Passing Thru Fire (and Hurricane Annie)

Tim Powis: My Interview With Lou Reed
It wasn’t supposed to be me. Or, considering how things turned out, maybe it was. At any rate, the original plan was that my boss, Alida, would go to New York to interview Lou Reed for Arts & Minds, the Bravo program I’d begun working at two or three months before.

This was early 2000. Lou had just brought out Ecstasy, his first album in four years, as well as Pass Thru Fire, a book of song lyrics spanning his three decades as a solo artist and his preceding few years with the Velvet Underground.During the couple of weeks leading up to the interview, Alida, who knew me as a pop-music know-it-all, would ask me the occasional question about Lou, to which I always had an answer. As the interview drew nearer she asked me more and more questions. I was able to answer pretty well all of them. For better or worse, I knew a lot about Lou Reed.

Finally, only two days before she was scheduled to fly to New York, Alida declared, “I think you should be the one doing this interview.”

“No, no,” I replied. “You’ll be fine. I’m happy to pass along as much information as I can. Anyway, I haven’t even heard the new album.”

It was a cowardly demurral. As a Lou Reed fan of long standing, I was all too aware of his reputation for being a prickly fellow—sometimes just a plain old prick—with unpredictable sensitivities and a well-developed disdain for reporters and interviewers. I wasn’t about to give in to Alida’s demand without a struggle. But I struggled in vain. Alida, a stubborn woman, insisted I was the man for the job. She handed over her copies of Ecstasy and Pass Thru Fire and told our office manager to make the necessary changes to the travel arrangements.

The plan was to do a full half-hour show devoted to Lou, rather than the usual five- or six-minute segment. That alone was daunting. As big a fan as I was, I hadn’t really kept up with the recent part of Lou’s career. I spent the next two days in a state of high anxiety, listening to his new album, listening to some of his older music, searching for information online, jotting down questions, preparing for the worst.

All that cramming only made me more apprehensive. I dug up a tape of an interview Daniel Richler had done with Lou several years before. It’s a lovely, sunny day, as I remember it, and Daniel and Lou are sitting outside on an idyllic patch of grass. But the interview is no picnic; it’s brief, and painful to watch. Richler asks a few inoffensive, entirely reasonable questions. Lou answers each one with a stony face and a surly monosyllable: “Yes…No…No.” After a minute or so of this, Richler asks Lou if he’d prefer not to continue with the interview. “Yes,” says Lou. So it ends. They stand up and walk off in different directions.

Good god, what had I (unintentionally) talked myself into?

In Manhattan, a couple of hours before the interview was supposed to take place, I met up at a coffee shop with Ton, a freelance cameraman who often worked with Mimi, our New York correspondent. We’d never met before. Ton was a big Dutchman, a few years older and a few inches taller than me, with a level head and an unflappable disposition.

Well before the appointed hour we showed up at Lou’s office, on Broadway south of Houston. His suite was listed in the lobby directory as belonging to Sister Ray Enterprises—named for the 17-minute song that brings the Velvet Underground’s second album to a noisy, nerve-rattling end. (The Anne Frank Foundation also had an office in the building, I noticed.)

We took the elevator up. Lou’s place of business looked pretty much like anyone else’s, except there were old Lou Reed and Velvet Underground concert posters and photos of Lou through the years hanging, framed, on the walls. The only people present when we arrived were the woman behind the reception counter and a young, long-haired male assistant whose primary responsibility, for the time being at least, was to look after Lou’s little dog.

We sat down. I looked over my notes, chatting intermittently with Ton and Lou’s two employees. Before long the phone rang and the receptionist answered it. When she hung up she told us that Lou was just finishing off an interview uptown and running late; he should be along in about three quarters of an hour. As if to atone for the delay, the dog minder went into a storage room and came back with a CD of Lou’s New York album, which he presented to me. I thanked him. I had a vinyl copy at home, but it didn’t hurt to have the CD too.

About 45 minutes later Lou arrived with his female publicist in tow. He was all dressed in black, just like the drug dealer in “I’m Waiting for the Man,” wearing a leather jacket with fancy, decorative stitching. As I stood up to introduce myself he ignored me and crouched down to pet his dog, which had run over to greet him. I waited for an opening while Lou caressed and talked baby talk to his beloved pooch. He did this for what felt like a very long time.

At last he looked up and I advanced towards him, hand extended.

“You weren’t shooting that, were you?” he said, scowling straight through me.

“Uh, I don’t think so,” I replied. I turned to Ton, who was standing a few feet behind me, camera in hand.

“Yes, I was shooting,” said Ton calmly.

I can’t recall quite how Lou reacted, only that he didn’t seem pleased. What I remember vividly is how the publicist, Annie, stormed over and with her face mere inches from mine let loose a ferocious spew about how Lou was not just another rock star and how dare we shoot footage of him having a private moment with his dog and we’d better smarten up, and so on.

After finishing her tirade, still sounding angry, she ordered us into Lou’s very own corner office to set up for the interview. Lou would join us in 20 minutes. The interview would last half an hour.

“No, we have 45 minutes,” I said.

“You have half an hour,” she said.

“That’s not what they told me in Toronto.”

Oh well. In we went. Lou’s office was no more remarkable than the rest of the suite: a big desk, some chairs, filing cabinets, a bookcase or two. Behind the desk was a large plate-glass window through which we could see a heavy, almost horizontal snowfall. A blizzard was blowing out there.

