Lou Reed, the transgressive and transcendent songwriter, singer and guitarist, died Sunday at 71 of liver disease, several months after undergoing a liver transplant. He co-founded The Velvet Underground and then embarked upon a long solo career. Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed him in 1996, but he walked out after just a few minutes, annoyed by the questions. But that didn't change her love of his music.
Reed was famous for his prickly, sometimes combative relationship with the press. And it was up to Bill Bentley — Reed's publicist from 1988 to 2004 — to work the very press Reed combated. Reed and Bentley became good friends, and their friendship continued for the rest of Reed's life. "In Lou Reed's world, when you were Lou's friend you knew it," Bentley tells Gross. "And I'm very lucky to count myself among those few, I think."
Before meeting Reed, Bentley played in a band with Sterling Morrison after Morrison left The Velvet Underground. Bentley produced one of Lou Reed's albums, and wrote liner notes for a couple more. He's now head of A&R at Vanguard Records. In this full hour dedicated to Reed, Fresh Air listens to his music, as well as excerpts of interviews with original Velvet Underground members John Cale and Maureen Tucker — plus Mary Woronov, who used to do the whip dance when the Velvets were part of Andy Warhol's multimedia show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Bill Bentley on the Velvet Underground song 'Heroin'
"When I think of Lou Reed, the first image that comes to mind is a rock 'n' roll warrior who would stake his ground and never back down. In 1967, the rock 'n' roll world was not really ready for a band like The Velvet Underground, but more importantly, surely not ready for a song like 'Heroin,' which basically was 'a love song to a drug,' as Lou once said. And when it came out, it pretty much leveled the playing field for The Velvet Underground — there was nothing even remotely in that world. And for a lot of the rest of his life, people would always preface Lou Reed's career by saying 'the man who wrote and recorded "Heroin."'
"One of the musical things about 'Heroin' that nobody else was really doing in 1967 is that it's seven minutes long. Lou often said that that was one of the reasons that no major label would sign them. All the meetings they would have with the different representatives, it was always like, 'Well, you're going to have to cut all of your songs down to three minutes' — and, of course, Lou and the band would never do that. So it sort of put them off in the corner from the very start. Besides that, it's the kind of song that includes incredible improvisation and feedback guitars and tribal drums that rock 'n' roll players weren't doing then. It just had a completely original sound, above and beyond all of the San Francisco bands, or whatever rock bands were big at the time — especially the British Invasion bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in 1967 — were not doing anything like this. It was a unique sound that set The Velvet Underground on a path that never stopped."
On Lou Reed's approach to writing lyrics
"Lou's whole contribution to rock 'n' roll was — at the very start of his career he said, 'You should be able to write about anything.' Anything you could read about in a book, or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song. He set that out as his No. 1 goal: to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be. You should be able to write about hard drugs, you should be able to write about gay sex, you should write about anything. And nobody was really doing it then, but he had studied literature at Syracuse University and had met a poet named Delmore Schwartz who had instilled in Lou the ability to tell the truth in his work. And that really guided Lou's life."
"I think Lou really was the forefather of punk. When the Velvets started, they were just bashing away; they had no intention of playing in public. Lou had had bands before, and [John] Cale had played in experimental groups. Sterling [Morrison] had played, as he said, 'in biker bars out on Long Island,' and they just met in New York and started playing at home. They were not trying to be in the music business at all. So it started as a very elemental pursuit.
"They had a drummer named Angus MacLise that had left the band because he refused to play in a group and be told when to start and when to stop, so he quit, and that's when they got Maureen [Tucker] to play drums. And one of the genius things I think in getting Maureen, they insisted she play drums standing up; that made her approach the kit from a whole new perspective. You couldn't really get into hard backbeats if you're playing standing up. One of her favorite drummers was the African drummer Olatunji, and so she styled some of her song beats on African drums, which was way before its time back then. I think just that whole mismatch of different styles and not over-thought; that really was what punk was about, too. You get up there and do it and worry about it later. It's the inspiration and the emotional content that makes it so powerful."
On Reed's relationship with the press and Bentley's role as publicist
"Being Lou Reed's publicist was easily the most challenging thing I've ever done, but also, I must say, it was the most rewarding. Because I knew going in — I had been reading magazines since Rolling Stone and Creem and those magazines started — I kind of knew the lay of the land, so I really handled trying to set up the writers that would be speaking with Lou with real care; hopefully the ones who could figure out a way to open Lou up, which wasn't always easy.
