From Rolling Stone:
On the anniversary of the Velvet Underground icon’s death, a never-before-published Q&A from 1989
“There’s a bit of magic in everything,” Lou Reed once sang, “and then some loss to even things out.” Reed died exactly one year ago today at the age of 71, and although his loss will never even things out, it is an appropriate day to celebrate his enduring creative spirit and the undying magic of his inspiring musical and poetic legacy. In commemoration of the first anniversary of his death, we are presenting for the first time the complete version of a remarkable interview that Lou Reed did with contributing editor Jonathan Cott early in 1989 in New York City.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of rock & roll’s most audacious and electrifying recordings. Released in 1989 and simply titled New York, Lou Reed’s fifteenth solo album unflinchingly depicted with savage indignation and the fervency of a biblical prophet an AIDS-stricken city in which friends were continually “disappearing” – a desolation row of pestilential welfare hotels; of battered wives, crack dealers, TV bigots, racist preachers and venal politicians; of kids selling plastic roses for a buck by the Lincoln Tunnel; of a Hudson River deluged with garbage; and of bloody vials washing up on city beaches. In Reed’s eyes, these were not the days of miracle and wonder, and in New York‘s “There Is No Time” he declared, “This is no time for celebration/This is no time for shaking hands/This is no time for backslapping/This is no time for marching bands.”
“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” Leonard Cohen had announced in his album I’m Your Man. Reed scuttled and reversed that battle plan. In his 1973 album Berlin he first composed a song cycle that described and explored not a place but rather a state of mind – an inner world of private desperation as reflected in the self-destructive lives of a couple named Caroline and Jim. Sixteen years later on New York he took on Manhattan – and New York City’s other boroughs as well – in another song cycle that shifted its perspective in order to now describe and explore an outer world of public squalor and social despair.
I interviewed Lou Reed in New York’s Warner Bros. offices in early 1989. He was wearing jeans, boots, a black T-shirt, a casual gray Italian leather jacket and a Rolex watch. “It’s one of life’s little pleasures,” he told me with a laugh, adding, “it’ll last forever.” As will his words and music.
Your new album New York depicts a city that seems to be profoundly and hopelessly sick.
In my song “Endless Cycle” I say: “The bias of the father runs on through the son/and leaves him bothered and bewildered. . .The sickness of the mother runs on through the girl/leaving her small and helpless.” There are such terrible images running through the album, like in “Xmas in February,” the song about the abandoned, unemployed Vietnam vet, “the guy on the street with the sign that reads/’Please help send this vet home’/But he is home.” But he is home! I listen to that and think, Oh my God, what have I done? The images just come at you, and some of them were very hard for me to deal with.
You know, a hundred years ago another New York poet, Walt Whitman, had something quite different to say about the city. He wrote, “Mannahatta! How fit a name for America’s great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! How aboriginal! How it seems to rise with tall spires, glistening in sunshine, with such New World atmosphere, vista, and action!. . .A million people – manners free and superb – open voices – hospitality.”
He should really see it now! Every day when I go outside I see the result of the emptying of the mental hospitals, of not having enough halfway houses, of having all kinds of services cut, of backing off on funding for schools and for food for kids, of holding out on just about anything. . .and here we are. You read me Walt Whitman, so let me read you a few lines from my song “Romeo Had Juliette”: “I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag/with Latin written on it that says/’It’s hard to give a shit these days’/Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson what a shock/they wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome.” And I’m trying to make you feel the situation we’re in – feel what it’s like – and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. But what did Alfred Hitchcock say? “It’s only a movie.”
The tone of your song is sure different from the old Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan” with its lines like, “The great big city’s a wondrous toy/Just made for a girl and boy/We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.”
[Laughing] Yeah, that kind of tacky lyric is so hilarious that it was fun to try to reinvent it. But on the other hand I also have to say that on my last album [Mistrial] I had a song that I thought was really beautiful called “Tell It to Your Heart,” and I thought it was a really nice paean to Manhattan. [“Tell it to your heart, please don’t be afraid/New York City lovers, tell it to your heart”] There’s a lovely image of my looking out across the river and seeing the neon Coca-Cola sign.
