The most scared I’ve ever been before an interview was when I talked to Lou Reed in 1996. I was talent editor at Billboard and Reed, who died today, was about to release “Set The Twilight Reeling,” an album composed entirely on the computer. It’s not that noteworthy a feat now, but it was then.
Reed’s acerbic, thorny reputation was well known, as was his love of esoteric theater, literature and music. I was raised on pop music and while I had grown to love the Velvet Underground and some of his solo material as my musical education expanded, to say I had any kind of vast knowledge about his past would be an overstatement. Add in that I was in awe of his use of language in his lyrics and in other interviews I'd read. I felt like I was being thrown into the deep end of the pool after only one swimming lesson.
I did a Music of Lou Reed crash course and it helped that I had truly loved his previous 1992 album, “Magic & Loss,” a meditation on death that touched me deeply, and understood how, in many ways, “Set the Twilight Reeling” was a pendulum-swinging reaction to that set.
Mainly, I just didn’t want to say something stupid—so the plan was to say very little—and I didn’t want him to be mean to me, as I knew he could be since so many of my colleagues proudly had their battle scars from tussles in the ring with the icon.
I went to his office/studio in Soho. It was a cold, crisp, beautifully clear January morning in New York, but I remember sweating in the taxi ride down from Billboard’s Times Square office because I was so nervous. So now I was worried about making a fool of myself and about sweating on a cranky legend.
Reed’s assistant buzzed me up to his office and there he was. It was a beautiful loft with lots of sunlight and not much furniture. Maybe I had been expecting some dark, wood-lined cave. Reed shook my hand, we sat on the couch, and, guess what? He was a pussy cat. I don’t just mean he didn’t eat me alive and I got out of there without crying (not that I would EVER do that in an interview). I mean he was downright sweet and—here's a word you don't hear said about him much—warm. I remember at one point we were laughing over something he said and I almost had an out-of-body experience. Maybe he appreciated that I wanted to talk about the new album (and had listened to it and prepared exhaustively) instead of pick his brain about the past. Maybe I just caught him on a good day.
My favorite part of the interview was when he revealed that he was an excellent typist as we discussed his computer skills. "When I was in high school, my parents made me take typing so I would have a job to fall back on," Reed said. "So Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground knows how to type."
He also expressed joy that he was still around to make music. "I'm happy I'm even walking on two legs,” he says. “Making rock records is kind of too good."
That was my only interview with Reed. In 2011, Reed screened a sweet movie about his 100-year old cousin, “Red Shirley,” at Sundance Film Festival and then performed before a very intimate audience at the Kimball Art Center. I remember sitting one row behind Reed at the screening and wanted to grab a few minutes with Reed and his manager, who had told me earlier that he would try to make that happen, waved me off. At his concert later on during the festival, his legendary crankiness returned during the 9-song set, while he just seemed rather uninterested in being there.
I’m glad I got him on a good day.