine there each weekend. As we are about to leave one evening, we look downstairs and spot Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed entering.
I had recently interviewed both Lou and Laurie for the San Francisco Chronicle. I ask my wife if she’d like to meet Laurie, who by the time we got downstairs was in the lobby herself. We approach her and she greets us warmly. We talk a little before I ask her where Lou had gone. “After all these years, he was never a member of the Met,” she says. “He’s taking care of that now.” Then Lou returns with a suspicious eye as if two strangers were interloping on his quiet night out. Laurie calmly settles him down and says, “It’s Dan. Remember doing interviews with him?” Lou smiles and says, ”Oh yeah. He’s one of the good ones.”
During the past few decades, I hadn’t been following Lou’s career closely. I had been living in San Francisco, far away from Lou’s deep immersion into New York. That didn’t resonate with me at the time. But my Chronicle assignments to interview him in my new center of gravity reconnects me with the artist I had long admired.
My respect for Lou started in early 1969, when my older brother Dave and I went to Two Guys on Boston Road in Springfield, Mass., to buy our records of the month. By that time, I was listening to underground radio on late-night AM programs like WDRC’s Scene of the Unheard as well as FM stations — whose goldmine the radio industry hadn’t yet discovered — especially WMUA, the college station at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
I had my short list. Even though the new LPs were on sale at $2.97 a pop, I was on a meager budget. One album, not two or three or four. One. I had to make a choice. On the one hand there was the already destined-to-be-a-hit eponymous debut album by Led Zeppelin (released in January) and on the other was the obscure self-titled Velvet Underground LP (released in March).
I had already grown AM-radio fatigued by Led Zep’s “Communication Breakdown,” but was drawn into the mystery of Velvet Underground with its raw new sound (quieter and folksier than the band’s two earlier albums). I liked the sentiment in “Beginning to See the Light” and was thoroughly intrigued by “Murder Mystery,” an epic feast of layers of fast-spoken poetry and sheets of vocals. I took the road less traveled and went with Velvet Underground. While it didn’t knock my socks off right away, soon I swooned.
Interesting fact: While Led Zeppelin broke into the top 10 of Billboard’s charts, Velvet Underground never made it into the top 200.
I stood on the sidelines of the Velvet Underground countercultural phenomenon and then soon after the band’s demise began to peruse Lou’s innovative solo career, especially the desert-island album Transformer (1972). I missed a lot after that but caught glimpses of him ranging from Berlin (1973) to New York (1989). In 1990 I dove back in fully enraptured by Songs for Drella, the tribute to the late Andy Warhol, with Lou reuniting with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale (who had left the band by its third album).
Lou’s Ecstasy: “I’ve been thinking about recording this album for years”
I return into the Lou fold at the end of the millennium when I make the move to relocate from the Bay Area to New York. At that point, I eagerly jump back into the post-Velvet domain again when Lou launched into what turned out to be his second-to-last solo studio CD Ecstasy — his first recording in four years and one of the best of his career. I score a very early advance. I dig in and study his poetry and soundscape. The compelling and richly lyrical Ecstasy showcases Lou writing indelible melodies, crafting the lyrics, fine-tuning the instrumentation and investing his songs with a range of emotion.
As the editor of the now-defunct Schwann Spectrum, I wrote the spring 2000 cover feature on Lou. With the support of his manager, Annie Ohayon, I secure the first of three interviews in his Sister Ray Enterprises office in SoHo. The next conversations take place later in 2000 and again in 2003 for music features in the Chronicle’s Sunday Pink Section.
I make sure that I always come prepared.
For the Spectrum piece — “The Raw Beauty of the Poet’s Dance: Lou Reed Experiences Ecstasy the Hard Way” — we rendezvous at his office on a rainy afternoon. Attired casually in a black T-shirt and dark brown sweater that zips up the front, the trim 57-year-old Reed with short curly brown hair is sitting at his desk. To his right is a heavy, clear-glass ashtray wiped clean of cigarette residue and to his left is a round tin of small, dome-shaped, eucalyptus-flavored jujubes he occasionally pops. Why? “To help me finally shake the smoking habit,” he says. How long has he been nicotine free? Weeks? Months? Years? “Four days,” Lou replies dryly.