In 1929 the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia-Lorca spent a year in New York City, and in his book Poet in New York he described how he would walk around the city and see “crowds stagger sleeplessly through the boroughs as if they had just escaped a shipwreck of blood.” And like you he also tried to make people be aware of and feel the social despair and awfulness of the life he saw around him, writing, “I denounce everyone/who ignores the other half/the half that can’t be redeemed/who lift their mountains of cement/where the hearts beat/inside forgotten little animals/and where all of us will fall/in the last feast of pneumatic drills/I spit in all your faces.” This really sounds a lot like some of your songs on New York.
That’s great! That’s wonderful! You’re going to quote Lorca to me, well, I love it. Can I read back to you for a minute? In my song “Dirty Boulevard,” it says: “Give me your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death/and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.” Lorca, of course, was writing during the first year of the Depression, and I think that today we’re heading toward another one. I also feel that the people who run things have knowledgeably and intentionally fucked the people who can’t possibly defend themselves – the aged, the poor, the young, the old, women. Lorca was livid about the situation, and so am I.
What about the artists?
The artists can fend for themselves. I’m talking about a six-year-old kid who can’t defend himself. And let’s see: Let’s take abortion back to the Supreme Court and take that away so that women can go play with coat hangers and get really fucked up. And of course what happens here will spread. How many people have to drop dead from AIDS? Why do they think that’s not going to spread? Do they have to wait until AIDS works its way to the suburbs before the great middle class rises up and says, Ohhh! Well, everybody should be saying Ohhh! right now. These are very scary and treacherous times even though people seem to think that everything’s OK. But we’re right in the middle of it. Why do you think people are taking crack? And where do you think the crime comes from? It’s a hopeless, dead-end situation, and you’ve got to give to people, you can’t just sit there saying things are good for us. That’s an extraordinarily easy thing to say. That’s no big thing, anybody can go outside and say that.
As Lorca wrote: “The other half hears me, devouring, pissing, flying in their purity.”
Yeah, there’s this vicious non-caring or, in some cases, a cavalier non-caring under the guise of something else. It’s a complete disregard for the other guy or woman or child, and a complete rejection of any kind of humanity and an unrelieved viciousness for laughs. As Mike [Rathke] said when we were listening to the record one day, “That’s what eight years of rape does to you.”
Eight years of Ronald Reagan.
It really is the eight years of Reagan. And as I said, I’m trying to make you feel the situation we’re in. And that’s what this album is all about.
In your song “Spit It Out,” which was on your 1986 album Mistrial, you say that if there’s a rage inside you or if you get so angry that you can’t think or speak, you should “spit it out/and tell them where they can put it.” And on your new song “There Is No Time” you sing: “This is no time to Swallow Anger/This is no time to ignore hate.”
Yeah, I’m furious.
But it’s been said that you can’t really eliminate pain through anger because it’s like trying to eat yourself from the inside out, and that when you’ve eaten yourself, the eater remains and he must be eaten as well. So you always remain unsatisfied.
Look, I’m not unaware of other points of view. It’s very depressing in some ways because I’m one of those people who are doomed to continuously see the other person’s point of view. I can see why he or she is right, I can see why I could be seen as being wrong. And then there’s even a third, a fourth, a fifth point of view, and on and on. And you can just end up davening. But there are some points of view I really have, and I think that New York is a legitimate channel for them.
With regard to different points of view, I hope that you won’t mind my saying that I did take issue with one of your songs, “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” in which I thought that you were criticizing Jesse Jackson a bit unfairly.
Well, isn’t it nice in a rock & roll song to be able to give my position on something? I’m not trying to just get a rise out of somebody, but that’s how I feel and I’m not kidding around, and you can feel the other way, that’s your business, but we could spend the rest of our interview just debating this.
Maybe we should wait to do that till the next time around.
And of course we’re allowed to disagree.
How long did it take you to write the songs on New York?
When I sat down to write the album, I didn’t know that this was what it was going to be about. I started writing, and I’m watching what’s happening, and I would write more, and I said to myself, “I think I can detect a trend, is this what I really want to write about because it seems to be.” So that’s where it wanted to go, and I only followed.
