Lou Reed v Lester Bangs: a classic interview from the vaults (1973)
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Rock’s Backpages – the world’s leading collection of vintage music journalism – we bring you a classic interview-cum-confrontation between the late Lester Bangs and his hero Lou Reed. Originally titled Lou Reed: A Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth, the piece first appeared in Let It Rock in November 1973
You walk into the dining room of the Holiday Inn filled with expectation at finally getting to meet one of the musical and psychological frontiersmen of our time.
Lou Reed, who with his group the Velvet Underground was singing about drag queens and heroin at least five years before such obsessions reached the mass level.
Who began a comeback as a solo artist last summer in England, and under the wing of David Bowie produced Transformer, a classic of mondo bendo rock. Who then, having come out of the closet at last, returned to his New York home and ushered in 1973 by getting married to an actress cum cocktail waitress named Betty (stage name Krista) Kronstadt.
On top of all that, both Transformer and the single from it are enormous hits. Lou Reed is not only a legend: he’s a star. In one of the interviews he did last summer, Lou said: “I can create a vibe without saying anything, just by being in the room.”
He was right. You sit yourself down, and sure enough you become aware pretty fast that there’s this vaguely unpleasant fat man sitting over there with a table full of people including his blonde bride. Pretty soon he comes over to join you and the tic becomes focused too sharply for comfort. It’s not just that Lou Reed doesn’t look like a rock’n’roll star any more. His face has a nursing-home pallor, and the fat girdles his sides. He drinks double Johnnie Walker Blacks all afternoon, his hands shake constantly and when he lifts his glass to drink he has to bend his head as though he couldn’t possibly get it to his mouth otherwise. As he gets drunker, his left eyeball begins to slide out of sync.
In spite of all this, however, he managed to live up to his reputation for making interviewers uncomfortable. He fixes you with that rusty bug eye, he creaks and croaks and lies in your face and you’re helpless. He lies about his music and his album covers (“That was me in drag on the back of Transformer.”) Most of all, he lies about himself. But he qualifies it by saying, “I don’t especially tell the truth most of the time anyway.”
He’s pretty cool about most of it, though, so you can’t really get too mad at him about that. Like Nick Kent, who is there for the New Musical Express, is right in the middle of asking him a question, when Lou interrupts: “Aren’t you hot with that scarf on?”
“No,” wheezes Nick nonplussedly, “I’ve got a cold.”
“Try Vicks Vapo Rub,” says Lou. “I came down with a very bad cold in Boston, and it works. You’ve gotta lie there for two or three days with that glop on your chest and a towel or something, and every once in a while somebody has to have the nerve to reach into the bowl of that shit and rub it in. Like I remember,” he free-associates, “when everybody was taking acid and we discovered Dippity Do, and everybody said, ‘It’s just like a cunt, it’s fantastic!’ And we all ran into the bathroom and jumped into the bathtub and started fingering the Dippity Do jar.”
Everything is jokes to this bibulous bozo; he really makes a point of havin’ some fun! Although it does disturb his friends and fans to see him in such failing health. But he can find a joke even there. At one point I asked him when he intended to die.
“I would like to live to a ripe old age and raise watermelons in Wyoming.” Then he takes another glug and machos: “I’m outdrinking you two to one, you know.”
“Are you proud of yourself?”
“Yeah. No, not actually; it’s just that a single shot of Scotch is so small that you’ve gotta nurse it like it’s a child or something. I drink constantly.”
“How does it treat your nervous system?” I probed.
“It destroys it,” he beamed.
“Then how do you intend to raise your watermelons?”
“Well, my time will come. By now I’m getting tired of liquor because there’s just nothing strong enough. Now if we were drinking 150-proof sake, or something like that, then I could get drunk…”
He is equally devastating in his frankness on drugs: “I take drugs just because in the 20th century in a technological age living in the city there are certain drugs you have to take just to keep yourself normal like a caveman. Just to bring yourself up or down, but to attain equilibrium you need to take certain drugs. They don’t getcha high even, they just getcha normal.”
Normal Lou Reed reached for a Marlboro. As he fumbled to tear a match out of the book and strike it, his hands trembled so fiercely that you wondered if he was going to be able to get that butt lit.
This interview was turning out so fabulous I knew it was now time to get our hooks right down in the nitty gritty, and talk about sex. What about the relationship of what you’re doing artistically to the gay scene in general and specific?
