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From the archives: A legend, in retrospect

Joe Gross

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 28, 2013

This interview was conducted in March 2008.

Even if you’re not, like me, a guy whose life was changed by the Velvet Underground, interviewing Lou Reed, even the prospect of interviewing him, is intimidating.

After all, he’s had some practice. The man’s 66 years old. He’s been making records and history for more than 40 years. He’s been intimidating journalists longer than I’ve been alive.

It’s hard not to have your life changed by the Velvet Underground. The safe money says that the folks who founded South by Southwest and the balance of those attending either had their lives changed by the Velvets or had their lives changed by a band who had their lives changed by the Velvets. Reed is SXSW’s keynote speaker for a reason.

This is how his music worked: A couple of people would hear a Velvets or a Lou Reed record. A few wouldn’t like it. A few would like it and not think about it. But we few, we sordid few, we band of dorks - we weren’t the same. Not 10 seconds into “Sister Ray” or “Heroin” or “What Goes On, ” we weren’t even close to the same. Not for nothing is a recently unearthed, bootlegged and circulated live Velvets tape from 1967 making the pages of Rolling Stone. (And yes, those who fit the above description should track it down. Right now.)

He might be, as he says when we talk, the sort of guy who says, “I write when I have something to write; when I don’t, I do something else.”

The man’s career has had more acts than almost anyone else in rock. From the Velvets and the ’70s and “Walk on the Wild Side” and being worshipped as the O.P. (original punk) and getting clean to that amazing trilogy with Robert Quine (“The Blue Mask, ” “Legendary Hearts” and “Live in Italy”) and “New York” and more records and hooking up with Laurie Anderson and elder statesmanship and taking up tai chi and ending the 20th century with one more unreal guitar blowout (“Ecstasy”).

And yeah, people who write about rock music have a tendency to go a little T.B. (true believer) on the man. Even if he does say things such as, “I’m always surprised when anyone likes anything I do.”

But he has his own reason for being at SXSW. That’s “Lou Reed’s Berlin, ” Julian Schnabel’s documentary of Reed’s 2006 live performance of the 1973 album “Berlin.”

Produced with bombast and detail by Bob Ezrin, the 1973 album that’s played front to back in this intriguing concert film is easily one of Reed’s darkest, no small feat for the man who gave rock such harrowing moments as “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and “Street Hassle.”

A (very loose) concept album about betrayal, violence and jealousy among the seedy and dope sick in the iconic German city, “Berlin” was pitch-black cabaret rock, complete with strings and precision orchestrations. Listeners found it an utter bummer after the dishy, dirty hit single “Walk On the Wild Side, ” and “Berlin” tanked. Which, according to myth, put on hold plans for a more elaborate stage version. Everyone’s career survived and everyone moved on.

So what brought Reed back to “Berlin” now?

Pause. Long pause.

“The opportunity to do it, ” Reed says. “St. Ann’s Warehouse (the Brooklyn space where the concerts took place) has wanted us to do it for a long time, but it was never the right time. This ended up being the right time for me and my friend Julian.”

Reed even got Ezrin back on board, as well as original guitarist Steve Hunter. “The basic arrangements are still Bob’s, ” Reed says. “And Steve, well, he’s one of the great guitarists. “

Another long pause.

“It’s just writing and acting.”

He and Schnabel, another talent inexorably associated with New York, have been friends for years. Reed declines to discuss how he thinks Schnabel’s art works: “I’m not going to go into an art critique for you of Julian.”

One of Reed’s passions is sound, and he suddenly becomes as animated as he gets talking about “Berlin.”

“You’ve seen it?” Reed asks. “A DVD copy? On what, may I ask, did you watch it?”

A DVD player that was run through a stereo. It sounded pretty good.

“Let me tell you something: It sounds more than pretty good, ” Reed says. But he doesn’t sound annoyed, just animated. “In a theater with a decent sound system, the sound is really something. We’re at the point where digital seems to cross over to where analog is. You can’t knock it the way you used to.”

Reed is decidedly old-school in his fondness for great sound, but at the same time, he loves the Internet as much as any hard-core music fan. “I don’t like the sound of the MP3, where music is just crushed into this wretched sound, ” he says. “But having the Internet available, you have access to stuff you could never get before, all this really archival video stuff you never would have seen. Hopefully, they’re going to up the ante on the sound, but it’s kind of an astonishing thing having the world library there.”

We talk about Schnabel’s daughter Lola’s silent films, which accompany the players in “Berlin.” “It gives a female perspective on this bad situation, ” Reed says. “On the record, it’s completely from the man’s point of view. “

Many regard the album as one of his darkest, most difficult works.

“Which is weird, ” Reed says. “All it is is about jealousy in the end. I don’t know anyone who’s never been jealous. Look at Othello; he’s much worse than my protagonist.”

Long pause. Maybe it’s the sound of Reed thinking. That’s not meant to be funny. It’s world-library time, everything at your fingertips, not a lot of time to think before one speaks. Maybe this guy does.

“You know, the stuff I write is very basic, ” Reed says. Which goes a long way toward explaining why he’s still Lou Reed, why he’s the keynote, why Schnabel thought a 1973 album that was a commercial failure was worth revisiting, why even when fans don’t like an album, they stick with him. Why he’s always worth a listen.

“Basic chords, basic format, basic emotions, large themes, ” he says.

“Universal, in fact.”