I spent almost three months writing those words. I put my whole weight on it, and I tried to find a way to surround the words properly, to surround them with the perfect setting for the jewels, so to speak, and to get the rhythm of the words working in the right way against the beat, and then get the nuances in the vocal so that listeners could hear the words – that was the raison d’être for this album. The lyrics should sound really simple and with a really easy flow to them, but it took a lot of rewrites to get it to that point.
How much rewriting did you do?
A lot. Rewriting really makes you focus. Haggling for weeks over a word. Just focusing. I tried all the vocals out before I ever went in the studio, and I’ve gotten pretty good at this, so that if I hear it in my head I ought to be able to sing it. But when we tried it out in the studio, sometimes I couldn’t quite get it right because, as I said, there’s so much rhythm going on in the words that is supposed to be working against the beat, and I could hear it clear as a bell in my mind but I couldn’t always execute it. But whenever I found that I couldn’t do it I didn’t start tearing my lyric apart because I knew it was OK, I just knew that it was me who couldn’t get into it, so we would keep at it until I did it right. It took hours sometimes, and it was maddening because I got so caught up trying to do it right that I’d lose the feel and the meaning of the words.
In the 1950s, some poets were reciting poetry to jazz, but for the most part I don’t think it worked very well because it often sounded too self-conscious and arty.
That’s funny, you’re the second person to make that comparison to what I was trying to do with my album. And I think it does try to do something like that but I hope it does a lot more because it should be rock & roll, and New York is definitely a “quote” rock & roll record, but it’s my vision of what a rock & roll record can be. It doesn’t have to be a 24-hours-below-the-belt type of experience all the time, though you should certainly be able to tap your foot to it and still follow it.
If the almost hilarious ferocity of the lyrics don’t stop you dead in your tracks, I think that you could probably dance to your song “Hold On” with its Bo Diddley beat and your ecstatic guitar riff.
Yeah, that’s one where the initial part of the song wasn’t outstanding, but through the wonders of playing together, we stumbled on this very nice lick, and the really heavy-duty overdrive – the overloading of the amp – really takes your head off.
What kind of rock & roll have you been listening to recently?
I don’t find that much to listen to that works for me at the moment, but every once in a while I hear a song that just lays me out. Bob Dylan’s recent album [Down in the Groove] has a song on it that really killed me. It’s called “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street),” and in just that small amount of words the image is so devastating. I love stuff like that, and I try to fill my lyrics with things that are that immediate. It comes from being a fan of Raymond Chandler, like his line, “That blonde was as attractive as a split lip.” It’s the visualization and the simplicity of the words. You say, “Oh my God, how do you do that?”
You have a lot of devastating images and words in New York. How do you think people will respond to them?
I just can’t get involved with people telling me, Well, if you use this language you won’t get on the radio and you won’t get it on the Bible Belt, blah, blah, blah. You know, what’s interesting about my situation is that unlike musicians like Clapton, Winwood and so on, I’ve never gotten popular. I’m what they call a cult figure, and that’s about where it is. Except for “Walk on the Wild Side,” which was a fluke. I don’t have any overwhelming popularity, and I’m certainly not what you’d call a household word. I don’t sell that many records, so there can’t be so many people out there with an image of me. And I’ve been around so long that in any case an image must be kind of boring by now.
To your audience or to you?
To anyone. I mean, at this point what possible use could it be? I remember a reporter who once called me up and asked me all about my supposed “shocking” image. And I said to him, “Oh, come on, please, you’re so parochial! Give us all a break.” I mean, there’s nothing shocking about “Wild Side” or any of my other songs. If you compare them with the writings of Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, none of my songs would be considered shocking. But it’s just that this material is in rock & roll – so it’s that rock journalist’s problem not mine. And you know, I never thought that songs like “Heroin” or “Street Hassle” were pro-drug songs.
Some people think that in a way this tradition all began with Arthur Rimbaud’s notion of the “reasoned derangement of all the senses.”
Look, I’m 46 years old now and I can’t be bothered with that kind of stuff. And if I’m less concerned right now with deranging all the senses, as you were calling it, let’s just say that I might call it just growing up.
