Lou Reed Talks About the Velvet Underground, Songwriting and Gear in 1998 Guitar World Interview
What do you recall about coming up with the chord progression for “Sweet Jane”—that B minor substitution?
That’s the key to the whole song. That’s how it’s not “Twist and Shout” or any of the other three-chord songs that go that way. I remember sitting there playing this lick. To me, it’s one of the great, great licks to play. And it’s because of the B minor—that little hop to the minor chord. [The song is in D major—GW Ed.] And I said, “Sterling, you gotta hear this. Check this out.” It was exciting to do that. I still get a kick out of that. I don’t know why.
There’s something about those kind of changes. You don’t have that in jazz, really. You have it in rock. There’s just a great deal of satisfaction in going from a I to a IV chord. And I think there will be for as long as time exists. You heard those changes in folk music, hillbilly music, African music. You will always hear them. Of course, part of it is probably because that came from Africa in the first place. The real basic changes are very, very beautiful.
Was your main guitar for the Velvet Underground albums that Country Gentleman we see you with in all the pictures?
Yeah. A Gretsch. There was a guy named Dan Armstrong, and he wired that thing up nice. And then I went to San Francisco and met an electronics guy there, and had a repeater [i.e., echo] built into it, among other things. So I could seem to play faster than I really could. I made the guitar stereo, and then of course the gain went down and I had to put batteries in. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew what I wanted to hear, but didn’t always understand the repercussions of what I was doing. Eventually it just ruined the guitar. I remember Dan took one look at it and wouldn’t speak to me for about a month. He was really upset.
I read somewhere that you took the frets off.
Not on that guitar, but on another Gretsch I had. We were experimenting around and thought a fretless guitar would be really cool. You’d have to be really good. But as a solo instrument it wasn’t a bad idea. That way you could slide into notes.
Photos from that era show you playing through a Fender Deluxe amp.
I still have it. Oh, what a great amp. But I hurt the speaker, finally, about two or three years ago. I accidentally threw a switch on my guitar that made the pickup a humbucker. That was it. They don’t make those speakers anymore.
The live set on your new album, Perfect Night, includes maybe the bitchiest song from Transformer, “Vicious,” and maybe the sweetest song from that album, “Perfect Day.”
What, you think of “Vicious” as a bitchy song? I think of it as a funny song. “Vicious, you hit me with a flower.” That’s pretty funny. Warhol said that. He said, “Why don’t you write a song called ‘Vicious’?” And I said, “What a great idea. I wish I’d thought of that myself.” It was so typically Andy. He just said, “Vicious, I hit you with a flower.” I thought it was very sweet. And also, how vicious is that? So, I added a couple of more lyrics that got a little more vicious. One line came from reading about some talk show host who was very anti gay. He told some caller, “Why don’t you swallow razor blades.” I thought, “Wow, that would make a great lyric.” So I threw it in there.
And although I said “Perfect Day” is sweet, there’s a hint of a dark side, too: “You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good.”
I don’t think I’m enormously different from everybody else. Everybody has had that experience in life. You’re with somebody who makes you feel like a king. Or above where you were. Your best self. [shrugs] You know, without putting too much weight on it, for Christ’s sake. But I love that song. There’s a bunch of songs I love. There’s that, there’s a song called “New Age,” and “Candy Says” which Grant Lee Buffalo just did the most beautiful version of. Which makes me enormously happy.
Is it fair to say that Perfect Night is a set of songs born of a marriage between an acoustic guitar and an amp?
It’s literally, literally fair to say that. I’d never heard a sound quite like that particular guitar going through that particular amp, using a real pickup. Not a piezo. I can’t stand piezos. So someone made me a real pickup. I plugged it into this amp I had, and it sounded fantastic, without doing anything. I was pretty shocked.
What kind of guitar? What pickup?
It’s a guitar built by a guy named Jim Olsen. An amazing guitar. And a Sunrise pickup. I’ve had acoustic guitars with those pickups in it before, but I never got this sound.
There was just something about that combination.
It’s all about combinations. As someone who’s always been in love with real old, pre-CBS Fenders, I always kind of judge things from that. That’s really the ultimate kind of experience where you just plug in and play and it’s all there: the sound, the push, the tone, the distortion, you name it. I have contemporary amps that work well for electric guitar for me. I’m a big fan of my Soldanos. And I have a few Jim Kelly amps I’d never part with. But as far as acoustic guitar goes, there’s an amp called the Tone King. They look really Fifties-ish.
