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Night Flight’s Lou Reed video profile captures the NY rocker at a rare moment in his career, willing to adapt
Lou Reed was a maverick performer and songwriter whose unflinching depictions of life’s dark side influenced a countless number of bands. Night Flight’s Video Profile of Reed catches a true original at an interesting point in his career. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.
Reed was going through a sort of identity shift in ‘84 — the profile is dated from ‘83, but based on the songs that are mentioned, our guess is that this Night Flight aired sometime in ’84 — having discarded his bisexual druggie image of a decade earlier and easing himself into something decidedly more mainstream and accessible.
He was married to his second wife, designer Sylvia Morales; he was appearing in videos; he’d started touring again after a lengthy hiatus; he’d joined Alcoholics Anonymous; and he would soon land a gig as a spokesman for Honda motorcycles.
Strangest of all, he was behaving himself in interviews.
During the Night Flight presentation, he’s surprisingly mild-mannered in comparison to some of the hostile interviews he gave during the ‘70s.
Instead of jeering the music business, as he usually did, or abusing his interviewers, he talks about his love of playing the guitar, and his goal of bringing a more literary writing style into rock music.
“What would it be like if Raymond Chandler wrote a rock song?” he asks. “What would it be like if Delmore Schwartz wrote a rock song?”
The only hint of Reed’s prickly side comes when he talks about all of the things that can go wrong during a concert; he also grits his teeth a little when he discusses musicians who question his arrangements.
Otherwise, this is a compliant, friendly Lou Reed. He sounds sincere when he says, “I’m dedicated to how much fun I can have performing.”
If Reed’s image was going through a change, so was his music. He’d left Arista after a string of poorly-selling albums and was back on RCA, the home of his great successes of the ‘70s.
Returning to RCA appeared to invigorate him. In quick succession he released The Blue Mask (1982), a grim masterpiece that earned Reed his best reviews in years (and reached number 15 in France).
He followed it with the underrated Legendary Hearts (1983), and New Sensations (1984), a collection that climbed to #56 on the Billboard album charts and yielded the surprisingly catchy “I Love You Suzanne.”
The influence of MTV was everywhere in those days, and the video for “I Love You Suzanne” shows how far Reed was willing to go to fit into the new medium. It plays a bit like a John Hughes movie, with the Suzanne of the title being portrayed by a squeaky clean Mare Winningham type.
The video was directed by Tim Newman, the fellow behind such landmark videos as the classic ZZ Top trilogy of “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs,” plus the memorable “I Love L.A.” video for Randy Newman, who happened to be his cousin.
As was the case for those videos, Newman’s approach for Reed is lighthearted and funny. The story follows the narrative of the song: Lou loves Suzanne, but she’s always dancing with other guys.
The song begins with a bit borrowed from the Contours 1962 hit “Do You Love Me,” (“You broke my heart and you made me cry because you said I couldn’t dance…”) so we sense the story might end with Lou showing this girl that he can really work it on the dance floor.
Finally, Suzanne goes to a small club where Reed is performing. He jumps down from the stage and starts leaping around like a member of Cirque Du Soleil. As often happens in rock songs and videos, she falls for him and all ends well.
There was some debate as to whether Reed did his own dancing in the video, and after seeing it again, the jury is still out.
Still, the video is entertaining and the song rocks.
A live version of “Walk on the Wild Side” follows, and it’s worth watching for Robert Quine, the notorious guitarist who played with Reed off and on during the early 1980s.
Quine, who died of a drug overdose in 2004, had a unique, almost otherworldly style that complimented Reed’s grinding attack.
Drummer Doane Perry recalled Quine’s method in Aidan Levy’s biography of Reed, Dirty Blvd:
“Sometimes Robert would play these solos that were…hair raising. They defied any kind of categorization…No two solos were the same.”
Reed and Quine create a hypnotic groove on “Wild Side,” and suggest what the song might’ve sounded like had it not been produced by David Bowie on Transformer.
