You Ask The Questions: Lou Reed

How did music as radical as the Velvet Underground's end up being used to sell car tyres? And have you reaped what you sowed?

Lou Reed, 61, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an accountant and a former beauty queen. In 1965, he formed the Warlocks, later renamed the Velvet Underground, with whom he wrote songs including "Sweet Jane" and "Waiting for the Man". Despite its later influence, the band was not a commercial success and in 1970, he took a job as a typist for the family business. However, in 1972, he released his second solo album,
Transformer, which contained his only US Top 20 single, "Walk on the Wild Side", and also "Perfect Day", which went to No 1 in Britain 25 years later. He lives in New York.

Lou Reed, 61, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an accountant and a former beauty queen. In 1965, he formed the Warlocks, later renamed the Velvet Underground, with whom he wrote songs including "Sweet Jane" and "Waiting for the Man". Despite its later influence, the band was not a commercial success and in 1970, he took a job as a typist for the family business. However, in 1972, he released his second solo album, Transformer, which contained his only US Top 20 single, "Walk on the Wild Side", and also "Perfect Day", which went to No 1 in Britain 25 years later. He lives in New York.

Have you reaped what you sowed?
Charles Knowles, by e-mail

I don't see how you can avoid that. No one gets away with anything. I was hoping to get away with never speaking to a journalist again, but it hasn't worked out.

Growing older doesn't hold any terrors for the guy who wrote "Heroin", right?
Geeta Singh, Leicester

I might have confronted death in that song, but you have so many friends who die when they are very young from being hit by a car, having a stroke or swallowing a chicken sandwich. All that has nothing to do with writing a song about a drug. But I don't have a problem with growing older; I think it's great; it's a lot better than keeling over. I'm having a lot of fun now. I wouldn't want to be younger. It took a lot to get where I am.

A lot of the younger bands are drawing on the sound pioneered by the Velvet Underground and other Sixties groups for their inspiration. How difficult is it to find new things to say in rock music?
Katrina Stewart, Dublin

How difficult is it to find new things to say in a novel or a painting? It's the same question. There are a billion subjects you can set to music, don't you think? But I don't know if current bands are stuck in a rut. How should I know? I'm not a critic. In any case, there's always someone breaking new ground. At the moment, I think the production in hip-hop and dance is at the forefront of that. The drum sound that Missy Elliot gets. I mean, how did they do that? That's amazing. Some of that technology is so fabulous, so powerful.

Are the best rock songs the simplest ones?
Mike Calder, Birmingham

I personally think that writing something simply is the hardest thing you can do. It's that old joke: you're not supposed to look like you're sweating. You try not to show visible effort, but underneath... turmoil.

What are "PJ" shoes as worn by the drug dealer in "Waiting for the Man"?
Simon Kerr, Sheffield

Well, first of all, they are not "PJ" shoes; they are "PR" shoes. It stands for Puerto Rican. Happy now? This kind of misunderstanding has happened before. The Japanese lyric sheets are always fun - a lot of times, they are better than what I wrote because they are so surreal.

Some people might be surprised that you've allowed Dab Hands to remix "Satellite of Love". Why did you?
Leo Baker, London

Why would they be surprised? Would they think I wanted to keep it sacred? In fact, I really like a lot of what's out there. I get sent a lot of remixes. For some reason a lot of them are from the UK - I don't know why. One time, this band called Medicine 8 sent me a new version of a track that only a Velvet Underground aficionado would know existed. They did it so much better than I did and I love when that happens. What some of these younger people are doing with computers and with the sound is really amazing. I love that stuff.

Who is the best lyricist working today?
Caroline Tait, Haywards Heath

How can anyone answer a question like that? It's a lose-lose situation. But I admire Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

How hard was it to decide which songs went on your new greatest hits album? Are there any you wish were on there?
Jonathan Harris, by e-mail

It was a lot of fun putting that record together. I don't really have hits to speak of so it is more a collection of things I really liked. It didn't matter to me whether "Walk on the Wild Side" was on there, but I can live with it. It was also a chance to bring the sound up to date. When these songs were originally mastered, the technology wasn't really up to it. And at the time, the record companies didn't care about that side of it and didn't do it with the artist there because he or she would get in the way. Also, here was a chance to save those tapes before they completely disintegrated. It's not like they're sitting in a perfectly humidified room: they are in a warehouse in New Jersey deteriorating. And I don't own them either so whenever I get a chance to rescue them, I jump.

What is the best song you ever wrote?
Dave Shanks, by e-mail

I don't have a favourite song. I love all of them indiscriminately.

How big a kick was it to feature on the cover of Kung Fu magazine in the States last year?
Pat George, Boston

That was a terrific thrill. I earned the right to be on that cover. I've done martial arts for 20 years - I study with the Chen Tai Chi Master, Ren Guang-Yi, in New York. It means everything to me.

You re-recorded "Walk on the Wild Side" in response to the war in Iraq. Are you planning more responses to that conflict or the war on terrorism?
Bob Sutcliffe, London

I don't think I should tell my audience what to do about anything, period. My audience, whoever they are, wherever they are, can think for themselves. They don't need me to preach. Saying that, there's a whole slew of anti-war benefits that I've been doing in the States that we don't publicise. I've been doing more or less everything that comes my way on this issue, but I don't talk about it. Personally, I'd have given anything to stop us going into Iraq, but I don't know how to get us out of there now. I had one idea: perhaps we should bring Saddam back, put him back on the payroll. That's a joke.

Under what circumstances would you leave New York?
Nicola Brent, New York

Well, I leave it all the time to tour. But I would never leave permanently. I can't imagine that. I'd get lost - I know where everything is here. Everyone in New York talks about leaving, but no one I know has actually left.

From "Venus in Furs" and "Walk on the Wild Side" to "Magic and Loss" and "The Raven" you've expanded the vocabulary of rock music and made it look easy. Was it?
Joe Michael, by e-mail

The ideas are easy as pie. You just follow your interests wherever they go. Also, as technology changes, your interests change because new things are possible. For example, ever since I blew up my first Thunder amp, I've loved the sound that makes - I call it "overdrive". Then it's a question of how do you play with it, how do you control it, how do you record it?

Whether those ideas and interests work musically is, of course, another story. And then you have to deal with record companies which is much more of a problem. In the beginning, they just hated the music. They didn't listen to it and didn't care what was on the albums. They didn't know what was going on anyway.

In 1966 the Velvets scared the pants off everyone; now your music is used to help sell cars for giant corporations. What gives?
Andy Leacock, Luton

Well, Pirelli tyres used "Venus in Furs" in one of their adverts. And the Velvet Underground had a vote on that - the members who were still alive that is - and we all thought it was funny so we did it. Keep in mind that we worked with Andy Warhol who did commercials all the time. In the old days people would get pissed off if someone took a song and put it to a deodorant commercial, but these days... if something's funny, I like it.

I discovered your music when I was 14 and I used to listen to it for hours. Who were you listening to in the middle of the night when you were 14?
Sharon Durrant, Chipping Norton

I was listening to rhythm and blues - people like Magnificent Montague. Heavy R&B, that's what I grew up with and I have loved it forever. I have never grown past it.

Did "the man" ever turn up or are you still waiting?
Adam Morrison, by e-mail

As a matter of fact, he turned up more than once.

'Lou Reed - Greatest Hits NYC Man' is released on BMG next week

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