Waiting for the Man
Lou Reed revisits 'Berlin'
Lou Reed should need no introduction.
As I sat waiting for our phone interview, however, I would've been happy for any introduction. Our appointment had already been rescheduled once that afternoon by Reed. Now, I'd been on the phone for more than 30 minutes with his assistant while we waited for Reed to tap into the call. His phrase "waiting for the man" never seemed more profound.
There's hardly a rock band of any worth that hasn't been influenced by the Velvet Underground, Reed's band of the late 1960s, which included John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker among its members. His solo career, currently in its fourth decade, continues to flourish and evolve, although it's had its highs and lows over the years. One example remains 1973's Berlin, a song cycle about doomed lovers plagued by their addictions, domestic abuse, adultery, and suicide, among other things. The album, which both the public and press widely dismissed at the time as being "too depressing," was a provocative follow-up to the success of Reed's Transformer and its improbable Top 40 hit, "Walk on the Wild Side."
Thirty-five years later, Lou Reed's Berlin is a concert doc having its U.S. premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Directed by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Julian Schnabel, the film also includes material lensed by Schnabel's daughter Lola. Reed is also the keynote speaker for the SXSW Music Festival. We finally spoke to "the man" by phone, one week before his trip to Austin.
Austin Chronicle: Let me start by wishing you a belated happy birthday. I noticed while preparing for this interview that you turned 66 a couple of days ago.
Lou Reed: Thank you. That's very kind of you.
AC: Speaking of birthdays, I'm searching for the right term; elder statesman of rock or godfather of punk doesn't do it for me. How do you deal with that kind of pigeonholing?
LR: How about master musician?
AC: That's good. So much of your career has been about being an outsider, making outsider art. Now you're a keynote speaker at South by Southwest. How do you reconcile those two activities?
LR: I've always been me. And they are what they are. Sometimes, for whatever reasons, it goes the other way, but it's not anything I'm doing particularly.
AC: Can you give us any previews of what your keynote will be?
LR: I'm going to have a discussion with the great producer Hal Willner. We're going to discuss Berlin and other topics. [At this point Reed asks about the Texas primaries, which had occurred the day before and in which he expressed much interest. Then, suddenly, he segued back to the question I had asked earlier.] What I was gonna say about the elder-statesman thing: What would you call B.B. King?
LR: Yeah, there you go. You know, you would think rock is at the point where people would have a little respect for the people who do it, and not just for 14-year-olds. Just like the blues are the blues and always will be, there will always be classic people who do it. And classic songs.
AC: We live in an era where there are so many great master musicians. I recently saw Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones movie, Shine a Light, which is a pretty straightforward concert film that plays like a tribute to the band's longevity. Then there's Berlin, which is also a concert film, but the songs combine to tell a dark story. I've always loved the album and feel like the film really captures it.
LR: One would hope.
AC: What do you feel?
LR: I think it's perfect. I can't imagine improving it. On a big screen, with a real sound system, it's really amazing, I must say. And it's also 100 percent pure.
AC: What do you mean by that?
LR: What I mean is, it's exactly what it is. It's very pure. It's music and visuals, and that's that.
AC: The album is so inherently visual. The movie brings the material to its full potential, filling out images I've had in my mind for so many years. How did Julian Schnabel come into this project? Were the concerts already set up?
LR: He and I have been friends a long time. And he's very much in love with that album and always wanted to do something with it. And then Susan Feldman from St. Ann's Warehouse [in Brooklyn] said, "Why don't you just come in and play Berlin." I said OK. I was talking to Julian about it, and he said, "Well, you know, it should have a set. I should direct this, and it should have a set." And me and [Bob] Ezrin, who produced it in the first place, we had always had an idea. We never got to do it, but the original idea had been to stage it, and we had ideas what the set would be. It was very much like what Julian had in mind.
He put together a set in a warehouse in Brooklyn and said, "Come look at this, and tell me what you think." It was amazing. I just loved it. So there was that. Then Schnabel's daughter Lola is a terrific filmmaker. She and I would sit for hours and hours talking about Caroline [Berlin's tragic central character]. Where does she live? What does she look like? I didn't want to put together something that crushed a listener's visual version of it.
AC: By making it real specific?
LR: By making it be something you can't associate with. However you pictured her, [the film's visual stand-in] Emmanuelle Seigner should satisfy the way a Caroline can look, the kind of person she is, et cetera, et cetera. Anyway, we tried. Putting everything together reminded me very much of Warhol years ago, using lights and film and this and that. We had all that, and this killer set that Julian made. And Steve Hunter, the original guitarist, was there, and Ezrin was there for the first couple of shows to make sure everyone came in where they were supposed to. The choir – the choir of Brooklyn kids – was wonderful. So that was it. Then the thing is: Will the lyrics hold up? When I write, I try not to write something that'll sound dated. So, if it didn't sound dated, the question then becomes: Is it good enough? Could it hold up? And if it couldn't hold up, we wouldn't do it.
AC: Obviously you believe it did. One of the things I've always found so compelling about Berlin is that, at least in my mind, it made so clear your creative writing abilities, that your songwriting wasn't just autobiographical as so many people have claimed.
LR: Well the thing is, even if I had, so what. Right? You know I've never understood all this business about Berlin being so depressing. It's like these people haven't seen A Streetcar Named Desire? These people haven't read Othello? What? Are you joking? Who are you talking to when you say things that are so incredibly restrictive? So there's nothing to even talk about with people like that.
AC: I think it's part of your style, with the conversational tone of your singing and the clarity of your images, that gives people the idea that it's all actual.
LR: Well, also, you know, the thing is, you have to believe it's real, or the thing's no good in the first place. It has to seem real.
AC: One of the things that strikes me while watching the movie is the strength of your collaborations: The Schnabels we talked about some, the way you light up while watching Antony perform his solos. Working with others seems to be very satisfying to you. You work here with Steve Hunter again. Can you talk a little bit about what pleases you about collaborating with other people?
LR: Working with great people like Steve ... Ezrin ... Antony ... they can bring things to a project that you wouldn't be able to do on your own, first of all. Antony's voice, for instance, is an amazing instrument. And Steve Hunter can do anything on the guitar. That's the fun of collaborating with great players.
AC: Do they make you want to be better?
LR: I always want to be better.
Lou Reed and Hal Willner's SXSW Music Fest keynote interview reimagines itself Thursday, March 13, 10:30-11:30am, at the Austin Convention Center Room 18ABCD.