Lou Reed: In His Own Words
Transcripts of Lou talking about his own favorite songs.
Available now: The RCA & Arista Collection Vol. 1.
“Who Am I?”
This popular mix is one of two versions of the same song. The other version was done by producer Ric Wake, minus my band. This one is a particular favorite of mine because I produced it with Hal Willner, with my band. We were really lucky to be able to do two versions of this song. Ric Wake is a mainstream producer and we did that kind of a version of the song [for The Raven], which has its place in the world. Our version is a rocky world version that has a place in the world as well.
“Rock ’N’ Roll”
Loaded had so many great songs on it. Anyone who is a fan of me or the Velvet Underground might be delighted to hear this stuff sound the way it’s supposed to sound. Those reprocessed stereo recordings [on vinyl] used to be very scary. This is something done right.
“I’m Waiting For The Man”
On “Waiting For The Man,” the power of John Cale’s piano part has never come across. I know how hard he was hitting the piano because I was there. But you could never really feel it. Now you can feel it.
“White Light/White Heat”
Rock ’N’ Roll Animal was Lou revisiting the Velvets, thinking, maybe they’ll catch on this time around. It’s like three or four years after the fact and we’re doing the same material as the Velvet Underground but with the Rock ‘N’Roll Animal band. Which I didn’t even play with. It was not the kind of band I play with. It’s the kind of band I admire but I wouldn’t play with. This is one of the great live recordings. But then again, you can go in and make it sound way better than it just did then, and it was great sounding then. Just listen to the bottom end.
“Street Hassle” was recorded at the old Record Plant. I was there, Patti Smith was there, Bruce Springsteen was there. Everyone was in a different studio. I knew Steve Van Zandt and we asked Steve, would Bruce do this monologue? And Bruce said sure, and that was that… but don’t use my name. I wish all of Bruce’s fans would have gone out and bought it, but since we couldn’t use his name, they think it’s me imitating him.
“Street Hassle” is divided into three movements and had different characters talking whereas in “Walk on the Wild Side” [to which the song has been compared], it’s a take on four or five different people, vignettes reduced to four or eight lines. Here you have a lot of words. The very end speech the character gives in “Street Hassle” is like a Tennessee Williams monologue.
I had never been to Berlin when I wrote Berlin. It was an imaginary journey. I couldn’t even go coach.
It’s now called classic [but was much maligned by critics when it was first released]. My albums have continuously gotten seriously panned and then, twenty years later, they’re re-released and they say “this is a classic.”
Metal Machine Music, which was a career-ender, got a 25th Anniversary release. In a very beautiful package. And I mastered it, so you know it sounded good. The German group Ensemble Zeitkratzer produced it live at a concert hall in Berlin and in Venice. It took twenty-five years, of course, but that was great.
“Walk On The Wild Side”
“Wild Side” was just one of twelve other tracks [on Transformer]. I didn’t think any more of it than the other ones. I mean, the track that I really liked was “Hangin’ ‘Round.” Which is why no one listens to me. And there’s another song, “Goodnight Ladies,” that I really liked, and “New York Telephone Conversation,” which I do with David Bowie, and it’s one-minute long. There’s a lot on that album. Another example: twenty-five years later, “Perfect Day” became much bigger than “Wild Side” ever was. Go Figure.
“Kill Your Sons”
I was going through a lot of different CDs and this Live In Italy track was just sitting there. I thought, what a great guitar part — that’s from Robert Quine. And what a drum part from Fred Maher. I love Fred’s drumming. It wasn’t recorded very well, so we went in and fixed it up.
We had really, really great fun [on the Transformer sessions]. It was in a great studio, great engineer. David Bowie and Mick Ronson running the sessions, getting the musicians. I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I had made a record in London before that [Lou Reed] where they brought in studio guys, and it didn’t work out very well.
But Transformer was lots of fun. It’s always fun to work with people who have a lot of ideas. David has lots and lots and lots of ideas. Ronson was a great arranger. You couldn’t go wrong.
“The Blue Mask”
The business of “dark”… Life is made up of a lot of things. You could write about moon june spoon forever. And leave any other realistic feeling you have out of the songbook. I don’t understand why you would. And yet if you include the rest of life in it you’re called negative, dark. It’s amazing to me. For example, my Raven thing, Edgar Allen Poe… I don’t know anyone who has a pulse who hasn’t experienced being anxious. I mean, unless there’s someone locked up somewhere, happy all the time. There’s a yin and yang to things, ups and downs. I wouldn’t call them dark. I’d call them real life.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
I really like this version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” that I played on an electrified acoustic guitar through a special amplifier, which we did in London at the Meltdown Festival. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is a classic Velvet Underground song, one of my favorite songs forever.
“Magic And Loss- The Summation”
“Magic and Loss” was about the loss of my friend, Doc Pomus, who became ill. I thought, they write wakes, they have masses, they have pieces of music written for special occasions, a birth or a death or the transmogrification of a soul. But where is the contemporary version of music for the passing of a friend? How do you handle the emotions of the moment? How do you survive something that happens in real life? How do you get the better side, the better end of it? “Magic and Loss” is a positive affirmation of life, not a negative whining about death.