Wax eloquent, for once and finally, he did. Listen kids, you may think you’ve got your identity crises and sexual lateral squeeze plays touchdown cold just because you came out in rouge ‘n’ glitter for Dave Bowie’s latest show, but listen to your Papa Lou. He’s gotta nother think for you punk knowitalls: “The makeup thing is just a style thing now, like platform shoes. If people have homosexuality in them, it won’t necessarily involve makeup in the first place. You can’t fake being gay, because being gay means you’re going to have to suck cock, or get fucked. I think there’s a very basic thing in a guy if he’s straight where he’s just going to say no: ‘I’ll act gay, I’ll do this and I’ll do that, but I can’t do that.’ Just like a gay person if they wanted to act straight and everything, but if you said, ‘Okay, go ahead, go to bed with a girl,’ they’re going to have to get an erection first, and they can’t do that.
“The notion that everybody’s bisexual is a very popular line right now, but I think its validity is limited. I could say something like if in any way my album helps people decide who or what they are, then I will feel I have accomplished something in my life. But I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t think an album’s gonna do anything. You can’t listen to a record and say, ‘Oh that really turned me onto gay life, I’m gonna be gay.’ A lot of people will have one or two experiences, and that’ll be it. Things may not change one iota. It’s beyond the control of a straight person to turn gay at the age he’ll probably be listening to any of his stuff or reading about it; he’ll already be determined psychologically. It’s like Franco said: ‘Give me a child until he’s seven and he’s mine.’ By the time a kid reaches puberty they’ve been determined. Guys walking around in makeup is just fun. Why shouldn’t men be able to put on makeup and have fun like women have?”
Lou Reed just may have a better perspective on this supposed upheaval in sexual roles than any of these Gore Vidals and Jill Johnstons. Duds comin’ outa the closet in droves and finding out they’re heterosexual! Ha! Only trouble is that Lou’s thinking also makes him a product of the rigidly dualistic era when he grew up a hell of a Fifties cat for somebody who helped usher in the Seventies. He thinks you’re either some blissfully “normal” heterosuburbanite weekender on your own, or otherwise you gotta be some mungstreaked depravo wretch skulking through the gutter on all fours. Listening to him talk, you can’t help wondering how much of Lou Reed’s songs are about people he makes up, as he claims, and how much of them is about himself. In which case – if say, Perfect Day is autobiographical – he must be the most guilt-ridden person on the face of the earth. Which would make it hard for anybody to live up to their own legend.
If Lou Reed seems like rock’s ultimate closet queen by virtue of the fact that he came out of the closet and then went back in, it must also be observed that lots of people, especially lots of gay people, think Lou Reed’s just a heterosexual onlooker exploiting gay culture for his own ends. And who knows but that they may be right. When I asked him about his plans for his next album, he said: “I may come out with a hardhat album. Come out with an anti-gay song, saying ‘Get back in your closets, you fuckin’ queers!’ That’ll really do it!”
But let’s just suppose that Lou Reed is gay. If he is, can you imagine what kind of homosexual would say something like that? Maybe that’s what makes him such a master of pop song – he’s got such a great sense of shame. Either that or the ultimate proof of his absolute normality is the total offensive triteness of his bannered Abnormality. Like there’s no trip cornier’n S&M, every move is plotted in advance from a rigid rulebook centuries old, so every libertine ends up yawning his balls off. Just like Lou said earlier that day: “There’s really no interesting information to hold back. Everybody insists that there’s a story here, and there really isn’t. It’s like a clamshell that’s been eaten.”
The concert was okay. Reports on this tour have varied drastically – depending on expectations and how Lou happens to be feeling, I guess – and his band, a bunch of high school kids assembled by Steve Katz, is more than adequate.
But there’s probably more going on here than meets the eye. Katz must have had plenty of musicians to choose from – he could conceivably have assembled a high-charged ensemble a la Elephant’s Memory, he could certainly have gotten a crew of faceless high-tech sessionmen if they didn’t want anybody to detract from Lou. But what he got was a bunch of competent high school kids off anybody’s block, who also happen to be some of the ugliest cretins ever assembled on one stage!
These guys are the absolute apotheosis of the Flushing, N.Y. or Hoboken, N.J. schlub. They’re so nada that they become not faceless, you can’t ignore ’em because they contrast so sharply with Lou Reed’s leather trip.
For somebody who has based so much of his career on sex, Lou Reed has certainly surrounded himself with an asexual band. It would be easy to conclude that this is simply because he didn’t want anybody else stealing the show (in which case it backfired – his bassist is the ugliest person I have ever seen) or that he’s so dunced out he didn’t make such considerations (unlikely). So you end up with the possibility that Lou may have an intentionally asexual band as a reaction to glam-rock and his own image. Which, if you follow that logic to the terminal, reeks of self-destructive guilt. Just imagine if Lou Reed did to his lead guitarist what Bowie does to Mick Ronson – pretending to blow him – he’d look like the archetypal homosexual criminal. It would be the most repulsive (in a sense never dreamed of by people like Alice Cooper) spectacle in the history of rock.
