Brain Pickings

Lou Reed on Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Setting Edgar Allan Poe to Music, and Why Record Labels Deserve to Die

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“Making things that are beautiful is real fun.”

In February of 2012, the late and great Lou Reed, already severely ill and awaiting a liver transplant , visited the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, as a guest at the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium — an annual event inviting prominent musicians, including Patti Smith (whose recent tribute to Reed is pure goosebumps), Loudon Wainwright, and Roseanne Cash, to perform and discuss their work. Reed’s conversation with Rolling Stone critic Anthony deCurtis, author of the excellent In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, is one of his last recorded live interviews. Here are the essential highlights from the interview, in which Reed radiates his singular fusion of irreverence, insight, and uncompromising creative genius.

On Andy Warhol and the birth of The Velvet Underground:

Warhol was what you would call a workaholic. … And he worked — people have no idea. … He was an astonishing person. When you consider what he was like when he was doing art direction in windows and all that — with the suit, the tie, the whole thing. And then, one day, PHOOM! He’s not Andy Warhol anymore — now he’s Andy Warhol, he’s in Levis and the wig and the jacket — fantastic! He created himself — you gotta love it.

Reed doesn’t conceal his contempt for the music labels, who didn’t like or even listen to the very music they were selling:

All these record companies deserve to go bankrupt. They’re all, you know, lying sacks of shit. No joke — these are bad guys, they deserve everything that’s happened to them.

On Bob Dylan:

On his wife, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson, whose remembrance of Reed is one of the most soul-stirring meditations on love and loss ever written (“And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”):

She’s so smart and can do anything — anything she does is absolutely great. It’s amazing.

On balancing raw force and raw vulnerability in his music and writing:

I like conflict — it’s balance. Or, like tai chi, balance is like the yin and the yang. Even a song like “Perfect Day” — the kick is at the end, the last verse: “I thought I was someone else, someone good.”

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven by Lou Reed. Click image for details.

On adapting literary works to music and rewriting Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry in his 2003 album The Raven and the companion graphic novel:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is absolutely fantastic — here’s a taste:

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