Lou Reed as Remembered by Legendary Rock Journalist Ben Fong-Torres (Guest Column)
This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I do not remember Lou Reed as one of the most influential songwriters and musicians in rock music, or as a leader of the Velvet Underground, itself a model for several generations of numerous (mostly alt) genres.
Yes, he was all that and much more. But when I met him in 1986, his underground days seemed -- seemed -- to be behind him. The word was that he had mellowed. He'd married; he'd stopped drinking; he'd made some downright danceable music (he'd just issued his 14th solo album, Mistrial), and he'd done a TV commercial for Honda motorcycles. Still, I was a little jittery about interviewing him. (I was writing a pop column in GQ.)
I'd run across newspaper interviews in which he'd snapped at writers for asking what he considered personal questions or for asking him to amplify points made in earlier interviews ("I don't comment on past quotes"). Even a question with praise ("What do you consider to be your chief strength as an artist?") failed. "That's not a question I could answer glibly off the top of my head."
Reed was the anti-interview. But I lucked out. His publicist at RCA had told me, "He doesn't respect the press because it hasn't helped." So I began by asking him about the uselessness of the print medium, and off he went: "I've had the best reviews in the world and the worst ones. I've had reviews that say, 'Why don't you just die?,' and it hasn't seemed to make a difference." He often learned more from fan letters, he said. "A lot of times, what they say is illuminating to me 'cause they take something in a way I literally wasn't aware of. I'm not the expert on my own work."
Reed could not have been more pleasant. About his Honda ad, he said: "Who else could make a scooter hip?" He went on, "If you really think about it, what does selling out mean? If you think of rock 'n' roll as this anti-establishment, rebellious-type thing, well, you wouldn't make a record. Look who's recording you: the same people who manufacture missiles. You could start tearing it apart."
As we neared the end of our time, I tried one downright personal question, about how he'd both glorified and denounced drug use; about his glam-rock days with David Bowie and a transgender, live-in friend named Rachel. "Have your various images worked for or against you?" I tried. Reed didn't attack me or reject the question. "It can do both," he said. "I can use it to keep people away from me. If I see someone I don't like, I can be 'that' Lou Reed -- the bad one." He wished people wouldn't confuse the characters he's portrayed with himself. "I understand why people are interested; I'm performing these things. But what I see myself as is a writer. Whether I'm a nice guy, whether I'm a liar, whether I'm immoral should have nothing to do with it."
On this occasion, he was a nice guy. That's how I'll remember him.