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Remembering Lou Reed, The Toughest Interview Of My Life

A look back on the rock legend who passed away over the weekend.


Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013


Lou Reed, the rock and roll icon who passed away yesterday at the age of 71, was the most difficult - or at least the most nerve-wracking - interview of my career. At the time, I was a young staffer at Rolling Stone, and in the wake of Janet Jackson’s “nipplegate” controversy at the 2004 Super Bowl, the FCC was cracking down on what they considered inappropriate or profane material on the airwaves. One victim of this crackdown was Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side", which was being pulled from radio station playlists because of its references to transvestites, drug use, and fellatio. Never mind that it had been a classic rock staple for three decades.

I was tasked with getting Lou’s reaction to the FCC’s decision, and I was nervous. Very, very nervous. Never mind that I was a novice reporter still learning the tricks of the trade. Never mind that Lou Reed was a hero of mine, a man whose music helped form the soundtrack to my early years in New York, song’s like "I’m Waiting for the Man", "White Light", "White Heat", "Pale Blue Eyes", "Sweet Jane", "Perfect Day", and so many more.  Lou Reed was legendary for being a brutal interview. He was cranky, combative, smart as hell, not one to suffer fools gladly, and prone to hanging up on reporters. The prospect of having my ass handed to me by my hero was not one I looked forward to.

Lou Reed did not hang up on me. In fact, he was incredibly engaged, not to mention enraged, by the subject. In some ways it was a good interview. It also left me dripping with flop sweat as I tried to keep up with the guy. By the end, I was pretty sure I got what I needed for the story, but I was also exhausted. It felt like I’d just gone 12 rounds with a far superior pugilist, and it was only after I read through the interview transcript that I realized why.

What had transpired wasn’t really an interview at all, or if it was, it was Lou Reed interrogating me about the injustice of the FCC, the death of the first amendment, and the hypocrisy of government. If it was a dialogue at all, it was a Socratic one: Every single one of Lou’s quotes ended in a question mark:

Me: So, Mr. Reed, what do you make of the FCC’s decision to crack down on songs like "Walk on the Wild Side"?

Lou: What I want to know is: who do these people think they are?

Me: Well, I guess it’s their job to monitor the airwaves…

Lou: But what right do they have?

Me: Um, I agree that it’s ridiculous, but, I dunno, I think they’re appointed by the President? Or Congress maybe?

Lou: How the hell does that give them the authority to tell the American public what they can and can’t listen to?

 

Me: Well, again, I agree that they’re in the wrong, but…

 
Lou: Is that the kind of country you want to live in?
 
Me: I guess not?
 
And on it went, me against the ropes, trying to assuage a rock legend, while lamely, incompetently trying to explain how the FCC works. It was a workout, but in hindsight, really pretty funny. I survived, I wasn’t hung up on, I had survived my trial by fire. 
 
So in tribute the rock icon, take a spin through the following collection of reminiscences, interviews, anecdotes, and of course, songs.

The birth of the Velvet Underground from Please Kill Me 
 
 
 
 
 
 
And, finally, a handful of his best tracks:

“I’m Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground
 
“Pale Blue Eyes” by The Velvet Underground

“Satellite of Love” 
 
“Walk on the Wild Side”
 
“Vicious” 
 
“Street Hassle”
 
“Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, David Bowie, Bono, Elton John, and many more
 
RIP, Lou. You’ll be missed.
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