Rest in peace, Lou Reed.
It's been a bunch of years since this journalist has written an obituary. And truthfully, I haven't done more than a handful of them in my nearly 30-year writing career.
But I feel compelled to write a few words about Lou Reed, a man who left a lasting -- if not altogether pleasant -- impression on me as a journalist.
Reed was the lead singer/songwriter for the Velvet Underground throughout the 1960s before going on to a long and storied solo career. Known for his poetic, sometimes disturbing lyrics, Reed pushed the rock storytelling envelope with tales of New York City's underbelly -- hookers, junkies and the like populated the songs of Lou Reed. Although a darling among many critics, Reed and his music lacked any sort of commercial success. "Walk on the Wild Side" is the only of his songs that even came close to being a Top 40 hit.
Reed passed away Sunday, of complications from a liver transplant earlier this year. On Monday, I got a call -- out of the blue -- from a friend and former colleague.
"I was just wondering how you were doing," he asked, the concern evident in his voice.
"Fine," I replied. "Why?"
"Well, I was worried about you. I just knew you'd probably be taking Lou Reed's death pretty hard."
A pause. Then a laugh.
Ah, I get it, we're being funny.
This is a friend who knows all my stories. And if you hang around journalists long enough, they'll eventually get around to telling you their Worst Interview Ever story.
For me, that story was Lewis Allan Reed.
It was late spring 2000, and I had just been named the music writer for the Standard-Examiner. A large chunk of my job was doing advance stories for the newspaper's arts and entertainment section. I would contact the publicists of musicians whose tours were bringing them through Northern Utah and request "phoners" -- brief telephone interviews with the artists a few days or weeks before their Utah performances. These interviews would allow us to put together stories in advance of upcoming concerts: We got interesting articles to publish, the musicians got free publicity for their shows. It was supposed to be a win-win situation.
Apparently, nobody told Lou Reed.
Reed was coming to Utah for a June 9 concert at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, and about a week before the show, his publicist called and offered me a chance to take a 15-minute walk on the wild side.
Going into that interview, two things were painfully evident: This musician didn't suffer fools, and he didn't cotton to stupid questions. So a fool asking stupid questions (the very definition of a journalist, some would say), was the perfect storm.
Indeed, Reed was notoriously hard on writers of my ilk. At one point, he even toyed with the idea of creating a "Grade-a-Journalist" feature on his website, to act as a sort of repository for stupid interview questions. ("You grade them the way you do a hot dog," Reed would tell me.)
Our encounter did not go well.
Immediately after the fact, I compared the Lou Reed interview to a plane crash. But truthfully, it was probably closer to a train wreck. Or, no, wait. In retrospect, it was more like a plane and a train involved in a head-on collision. Inside an active volcano. During a major earthquake.
The Lou Reed interview was, quite frankly, the longest 15 minutes of my life, and one of the two most uncomfortable interviews I've ever conducted. (The other? A phoner with former KISS bassist Gene Simmons, who spent nearly half of our time berating me, the Standard-Examiner, Utah and Mormons -- not necessarily in that order.)
Reed, then 58, spent the lion's share of our interview offering curt responses to questions posed. For instance, I started off with what seemed to be a slam-dunk question: "Please talk a little about your new album, 'Ecstasy.' "
"Have you heard it?" he asked.
Uh-oh. Danger, Will Robinson. This was before the widespread availability of music on the Internet, and while Reed's publicist had promised to send me a copy of the album well in advance, it arrived just before our scheduled interview. I hadn't even had time to open the package.
I attempted to explain all this to him.
"If you haven't heard it, I see no reason to talk about it," Reed said.
Long, uncomfortable silence.
"OK, but it just arrived in the mail, and I'll be able to listen to it this afternoon," I fumbled. "In the meantime, couldn't you just talk about the album for a moment?"
"If you haven't heard it, I see no reason to talk about it," he repeated.
"Yes," I tried one last time, "but couldn't YOU at least offer YOUR thoughts on ..."
"Next question," he snapped.
Wow. OK. So the guy's got a new album out, but he won't talk about it. One minute down, 14 to go.
And it was 14 minutes of short, weary-sounding answers, followed by an either stated or implied "Next question."
* A question about the critical-vs.-commercial success of his work: "There's nothing I can do about it."
* A query about the potential difficulty of finding the beauty in his gritty characters: "People with limited imaginations would say that."
Reed did warm up a bit toward the end of the interview, but "warm" for him was still pretty darned icy by most standards.
When our allotted time had finally -- mercifully -- expired, and I hung up the phone, I felt a little like one of the squalid characters from his songs. Beaten, battered and broken. I looked at the unopened copy of Lou Reed's "Ecstasy" sitting there on my desk.
I never did listen to that album.
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @Saalman.