Singer/songwriter Lou Reed needs little introduction to rock fans.
The guy who penned the classic 1972 hit "Walk on the Wild Side," a colorful ode to seedy street life, is revered as a true American original. When all the other '60s bands were wallowing in flower power, Reed and his group of downtown speed freaks, The Velvet Underground, were crafting dark, novelistic tunes about disenfranchised urban life, fueled by droning feedback and mallet-hammered drums, all under the guidance of legendary artist Andy Warhol.
Ever droll and jaded, Reed, 66, also has a well-known history when it comes to music journalists. That is to say, most of them know his reputation as one of the most difficult interviewees in the business. Particularly worth reading are his run-ins with rock critic/stalker Lester Bangs ("Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or How I Slugged It Out With Lou Reed and Stayed Awake"). The Reed anti-view has become a bit of a music-writing subgenre: the creative interpretation of his elusiveness. For his part, Reed has famously called journalists "a species of foul vermin."
So it's with a light heart and a bounce in my step that I begin contacting his publicity agent for an interview, because Reed is playing The National April 26. He's fresh off a successful tour of his grim 1973 masterpiece, "Berlin" -- a tragic rock opera about jealousy, suicide and beat-up whores, revived under the encouragement of film director Julian Schnabel.
For this brief U.S. tour, however, he will be choosing songs from his entire career, reuniting with original "Berlin" guitarist Steve Hunter (ex-Alice Cooper), bassist Rob Wasserman, Mike Rathke on guitar, Kevin Hearn on keyboards, mandolin and accordion and Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums.
I already know the ground rules: Brooklyn native Reed will not answer any personal questions, especially about his past work or drug experiences. And everything needs to be wrapped up in about 10 minutes.
A friend of mine who interviewed him in California e-mails advice to me. "Talk to Lou about playing music, manipulating sound [guitar feedback], the power of focusing your energy. He's really into tai chi that Chinese, slow motion exercise stuff," he writes. "I got lucky when I talked with him, he didn't get pissed off once in the entire eight-or-so minutes. Even invited me backstage, which was later withdrawn by his management, the bastards. Good luck!"
I don't care so much about going backstage and meeting a guy who once allegedly had a sexual fetish that involved defecation on people's heads (see the book "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk" by Legs McNeil). Indeed, Reed has seemed uniquely adept at finding new ways to crap on people his entire life. However, this is the guy who wrote one of rock's all-time most cathartic songs, "Heroin": "When I'm rushing on my run/and I feel just like Jesus' son/And I guess I just don't know." At his best, he's a little like Bob Dylan after a highly venomous snakebite.
But he's also written chart-friendly tunes such as "Sex With Your Parents" and released the white-noise double album "Metal Machine Music," probably one of the all-time most-returned albums. To the chagrin of critics, he butchered the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe on his mostly spoken-word album, "The Raven" (2003) which I'm looking forward to talking to him about since Richmond has the Poe Museum, which also features an "Unhappy Hour" that sounds right up Reed's alley.
To his credit, Reed has cleaned up from his drug days and become a health nut. He now looks sort of like a mixed-martial-arts Jewish version of Keith Richards, with deep facial lines and the same dead black eyes of his youth. He's enjoyed a long-standing relationship with performance artist Laurie Anderson, whom Reed has described as being "like the sun."
But apparently Reed is still a preening diva as a worker at The National relays after seeing his concert rider (a list of what he needs backstage): "It will likely be a long day," he e-mails me.
His publicist assures me I will get the interview. We set up a time for Friday afternoon. That afternoon she e-mails me to say Reed suddenly had to go out of town, so we reschedule for Monday. Reed flakes again because of rehearsals but he can probably do it Tuesday, before my deadline. I'm getting the picture. Sure enough, Tuesday comes and he's a no-show again, because his voice is apparently too ragged after rehearsals.
I feel like I hate this man to whom I've never spoken. Still clinging to hope, I push my deadline to Wednesday in case he's feeling better. Nope. Well, hell, I'd rather talk to John Cale anyway.
"It's not that Lou doesn't want to do it," his publicist keeps telling me, apologizing profusely. "It's just bad timing text me tomorrow."
Sure. Allow me to remove my hat. S
Lou Reed performs at The National Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $37.50. Call 612-1900 or visit www.thenationalva.com.