A walk on the wild side
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A walk on the wild side

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In a rare sunny mood, Lou Reed talks about rap, his cache of weapons and performing his masterpiece - also branded 'the most depressing album ever' - in Sydney.

Richard Abowitz, writing for Gadfly online, once called Lou Reed "the most mean-spirited troll in the music industry". The Village Voice music critic James Walcott was a little kinder, claiming this "walking crystallisation of cantankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anti-charisma that there's something princely about him".

I'm pondering this a little nervously as I sit on a barstool at a West Village eatery called Sant Ambroeus, playing my own version of waiting for the man. Reed has grudgingly agreed, with many provisos, to talk to me about, well, being Lou Reed. The singer is a regular at this cosy Italian bistro (the blonde hostess tells me reverentially that "Mr Reed always takes the big table in the corner"), and I'm scanning the street when he walks in.


I don't know what I was expecting - horns, a tail? - but it's not the slip of a man before me in baggy jeans, old-school brown Nike trainers and a scuffed leather jacket over a ragged grey sweatshirt bearing the barely decipherable words "Lake Placid". His face is a small prune. He is snake-hipped and skinny to the point of emaciation. Reed, 64, quit his hard-living excesses years ago and is, in fact, a devoted follower of tai chi, but those decadent decades of the '60s and '70s have stamped themselves irrevocably on the geography of his face. You could slip pennies into the deep slots bracketing his mouth.

He fixes me with a blank stare when we're introduced and mutters something to his minder. I'm told to return to the bar and wait - Mr Reed is hungry and wants to eat in private. I wait and wait. And wait. Finally, I'm summoned to the singer's small table facing the street, the ruins of a big meal - pasta, milkshake - in front of him. He blinks those heavy, hooded, dark eyes and gives me a sweetly benevolent smile. Perhaps all those years of bad behaviour with the press can be attributed to hypoglycaemia.

Over the course of the interview, Reed proves erudite, charming and just a little eccentric. His legendary prickliness surfaces only when he bluntly tells his publicist, at one point, to get lost. In a deep, lazy drawl he chats about everything from rap music ("it's white kids getting off listening to a fantasy black person with a big gangsta life") to the loss of privacy brought about by technology ("Never save anything. You go to YouTube and you'll find more than you ever thought if you left anything around. That's why now, in studios, I erase everything. They can't release the out-takes because there aren't any"); from auteur director Robert Wilson ("Bob and I are like a hand in a glove, and that's because we're both very aware of Andy, the master. Everybody got something from Mr Warhol") to his lifelong passion, tai chi ("Boy, I wish I could bring [Master Ren, his long-time teacher] when I go to Australia"). He smiles lazily and often.

Talk turns to Berlin, his spectacularly under-received, love-gone-horribly-wrong third solo album that was once branded "the most depressing album ever". Produced by Bob Ezrin and released in 1973, it was a song cycle about two drug-addled, expatriate lovers living lost lives in a doomed, divided city.

Reed, having deliberately constructed Berlin as a slap in the face to the glam rock shininess of his previous solo album, Transformer, regarded it as a masterpiece; the critics begged to differ. It was savaged critically and commercially and the singer, deeply wounded by the reaction to his most personal and deeply felt work, shelved any plans for live performances of the album.

Until now. Thirty-three years after its release, Reed will perform Berlin at the 2007 Sydney Festival in a "theatricalised" concert version of the album, directed by auteur filmmaker and artist Julian Schnabel, a close friend, and featuring the talents of everyone from Schnabel's artist daughter, Lola, to Berlin's original producer, Ezrin, to famed rock music-theatre producer Hal Willner. Before Sydney, it will feature over three nights at Brooklyn's noted performance arts space, St Ann's Warehouse. The venue's artistic director, Susan Feldman, has staged several of Reed's concert performances over the years and had been wanting to stage Berlin for more than a decade; when she met Sydney Festival's director Fergus Linehan, another passionate Berlin fan, last year, and heard his offer of backing and support for a tour of the work to Australia, she approached Reed again. His assent finally set the project in motion.

