Veteran iconoclast rocker salutes Poe and gets a kick out of tai chi
Lou Reed is the master of the surly interview, the sarcastic comeback, the withering retort, the walkout and the hang-up. 'Curmudgeon' is the word most often slung before his name in newspapers, and at 61, he's still sneering. Just last month he turned a writer for the London Guardian into a groveling blob of jelly. Chief among Reed's no-no's is personal questions.
This is worth knowing if you're going to hang around the Roseland for an autograph, or shout out a request for 'Walk on the Wild Side.' From the time he first pulled on a frock in suburban Long Island (if you have to ask, better not), he's made a point of doing things his own way.
Having said this, the former Velvet Underground frontman was positively sunny when reached recently on his cell phone en route to Los Angeles, where he was to be inducted into Hollywood's somewhat cheesy RockWalk (of fame). His habit of repeating questions back to the interviewer, or just growling 'Whaddya mean? I don't know what you mean,' was mostly under control. His impatience was turned down from 11 to a mere 7.
Fans should have no fear of being stuck with an hour of 'metal machine' feedback this time around. Reed is promoting two CDs on this tour, the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired 'The Raven' and his fine retrospective 'NYC Man.' So far, Reed has delivered the hits. He might tinker with the melodies and the tunings, but you'll know the words.
'We're having a great old time, and I look forward to it every single night, no matter how small the city is,' Reed says. Asked if he has been to Portland before, he says, 'I don't know.'
Maybe it's a senior moment, or maybe he had too much fun here in the past. Either way, he suddenly wants to know if he can go horseback riding here, and if there's a port. 'I think of Ory-gon, I think of Ken Kesey and big redwoods,' he says.
Three songs in Reed's current set accompany a workout by his tai chi chuan teacher, Master Ren Guang-Yi, who also was the 1998 heavyweight champion in Chinese boxing.
'This is on the level of Nureyev,' Reed says. 'It's a miracle to even have (Ren). Think of it as something staged by (George) Balanchine.' Actually, it seems more like Elvis during his Las Vegas years.
Reed's buff, he wears a black hoodie, he drinks Diet Coke. He says his longevity came about because 'I like to follow my passion, I'm not following other people's changes. I can do that forever, with or without an audience.'
The history of rock 'n' roll is defined by the survivors Ñ Zelig-like figures such as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones' Mick and
Keith, even Sting. Lou Reed is one of them, in terms of influence. Another is Reed's pal David Bowie, who sings the impish Poe story 'Hop Frog' on 'The Raven.'
'I sent a couple of songs over to David to give him his choice and he liked that one because he thought it was fun, it was acting,' he says. 'It was great to hear him do it, you know it's him without having to look, but of course I'm a big Bowie fan. What's the question, are we friends? Of course we're friends.'
The show might have traded a drummer for a martial artist (electronic drums are used) but Reed's guitar playing is still a high-voltage thrill. His Poe-rewrite 'A Thousand Departed Friends' shines for just that reason.
At least he can take a compliment. 'Isn't it great?' he responds. 'I'm so happy to hear that. That's a part done as well as you can do it.'
As a die-hard sound geek, Reed puts a lot of sweat into mastering the tracks to make them sound exactly the way he wants. So when he talks about mixes, he is serious but rapturous.
'The sound is amazing, it's a real musician mix,' he says of 'Departed.' What he likes is its unevenness, how it differs from current recordings where every instrument is set at a certain level and held there. If it was a film, he says, cameras would be constantly moving in and out from long shots to medium to close-ups, to left and to right. 'Everything is moving, it's not just a static computer mix. No one cares about these things.'