It sounds pretentious to say this, but I’m writing for an educated or self-educated person who has reached a certain level. I’m not aiming New York for 14-year-olds. See, I don’t sell many records, so I know that the people who do buy them really want to hear them. And in my liner notes I say: there are 14 songs and the album is 58 minutes, so try to listen to it the first time from the beginning to the end because it was written, God forbid, around a theme, and the theme is running through it in a very specific order and is very tightly focused track-by-track, and the effect builds. So of you take one song out of context and put it on one of my other albums, you would get “x” effect, but when you listen to it here, where you have one song right after another coming at you, then you don’t lose the effect of the song that came before, it’s amplified, so that about three-quarters of the way through the album you go, Whoa!
How did you go about recording New York?
Almost all of the songs were done live, and we recorded them at Media Sound in New York in a tiny little room with an old Neve board. In the past, I’ve often had problems coming to grips with the technology in the studio, and it’s taken years for me to learn how to use it as a tool and to get what I want out of it. Like sometimes I’ve wanted “x” out of it and at other times I’ve wanted “y” and often the two conflicted. Especially the conflict between the sound and the voice. Sometimes when I had multitudinous guitar parts I found out in retrospect that instead of expanding the thoughts they canceled each other out.
I mean, when we were recording New York there were instances in the studio when I’d come with yet the fiftieth guitar part and we’d then have to spend time taking things out. I would put down this guitar lick and go, “Ah hah, listen to the tone of this, how do you like that part?” And Fred [Maher] or Mike [Rathke] would say to me, “It’s a great part but unfortunately it just knocked the bass out and it’s stepping all over the other guitar part and you can’t hear either one now.” “But don’t you love it? I’d say [laughing] and they’d say, “We love it but. . .” So the nice thing about our going minimal was that you could then hear the guitars and all the parts and the words and the full breath of the voice. But the dangerous thing about going minimal is that you’d better be good because your voice isn’t going to be layered under tons of things.
You’ve always had a totally identifiable “Lou Reed voice.”
Some people may not like my voice, though I think it has character. But it took me a while to get to the point where I could become a fan of my voice so that I was comfortable with it and could understand how it worked and what it was about and how to hear it, though sometimes I realized that I could hear something in it that the other guy couldn’t. But I didn’t want my records to sound as if the voice was over here while the music seemed to be in the next room over there. And on the other hand, I didn’t want the voice to be buried so that God knows how anyone could figure out the words. I wanted you to be able to hear the words, and it’s taken a long time and a lot of experience in the studio to get it so that it sounds like me. Because I always wanted it to sound like me, and that’s not so easy. Not so easy.
The playwright and actor Sam Shepard recently remarked “the trouble with modern rock & roll is that it’s lost its sense of humor. It’s become so morbidly stylistic and sour – there’s no joy in it. And I think it’s disastrous that a genuine sense of humor has been smothered.” And he added: “Take all those imitators of Lou Reed, for example: if they went back and listened to his early stuff, they’d see he had a whole different feel. . .plus he was a helluva writer. He could really write a lyric. He’s been ripped off left, right, and center.”
Why the word “was”? [Laughing] But that’s nice of Sam.
Do you think you’ve been ripped off?
No, not for a second. I mean, everybody’s heard everybody else, so many people are playing on the same sources. But it is sometimes kind of weird: I’ll hear a group, and they’ll be good, and I’m listening to them and realize that they sound like me. But in some ways it’s like a “me” from a certain time, and it’s weird because I’m over here now and I can’t do that particular thing anymore, although I still enjoy it. But why wouldn’t they want to do that, there’s a lot to be said for that approach to things. I just wish that they would imitate it more and really get into the words, but you’ve got to know how to use them to do it.
Someone once said that a masterpiece’s function is to create the energy for other people to create other masterpieces.
I’ll settle for that. It’s good to have examples and standards to try to either try to live up to or surpass. And in my life there have been some really important things that once someone bothered to tell or show me or give me an example of made things very clear and simple. At any point in my life if I heard someone else’s song, it might have seemed so simple, but it really wasn’t until I really knew it. Or to take another example: If you want to drink a bottle of club soda out of a cup, pick up the bottle and don’t lift it over here and pour it over there but rather pour it over the cup. And something simple like that can be applicable to, say, an esthetic or a life. You say: Oh, right! And then you do it that way from that point on.
