Lou Reed Talks About the Velvet Underground, Songwriting and Gear in 1998 Guitar World Interview
From the GW archive: This feature originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of Guitar World.
“Wanna hear more?”
When Lou Reed asks you a question, you know you’re being tested. For the past quarter of an hour, he’s been holding forth on the subject of power tube distortion. Now he wants to know if I’d like him to keep going.
Will an affirmative answer prove me a serious guitar aficionado, or a major chump willing to squander the precious interview time that Reed is so notoriously loath to grant?
Seated behind a big desk in his Soho office space, he looks like some intimidating schoolmaster, peering at me through frameless bifocals. Do I wanna hear more? Uh, sure Lou. Across the desk, Reed’s craggy face remains expressionless. “If your eyes start to glaze over,” he finally says, “you’ll tell me.”
Reed’s fanatical obsession with guitar gear is well known among luthiers and equipment manufacturers. It seems oddly out of character with his (slightly) more public persona as the great dark poet of American rock, the Godfather of Punk and recent subject of PBS television’s dignified American Masters documentary series. Avant garde art icons aren’t supposed to be gear whores. But then Lou Reed never does what he’s supposed to.
He seems to take perverse delight in confounding expectations and thwarting would-be theorists. He even puts his fans to the test. This has enabled him to reinvent himself repeatedly throughout the course of his 32-year career. And to write one of the most diverse, thoughtful and provocative portfolio of songs in all of rock.
On Reed’s latest album, Perfect Night, he revisits many of his finest songs, re-exploring their variegated emotional terrain through the medium of amplified acoustic guitar. Recorded live at the July ’97 Meltdown Festival in London, the disc is an “unplugged” retrospective of Reed’s stunning career, from his earliest material with the hugely influential Velvet Underground right up to his latest work on the rock musical Timerocker.
As Reed explains in the following interview, it was a piece of guitar equipment—a feedback suppression device called the Feedbucker—that was the catalyst behind this new album. Is he putting us on? To quote the man’s own publicist: “With Lou, you just never know.”
Lou Reed was doing surprising things with guitars even before he started the Velvet Underground in 1965. As a staff songwriter for a hack mid-Sixties label called Pickwick Records, he penned and produced a dance craze single called “The Ostrich” which featured what the author called The Ostrich Guitar: a conventional electric with all six strings tuned to the same interval.
“I’d seen this guy—I think his name was Jerry Vance—tune the guitar where every string was the same,” says Reed. “I thought, ‘What an amazing sound!’ So I filed that one away.”
“The Ostrich” failed to set teenage America on fire. But one of the musicians on the recording date was the classically trained viola player John Cale, who soon joined forces with Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to form the Velvet Underground. With guitars, electrified viola and madly overdriven combo organs, they took feedback and noise to new extremes. Meanwhile, Reed’s lyrics took rock down a dark street where it had never been before, opening up a world of S&M fetishists, transvestites, junkies, pimps, pushers and prostitutes.
He drew his observations from books and life—particularly the social whirl surrounding pop art superstar Andy Warhol, who took the Velvet Underground under his wing, teaming them with the arrestingly beautiful German actress/model/chanteuse Nico for their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve, 1967). Songs like “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Sister Ray” provided much inspiration for the punk rock revolution that would erupt a decade later.
The bondage/mutilation shtick so beloved of modern acts like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson owes its existence to Velvet Underground songs like “Venus in Furs,” “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation.” Today, the Velvets are a celebrated rock band; but they went largely under-appreciated in their own time. They were a bit too dark for the sunshine Sixties.
By the early Seventies, Reed had moved on to a solo career, membership in the glam rock elite and a commercial high point. His Transformer album (RCA, 1972), produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, became one of his best-selling records ever, propelled by the liltingly subversive hit single “Walk on the Wild Side.” Album rock radio played the heck out of Lou’s live opus, Rock and Roll Animal (RCA, 1974), particularly the disc’s version of the Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” which featured extended axe-twiddling from ex-Alice Cooper guitar men Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner.
Reed could have rehashed these successes and ridden the gravy train for decades, as many Seventies rock stars did. Instead, he chose to put out records like 1975’s infamous Metal Machine Music (RCA): 61 minutes and 43 seconds (four vinyl LP sides) of unrelenting, multitracked, tape-manipulated and audio processed guitar feedback.
In that one sustained, prophetic blast Reed set the stage for Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, No Wave, Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Noise Pop. The very next year he did a complete 180-degree turnaround and released Coney Island Baby (RCA), a subdued album with country rock overtones. With the arrival of New York’s CBGB’s scene circa ’76-’77, Lou Reed was acknowledged and lauded as the Godfather of Punk. His 1978 Street Hassle album (Arista) is charged with the nasty vigor of that vital new chapter in rock.
The Eighties brought Reed’s lyrics into a new phase. His penetrating observer’s gaze got turned inward. With the superb ex-Richard Hell & the Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine on board, albums like The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts (both RCA, 1982) unflinchingly chronicled Lou’s own problems with relationships, drugs and alcohol. When, by the end of the decade, it seemed like Reed had tapped this confessional vein dry, he found yet another songwriting voice, one of his most powerful: the politically engaged, deeply enraged voice of the landmark New York album (Warner Bros., 1989).
Songs like “Dirty Boulevard” and “Busload of Faith”—both reprised on Perfect Night—have become the best-known Lou Reed songs since the Transformer era. New York also introduced Reed’s mature electric guitar tone—a keenly focused clean sound with incredible presence and formidable wallop. This tone has proven an ideal vehicle for Reed’s guitar style, with its distinctive use of finger vibrato in open chord shapes. In turning his attention to amplified acoustic guitar, Lou Reed has taken one further step in his lifelong quest for the purest yet baddest sound ever heard.
GUITAR WORLD: The Velvet Underground’s overall sensibility was markedly different from anything else happening in rock at the time. But on a purely guitaristic level, were you influenced by stuff that was going on?
I’d been listening to [avant garde jazz artists] Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. Of course I was not trained to play like them. I couldn’t read and write music. I couldn’t even begin to think of having technique like that. But I certainly had the energy—and a good ear. So that’s what I was listening to, along with guitar players like James Burton and Steve Cropper.
Who doesn’t try to copy Cropper? He’s a great guitar player. You know, it’s not all about soloing. It’s about those parts that guys like Burton and Cropper played. And the Velvet Underground, we were about parts. Although some of the solo work grew out of having discovered feedback on electric guitar and liking that. I was just trying to get the good feedback and get rid of the bad feedback. It was a matter of where you stood in those days. It’s amazing I can hear anything today after doing that for a couple of years. I had my ears tested. I’ve been so lucky. I’d just be deaf after shows with the Velvet Underground. We were kids. Who knew anything?