Reviews

My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed, 1972-2013 Compiled by Michael Heath

For a wallflower like myself some records and bands are like good friends. I don’t have many real people in my life, a few very close friends and family but not a large group of buds or acquaintances.

So on some lonely night when maybe I don’t want or can’t reach out to someone, me and a good record can sit down and they’ll speak, I’ll listen and the record understands me better than anyone else could.

Then there’s Lou Reed (and the Velvet Underground). That’s not a friend on my record shelf, that’s family.

I can’t remember where I first heard the Velvet Underground but it was probably in a movie. I was hooked quickly, specifically on the first Velvet Underground record and Loaded and as time has gone on records that I didn’t understand when I was 16 like Street Hassle, the second self titled VU record or Metal Machine Music have become favorites.

It’s rare that a band or an artist can grow with you, or that you’d even want them to. I still have trouble with those later Bad Brains records. Some bands don’t even get that far and you can only wonder what would have been. Team Dresch will always be crystallized in two great albums and a few singles.

Lou though kept on keeping on. Some of those records I will grow into and others I can’t ever see understanding, like Lulu.

I don’t much care when celebrities die. I don’t know them. I have only this small piece of their lives which is their work. Like when Bowie died. David Bowie is great but for me, I don’t really know/care for his work after The Lodger. I’m sorry that a human being doesn’t exist any more but I don’t know that person.

When Lou died however, it stopped me in my tracks. I called my best friend, or they called me, I can’t remember now and we talked for a while, the Velvets mean a lot to both of us. I cried, which I’ve never done when a famous person had died.

But Lou is family, the cantankerous uncle. The cool guy you can never get close to.

This book of interviews which covers most of his career, there is precious little from the Velvet Underground days, and most of his interests.

There is an interview specifically about his photography and another from a Kung-Fu magazine where he talks about his interest in Tai-Chi. To paraphrase Lou, it covers his drug phase, the no-drug phase, the Prozac phase, the no Prozac phase, etc.

It’s interesting to see how the many of the writers here relate to Lou’s music. It becomes easy to see why he is so frustrated with them. They don’t appear to be fans past 1972’s Transformer. To be in your twilight years after almost 60 years of writing and recording material and be asked about songs from your first couple of records must be grating.

They also lean heavily on the songs of substance abuse and “deviant sex” as if that’s all he wrote about. Not even “Venus in Furs” is only about S/M. Even in the darkest depths of Lou Reed’s words there is a tenderness and depth that most other writers could only dream of.

As the afterword by Pat Thomas points out, “There is no reason for me to tell you why Lou Reed is great. Hopefully you know that and if you don’t, well, I can’t help you now.”

Lou comes off in this book as a three-dimensional person. Which is amazing since interviews generally paint an artist as the embodiment of whatever work they are promoting at the time and thus lose the color of an individual.

In some of these interviews Lou Reed is shitty to the interviewer but in some cases he appears provoked, in others not so much. The Australian interviews from the 70’s which can also be found on Youtube are particularly entertaining for the way Lou plays with the press.

Any of these interviews taken by themselves might have that quality but seen zoomed out, as a collection, you see a person. A very gifted person, who was a proselytizer of the power of music, a nerd about electronics, a diligent song writer and a patron of the arts.

It’s pointed out in the foreword by Luc Sante that there are some interesting through lines in the book: his mercurial relationship with John Cale and his continued, almost blind, adoration of Andy Warhol, to name two.

For me, I have always been a little troubled about Warhol but Lou knew him and has much more reason to appreciate him. He mentions often in these interviews that it was Warhol who, during the recording of the first Velvet Underground record, told him not to bend to anyone’s will, to not change anything for anyone.

It’s easy for a person like myself to look up at Warhol from the street and think about what he did to Valerie Solanas (and what she did to him) along with others in borrowing (read: stealing) ideas and credit as well as his lack of, well, making work in the manner that I think of as making “art” with a capital A.

But Lou is smarter than me and he saw Andy’s hard work, whatever that meant to him.

I don’t read this as an admirer of every single record Lou Reed made, in fact some things he has done are down right garbage in my opinion, but what I get from these interviews is that it’s all right to feel that way. Lou seems to feel that way but if you’re not ever trying, pushing, forging ahead with ideas and technique how can you ever get anywhere? Sure, there will be missteps but if great work comes out of it, then the whole ends up being much more than the sum of its parts. In Lou Reed’s case, it certainly was.

P.S. – The book’s layout and printing are absolutely wonderful. There is such care put into this book that one wonders why all books don’t have such a patina.