AUSTIN, Texas - The keynote address to this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference wasn’t a speech. Instead it was a conversation between two friends and admirers about American culture and where music fits into it.
The guest of honor was Lou Reed, but his inquisitor was special, too: Hal Willner, Reed’s close friend, who has long been heavily involved in music and films and may as well be called the inventor of the tribute album. He said of his buddy, Reed: “He is to rock `n’ roll what Miles Davis is to jazz.”
For about an hour the two sat at a table in a lecture room in the Austin Convention Center and informally talked about Reed’s many specific and general contributions to contemporary music.
If there was a focus, it was Reed’s album “Berlin,” now the subject of “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” a Julian Schnabel film that was screened during the film part of this year’s South by Southwest festival. Reed and Willner talked at length about the album, how it was received when it was released in 1973 and how it stands up nearly 35 years later.
Reed said the music was a love story in the vein of “Othello,” which he called a story about a “romantic attachment” that is so intense and filled with so much jealousy that it leads to physical abuse, which, in a round-about way, was another expression of love. They played an excerpt from the film, which captures a live performance of the album.
The song they showed was “Men of Good Fortune,” a song about how people of great economic power often commit acts of destruction while people born into poverty or middle-class subservience are often called upon (or forced) to do more noble tasks, including fighting wars. He then drew the line everyone saw coming: the similarity between 1973 and the present.
Willner read several questions that were solicited from the media via e-mail before the conference. Some dealt with Reed’s illustrious past, others addressed music and its wildly unpredictable future. He had a lot to say about it all. The most provocative answers were in response to new technology and how it is changing the music business.
Reed was particularly decisive when talking about sound technology and the profound inferiority of MP3 files:
If you want to record music that really sounds good, he said, you have a problem, and the problem boils down to having the money to afford the best equipment. If you want to buy and listen to music that sounds really good, he said, you also have a similar problem: finding the receivers and speakers that can deliver really good sound. If you have a computer and you just want to make facsimiles of songs, you have no problem.
He dissed the iPod for its incursion into visual and sound media: It shows you films on a screen the size of a postage stamp and reduces a song to the size of a pin drop.
His money quote: “Technology is taking us backward . It is making it easier to make things worse. If no one knows any better or doesn’t care,” he said, “it’s gonna stay on a really, really low level, and people who like good sound are gonna be thought of as some kind of strange zoo animal.”
Other revelations and opinions:
Some contemporary bands he listens to: Dr. Dog, Melt Banana and Jane as Policewoman.
His advice to new bands: Don’t sign a label deal unless it’s really lucrative. And never, never give away publishing rights.
Jobs he had before graduating from icon school: He was a typist (“My mother told me to take typing in school so I’d have something to fall back on”) and a proof reader for a divorce lawyer.
Instruments he’d like to learn to play: the saxophone, so he could make sounds like Lee Allen; and the mini-Moog Voyager, which, he said, is like God dropping 9,000 new sounds onto your lap.
About the “soul” of Velvet Underground: “We had a rule, a fine system: No Southern sounds, no R&B, no blues guitar. We were going to be `city-pure.’”
On his street cred: “I have a B.A. in dope and a Ph.D. in soul.”