A Conversation With Lou Reed, Pt. 1
(On May 28, 1980, while I was at CREEM, an unexpected opportunity to interview Lou Reed arose. Lou had just released his Growing Up In Public album, and after the previous night’s gig in Cleveland, he and his new wife Sylvia were passing through Detroit. Gathered in the lobby of a suburban Detroit hotel were Lou, Sylvia, me, fellow editor Mark J. Norton, and Jean Johnson–Lou’s local label rep and an old college friend of mine. Reed, whose relationship with CREEM and its star writer Lester Bangs was, shall we say, very memorably documented, was friendly, unexpectedly warm, extremely talkative, and looking for convenient pinball arcades in the Detroit area. You may find this interesting.–dd)
Lou Reed: Where can you play pinball around here?
(Mark J. Norton names a nearby arcade)
Is it in a crummy part of town? I mean, can you bring a lady there?
How do you explain this new fixation with pinball? Has it always been there?
No. It’s an outgrowth of video games. I didn’t start getting interested in pinball until they started having the LED readouts. Then when they introduced the memory units, I started really getting excited.
Do you have any games at home that you’re fascinated with?
I don’t have the games I want to have now. It’s a really expensive hobby. I’ve had Mata Hari …
Oh yeah, that’s my favorite!
But you know, after a while if you own the game, you can kind of look at it and it turns over.
I’m good at that one, actually. I always pop it in the hole in the top…
Well that’s the whole secret to the game. You don’t have to ever touch those things on the side, that’s for people who can’t figure out pinball. You just keep putting it up there in that hole. And the thing is, it doesn’t register your score until the ball is out. And most people just go for the side and that 50,000. And you can kill ’em and make a lot of money… Then the Six Million Dollar Man I had, Flash, Pinball Pool. I started out slow with Space Mission; the game that I have at home that I like a lot is called Sharpshooter. And that’s really hard. And a game I really like is called Cheetah, or something like Big Game.
Yeah? Do you get your score by killing things?
Killing things? No, no, no. There’s a lot of targets. I like Bally games a lot. I like the rhythm of them, and the new Williams and Stern games are really good.
Someone just introduced the new Rolling Stones game…
I got 29,180,880 on that. Took me about two hours.
Have you played Gorgar?
No, I mean isn’t that the highest score you ever heard of?
Yeah, you’re amazing, Lou, no question.
No, let’s just say it’s a really easy game. Next day someone got 99 million on it and they had to carry him away. He was there for about six hours with us. It’s not a very hard game. (pause) Gorgar‘s alright.
I like his voice.
(to label rep Jean, pointing to Mark J. Norton) Find out where he’s talking about.
Any Detroit date set up as yet?
There wasn’t any time.
Too bad we didn’t see you last night (in Cleveland)
It was fantastic, it was better than good. They were on their feet right from the start. They never sat down.
What songs did you do in your set? Mostly from the new album?
No, not most of it. It’s a mix-up–from “Heroin” to “I’ll Be Your Mirror” to this one. With a stop in between for “Berlin.”
Same band with you that’s on the LP?
Oh,sure. Some of those guys have been with me since ’75. They’ve been with me a long time.
Is Fonfara’s Tycoon band still around, or is it on hold?
I think it’s on hold. He’s with me.
I talked with him for awhile when he was playing once, he had nothing but good things to say about you.
Well, you’ve got to understand, we live right around the corner from each other. Everybody in the band is friends. We hang out. We don’t just get together when we’re touring.
What happened to Marty Fogel?
He went off into the world of jazz. His ears were going to start giving out. He always used to play with earplugs,
I thought you might have continued the collaborations you started with Don Cherry. How’s your relationship with him? Are you good friends?
We’re cordial. I don’t hang out with him; he doesn’t hang out with me. He’s never in the country. He’s a really sweet guy.
Sylvia: Is he in Switzerland?
One of those countries.
What music have you been listening to lately? Have you liked the Ornette Coleman stuff for a long time?
