SXSW Keynote: Reed on Sound

"I have a B.A. in dope, but a Ph.D. in soul."

That, of course, is the line extracted for today's front page of The Austin Chronicle, reporting on yesterday's SXSW keynote interview of Lou Reed, conducted by producer and friend Hal Willner.

And sure, it's a great quote, but it's even better when you get the full context that preceded it, which the Chronicle never gives:

After reciting lyrics from "Rock Minuet," Reed said the following: "People say, 'Is this stuff real?' Dance to a rock minuet - when you dance hard, slow-dancing, repetitive, when you dance to a rock minuet. People say, 'How would you know that? You're joking, right? You're supposed to give qualifications for lyrics. You gotta be joking.' "

And then came the answer: "I have a B.A. in dope, but a Ph.D. in soul."

Reed is indeed a man of many things. He and Willner were ostensibly at the Austin Convention Center yesterday morning to promote Julian Schnabel's film of Lou Reed's Berlin. But the musician aired out many of his passions in his talk with Willner. Most intriguing for readers of Sound & Vision, he spent more time discussing sound quality than anything else.

But before we get to that highlight, here are some other topics touched on by Reed.

On his tendency to follow up "hit" songs or albums with "misses"

"My first hit was 'Walk on the Wild Side.' But I followed that with Berlin, killing the opportunity of a lifetime. Berlin was used by my management in a lawsuit against me to show why I shouldn't handle my own affairs - because who would make an album like that? Then came Rock and Roll Animal. That was to undo the damage of Berlin. Later I had an album called New York that had a little baby success with the song 'Dirty Blvd.' And I followed that with something complicated, and f---ed it up again: Magic and Loss, about my friend Doc Pomus and his death. It's out of print, naturally."

On Metal Machine Music

"It's now on DVD in a live performance at Berlin Philharmonic Hall by a group called Zeitkratzer. It has crossed over into the classical world! Metal Machine Music was initially what they call a career-ender. Pretty close. I mean, for a long time, there was this joke about the Metal Machine Music clause: If you had a record contract, you had to promise never to do anything like Metal Machine Music. But the record industry didn't anticipate industrial rock and noise rock, which are direct descendents of good ol' Metal Machine."

On the craft of songwriting

"I know that people always want to know how you write a song. I don't know. I've wanted to know, too. If I could have done it, I would have had 'Son of Wild Side,' and I'd own an island in the Caribbean or something. But I don't know how to do that, I don't know how it works, and I don't know even why it works."

On the Velvet Underground

"When I was writing with the Velvet Underground, I was writing about things that no one else was even near. It was an empty continent. And it still is, even with gangsta rap. Human relationships and crime and dope and violence, all in a contemporary idiom. Nobody was doing that. So it was kind of a field day.

"Back in the late 1960s, you had punk rock, punk soul. It was made by people who couldn't play R&B, who hadn't grown up in the South. But they were rock people. And that's the kind of music I wanted to make with the Velvet Underground: City. Pure. So we had a little system of fines: no R&B licks, no blues-guitar licks. Because you didn't know how to play 'em.

"Some of the bands we were seeing last night were punk, the way I mean it: aggressive, steel, street, action. And there they were, these young bands last night. All that young-guy stuff? That's punk. Nobody can beat that. It still exists. And it will forever, 'cause where else are they gonna put it? It's that or jail."

On current bands he listens to

"In small doses: Melt-Banana. Holy F---. (Or is it Holy Shit? I can't remember.) [Yes, Lou, it's Holy F---.] The one I really kinda like is Dr. Dog. We're talking about very, very young groups. I also like Joan as Police Woman. I was listening to that the other day, and I was really struck by it. A lot of what you look for in young groups is that amazing energy. Nobody can do that but them, and I just love it."

On his favorite instrument today, the analog-synth Minimoog Voyager

"I'm not a keyboard player, but I can sit and play that for hours. Image that God showed up and said, 'I will give you 9,000 new sounds.' That's my idea of heaven. I have to have a young person with me to explain even how to turn it on. But having said that, the thing I've got going for me is instinct. I can feel it. I try not to think. Thinking won't get me where I want to go. It'll just show me where the store is, where the soul is. Instinct makes the music."

. . . which provides a good segue to Reed's talk on sound quality, which was prompted by the following question:

Do you think the album is dead in the age of the digital single and downloads?

"With MP3s, the tradeoff is: You have a lot available to you, but it sounds bad. [applause] It's a very, very peculiar situation. I don't have the answer to it, but I'm just gonna take a moment here for this answer, because I've been wondering what to do as I record.

"If you find out you're one of those people who likes good sound, that's wonderful, but there are some problems. You gotta have a good unit to play it over, or the music will sound bad. And then you have to have good speakers, a good amp, a good this, a good that. And if the guy who's making the record likes good sound, the actual price of making the record is going up. Why? Because he needs a good microphone, a good cable, a good this, a good that.

"Now, if you don't care about good sound, there's the MP3. When you hear an MP3, and then you hear the newer version that sounds better, you suddenly hear the other instruments that are on the song. There are other instruments there! People have got to demand a higher standard.

"Or the other way is for someone to say to that, 'Well, you're being very elitist. Only people with money can afford to have good sound. So f--- you.' " [shrugs] You get what you get. You have the world open to you now; you can get almost any song in the world as an MP3. And then, I suppose, if you like a song, you can go out and try to find a version of it that you can actually listen to - if you like good sound. If you don't like good sound, none of this matters for a second."

At this point, Willner brought up the subject of the Internet allowing people to just buy the songs they want. Replied Reed:

"I was going through The Bourne Ultimatum after you left last night. That's one of my favorite movies of all time. And there's a fight scene three-quarters of the way through that I was searching and searching for - 'cause I've seen the movie twice already, and I just wanted to see the martial-arts part. So that was me: I was plucking."

Willner: "That's YouTube."

Reed: "Yeah, but look at the way YouTube looks. YouTube is wonderful, but if you really want to see something . . . my God, I feel like David Lynch talking about the iPod. Did you hear that one? That was pretty good! [To get an idea of what Reed is referring to, go to our DVD review of Lynch's Inland Empire and see the quote in the last paragraph on the last screen.] And Willner, what did you say?"

Willner: "Well, when they started their thing about movies on an iPod, I said, you know, I love movies - but where the f--- were you when the MP3 thing started? That's how it feels: Welcome to the club!"

Reed: "Yeah, welcome to the club. Here's a movie the size of a postage stamp, and here's our song reduced to a pin drop. What, what, what?!

"If no one knows any better or doesn't care, 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.

"It's like saying, 'It should have stayed a Chevy at the levee. Look down, don't go up. Look down.' It's like the technology is taking us backwards. It's making it easier to make things worse."

That brought the most spirited applause of the morning. But as a postscript, and a nice shout-out to you super-dedicated audiophiles out there, Reed said the following:

"There's no way that a solid-state amp is gonna beat a tube amp. That's never gonna happen - unless they finally run out of tubes. I think they'll run out of oil first. You don't see a war going on to get tubes, do you?" -Reported by Ken Richardson