While Ton set up his tripod and lights and hung a translucent blue gel over the window to reduce the snowy glare, I had plenty of time to contemplate how badly the interview was almost certain to go. In the best of circumstances Lou was tough to get along with. Now that we’d got off to such an inauspicious start, surely I didn’t stand a chance.

Lou came in just as Ton finished setting up. I figured I’d better try to smooth things over. As we shook hands I apologized for the little flare-up. To my astonishment, Lou no longer seemed upset. He shrugged and muttered something—I forget what; there was so much running through my head I’m not sure the words even registered, but they amounted to “Yeah, forget about it.” Ton clipped a microphone to Lou’s lapel. Lou sat down in a chair we’d placed in front of his desk, I sat facing him and we got started.

During the interview, Lou was for the most part agreeable and co-operative. Now and then he’d veer off topic and near the end, in passing, he made a snarky remark about doing interviews, but it didn’t feel aimed at me in particular. At least he wasn’t being difficult, or downright mean. He seemed quite cheerful, in fact. At one point while Lou was talking, to provide visual relief Ton panned away from him to focus on the blizzard-framing window, then back to Lou again. Lou noticed the roaming camera and interrupted himself: “You’re not even shooting me. You got bored so you started shooting the window.“ He was smiling, though, and went on to describe how what Ton was doing reminded him of something Lou’s old friend and patron Andy Warhol used to do while he was shooting home movies at his so-called Factory, back in the ‘60s. It was a digression, but it was fine with me. I’d meant to bring Warhol up sooner or later anyway.

Still, I hardly felt at ease. While Lou was answering one of my questions I reached down to take a sip from the glass of water on the floor beside my chair. The higher I raised the glass, the harder my hand shook. If I got it as high as my mouth there was a good chance my hand would be shaking so hard the water would splash all over my shirt. I decided to skip the sip and put the glass back down.

Annie, the volatile publicist, sat against the wall a few feet behind me for the whole interview. About halfway through she sneezed loudly, making what Lou was saying at that moment unusable on television. Without turning around I said, only somewhat jokingly, “I get an extra five minutes for that.” No reply from Annie.

When the newly allotted half hour was up she announced the end of the interview, but Lou said I could ask another question. A couple of minutes later, satisfied that he’d answered whatever I’d asked him, he said, “Can we do this?” as he drew a finger across his throat.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” said Lou. I handed him my copy of Pass Thru Fire for an autograph. He opened the book, signed a blank page and handed the book back. As he did so he noticed that he’d signed it wrong way up; the photo of Lou on the back cover of Pass Thru Fire is identical to the one on the front, but inverted. He’d opened the back cover. He said something about being dyslexic to excuse himself. My copy of Pass Thru Fire has Lou’s signature, upside down, on one of the endpapers.

When Ton and I returned to the reception area, a reporter for Time Out New York was waiting to interview Lou. He asked me how it had gone. I didn’t know what to say. It had gone well, perhaps, as far as not ticking Lou off, but I was rerunning the interview in my head, wondering if I had enough good material for a half-hour show, still feeling stunned by all that had happened. Here’s how the TONY reporter described me in his article, alluding to the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs”: “[A] reporter from a Canadian music-television program stumbles out of Lou’s inner sanctum looking dazed, like he’s just spent an hour licking shiny boots of leather.” The article identified the breed of Lou’s dog as rat terrier.

A few minutes later, as Ton and I got ready to leave, Lou emerged from his office. He paused next to me, patted my shoulder and said, “You did a good job. You knew about my old stuff.”

My mind was still swirling. I wasn’t at all convinced I’d done a good job, but it was flattering to hear curmudgeonly old Lou say so. I thanked him. We talked for a minute. He brought up Toronto and how he’d played there often at…what was it called, Manley Hall?

“Massey Hall,” I said.

I laid eyes on Lou two more times.

The first time, a few years later, I was sitting at my desk at Bravo. People from other departments would come by now and then to use the adjacent dressing room and do interviews in the Bravo Rehearsal Hall, a big, open, made-for-TV room directly behind where I sat. Late one afternoon somebody from MuchMusic came by with Lou and a bunch of his handlers. They disappeared into the dressing room and I carried on working. A while later I looked over and spotted Lou standing in the hall outside the dressing room, about 30 feet away, all by himself. Should I say “Hello, Lou, remember me? The guy who knew about your old stuff?” But no, I decided against it. He might not be in such a good mood today, I thought; quit while you’re ahead. Before I could change my mind he walked off down the hall and, tempted though I was, I didn’t bother giving chase.

The next time was at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an evening in September 2010. I was doing a segment for Arts & Minds on the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Schnabel was in town to promote his new movie, Mira, which was showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as the opening of a retrospective exhibition of his paintings and sculptures at the AGO. I showed up with a cameraman for a red-carpet photo-and-soundbite op in the AGO lobby, right after the first screening of Mira. As Schnabel and his entourage were about to file past on the far side of the customary velvet rope, I noticed Lou, a good friend of Schnabel’s, among the hangers-on. Rather than accompany the others along the cordoned-off carpet, however, Lou swerved aside and walked briskly behind the row of reporters and photographers. I glanced back at him as he came near, but he looked decidedly unfriendly and I didn’t want to miss my chance to shove a microphone at Schnabel, an approachable fellow whom I’d already interviewed briefly the day before while he was supervising the set-up of the AGO show. By the time I got my even briefer red-carpet interview with Schnabel, Lou was nowhere in sight.

Three years later he died of liver disease. He was 71.

Stay tuned for Tim’s Top 10 Lou Reed list.

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