By Maury Z. Levy
“Your mother!” Suzanne screamed. You could hardly hear her. The sound system at The Ritz, a rock club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, had all the definition of a speeding A train and all the subtlety of David Lee Roth. Tonight, the bass was booming so much that the balcony started to shake. It didn’t seem to bother most of the 3,000 people who crammed the place as they pushed up the steps to the main dance floor, right past the sign that said: “Legal Occupancy: 1527.”
Suzanne, a wild-looking blonde who seemed significantly less than 21, was stuffed into a very short black dress without a back. There was clearly no room for underwear. Her friend George wore a T-shirt that said: “In Lou We Trust.” They had come, by bridges and tunnels, all the way from Brooklyn, Lou Reed’s home borough, in the hope they would enjoy the show.
“Your mother!” Suzanne screamed to George. “She said this was her favorite song when she was our age! This guy must have been around forever!”
Lou Reed, who has been around a few times, and then around again, is on stage wearing a black leather vest (the night is too hot for his black leather jacket) and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. He is singing the song that made him what he is today—an enigma.
Holly came from Miami, F-L-A
Hitchhiked her way across the U-S-A
Plucked her eyebrows along the way
Then he shaved his legs and then he was a she I say, hey babe
Take a walk on the wild side .. .
The show went on for hours. Lou Reed, who sings like a songwriter, did the old stuff and the new stuff. He very rarely spoke. “For those of you who used to see me at The Bottom Line,” he said, “I’m not going to do any dirty jokes tonight. That was a long time ago. This is the new, clean Lou.”
There had always been rumors about Lou Reed, this middle-class kid from the other side of the East River. Sex. Drugs. Paranoia. Rock’s original bad boy, now approaching his mid-40s, was supposed to have been a concert pianist. But at the advanced age of 14, he turned to a harder sound. He joined a band called the Shades (Lou always wears black shades) and recorded a song called “So Blue” (Lou always seems so blue in black). His royalties totaled 78 cents. He was on his way.
By the time he was 20, after recording some surfing songs under another name, Lou had joined up with John Cale and Sterling Morrison. Lou let a woman named Maureen Tucker in the group only after she promised to let him use her brother’s amplifier. They called themselves the Velvet Underground. Their music was often loud and usually crude. They were once fired from a Greenwich \Village spot called Cafe Bizarre for playing “Black Angel’s Death Song.” But that’s where they met up with Andy Warhol, who made them the featured focus of a mixed-media event called “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” They wore white suits and had movies projected on them as they played. They would become, someone realized later, the first rock-video group.
The notoriety was fine, but the money wasn’t good. To make ends meet, Lou posed for pictures in tabloids like the National Enquirer. They needed pictures of perverts to go with their made-up stories. Once, Lou posed as a sex maniac who had murdered 14 children in a barn in Kansas. It was hard to believe, since Lou had never been to Kansas, but it was a living.
In 1970, after five years of Velvet and a few nights of fame, Lou went out on his own. He was no less outrageous. His first big hit was Walk on the Wild Side, which was banned on most radio stations. It dealt with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and was just too much for the times. Some 16 years later, Lou would perform it on national television at the final concert of the Amnesty International tour, which also featured Sting, Peter Gabriel and U2, and he would get raves. “Loooou! Loooou! Loooou!” the crowd would shout.
Lou recorded a number of albums over the years. They gained him something of a cult following with fans and critics. He has been called the father of minimalist rock. He has been called a great guitar player by some of the greatest guitar players ever. At the Amnesty concert, he was introduced as “the legendary Lou Reed.” He has toned his act down a notch, but not all the way. Just when it looked like he was going mainstream by doing a Honda scooter commercial, his latest video was bounced off the playlist at MTV for being too violent. In it, while Lou sings an upbeat song called “No Money Down,” a robot who looks like him has its face torn apart.
“I thought it was hysterically funny,” Lou says. “My wife didn’t. My mother felt the same way. She looked at it and said, ‘What can I say, Lou? I’m sure it’s very clever, but I don’t like seeing that happen.”‘
Lou has trouble taking the whole thing seriously.
“Music videos?” he says. “They seem to be losing their importance as we speak. Sure, some of them are very clever. And in the case of someone like me, a video can get me to people who might never see me otherwise. But it’s not music, it’s TV. People say, oh, we saw the video. Not heard the record, but they saw the video.
“I didn’t want to do them anymore. Videos are commercials. A three-minute spot to sell your product. The good ones are rare and far between. Most of them are beneath contempt. They’re not even zero. They’re subzero.
“But what do you expect from something that’s basically aimed at kids? They’re not aimed at me. I’m over 40. I’m over the hill. TV’s not aiming at me. Neither is radio. Neither are the movies. That’s it. The movies today aren’t any better than the videos you see on television. I mean, it’s a really rare movie that contains one dot more intelligence than the worst video on MTV.
“But they’re not interested in whether I like it or you like it. They’re interested in whether your kid liked it. The audience these days is between nine and 14 years old. I guess if I wanted to be more successful, I’d be turning out something that would appeal to a nine-year-old. Well, that’s not what I want to do with my life.”
And what about Lou’s video?
“People tell me I’m being hypocritical about violence. But all that is is a robot. Well, what about Miami Vice? What about cartoon shows? What about life?
“I’m not doing any violence to women here. We’re talking about a robot. You start censoring things like that and we’re back in the ’50s. People were yelling about rock ‘n’ roll lyrics back then. I mean, do they really think that mass murderers are being set off by rock groups? It’s like talking to somebody who believes in witch doctors. They might as well be on another planet. And that’s what you’re dealing with, right here in 1986.
“I think it’s part and parcel of who you have as president, you know. He helps make all of this possible by regurgitating some of the old fantasies from 20 or 30 years ago until they happen to be respectable again, as though bigotry and bias and outright stupidity and ignorance were something to be admired.”
Okay, so why is this rock person opening his mouth about politics?
“Why shouldn’t I open my mouth? I vote like everybody else. I pay taxes. Screw you. Are you afraid that rock people are going to become heroes to a lot of kids? And why shouldn’t they be? Do you expect politicians to be? Movie actors? Screw movie actors. They don’t even write their own words. Take a script away from them and what do you have? Nothing. A big nothing.
“And then Nancy Reagan kisses Mr. T at the White House. What about The A-Team? Ain’t that America?”
It is 1:30 on a Thursday morning and the people who still have eardrums left are still rocking at The Ritz. And Lou Reed is singing about life.
If your father is freebasing
And your mother’s turning tricks
And your best friend died of something you can’t pronounce
Remember, I’m the one who loves you. You can always give me a call
And turn to me
Turn to me
Oh honey, turn to me
“I think we better go now,” George says to Suzanne. “My mother will kill me if I’m not home by two.”
“All right,” Suzanne says, “but you tell your mother she was right. This guy is really good.”
They push their way through the crowd and out into the street, where only the taxis roam the night. They hop in a yellow and tell the driver to take them to Brooklyn. As the music pours out of the doors and into the windows, the driver shakes his head in disgust.
“Rock concerts,” he says. “You kids should be home watching television. Just listen to that crap.”
The currents rage so deep inside us,
This is the age of Video Violence
No age of reason is landing upon us,
This is the age of Video Violence.
Even outside, the rock ‘n’ roll sounds like it will never die. You can hear Lou Reed from inside the cab. You can hear him loud and you can hear him clear.