Bowie, along with Mick Ronson, made Reed’s ode to the Andy Warhol crowd sound jazzy and laid back, while Reed and Quine make it sound jagged and neurotic.
Quine was actually at odds with Reed around this time because Reed had mixed Quine’s guitar practically out of the Legendary Hearts album.
Quine said years later that he smashed the demo tape when he first heard it, and only reluctantly returned for Reed’s next tour.
Shortly after this Night Flight episode aired, Quine resigned from Reed’s band, still convinced Reed was sabotaging his sound.
The concert clip, incidentally, is from A Night With Lou Reed, an excellent show filmed in February 1983 at New York’s Bottom Line.
The concert, part of a series of Bottom Line dates that marked Reed’s return to live performing, featured Reed with one of his best lineups, including bassist and longtime collaborator Fernando Saunders.
“Don’t Talk to Me About Work” from Legendary Hearts is another great, unheralded song from Reed’s discography, and the video is amusing.
With his skinny tie, Reed looks like he’s adapted the “new wave” look (or simply wore what was handed to him on the day of the shoot), while animated street scenes play out behind him.
We’re then treated to a clip from Rock & Rule, an animated feature from Canada that included the likes of Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, and Deborah Harry on the soundtrack.
Despite the talent assembled, Rock & Rule was a flop and just about bankrupted the company that produced it. (Read more about the movie here).
The clip certainly looks enticing. It resembles an old Ralph Bakshi production (it was actually directed by Clive Smith) and Reed’s contribution, a heavy rocker called “My Name is Mok,” sounds tough.
Night Flight then offers a scene from Get Crazy, a 1983 comedy from director Allan Arkush where Reed played a reclusive singer on his way to a New Year’s Eve gig.
Joining a cast that included Malcolm McDowell as an aging British rock star, plus many faces familiar from rock ‘n roll circles — including John Densmore of the Doors, teen idols Fabian and Bobby Sherman, plus Lee Ving of Fear as an Iggy Pop clone named “Piggy” — Reed showed he had a sense of humor and was willing to make fun of himself.
Get Crazy, though it died a quick death at the box office, had a goofy charm similar to another Arkush production, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
The movie has never been available on DVD, but it’s due for rediscovery. (Read more about NF contributor Chris Morris’s experiences as an extra on the movie here).
There’s a poignant moment in the Night Flight episode where Reed talks about his future.
He admits that rock works best with simple, upbeat lyrics, and that his more complex ideas might work better in fiction; if he can find the discipline, he says, he’d like to branch out and write short stories and perhaps a novel.
Unless someone is sitting on a stack of unpublished Reed manuscripts, it doesn’t seem that he ever followed through on this, though his albums would become increasingly literary during the 1990s and 2000s.
He’d even record The Raven (2003), a collection of songs based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
The profile ends with the video for “My Red Joystick” from New Sensations.
It’s another strange trip down MTV memory lane (also directed by Newman), with Reed singing the song as his girlfriend moves out of his apartment.
The piece is loaded with 1980s silliness, and the phallic symbolism of the joystick isn’t lost on anybody, but there’s energy, too, like something from Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.
Night Flight’s profile of Reed is fascinating because it brings us back to a peculiar time in Reed’s life. He was, at age 42, making a valiant attempt to play the game.
He didn’t want to be left behind in the era when a certain new format killed the radio star.
In fact, younger viewers who only know Reed as the crusty rock icon of his later years may be taken aback by these videos; they prove that not even the mighty Lou Reed was immune to the all-consuming virus called MTV.
Many recording artists floundered during the video days, but Reed was, for a rare moment in his career, willing to adapt.
Granted, he was a technology and media buff who appreciated any new development in the business, but he wasn’t an obvious fit next to Duran Duran or the Stray Cats. He stayed in there, though, fighting toe-to-toe with younger, more video friendly bands.
To his credit, Reed remained afloat long enough to get to the New York album (1989), which would revitalize his career yet again, going gold in America, the U.K., and France.
Night Flight captured him years before the triumph of New York, not just surviving, but also making the best of what he had around him.
We should all play the game so well.