"I would always tell writers, 'Maybe for the first 15 or 20 minutes, let him guide the conversation' — which, even if it started slowly, to give Lou a little degree of comfort, because he's very, very sensitive and if he snapped [it was] that the writers were trying to take him somewhere he didn't want to go. He would shut it down. I saw him walk out of a lot of interviews, and sometimes [it would] become sparring with these people verbally — [it would] be very hard to watch. [For] a lot of the early interviews, I was told to sit in the room with him while he did them. He wanted me in the room in case it went bad, and he had signals he would give me if he felt it was going bad and I had to end the interview. It was almost like this drama that was always going on."
On Lou Reed's personal demons
"I think Lou's demons were how to control the side of him that made him less than loving. I think he might've come up in an era where being different was a really bad thing, and it probably gave him either some guilt or definitely some turmoil. I know there have been reports that he received shock treatment when he was a teenager and he was given medicine to try to control [him]. I don't really know that any of that was ever true. I never talked to him about what happened when he was a teenager, but I think with Lou, he really saw the beauty of life and wanted to be a person who could live in that beauty as often as possible. And sometimes trying to find that sense of contentment might take you to drugs, might take you to drink, might take you to a lot of things that aren't that good for you.
"I think there [were] a lot of questions in [Lou's] mind of, How do you become a good person? How do you fight off the demons and the devils that take you down the other road? And that was his lifelong struggle, but I think that's also what made him such a great artist, because he never backed down from it. He acknowledged it. He wrote songs about it, like, What is that line between good and bad in a person? And where does it take you?"
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to devote today's show to remembering Lou Reed, the transgressive and transcendent songwriter, singer and guitarist who co-founded The Velvet Underground and then had a long solo career. Reed died Sunday at the age of 71 of liver disease, several months after having a liver transplant.
I interviewed him in 1996, but I have nothing to play for you. He walked out after just a few minutes, annoyed by my questions. But that didn't change my love of his music. Reed was famous for his prickly, sometimes combative relationship with the press. Ironically, the person we chose to have on to talk about Lou Reed's life and music, Bill Bentley, was Reed's publicist from 1988 to 2004, although I don't think he was involved with my interview.
Bill Bentley was a senior vice president at Warner Records when Reed recorded for the label. They became good friends, and their friendship continued for the rest of Reed's life. Bentley loved the man and his music. He's now director of A&R at Vanguard Records. We're also going to listen back to excerpts of my interviews with John Cale and Maureen Tucker of The Velvet Underground.
Bill Bentley, welcome to FRESH AIR, and before we begin, I want to say I know you were a good friend of Lou Reed's, and I'm sorry for your loss. It's a musical loss for all of us but a personal loss as well, for you. And thank you for being here. I asked you to choose some music that you most wanted to play for our listeners, and one of the tracks you chose is a track probably all Velvet Underground fans would choose, and that's "Heroin."
It's a very important track in the history of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground's careers. Tell us a little bit about why you love this track, and what you think its importance in music history is.
BILL BENTLEY: When I think of Lou Reed, I always - the first image that comes to mind is sort of like a rock 'n roll warrior who would stake his ground and never back down. And in 1967, the rock 'n' roll world was not really ready for a band like The Velvet Underground, but more importantly not - surely not ready for a song like "Heroin," which is basically a love song to a drug, as Lou once said.
And when it came out, it pretty much leveled the playing field for The Velvet Underground. There was nothing even remotely in that world. And for a lot of the rest of his life, people would always preface Lou Reed's career by saying the man who wrote and recorded "Heroin."
GROSS: And what about musically? What's happening musically that was so - just original, in its time?
BENTLEY: One of the musical things about "Heroin," that nobody else was really doing in 1967, is that it's seven minutes long. And Lou often said that that was one of the reasons that no major label would sign them. All the meetings they would have with the different representatives, it was always like, well, you have to cut all your songs down to three minutes; and of course, Lou and the band would never do that. So it sort of put them off in the corner from the very start.
But besides that, it's the kind of song that includes incredible improvisation and feedback guitars and tribal drums, that rock 'n' roll players weren't doing then. And it just had a completely original sound above and beyond all the San Francisco bands or whatever rock bands were big at the time; especially the British invasion bands, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, in 1967 were not doing anything like this. So it was a unique sound that set The Velvet Underground on a path that never stopped. They continued right up until the end, playing long songs with drones and feedbacks and crazy beats and screaming. And it just - it was their calling card.
