Lou Reed isn’t one to focus on the past.
The music he created in the 1960s and `70s remains a touchstone for the hippest rock bands. But Reed would rather talk about his new Moog Voyager synthesizer - “the Stradivarius of electronics,” he calls it - and the possibilities of today.
“There couldn’t be a better time to be a musician than right now with all these astonishing instruments available,” says Reed, 64. “I mean, someone’s gonna put this stuff together in a different way, somebody really smart, and just bust it open.”
That’s exactly what Reed and his bandmates did with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, bringing pop art, hard-boiled literature and avant-garde musical techniques into rock `n’ roll to create something that flopped commercially at the time but still is reverberating 40 years later.
After leaving the band in 1970, Reed received as much attention throughout the `70s for his provocative public image as for his wildly inconsistent recorded output, which included his only hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
At the end of the decade he got married and sobered up, and for the past 25 years, he more or less has settled into his status as a serious writer and musician and respected elder statesman of rock. For the past decade he has shared a home in New York City with his partner, performance artist Laurie Anderson.
Although Reed’s commercial impact has been moderate, his influence - particularly from the work with the VU - has shown no signs of going away.
In the `70s, Reed’s androgynous image and aggressive attitude inspired glam and punk rockers. In the `80s, such college-rock bands as R.E.M. responded to Reed’s melodic pop songs and tender ballads. In the `90s, it was the British “shoegazer” movement, with feedback-drenched music from such bands as My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Reed’s influence popped up again in the new millennium with the emergence of the New York garage rock scene: the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol, as well as like-minded bands from other regions, including Detroit’s White Stripes.
Reed has made a couple of high-profile appearances this year with his younger admirers, playing with the Strokes at the Rolling Stone 1,000th-issue party in May, then fronting the Raconteurs for a thrilling version of the VU’s “White Light/White Heat” at the MTV Video Music Awards show in August.
“Oh, they were awesome,” Reed says of the Raconteurs, a side project for White Stripes frontman Jack White. “I wish they would back me for the next year, but everybody would just stare at Jack.”
Reed says he is impressed by the musical talent of the younger generation but emphasizes that “in the end, it’s the writer.”
“There’s always going to be great singers, great players, but they have to play something,” he says. “If you don’t have a Tennessee Williams, you don’t have `A Streetcar Named Desire,’ even though you’ve got Marlon Brando. What’s he gonna do, sit and read the Yellow Pages?”
Reed claims not to be “conversant” enough to identify the great lyric writers of today, but then he mentions a few names: Bright Eyes, Beck, Radiohead.
“Which one of them is the Tennessee Williams? I’m not a critic,” he says. “But those are people where you can listen to it and not be offended, you know what I mean? They’re trying to go a little deeper.”
Reed hasn’t released a new album since 2003’s “The Raven,” a sprawling two-CD work inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, but he has been keeping busy. Earlier this year, he released his second book of photography, “Lou Reed’s New York,” and he recently created a soundtrack of electronic music for an instructional DVD by his tai chi teacher, Master Ren Guangyi. He also served as its narrator.
His latest project is a stage version of his concept album “Berlin” from 1973, to be performed in upcoming months in New York and Australia. A profoundly dark song cycle, lavishly produced by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”), the album was savaged by many critics upon its release. Now notables such as Ezrin, producer Hal Willner, visual artist Julian Schnabel and singer Antony are lending their talents to bring it to the stage for the first time.
“I wasn’t delighted that it was called the worst record ever recorded,” Reed says. “On the other hand, as my friend (famous songwriter) Doc Pomus used to say, `Lou, look at the source.’ I know me and Ezrin aren’t stupid. We loved that. We put every last drop of blood in that thing. ... I never and Bobby never doubted that we had done something incredibly wonderful.”
His fans will be happy to know that he has returned to songwriting after putting it on the back burner in recent years.
“I just wrote two songs for an HBO thing called `The Good Man of Nanking,’ about the invasion of Nanking by the Japanese,” Reed says, “and these two songs are amazing, if I do say so myself.”