I remember a friend once offered me some very simple but wonderful advice, namely that you should never smoke while you urinate and that you should come when you’re called.
[Laughing] Well, this plumber out where I live said to me, “Don’t believe anything you hear and half of what you see.” He was serious – you know, small-town wisdom. And of course then there are other pieces of advice like “Don’t shit where you sleep.”
Or don’t spit in the wind. In your song “Strawman” you say, “Spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard.”
I went a long time trying to figure out whether it should be piss or spit and decided that spit was better. That’s one of life’s little things that you learn – you don’t spit in the wind. You also don’t get a mace gun and use it in the wind. So you can take this on all the different levels.
In your beautiful song “Coney Island Baby” you say that although the city is “something like a circus or a sewer,” one can still look up to see the “princess on the hill” and that the “glory of love just might come through.” But on New York one doesn’t sense the possibility of salvation, and some people might take it to be extremely nihilistic.
But it would be a shame if that’s all they got out of the album. I think that people should be getting together and do something about the situation I’m describing. That’s the salvation of it. Look at what’s going on and then do something about it. Besides, don’t people realize that the album’s also funny, “leavened with humor”? [Laughing]
I really had to laugh at some of the lines in “Last Great American Whale” such as, “Some say they saw him at the Great Lakes/Some say they saw him off the coast of Florida/My mother said she saw him in Chinatown/But you can’t always trust your mother.” You know, Oedipus might have felt exactly the same way about his mother!
[Laughing] That’s hilarious! And I think that some of the worst comments in the songs on New York are also hilariously funny at the same time. Some of the lines in “Hold On,” for example, are straight out of the news, like, “They shot that old lady/ ’cause they thought she was a witness/to a crime she didn’t even see” or “A cop was shot in the head by a 10-year-old kid named Buddha in/Central Park last week.” I mean, what? And things like that are kind of funny in a very depressing way. We’re so dulled to this. Take for instance the building that collapsed the other day in Manhattan. The builders who were there, unlicensed with no permit, noticed a crack in the foundation as they were digging. So what do these large minds do? They dig a trench and then they put cinder blocks there, and the building collapses and I think it kills the owner of the building and a poor girl is caught under it. And they only have three inspectors to check on this shit! Isn’t this hilarious at the same time that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?
You don’t have to make anything up. In “Sick of You” I say: “I was up in the morning with the TV blarin’/brush my teeth sittin’ watchin’ the news/All the beaches were closed the ocean was a Red Sea/but there was no one there to part in two/There was no fresh salad because/there’s hypos in the cabbage/Staten Island disappeared at noon/And they say the Midwest is in great distress/and NASA blew up the moon/The ozone layer has no ozone anymore/and you’re gonna leave me for the guy next door.”
That last line, which you sing with a little question mark on the word “door,” really made me laugh, but there are a lot of your songs that make me laugh. One of my favorites is “High in the City” from your underappreciated 1984 album New Sensations in which you describe a couple – one of whom is carrying some mace, the other a knife – “hitting the streets” one night but avoiding walking down Sutton Place because “everybody there got an Akita,” and as one advises the other, “Watch out for that guy on your right/Seen him on the news last Saturday night/He was high in the city.”
Ah, you know that song, I’m so happy to hear that. I also thought it was so funny, but no one’s ever mentioned to me that they thought it was funny. People don’t seem to get it.
On that album you also have another wonderful song called “My Friend George” in which you sing about a childhood friend who likes music but who also likes to fight, and he tells you “Avenge yourself for humanity/Avenge yourself for the weak and the poor” and then says “Well, the fight is my music. . .Can’t you hear the music playing, the anthem, it’s my call.”
That’s my favorite song on that album. I remember that when we were recording it, the engineer turned to me and said, “Do you have a friend named George?” And I said, “Of course not.” One of the nice things about being a writer is that you can have a friend named George.
But do you think that, like George, the fight is your music and that the anthem is your call?
I’d have to think about that for a while. Well, in fact I have been thinking about whether that is my call, and if it is I should be doing more than what I’m doing, like one record every two or three years is really not a lot.
But your album New York is your fifteenth solo album. That’s a career!