Oh, yeah. I mean when I was in college I had a jazz show, I was a disc jockey–you know, you could program your own records–I used to have “Excursion On A Wobbly Rail” by Cecil Taylor as my intro theme. I liked Ornette Coleman a lot, and Don Cherry a whole lot, I mean I used to always go see them at clubs, like the original Ornette Coleman quartet– Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden. . .
Yeah. Do you like the Old & New Dreams LPs? Have you heard ’em?
No. There’s two cuts that beat practically anything I’ve ever heard. One’s called “Ramblin'”
Yeah, I read that he played in Little Richard’s band, it’s really amazing. Yeah, I read that, and Hendrix supposedly played in Little Richard’s band, too. Little Richard had a mean band, man — I think it was the same band that Larry Williams had. I mean, it’s interesting the crossover that goes on there. I mean, you can hear it on “Ramblin’,” it’s just POW! (moves arm upward) To this day, I mean I can listen to that thing over and over, I love that thing. And also “Lonely Woman.” The whole harmonic idea on that just killed me. Don Cherry knows how much I love that line in there, the line in “Lonely Woman,” and I asked him if he’d put it in “The Bells”
Yeah, and he quotes that line in the intro, a passage, if you listen carefully. I just think it’s so great. I mean, I love practically everything Don Cherry does, I just love the way he plays the horn. I don’t much care what he’s playing, I just love listening to him, just his tone.
Yeah, I saw him with Codona and was disappointed because he barely played his horn, he was more interested in the percussion thing…
(smiles) He has his strange moments…but, uhh…Oh, I was going to say something but now I forgot… Oh yeah, I had had the idea when I discovered electric guitar–wouldn’t it be incredible if you could play like Ornette Coleman? On the guitar? That was some of the initial attack–something like “European Son” grew out of that thing. Like when Ornette came out with that experimental record?
Yeah, I thought, wow, what would happen if… I saw him on Saturday Night Live and he did this one little thing that was… just incredible, per usual, two drummers?
Oh yeah, I saw that.
Wasn’t that incredible? Jesus Christ, is he good.
What do you think of his things with James “Blood” Ulmer?
Oh, you should hear them. What about that whole thing with James Chance or Lester Bowie’s brother, Defunkt? Hear them?
(to Sylvia) Is that the person you know?
He was in Ornette’s band?
No, not him.
(to Sylvia) Who’s James Blood?
Sylvia: I don’t know.
What’s his name again?
James “Blood” Ulmer. The same music that was on Saturday Night. In fact, he just put out an album Ornette played on.
Oh really? Is it out now in the store? I mean, can I get it?
Not only can you get it, I have a cassette of it in the car. When we leave, I’ll give it to you.
Label Rep: Do you happen to have Rachel Sweet, too?
Yeah, I think so.
Uh, yeah…It’s no problem for me, I’ve got lots of tapes, I just tape the albums on my own cassettes.
Great. I mean, you have no idea how much I love that stuff. I mean it’s so hard to keep track of albums and names, you know? I mean, I can understand why people who might not have liked my records in the past might buy them now, if only because there’s just so much going on that when they walk into a store they see my records and say “Oh, I know him.” And it’s just so hard to keep track of everybody. It should be easy for me, because I know this and that, but it’s not. If anything it gets harder for me, because I get hyped so much by people saying this and that, I just try to stay away.
I can imagine.
But you know, what’s on the radio is such a drag, because if you hear something you really like, they won’t tell you who it is. I’ve even called the station up, and they don’t even know. You know, by the time they get through, they say, “Who were you listening to,” and I say “I don’t know who I was listening to–I’m asking you!” They say, “Well, what disc jockey?” I say I don’t know…. That’s what I really hate about–well, I mean I like RKO robot radio…
Where they don’t have any disc jockeys, it’s just mechanized?
Right. But they didn’t announce anything. And some of the stuff, I mean the disc jockeys could be really helpful, but… I mean, I go back to listening to jazz stations, where they would tell you who the musicians are. I guess with rock records they don’t think who the musicians are is important. And in most cases it isn’t.
(end Pt. 1)