This article - The horror of New York's Prince of Darkness - originally appeared in The Globe and Mail in April, 2000, when reporter Simon Houpt was based in New York. We're giving readers access to it again after the death, at age 71 Sunday, of one of the music world's cultural icons.
March 7: The assignment arrives via e-mail. Word comes down that The Globe and Mail is the only Canadian newspaper to receive an in-person interview with New York's Prince of Darkness, Lou Reed, who is making himself available to talk about his new album, Ecstasy, and a new collection of lyrics titled Pass Thru Fire.
Passing through fire is what journalists who interview Reed feel like they do; his arrogance and temper are legendary. Even at 58, Reed is said to be as inflammably cranky as ever. Handing down the assignment, my editor writes, "You will have a miserable time . . . it's all part of being an arts journalist, sorta like going to 'Nam in '67." I was born in '67 but have seen Apocalypse Now a few times, so I accept with trepidation. My mind is flooded with images of brutally dismembered cows.
March 13: The book and CD arrive, only two days in advance of the interview. Reed has insisted that interviewers read the entire book, which means I have 48 hours in which to listen to the new disc and ingest 461 pages of Reed's sardonic, bitter, delicate, verdant and cynical writings from 29 projects, including four studio albums with the Velvet Underground, the massively influential quartet he left in 1970. Also included in Pass Thru Fire are the lyrics from Time Rocker, a 1996 pop opera by avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson for which Reed wrote the music. Though the project as a whole remains unrecorded, two songs are on Ecstasy.
March 14: More warnings and stories from publicists impel me to consider doing the interview as a recent Russian immigrant, pretending I know nothing about Reed and hoping he will take pity on me. But my Russian accent sucks.
March 15, 12:55 p.m.: I arrive at the offices of Sister Ray Enterprises, a converted loft a few floors above a sunny stretch of Broadway at the northern lip of SoHo. There are dozens of smartly framed concert posters and photos of Reed lining the white walls above freshly polished hardwood floors. The overall impression is of an absorbing cleanliness, which seems at odds with the frequently muddy nature of Reed's music. A smiling publicist says Reed is running a few minutes late but is in a good mood. She seems as happy about being able to issue this news as I am to receive it.
1:10 p.m.: A pale-faced, waif-like, black-jeans and leather-clad Reed emerges from behind the door and strides over to his assistant Beth, whispering something low and indistinguishable about the interview that has just concluded. He seems almost bouncy, but who knows?
1:12 p.m.: A Japanese journalist, struggling with his briefcase and a book, steps out of Reed's office. "That was fun," he says evenly. "He's in a talkative mood. Ten minutes ago I was a nervous wreck, but now I'm fine. I could have continued talking like that forever." Betraying these words, he tugs his shirt from his chest to air away the sweat.
1:13 p.m.: Reed grabs a ratty pull-toy and tosses it down the length of the office as Lola, the Sister Ray office dog, skitters after it. Lola fetches the toy and engages Reed in a game of tug-of-war in which the singer seems completely absorbed.
1:20 p.m.: Without a word, Reed stands and walks back into his office, settling behind his desk. Reading the tea leaves of this action, the publicist nods to me and says Reed is ready.
1:21 p.m.: He is seated on the opposite side of an almost empty desk adorned with a pack of cigarettes and two opaque, bright blue drinking glasses. One glass contains water, the other something that looks like Coke. His body language indicates an unexpected receptiveness.
I go for broke and say that I've heard he doesn't like doing interviews.
Reed gives a curt and suspicious reply: "Yeah." Why? "Is that what you want to spend time doing your interview about, or do you want to talk about the album?" Images of 'Nam flash through my mind. The horror, the horror. I start to explain there are many things I'd like to talk about. He cuts in. "Well, I want to talk about the album."
Fine. A number of Reed's recent albums have come from the urge to explore single themes or symbols, including 1989's New York, a funky snapshot of the city with which Reed is synonymous; Songs for Drella, a tribute to Andy Warhol on which Reed collaborated with former Velvet John Cale; and Magic & Loss, a song cycle exploring Reed's response to the deaths of two friends. And Ecstasy? Reed responds with a patented patronizing tenor. "The theme is ecstasy. That's what I think the theme is."
But would he care to elaborate? Why ecstasy at this point? Perhaps it has something to do with his relationship with Laurie Anderson, with whom he seemingly has settled down after a tumultuous emotional life with other women (and men). Was the album inspired by the drug ecstasy? "It's not about drugs," he says, lighting up a cigarette. "I mean, unless you want it to be. If that makes you happy, it could be about drugs, but that's not I meant it to be."
He looks away. On an EKG, I'm flatlining. He places an elbow on the table and a hand on his right cheek, setting his face into a haggard rock legend variation on Mount Rushmore.
1:24 p.m.: Only three minutes in, Reed mentions Andy Warhol, unprompted, and seems to perk up slightly at the name. He is responding to a question about his self-declared laziness by comparing his creative output with that of Warhol. Though the white-haired painter-provocateur died in 1987, Reed speaks of his old friend in the present tense.
"Listen. I was at a show of Andy's over at the Dia Gallery, it was called Shadows. It was, like, so fabulous. So fabulous. It was, like, 84 paintings. And I think there were a few more they didn't have room for. So one album a year is nothing. Really. It's zero. I should be making five albums a year, but . . . the way the record business is set up, you can't do that."
1:27 p.m.: He is cupping his right ear, an unintentional indication of his diminished hearing. No surprise, given the amount of noise he has subjected it to.
1:28 p.m.: I try to ask him a question about the recent revival of glam rock, which reached a minor peak with the film Velvet Goldmine. Reed was one of glam's boy toys in the early seventies. That period seems to have slipped his mind. "I think I was only involved for a week, I'm not sure," he says flatly. "You may be making more of it than really exists."
1:33 p.m.: New tack. Where does he think he fits in the current music scene? "I don't think about where I fit in. I'm in the Lou Reed section."
1:38 p.m.: In the 1998 PBS film Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, a friend referred to Reed as "the gearhead's gearhead," keying on the musician's fascination with the mechanics of recording. True to form, Reed responds to a question about Ecstasy with a stream-of-consciousness, Rain Man-type ode to the recording studio's specialized mixing board and his nimble-fingered engineer. This subject relaxes Reed so much that he feels comfortable enough to make a self-effacing joke about his faulty office door, which has been banging against its frame during the interview.
1:40 p.m.: By way of illustrating his pleasure with the quality of recording on Ecstasy, Reed is extolling the virtues of Like a Possum,an 18-minute drone on the album. "I wanted a long song. I wanted you to have a different view of time. I wanted you to realize that it was going to go on long enough, the rock thing, where you could give yourself up to it. You can't normally do that because it's over in three minutes . . . I didn't want to complicate it; I wasn't doing jazz. You know what I'm saying? This is straight, basic rock. It's a heavy overdrive guitar, but it's user-friendly."
"We sat and listened to it seven times after we did it, and every time, in and around some section of it " -- he snaps his fingers -- "Gone. And then it's over and you're back. That's unbelievable, it's like magic." Reed heads to the door. "I'm interested in magic. That's my real, real interest."
He is talking to his assistant before I can ask him what the hell he means by that.