The thing about “Ecstasy” is that it has just a killer guitar riff. I think of that riff the way I think of the “Sweet Jane” riff. Once in a while you get a really good guitar lick. I’ll be walking down the street sometimes and some kid will be practicing guitar and he will be doing the “Sweet Jane” lick. I get a kick out of that. It’s like the Cherry Berry lick. Everybody practices “Sweet Jane.” “Ecstasy” — That’s a little harder, sad to say. But if you make it through “Sweet Jane,” then part two is you can learn “Ecstasy.”
“I Wanna Be Black”
I went to Germany and did a lot of research on a system called Binaural Sound. Binaural Sound goes back to the World’s Fair of 1942, the year I was born. It’s a way of doing 360 degree sound. We have 5.1 sound, this makes 5.1 look like 1.3. There were some technical problems [with the Take No Prisoners album] that have always bothered me, if you can believe that. We went back, got the tapes, and lo and behold we were able to correct some of these problems.
This is one of the tapes rescued from the obscurity of the anti-Binaural. We were able to put it back where it’s supposed to be. It sounds as though you’re in a club surrounded by the audience with the band in front of you and glasses tinkling and people yelling in the back of you and chairs scraping. It’s definitely exciting. This is a headphone mix — listen on headphones and you will experience the great wonder of all this research we did.
The object of “I Wanna Be Black” was to try and really get you going. That was the goal. Consider the time period. Really trying to stir things up a bit. And we succeeded.
My favorite drug song with the immortal lyric “Your mother, your father, your brother I guess you wouldn’t agree with me. But I don’t give two shits, they’re no better than me.”
It was before there was hardcore.
Some of Street Hassle was recorded live. Then, on top of the original track, I put other things — not with the “Street Hassle” track, but here with “Shooting Star.”
I like the idea of “Legendary Hearts.” It’s like looking at Romeo and Juliet in an idealized West Side Story version of it, then looking at a New York City Lower East Side version — which, by the way, was just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Berlin characters.
Two guitars, bass, drums. Any band can play this. That’s what I like about my songs. You could have the IQ of a turtle and play a Lou Reed song. It’s really true. I love that about rock and roll. Anybody can play rock and roll, including me. Three chords are good enough for me. I’m not interested in learning new ones, I want to master those. If it was good enough for John Lee Hooker, it’s good enough for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like Miles Davis or Little Jimmy Scott, whom I worked with [on Magic and Loss] or Don Cherry, who plays on The Bells. Take it with a grain of salt.
“Coney Island Baby”
I think there’s a universal aspect to certain feelings. Periodically — when I’m lucky — I tap into those feelings and people relate to it. Not too many people write about those feelings for other people to relate to. You might want to relate to more than just shaking your ass. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to have a choice of things.
“The Last Shot”
If William Burroughs wrote rock songs — I look at it that way. Movies have covered this, novels covered this, rock — no. Man With A Golden Arm, old movie, no big deal. Why? Because kids take it more seriously and because I’m not lying. The movie’s a lie. I’m not lying. Everybody knows that about me. Mine is as straight as it goes. For better or for worse, there it is. No kidding around. I walk around the city, so if anyone wants to discuss it with me, I’m here. I’m available.
It was supposed to be a little rock mini-symphony. It’s got a lot of words that are being recited in the left channel and the right channel. You can’t quite make them out. They’re just words as sound. The whole thing is a mood piece that’s supposed to cause an emotion. And then when I get to the vocal, the actual verse per se, that was extemporaneous, which has always amazed me. A lot of times in the studio, I’ll make lyrics up on the spot and it’s a one shot, one shot only. A lot of these things are recorded first take. There is no second take because I can’t do it a second time. This was one of those things, and it was live — with all those Binaural heads sitting around us. That’s an average German head with a microphone in each ear. And when you have headphones on, you’ll hear it the way the head did. Try it, you’ll like it.
There are a lot of my songs that, if people were exposed to them, they would take on a life. Probably because of Trainspotting, people became aware of this song again and suddenly realized I wrote some very pretty songs, juxtaposed against the dark side of the dark underbelly of the New York prince.
“Sally Can’t Dance”
“Sally Can’t Dance” was about a thing that happened in New York on the Lower East Side. The short version of the story is these guys shot this girl and put her in the trunk of a car and then they went out partying. And it names all the different clubs that were hot at the time. It’s the only time I did something like that, that was dated… the hot clubs, the hot costume designer, the hot this, the hot that. It’s just a take on New York nightlife, including the murder. And that’s why Sally can’t dance. They found her in the trunk of a car.
“Satellite Of Love”
David Bowie’s background vocals — I love them on his records, I love them when he did them on my record. It’s not the kind of part I would have ever come up with if you left me alone with a computer program for a year. But David hears those parts. Plus he’s got a freaky voice and he can go up that high and do that. It’s very, very beautiful. And he’s a great singer.
The Music to “NYC Man” is so much a New York City sound, a really hip New York City sound, a romantic New York City sound. This is what I hear when I think of Manhattan island.
“Dirty Blvd.” is another contemporary take of New York at a different time period. That song, of all the songs, was incredibly hard to write, that very simple chord thing. That was one of the hardest things I ever had to work on. It’s just three chrods and the pattern was really hard to get.
That’s a lighthearted song about a man and his father. I like the idea of trying to revisit Oedipus Rex. “Rock Minuet” is, I really believe, one of the greatest songs I’ve ever done of that type. That’s up there with “Street Hassle.” That’s a real head trip, a really serious examination of feeling for your father. Some people will understand it. Other people will be actively upset by it.