The audiences, however, usually love the show, and it’s gratifying to see them flood down to the stage at last, giving Lou Reed the adulation he’s deserved for so long. It’s only when you start to think about the basic lameness of his band, the dirge-like tempo at which he sings most of the songs, the generally funereal atmosphere, and the speculations that all this leads you into, that you begin to get bugged. Because Lou Reed’s finally got a chance at real sustained stardom, and he is blowing it. He’s still riding on the legend now, but people are going to get tired damn fast of a legend who slunks out with a bunch of blobs behind him, sings his songs as if he’s falling asleep, forgets the words half the time, stands as still as if he’s embalmed except for remembering every five minutes or so to wiggle his ass or wave his hand whether it’s really the time to do it or not. His whole career at this point is like welching out on a bet.
My personal payoff with Lou came when we got back to the hotel after the gig. About a dozen people sat around a shadowy suite while the Original Phantom Purveyor of the New Rock got drunk on his ass and rambled on to the point of babble. I got totally blasted myself, my disappointment came through and I started baiting him: “Hey Lou, doncha think Judy Garland was a piece of shit and better off dead?”
“No! She was a great lady! A wonderfully wise and witty lady …”
“Hey Lou, then doncha think David Bowie’s a no-talent asshole?”
“No! He’s a genius! He’s brilliant!”
(It makes sense that Lou would say that, since he allegedly made an ass of himself by falling in love with Bowie when he went to England last summer.)
“Ahh, c’mon, what about all that outer Space Oddity shit? That’s just Paul Kantner garbage!”
“It is not! It’s a brilliant masterpiece! Oh, you are so full of shit!”
“It was dogshit. Why don’t you get off all this crap and just try being banal for a change? Why doncha write a song like Sugar, Sugar? That’d be something worthwhile!”
“I don’t know how. I would if I could… l wish I’d written it…” Jeez, the poor bastard was getting so pathetic even his overwhelming maudlin streak was beginning to get to me! Like all the last year every time his name comes up all you hear is “Poor Lou!” Poor Lou, poor Lou, poor poor poor Lou Reed! You wouldn’t wanna be in his shoes! The tortured artist! The poor hamstrung sensibility! But I was too drunk for brakes, so I got even more personal and abusive: “Hey Lou, why doncha start shooting speed again? Then you could come up with something good!”
“I still do shoot it… My doctor gives it to me… Well, no actually they’re just shots of meth mixed with vitamins… well, no actually, they’re just vitamin C… injections.”
It went on like that for a while; finally, the whole thing sort of flaked into silence, and a girl from his organisation had to come and carry him off to his room.
But I’ll always carry that last picture of him, plopped in his chair like a sack of spuds, sucking on his eternal Scotch with his head hanging off into shadow, looking like a deaf mute in a telephone booth. (He’s still pretty cool, though; I stole that last phrase from him.)
If all this makes you feel sorry for him, then you can compliment yourself on being a real Lou Reed fan.
Because that’s exactly what he wants.
Then again, maybe time is still on Lou Reed’s side. A few days later I was sitting in my room when the door flew back and in barged Josh, nine-year-old son of one of the people I live with. He’s one of these typical little prepube smartasses with long hair and a big mouth, and he immediately demanded: “Where ‘dja get alla records?”
“Cute kid,” thinks I. “Maybe I’ll give him a copy of the Electric Company soundtrack.”
“Hey!” he poots. “Yagotenny Vaaaan Morrison or Leeon Russell?”
Awright you little popsickle pecker, I’m getting pissed at all this blatant trashing of respect for elders. So I drag out a copy of Transformer: “Wanna hear this?”
“Naaah,” he snorts. “I awready got a copy.”
“Oh yeah. What’s your favourite song on it?”
“New York Telephone Conversation. But my brother likes the one that goes ‘shaved ‘er legs an’ then he was a she’.” His brother is eight.
“Well, then, whattaya think of it?” I was a broken man.
“I think it’s great! We play it all the time.” So there you are. A bit later I tried to put on an America album and the brat called me a “health food eater”. He’s obviously a prodigal snot, but you can’t ignore the evidence: Lou Reed may be leagues from the peak of his creative powers, he may be a deteriorating silhouette of a star…
But give him a child from the time he’s nine.
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