Vclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, at a New York jazz club with Lou Reed in April 1999. Photograph: Timothy Fadek/AP
Reed, as it happens, intentionally set out not to do the type of interview a journalist would do. I dont like it when the interviews so cleaned up that the interviewer and subject sound like the same person, he said. I like to keep the real rhythm of the way the person talks. What journalists know and Reed didnt understand is that spoken words and words on a page are two different things. Some cleaning up is always necessary. Reed also spoke about how nervous he had been to interview Havel, which makes some of its awkwardness more understandable. Its not surprising that his seeming offhandedness and brusque attitude masked insecurities. With Hubert Selby, Reed said, referring to an interview hed done with one of his literary idols, I came in with typed questions, because I was sure Id be nerve-racked and I didnt want to forget anything. Same with Havel its just really hard work. Id much rather go out for a drink with them.
What Reed turned in to the magazine was not what
Rolling Stone was looking for. The assignment had not been made by a music editor, but by Robert Vare, who handled much of the magazines political coverage. He was taken aback and asked me to have a look at the piece. I, too, was surprised by how one-dimensional it was. My suggestion was to see if Reed, whom I had not yet met at that time, might be willing to write something longer or perhaps something shorter in which the best material from the interview could play a part. Given that working with him up to that point had not exactly been a joyride, the feeling at the magazine was that he was unlikely to want to do that. Finally, it was decided to simply give the piece back to Reed and let him do what he wanted with it somewhere else. (The publication that had commissioned Reed to interview Hubert Selby also turned down the resulting interview.)
Reed was livid. In a smart move, he showed the piece to Rob Bowman, a critic and professor of musicology who was producing and writing liner notes for
Between Thought and Expression, a three-CD anthology of Reeds solo work with RCA and Arista.
Wisely concealing his own estimation of the piece It was definitely terrible, Bowman said later; I could see why
Rolling Stone rejected it he suggested that Reed contact Bill Flanagan at Musician. Flanagan had interviewed Reed a number of times and was one of his staunchest supporters. Musician was a smaller magazine than Rolling Stone, and while it was highly regarded in the music industry, it did not have anything like Rolling Stones reputation for political reporting to live up to. Having a Lou Reed interview with Vclav Havel would be a coup for Musician, regardless of its quality.
Flying a bit under the media radar ultimately freed
Musician to turn the piece into something idiosyncratic and quite readable. Perhaps chastened by Rolling Stones rejection, Reed did write a longer piece of which the interview was just a part. A few moments remain cringeworthy, but at many other points, Reed seems genuinely stirred by Havel and wonderstruck by the role his songs had played in such a monumental historical moment.
Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis is published by Jonathan Murray (25). To order a copy for 21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99
Q&A with Anthony DeCurtis: He was a private guy; he would never have wanted this book to be written
I had a lot of ideas about Lou. I knew him reasonably well [DeCurtis interviewed Reed extensively and knew him socially], I had listened to his work very assiduously over the years, so its not like I walked in with a blank slate. One of the things that became very clear to me throughout the course of writing the book is the extent to which he saw himself as a writer. You treat Reed as a writer of substance whose medium happened to be rock songs. Was that your starting point?
More so than previous biographers, you had access to Reed and you clearly have the blessing of the people around him. What materials did you have access to were there diaries?I dont think Lou had that much stuff, I think the nature of his life was such that a lot of things got thrown away or disappeared. I think the people around Lou felt that I would be fair to him. Its not like this is an authorised book, but Laurie [Anderson, musician, and Reeds partner of 21 years], while she didnt do an interview for the book, I think anybody that came to her and said Can I talk to this guy?, she was perfectly happy to let them. I think Lou liked me, which was rare for journalists, and that counted for something.
But its still tricky. He was a very private guy; he would never have wanted this book to be written. He had a very complicated relationship with his own history and his own, often contradictory, desires. But he deserved a biography like this; he was a major artistic figure.
A Reed biography could easily fill up with sex, drugs and rocknroll, rather than his literary ambition. How much were you writing in relation to previous biographies (notably, Howard Souness book I felt from the beginning I wanted as honest a reading of Lou as I could produce. That idea of Lou as a monster, which became the theme of Howards book, that aspect to him was there, theres no doubt, and thats represented in the book but thats not all there is. Joyce Carol Oates has come up with this idea of pathography, that people only look at major [literary] figures when they come up with unpleasant revelations. Reeds drug use, anger and sexual adventurism just seem to me to be established facts, not only about Reeds life but his work. Deepening an understanding of Lou, that was the goal. And understanding how these high-minded ambitions could coexist with some pretty grisly stuff. Look, he treated people pretty badly. But he was also really nice to a lot of people. He was a great artist. Adding all that up, and establishing a kind of comprehensible throughline between the contradictions of his life, became the goal. Notes from the Velvet Underground).
What was your favourite thing that you learned?Bill Bentley, a publicist, told me a story from when the book of his lyrics, Between Thought and Expression, came out. After a book signing, Lou just began weeping. I found that very affecting, it just made so palpable what I had, in a fairly abstract way, taken as one of his great ambitions; how much it meant to him to see his work collected and to have people tell him how much that work meant to them. Part of the deal of writing the book was to demythify Lou; that story did that for me the humanness, rather than the cartoon.
You spoke to a lot of the women in his life, in particular, Bettye Kronstad, Reeds first wife, who left him after he was abusive. She hadnt spoken much before this.She has since published a memoir, but she was one of the first people I managed to get in touch with. It was a powerful story and there were elements to it that I never would have thought about. [For example] Lou always spoke about his father as really this tyrannical figure. Kafka wrote Letter To His Father, a compendium of every conceivable grouse he ever felt about this overbearing figure. And thats how Lou described his dad. It was a complicated relationship. At one point [Bettye] was talking about Lou being cheap. I said Would his father have given him money? And she said, Oh, of course he would have, anything for Lou! [Reed Sr] wasnt somebody who was going to appreciate the outrageousness of who Reed became but, as a dad, he seemed to care. I think he would have been happy with a son who would have gladly taken over his accounting business. And then there is the issue of the electroconvulsive therapy that his parents subjected him to [during his first year at university]. It sounds like a terrible thing, but I think his father felt: Look, this is what the doctors recommended, I tried my best.
A scene that jumps out of the book is Arista executive Clive Davis in a suit, tie and pocket handkerchief being taken for a walk on the wild side after hours in the Meatpacking District of New York in the 70s.Mick Rock the photographer told me about this too there were a number of people who Lou would invite along on his rambles. There was an element of shock, obviously, that was meant to be there, but I think there was a voyeuristic element; I think he wanted to watch people respond to his world. There was an element of trust, that he would take you along. With Lou, there was this leatherclad invulnerability that I think he tried to convey, [but] there was a lot of insecurity underneath that. I think in showing these people, this is the world I move in, there was a kind of, what do you think of me now? a kind of bravado to that, and a kind of vulnerability.
Interview by Kitty Empire