Lou Reed Talks About the Velvet Underground, Songwriting and Gear in 1998 Guitar World Interview
Back then, especially.
They would have these tests saying, “Mice go deaf from being exposed to this.” So in all the clubs they’d say, “Fine, don’t bring a mouse to the club.” But we had a rule in the Velvet Underground: no blues licks. There were people who were really good at that. But that’s not what we were about.
Where did the notion first arise, for you, that the subject matter of songs like “Heroin” or “Sister Ray”—addiction, junkies, transvestite whores—was something that could be presented in a pop or rock song format?
Well, I’d been reading [beat writers] [William] Burroughs and [Allen] Ginsberg and [Hubert] Selby. I was a big fan of certain kinds of writing. I had a B.A. in English. So why wouldn’t I? It seemed so obvious and it still does. There was a huge uncharted world there. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. That’s the kind of stuff that you might read. Why wouldn’t you listen to it, too? You have the fun of reading that, and you get the fun of rock on top of it.
It seems obvious now, but…
It seemed obvious then. Well, to me.
Sure, there had been protest music, folk music, but nothing like the level of literary realism you brought to it.
I can’t conceive how it’s anything other than the most obvious idea imaginable. If I’d written that stuff in a book, people wouldn’t have even looked sideways at me. Well, maybe they even would’ve looked sideways at me for putting it in a book. But I mean, this stuff existed long before I showed up on the scene. It’s in old blues songs.
And now you have gangsta rap and all the rest of it. Well, way back then, “Sister Ray” was all about that same kind of stuff. And “Venus in Furs,” I didn’t write the book. But what a great book to throw into a song. [The song, as well as the band’s name, was inspired by Michael Leigh’s book on sadism and masochism, The Velvet Underground—GW Ed.] All these things were available to write about.
In some ways, that makes it a little hard for me now. Because I’ve done that. I can’t write “Venus in Furs, Part II” or “Heroin, Part III.” Back then, though, that’s the kind of subject matter I was playing around with. But it was always balanced by what I thought were really pretty love songs. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition. But I was someone who had a pretense toward writing. With the kind of background I had, the reading I was doing, the people I was around, all that was going on around me, it would have been strange if I was just writing “moon and June” songs. And if I did write that kind of thing, I felt I would really have to craft it. Which is what “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is. And “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Is songwriting an easy or a labored process for you? Do you revise a lot?
I rewrite, yeah. I’m a believer in rewriting. That’s an old habit. I make things up on the spot—spontaneously. But in the end, I rewrite. I might get hung up on one word and keep on changing it until I feel it’s right.
Leonard Cohen once showed me some of his notebooks. For every song he writes, he’s got a big, thick notebook filled with variant lyrics and alternate versions. You don’t rewrite that much, do you?
Well, I do it on a computer. The computer, to me, is just a glorified typewriter. With the handwriting I have, I should’ve been a doctor. It’s completely unreadable. And you can revise really quickly on a computer. And then I get rid of the earlier versions. So I don’t have a notebook full of anything, because there is no notebook. You know, Leonard Cohen had one of the greatest opening lines ever in one of his songs: “Give me crack and anal sex.”
Yeah, that’s in “The Future.” Actually, it’s the start of the second verse.
See, there you go. That’ll get your attention. He’s trying to talk to you in an adult way. No one says to him “How could you say that in a song?” It would sound so absurd, because you’re talking to Leonard Cohen. But we were earlier than Leonard Cohen, when it came to that kind of lyric, anyway. The mythical Sixties.