The ones with the old television legs.
Yeah, like they should be in a motel. You plug an acoustic guitar into one of those and it’s astonishing. When you take an acoustic guitar and plug it into an electric guitar amp, the sound is usually terrible. There’s no bottom, or the bottom is exploding. But through the Tone King my acoustic sounded great. So the next problem, of course, is feedback. Not so much in the studio, because you can use a smaller amp and you don’t have a house P.A. system coming in on top of it.
But we did a show at [New York’s] Supper Club, and as soon as I sat down and started to play, the guitar and amp started feeding back like crazy. So I called my friend Pete Cornish, who has built me all kinds of rack systems and multi foot pedal setups over the years. This year’s problem for Pete was, “How do I get rid of the feedback and not lose the tone?” And he built me a thing he called the Feedbucker. I told him which strings were the offending ones. There were two of them. So he built me a box with two knobs—one for one string, one for the other. You get feedback and you dial it out. Oh, I love it.
A distinctive quality of your playing style has to do with the finger vibrato you often use in open chord shapes like A and D, and in other fretboard positions as well.
Oh yeah, I’ve been learning, practicing, doing that forever. Finger combos off a chord while you’re doing that vibrato. If you have a ratty tone, it’s fucked. But if you have a nice tone, you can do some great stuff. I like when you can feel it here [strikes center of chest]. Be it electric or acoustic, I think that’s one of the ways to pick a guitar out. I like to feel that vibration. But I remember when I was playing with Robert Quine, I was doing my vibrato on the strings and he said, “Oh wow, you do it backwards.” In other words, “you do it wrong.” [shrugs] But that’s the way I do it. I’ve tried doing it the other way, but the sound that I like is the opposite. But hey, to each his own.
So you do it vertically or horizontally? [laughter]
That way [mimes horizontally], or down. Very rarely up. Although I’ve been practicing that a little recently because B.B. King, Albert King, they all do it up.
Well, Albert played upside down.
Which’ll really go show you. What an amazing guitar player.
The songs on Perfect Night encompass your entire career, from the Velvets to current days. Did you plan it that way?
Yeah. I got together with this band I’ve had a while [Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders, Tony “Thunder” Smith], and we just began trying things out in this new all-acoustic setting. I said, “Let’s throw out the old set list. Out of 400 or 500 possible songs to perform, let’s see what we come up with.” And that’s what we did.
How did “I’ll Be Your Mirror” come up?
[Photographer] Nan Goldin had wanted to use it as the title for a show she had at the Whitney Museum [in New York]. That started me thinking of the song, and I started playing it. It’s really made for that [acoustic format]. There’s not a huge difference that takes place between the versions. Except maybe it gets warmer, which is fine with me.
You’ve written songs in just about every pop genre and style at one time or another. Is that in any way an outgrowth of your first professional gig as a staff writer at Pickwick Records?
That’s really just an outgrowth of loving pop and rock. People are surprised sometimes when I tell them some of my favorite songs. I like some really stupid stuff.
You know what I mean. Like, I wrote a song called “Banging on my Drum.” [from Rock and Roll Heart, RCA, 1976] When I say stupid, I say that affectionately. I’ve never really gotten into jazz songs. So, like, when I did a Frank Sinatra song—we did “One for my Baby” [on bassist Rob Wasserman’s Duets album], but we turned it into a shuffle. Or when we did Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” we played around with it and made it more into a rock song. [This track was part of the PBS TV show and album, September Song, the Music of Kurt Weill, and also appeared on a multi-artist disc called Lost in the Stars—GW Ed.]
Because that’s what I like. Probably one of my favorite songs ever would be Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay with Me Baby.” [A Philadelphia soul singer, Ellison released “Stay With Me” on Warner Bros. Records in 1970—GW Ed.] Lorraine Ellison. Whoa. A Jerry Ragovoy production. Wow. I was also nuts about James Burton.
And Roy Orbison when he played guitar—“Ooby Dooby.” That’s the kind of playing I go out of my mind over, to this day. The solo [James Burton’s] on [Ricky Nelson’s] “Hello Mary Lou.” Although I never went out and got that James Burton model Tele. I think it’s strung with, what? .03s? Invisible strings. I’m very happy with the guitar I have now. I always wanted one guitar that does everything, which is just about impossible. But this guitar comes real close to being the ultimate guitar.