We then talk at length about Ecstasy, a raw yet sophisticated 77-minute song cycle where the longing for the transcendence of love is weighed down by mental illness, alienation, ennui, hopelessness, rejection, infidelity. Without a trace of exuberance, Lou expresses how pleased he is with the new disc. “I’ve been thinking about recording this album for years,” he says. “Everything we had we put in there. All my albums have been real attempts to get to that place, but this one really went there, down to the last dot. I wouldn’t change a thing. I really love the songs.”
Good Morning It’s Possum Day: Tour de Force
Two-thirds of the way through Ecstasy, Lou bursts into “Like a Possum,” arguably the most gripping — and clocking in at 18 minutes, unquestionably the longest — song of his storied career. It’s an abrasive yet subtly exclamatory piece — part anguish, part rapture — with the guitar volume cranked up so powerfully loud and the slow drone-like motion so mesmerizing that the murky flow forces you to stay with Lou for the entirety of his journey.
“Good morning, it’s Possum Day/Feel like a possum in every way,” Lou intones after the intense three-minute guitar-grinding instrumental open. The greeting is like a dark wake-up call from a disturbed dream into the grime of New York City’s “holy morning” where used condoms float off the Hudson River shore, girls with pierced tongues do tricks on the gents in stained shirts and a down-on-his-luck lover laments, “I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck.”
Lyrically, the number dwells on similar bleak themes scattered throughout Lou’s portfolio of tunes spanning 35 years: the decadence and perversion of modern urban culture where heartbreak goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of moral trials and tumbles. He likens his character to a possum, the ugliest member of the marsupial family known for its ability to feign sleep or death in the face of danger and also, so it seems, one of the most popular species for rural roadkill.
Yet what sets this song apart from Lou’s earlier work is the uncompromisingly in-your-face sonics that pull you into the drama and won’t let go. It’s a riveting display of guitar emotion befitting the protagonist who, with the instinct of a survivor, remains “calm as an angel” and somehow manages — ”strong and fearless in the outside air” — to be “the only one left standing.”
I tell Lou that I consider “Like a Possum” a tour de force.
“Well, at 18 minutes, it better be worth it,” says the soft-spoken Lou, who is not only one of the most influential artists in rock history but also a gifted songwriter/bandleader who refuses to rest on his laurels. “I’d been wanting to do something like this song for a very long time where you totally get immersed into its core. I just needed the right combination of studio musicians, the right sound and the right lyrics. ‘Possum’ took us away when we performed it in the studio. And every time we listened to it back, it took us away again.”
Lou also credits a “new guitar gizmo” invented by a friend for the tune’s success. “It’s an unbelievable piece of equipment that makes my guitar sound orchestral,” he says. “It’s thick as if a bunch of instruments are being played. It’s an amazing sound.”
Ecstasy stands as a prime example of rock elevated to a state of art — where care has been taken every step in the creative process to guarantee quality. Lou notes that they even played the album to listeners unfamiliar with the songs to make sure the lyrics could be heard clearly in the mix.
Iconic? “I can’t associate with that.”
With so much contrived sonic candy being pushed into the pop market, Lou offers sustenance by using an organic approach to broaching profound matters of the heart with honesty. It’s not a new songwriting philosophy, but one that helped put him on the map in the ’60s when, bucking the status quo at the time, he penned tunes that bluntly brought up such frowned-upon subjects as transvestitism, hard-core drug use and sexual experimentation.
Lou’s recordings over the years featured artistic triumphs as well as such ill-conceived projects as the electronic music experiment Metal Machine Music (1975). Despite the fluctuation in success, Lou is considered to be a rock icon. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Lou bristles at the icon notion. “I hardly believe I’m in the Hall of Fame,” he says flatly. “But an icon? I can’t associate with that. I’m just clawing at the ground like everybody else trying to get that great sound.”
In Part 2 of this four-part chapter, to be published on Medium next week, we dive deeper into Ecstasy as well as talk about his failures (smoking) and his passion for basketball (going one-on-one with Eddie Vedder).