When Lou Reed arrived at WMVY in the early morning of Oct. 12, 1997 for an interview, there was a rooster in the tree next to the front door. I had seen the rooster around before and I thought, “There’s that rooster.” Lou saw it as we greeted each other outside and he said something like “I love that, a rooster in a tree!” It was a funny, and a very Vineyard kind of icebreaker.
When I heard the news last Sunday that Lou Reed had died, the memories of that morning came flooding back and I felt lucky that I had met him and had the chance to talk with him about his music. It was a relaxed, sweet and thoughtful conversation.
Lou was on the Vineyard to play at The Hot Tin Roof. The club had called earlier in the week to see if we wanted to have Lou stop by. “Are you kidding? Yes!” I said. But whoa, interviewing Lou Reed, one of the most influential figures in the history of rock and roll? It was time for some shaking in the boots.
I was pretty nervous that Sunday morning, but ready. Lou and I were standing in the production room where we would do the interview and I could tell he was sizing me up. After all of his time in rock and roll, he had been face to face with many interviewers, some good and some bad. Just as he was wondering which kind I was, I wondered which kind I was going to be that day, too.
“You’re in charge here,” he said finally, surmising that given his stature it was most likely the program director or another station veteran standing in front of him. It was more of a statement than a question. I nodded. We’ll see, I thought.
When I sat down with Lou Reed that day in 1997, he had been actively writing and playing music for over three decades. Early on he became interested in doo-wop, rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues. In 1964 he graduated with honors from Syracuse University where he had studied poetry under poet Delmore Schwartz.
After graduating from Syracuse he moved to New York city and soon formed The Velvet Underground. Andy Warhol produced their first album The Velvet Underground and Nico. The band went on to make three more records, the last of which was Loaded released in 1970, which included the songs Rock and Roll and Sweet Jane, the most commercially successful songs for the band up until that point and to this day two of the most enduring Lou Reed songs.
After The Velvet Underground broke up in 1970, Reed started a solo career that would take him through the next four decades. His second solo record Transformer, produced by admirer David Bowie and Mick Ronson and released in 1972, opened the doors to a wider audience for Reed and included Perfect Day, Vicious and his biggest hit Walk On The Wild Side. He released more than 30 records as a solo artist.
There was so much he had accomplished, so many great records, so much recognition, he was a true legend but all of that faded into the background the day he came to MVY. That day it was just the two of us sitting in a radio studio on Martha’s Vineyard talking about music, his guitar playing, songwriting and singing.
He spoke about the first music he listened to which was rockabilly and doo-wop, and fired off the names of some deejays and radio shows that he heard when he was a kid, The Sound of the Hound out of Buffalo, Magnificent Montague, Rosko.
Lou played what he heard on the radio and on records. He took a guitar lesson and the teacher taught him Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star but he wanted to learn Blue Suede Shoes by Elvis Presley and Honey Don’t by Carl Perkins. He heard Fat Man by Fats Domino and became a fan of stride piano. That led him to boogie-woogie piano players Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.
“I mean, I think that’s the secret to Chuck Berry in the end,” he said. “He’s doing a real piano boogie-woogie lick except he’s doing it on the guitar. If you hear it in your head, you suddenly say, ahhh, you’ve heard that intro a thousand times if you listen to some old blues stride pianists.”
He started singing a stride lick and pounding it out on the desk between us.
“Put it on the guitar, what an act of genius,” he said.
He told me that he had lots of electric guitars, mostly new ones. He raved about his acoustic guitar made by Jim Olson. “I have never been so stunned by a guitar, this guitar is a living thing.” It was one of the reasons that he was doing an acoustic-electric show at The Hot Tin Roof.
I asked him about his singing style and how it developed. He said that in the early bar bands that he played in, he stayed in the background singing “oo or something that couldn’t get anybody in trouble.”
But he eventually ended up in front. “I kind of talk-sang the songs, stayed in a certain range and worked through all the chords. Nobody seemed to mind much. I really couldn’t do the other stuff. I could sit around for the next 100 years and I’m not going to be Al Green no matter how much I want to. It’s not going to happen.”
In the 1990s Lou received a gift that had a great impact on his approach to singing. He brought the great jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott in to sing on his 1992 album Magic and Loss and then they went out on tour together. “In the process of that, without ever saying a word about it, Jimmy taught me how to sing.” Jimmy made him feel that “it was okay, that I could sing and I could do this and I could do that, it was all right there, that I ought to swim in the ocean, jump in the pool.”
Lou spoke about being interested in the lyric end of songwriting. “That’s another reason for this little show we’re doing [on the Vineyard], to try to speak to you as directly from the heart as possible, in an emotive articulate way, that’s the kind of thing that I look for..., that I’m trying to find...people who do that. It’s almost as unusual as finding someone who has a radio station on an Island and isn’t automated and taken over by Metro . . . Metro whatever.”
He thought the Vineyard was beautiful. He loved waking up that morning and seeing the sun and the ocean. I asked him if he had played on the Island before.
“You’ll laugh at my answer,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
“Lots of nights, lots of years,” I said.
“Yeah,” Lou agreed.
Barbara Dacey is the director of worldwide programming at WMVY radio. A recording of the interview can be found here.