But that’s nothing because the songs and the writing and the stuff in my head don’t stop just because I’ve done an album. I love playing around with words so much and putting them to music, and I do get such a great kick out of the guitar, but I really should move into poetry or short stories. Someone will say I should do a book, and I get close to it and then I back away from it. But it’s not for lack of time, and it’s not for not having it in my head, because it sometimes goes on all day, it just doesn’t stop. Like I could go right back in the studio and do another album, and it’s kind of a shame that you can’t do that. But generally speaking I have to say that with most of my albums I’ve felt that I was behind myself, that the albums didn’t represent where I really was when they came out. But on New York I’m not behind myself – that’s where I am, that’s what I’m capable of doing. On this album it wasn’t a question of if I had more time or if I had more money I would redo this or that. We had all the time we needed to record it, and when the sessions ended, we all knew it was over. I gave it my best shot.
I personally think that the most astonishing song on New Sensations – and it must be one of the most remarkable songs you’ve ever written – is “Fly Into the Sun” in which you express an apocalyptic longing for self-dissolution. The song begins: “I would not run from the holocaust/I would not run from the bomb/I’d welcome the chance/To meet my maker/And fly into the sun./I’d break up into a million pieces/And fly into the sun.”
Ah, well, yeah, it is apocalyptic. I work so hard on the words so that they’ll come out a certain way. I mean, it’s just the pleasure and the flow of them, and then you get into the thought. And it’s so odd to me that people don’t seem to get it, they don’t understand it. You know, I do the records for myself but it’s so nice to find out that that sometimes there are people who get something from them.
In that song you also say: “I would not run from the blazing light/I would not run from its rain/I’d see it as an end to misery/As an end to worldly pain.” There’s a lot of humor in your songs, and occasionally some perfect days, but there’s also a lot of pain – “rage, pain, anger, hurt” as you say in your new song “Beginning of a Great Adventure.”
Well, those are the emotions I was most familiar with.
Those are also the emotions that most infants and young children experience.
Except that they get pleasure too.
But you’re saying that you don’t?
I’m just saying that I didn’t.
At the risk of being too personal, do you remember much about your earliest years?
No, but I’m glad.
But you do contact and touch on childhood feelings in some of your songs.
Well, I think that the artist re-approaches and goes back to all these things, asking questions like, What happened? What went on? Why am I this way? And what can I get from this? How can I use it for something? Can I get energy from it? How can I do something with it that isn’t self-destructive? How can I speak of it maybe to other people who also feel that way? But I’ve found out about myself, and I’m not just one thing, I’m a whole slew of things. And when you write, you can leap into one particular pocket, as though that’s you, but of course it isn’t, even though for a song it may be.
My song “Legendary Hearts,” for example, is one of my saddest. It’s about not being able to live up to being an image of a Romeo with a Juliet. The girl in the song says, “Romeo, oh, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” but “he’s in a car or at a bar/or churning his blood with an impure drug/He’s in the past and seemingly lost forever.” And a lot of people are like that.
I’m reminded of the lines in your new song “Romeo Had Juliette”: “The perfume burned his eyes, holding tightly to her thighs/and something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone.”
Isn’t that sad? Every time people say to me “Romeo and Juliet,” I say, No, it’s “Romeo had Juliet” because I meant in the sexual way – it flickered for a minute and was gone. But of course that flicker is better than nothing.
Someone once remarked that a poem is either a kiss or a punch in the nose. There are a lot of punches on this album, but there doesn’t seem to be a love song on it.
But there certainly is! If you look at the last song, “Dime Store Mystery,” which is dedicated to Andy Warhol – whom I really miss and was privileged to have known – you’ll find the line: “I wish I hadn’t thrown away my time on so much Human and so much less Divine.” I think that that’s one of the most stunning lines that I’ve ever written in my life, and I’m enormously proud of it. So when you say that there’s no love song on the album. . .well, its very true that there’s no moon and spoon, but though it might sound tacky to put it like this I think that “Dime Store Mystery” is a supreme love song, and I’m talking about a love song to a vision of spirituality.
I gather that “Dime Story Mystery” was influenced by your having seen the film The Last Temptation of Christ, which was Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel of the same name.
