One would argue that there has never been anyone as adverse to the media than Lou Reed – yes, even more than a particular Prime Minister who hides in fridges. The man had a hatred of journalists that was so severe there isn’t really an adjective in the English lexicon that accounts for just how much disdain he had for those responsible for giving his work mainstream coverage.
The vitriol he spat at journalists was so acidic that, in 2003, he made Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian state: “But I don’t feel fine. I feel unnerved and upset” after a meeting with the former Velvet Underground leader turned sour. Hattenstone added: “Reed makes me feel like an amoeba. I want to cry”.
Throughout his career, Reed made the lives of journalists a living hell, operating with such a big chip on his shoulder that he made it seem as if he’d been wronged by a writer in a past life. His unwavering commitment to smiting his enemy was of Highlander proportions.
In a notorious Australian 1975 interview in which he asked the young interviewer, “are you happier as a schmuck?” it was as if at any point, Reed was on the edge of pulling his great longsword from underneath his tight denim jacket and bringing it down on his nemesis, obliterating the inane interviewer for wronging him over the question of his change in hair colour.
In 1973, even celebrated rock critic Lester Bangs had a hard time interviewing the former Velvet Underground mastermind. He wrote: “He fixes you with that rusty bug-eye, he creaks and croaks and lies in your face, and you’re helpless.”
In another notorious instance of making a journalist ruin their underwear, in 2000, Reed laid out his hatred for the media in no uncertain terms. This was the first time we’d heard him directly address just how much he despised the profession and everyone in it. Asked by the Swedish interviewer Niklas Källner – for whom this just happened to be his first interview – if he held any personal prejudices, the glam icon responded with a statement that was so damning. He said with a snarl: “I don’t like journalists. I despise them, they’re disgusting. With the exception of you. Mainly the English. They’re pigs.”
Although there are presumably innumerable reasons why Reed hated journalists, it is clear that there were three driving factors. The first was fairly obvious; he was playing an overly-pronounced take on the character that he had already cultivated for himself in the media via all of his dark lyrics, offensive remarks and violent outbursts. These outbursts directed toward journalists were simply a means of selling records. It’s a trick as old as time. Even Hattenstone seemed to be somewhat aware that he was talking to a caricature back in 2003. He said: “I tell him that he’s intimidating. (Actually, he’s like the class nerd who worked out obsessively and graduated into the playground bully.)” Which was met with: “‘I’m not trying to intimidate you,’ he says, mock softly. He looks pleased. ‘I said don’t ask me personal questions.'”
Then this brings us to the second factor, his melodramatic response to Hattenstone’s question about his well-publicised falling out with Andy Warhol said it all, “Oh, personal questions again”. Reed was clearly a private man who had no time to discuss the moments in his career that had helped to establish this almost mythic and standoffish character that he now was. How ironic.
The other key point that has been mentioned is the way that his deeply personal and very dark album, 1973’s Berlin, was panned by critics. When you heed that all of his anti-journalist instances came in 1973 or afterwards, the penny starts to drop. “He was heartbroken,” Melody Maker‘s Allan Jones claimed of Reed’s attitude to Berlin‘s failure to resonate with the music press: “He never forgave them.”
After Reed’s tragic death in 2013, Nick Hastead wrote in The Independent: “The rock journalists who adored him were always treated as vermin, typically because, beneath the impeccably abusive surface, he cared too much.” This statement rings true when you take in all the different strands of his hate-filled behaviour towards journalists.
Lou Reed was going through a personal struggle at the time of Berlin‘s writing and release, and for him to read that his tragic rock opera was being labelled a “disaster” and “lousy” must have really cut deep, particularly after the successes of his previous album, Transformer.
We all have our reasons. Next time you’re watching a clip of Reed tearing through an interviewer like a wrinkly Xenomorph, remember that in his mind, he was fighting a just cause, selling records and defending his misinterpreted record. This doesn’t account for all of his behaviour, though, even if some journalists can be disreputable at times, a large proportion of the music media press are fans themselves, hopeful of earning a distinguished career of their own. Let’s be honest; given all of his behaviour outside of the media, he didn’t seem the most affable chap, as entertaining as it was.
Watch the infamous Swedish interview below.