I'm curious to know why he agreed - after all, he professes no high hopes that the world will suddenly embrace it with open arms. He puts down my digital tape recorder (a technology nut, Reed waxes lyrical about his current love - digital photography, his new Myspace site and his state-of-the-art home studio) and says bluntly: "Well, because Susan asked me." Weren't there some tentative plans for a Broadway staging way back in 1974? He scrunches up his face. "Well, Ezrin and I had these ideas, maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that, but it [Berlin] was such a failure, it met with such a terrible reception - you know, we couldn't get arrested, as they say. It was considered a real failure. It was not at all what anyone wanted, except us, and that was it. Stage it?" He emits a little snort. "No one wanted to hear it, let alone stage it." He examines his fingernails, then says softly: "It is inconceivable to me that it's now 30 years after the fact. It's completely hard to grasp."

Reed has always been a man in love with words (see accompanying story). I ask him what he was reading in the lead-up to Berlin. "Burroughs, Burroughs, Burroughs. Selby [Hubert Selby jnr, of Last Exit to Brooklyn infamy]. Leonard Cohen - Beautiful Losers. That's where I was at the time. And, you know, endless Delmore."

Delmore Schwartz was an influential mentor to the young Reed and the poet's influence is stamped all over Reed's songwriting aesthetic. His face is rapt as he rattles off the titles of a number of Schwartz's poems and he singles out two works he particularly admires - 1948's The World is a Wedding ("I wish I could have written that," he says wistfully) and 1950's Vaudeville For A Princess and Other Poems.

Those internal literary strivings intimately shaped Berlin; he looked to a Tennessee Williams classic for inspiration when he created Berlin's cast of misfits and lost souls. "I wanted to write something like A Streetcar Named Desire," he says slowly. "Something on that level. I mean, after all, what is Streetcar really about? In the end, it's just relationships between these people - this one's like this, this one's like that and they all intersect - it's not a huge plot, it's about the complications of the heart."

I remark on how musical the phrase is, akin to Blanche DuBois's "kindness of strangers" and his face lights up. "That kind of line is so musical you can hear it in a song immediately and I'd always thought that - that this kind of writing [would fit in] a rock format. A lot of people will say you start doing that and it takes away from the below-the-waist fun of it, but I can't see why you can't have both."

I'm not the first to wonder if the angst-ridden Berlin would have fared better if it had been released much later, at the birth of grunge in the early 1990s: perhaps audiences raised on Nirvana and Mudhoney and the visceral imagery of rap would have been more receptive to his themes of alienation and loss.

He ponders the suggestion. "I mean with gangsta rap now, with its bitches and whores getting stabbed, and I'll shoot your dick off and run you over with a Mack truck, and even with country and western - I stabbed him in a park because he cheated on me - I don't know, would [Berlin] make more sense now? I have no idea.

"Still, I was there first, in an uncharted land that no one wanted. I was there and I had it all to myself ... That kind of stuff, what you'd call hardcore, almost made it so I couldn't make other records. You didn't know what to expect from me and that's why I've never been big. I [was always] on the outside."

Well, you were huge on the outside, I say, and he grins. "Yeah, I was a monster on the outside."

Since 2003's The Raven, Reed hasn't done much songwriting. Instead, he channelled his energies into other projects - he released his second book of photography, on New York's gritty streetscapes, earlier this year and has collaborated with German avant-garde ensemble Zeitkratzer to release a new version next year of songs from his infamously unlistenable 1975 album, Metal Machine Music. Apart from happy domesticity with performance artist Laurie Anderson, what does he do with his spare time? He grins. "I collect weapons. Martial art weapons. Swords. Sabres. Spears. Blackjacks. Anything, really."

I'm intrigued - so how do you get them past US customs guards? "I bribe them: Here, I'll give you an autograph."

Come on, I say - are you serious? He grins. "You can't tell, can you?" I say no, and suggest he should have been a poker player. Does he play poker? "No, it's too high maths for me. All that left brain and right brain stuff ..."

We wind up the interview and Reed gives me a warm handshake. "Years from now, when you talk about this - and you will - be kind," he says, grinning. "You know where that's from? Tea and Sympathy. So you will, won't you?"