What happened was that for years I had the title “Dime Store Mystery,” along with a few lines, but I was never able to complete the song. And one night I happened to watch a television interview with Marty in which he was talking about his film, which I hadn’t yet seen. The film was already being boycotted and censored and banned here and abroad, and Marty was defending his point of view in the most gracious and articulate manner that one could possibly imagine. And I was so struck by some of the things he was saying about the duality of Godly nature and human nature that I started writing them down, and I said to myself, That’s what this song should be about. And I made the title “Dime Story Mystery, The Last Temptation.”
So I wrote down a version of the song, and then I finally saw the film when Marty invited me to a private screening so that his friends didn’t have to get killed by pickets [laughing], and I sent the lyrics to him and told him that the film had really inspired me and that was how I came to write the song. And I thought that the song was done, but then I woke up one morning at six o’clock and my mind was saying, “That’s not you at all, it’s not right.” So I sat up and started talking to myself and said, “Well what is it? Tell me what I should do.” And then I rewrote the song again and yet again until I possessed it and felt that it was more mine and wasn’t completely about the film.
The song talks about the physical against the spiritual, and about Vishnu and Buddha, and then all of a sudden it goes Whomp! and there’s a big switch and you’re in the present and you’re talking about being in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. . .and OK, what are you doing in St. Patrick’s? Well, somebody must have died and there’s going to be a funeral there the next day and “the bells will ring for you” [Andy Warhol’s funeral took place at St. Patrick’s on April 1, 1987], and this is told with the greatest amount of love.
In the title song of New Sensations, you say: “I want the principles of a timeless muse/I want to eradicate my negative views/And get rid of those people who are always on a down.”
Ah! You probably want to know if those lines trumpet a new, mellow Lou?
Actually, I was going to ask you about the “timeless muse.” Who or what is that muse
Is it the “princess on the hill” whom you mention in “Coney Island Baby”?
The timeless muse for me is. . .well, let me get into a personal thing for a minute: There was a time in my life when the ability to write wouldn’t be there anymore, and I’d be panicked, thinking: It’s gone, it’s gone forever, it’ll never be back. I was confused about where the talent came from, how it functioned, what it could do, what it didn’t want to do, and where it was, and how it worked. And I thought of my friend, the poet Delmore Schwartz – God bless his soul – who wrote a wonderful essay on Hamlet. Some of his essays are kind of dismissed as lesser Delmore, but I think of them as higher Delmore, and moreover he said “Even paranoids have enemies” and a lot of other worthy things [laughing]. But in his Hamlet essay he points out that Hamlet came from an old upper-class family and began saying very disturbing things to his friend Horatio, such as: A woman is like a cantaloupe, open it and it starts to rot. And in this particular essay Delmore said that the real secret about Hamlet is that he was a manic-depressive, and a manic-depressive just is – like being right-handed or having brown hair. And that was the essence of Hamlet. It’s either that or you view the play as though everybody is drunk from beginning to end.
So in my particular case, I finally realized that my talent just is – I didn’t have to worry about it going away, I didn’t have to do anything to try to amplify it or make things happen. All I had to do was just sit there and go about my business, and that I could do it like hanging upside down in a gym in gravity boots, and it would always be there for me. And then some days it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be there in an hour. The day I understood that I went through major changes, but it took a very long time for me to do so. In my album New Sensations I said that I wanted it to be there – I wasn’t in touch with it at that point. But since then I am, which is just a blessing, because I had a little dream and I got it.
So who or what, ultimately, is the timeless muse?
The timeless muse for me is to be able to tune in or to have that thing just show up for me, and I am so, so lucky because I enjoy doing this kind of stuff so much. I want to be in touch with the timeless muse and I have to follow it because I get enormous satisfaction out of it. I did Honda and American Express commercials just so I can continue to make albums like New York and take the time off to write the way I really want to. But I don’t have to be a big shot or rich. All I want to do is more. And I’ve got a motorcycle, see, and I can take off into the hills with it, and I really like that a lot.
In New York the Lou Reed image doesn’t exist, as far as I’m concerned. This is me speaking as directly as I possibly can to whoever hopefully wants to listen to it. If someone accuses me of attacking my former image and says: “Oh, but you once said. . .” then all I can now say is: “And what did you once say? And what did we all once say? And what might I say tomorrow?”