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Lou Reed talks to Robert Hilburn: 'God protects fools and drunks'

January 22, 1992|By Robert Hilburn

Given that Lou Reed's deeply affecting new "Magic and Loss" album is a poignant reflection on the cancer-related deaths of two of the songwriter's closest friends, it's surprising to see him light up a small cigar during an interview.

By the third puff, Reed is self-conscious enough about the large webs of smoke that he addresses the point.

"I'm trying to give up cigarettes," he explains, leaning forward in the chair in a 14th-floor office near Central Park South. Looking at the cigar in his hand, he adds, "This doesn't count because I'm not inhaling."

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Reed, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, may be known for a dry, even wicked sense of humor, but he's not laughing. He says he really is trying to give up cigarettes, even banning smoking at the recent band rehearsals for his European tour.

There was a time not that long ago when an anxious Reed went through half a pack of cigarettes during a single interview--and we're not talking about marathon sessions. Reed, 48, has never liked interviews--his attitude during them has been described over the years as everything from hostile to indifferent.

"I don't mind questions about my work, but interviews are always so personality oriented," he says. "I've been asked questions time after time that I'd describe as grotesque and horrible . . . questions that a friend wouldn't even ask a friend. For years I just took Andy Warhol's advice and lied."

Reed's often colorful fabrications about his background and views added to the mystery and debate stirred by his stark, often troubling music with the Velvet Underground band that was part of the Warhol circle in the late '60s.

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The Long Island, N.Y., native wrote about such themes as drugs and sex in an unflinching way that was accepted in books and films, but which shocked pop audiences. "Walk on the Wild Side," his 1973 solo hit, remains a quintessential pop expression of urban decadence.

Despite occasional brilliance in the '70s and early '80s, Reed's legacy seemed destined just three years ago to remain tied to his Velvet Underground compositions, which expanded the subject range and literary ambitions of rock.

But Reed has put together a body of work since 1989 that rivals the artistic glow of his Underground days: "New York," a sobering album about urban disillusionment; "Songs for Drella," a musical biography of Warhol that he wrote and performed with ex-Velvets partner John Cale, and now "Magic and Loss," which was inspired by the deaths of songwriter Doc Pomus, who co-wrote such hits as "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "Young Blood," and someone identified simply as Rita.

Along with a just-published book titled "Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed," the three collections may finally guarantee that Reed will be seen as one of rock's greatest artists rather than just one of its most exotic figures.

Question: When did your battles with the media begin? Were the Velvet Underground albums acclaimed?

Answer: We were mauled by critics. Now everyone says they loved the Velvet Underground, but that means a lot of people must have changed their minds. Mostly, though, critics didn't waste their time on us because we weren't even small potatoes at the time. We were like little strands of rice. It meant nothing to savage us. So everyone just went after Warhol, which was a real training ground for me because I watched all that . . . how people came at Andy and how he handled it.

Q: What did you learn?

A: Some writer was asking me something once, and Andy said, "You're not going to tell the truth are you? You know you don't have to tell the truth. You can say anything you want," and that's what I did for years. Unfortunately, I'm still haunted by those lies. People continue to ask, "Did you really put a rifle to a guy's head" and "Do you really have a degree in music from Harvard?"

Q: Why did you make things up? Was it just for fun or was it your way of showing contempt for the questions?

A: Protection. We just got so used to being attacked, especially when the songs were very sensitive and personal. I still feel vulnerable during interviews. I know that writers say the reason they ask personal questions is that the work is so personal, but there is a line that any sensitive person should recognize.

Interviewers feel it is fair game to say to me, "Are you afraid of dying?" or "How would you feel if you had a fatal disease?" And, I just don't think those questions are appropriate. I've said what I want to say about all that in the album. . . . Maybe I'm too sensitive, so what can you do? If I wasn't that way, I probably wouldn't be able to do what I do in the first place.

Q: A lot of other major artists, from Sting to Paul Simon, think that it helps listeners to better understand and identify with the work if they talk about their personal feelings in interviews.

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