GROSS: And while a lot of bands were singing about psychedelic trips with LSD and, you know, the wonders of marijuana, this was a song about heroin. So let's hear it. This is The Velvet Underground.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")
GROSS: That's The Velvet Underground. My guest is Bill Bentley, who was a close friend of Lou Reed's; also worked as his publicist for several years, and wrote liner notes to a couple of his recordings. Lou Reed died of liver disease. Was that because of his own use of heroin?
BENTLEY: You know, I don't know what the cause was of his liver disease. When I knew Lou Reed, he was not a heroin user, and we never even really talked about it. Lou's whole - I think his contribution to rock 'n' roll was, at the very start of his career, he said: You should be able to write about anything. Anything you could read about in a book or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song. And he set out, as his No. 1 goal - was to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be. You should be able to write about hard drugs. You should be able to write about gay sex. You should write about anything.
And nobody was really doing it then. But he had studied literature at Syracuse University, and had met a poet named Delmore Schwartz(ph), who had instilled in Lou the ability to tell the truth in his work. And that really guided Lou's life. And he made a point of always writing about things that he felt belonged in rock 'n' roll songs, and heroin was one of them.
GROSS: How did you first meet Lou Reed? And maybe in telling that story, we should back up to the fact that you knew Sterling Morrison, who was the - one of the founding members of the band, and played guitar and sometimes bass in it for a couple of years. So let's back up to meeting Sterling Morrison.
BENTLEY: OK, well, I'd like to say I met Lou Reed the first time I listened to The Velvet Underground record when it came out in 1967.
BENTLEY: I felt like those songs were so personal and so overwhelming that truly, I did know him from the start. And all through The Velvet's four albums and then into Lou's solo work, I was just - I was a zealot, I really was. I loved his music, probably more than any other band I'd ever heard.
And when I was living in Austin in the '70s, Sterling Morrison had quit The Velvet Underground and moved to Austin to study for his Ph.D. And it took me several years, but the day that I met him, we immediately bonded over rock 'n' roll and music. And Sterling was quite the orator, and I was just a huge listener. I just absorbed all of his stories, which he was more than glad to tell.
So we became fast friends. And I was playing in a band then, called The Bizarros, and we needed a guitar player. So it took me about a year to convince Sterling to play. He'd put away his guitar and quit. So once he started playing with us, it was like every night we were together, and we just rolled through Austin for years, and I heard all of the stories.
So by the time I met Lou Reed - which was in 1988, when I became his publicist at Warner Bros. Records - I really had an education in The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. So it's sort of like I hit the ground running with Lou. I flew to New York to do an interview with him for our upcoming album, "New York." From that day on, until I feel the day he died, we were friends.
And in Lou Reed's world, when you were Lou's friend, you knew it. And I'm very lucky to count myself among those few, I think.
GROSS: The drummer in The Velvet Underground was a young woman named Maureen Tucker - Mo Tucker - and she was like an amateur drummer who he made the drummer in the band. And we actually have a recording of her from the FRESH AIR archives that I thought I'd play an excerpt of. This is from 1987. So it's long after The Velvet Underground had broken up.
And we talked about how she started to play drums in the band. Do you want to hear that excerpt with me?
BENTLEY: Yes, please.
GROSS: OK, here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: You started playing drums when you were how old?
MAUREEN TUCKER: Twenty, 19 - 19 or 20.
GROSS: There really weren't many women playing drums then. Did you feel like you would do it in spite of that?
TUCKER: No, I never thought - it sounds ridiculous, but I never thought of, as my God, this is highly unusual. I just wanted to do it, so I did it.
GROSS: How did you join The Velvet Underground?
TUCKER: Well, I've known Sterling since I was 12. He was a friend of my brother's. And Lou was my brother's roommate for either one semester or one year or something in Syracuse University. And I met Lou through my brother, and Sterling met Lou through my brother also.
And when they were - they finally had gotten themselves a job, the band had gotten a job, and they didn't have a drummer, so Sterling said, oh, Tucker's sister plays drums. So that's how I started with them.
GROSS: Did you have to audition?
TUCKER: Yeah, Lou came out, and he wanted to make sure I could do something. So he said, oh, can you do blah-blah, and I went smack-smack.
And I could do it, so - but that job, it was just supposed to be that one job. And they immediately got another job, and it just kept going from there.
GROSS: Did any men in the group resist having a woman drummer?
TUCKER: John resisted for a day or two. No chicks, no chicks, that's what he said.
GROSS: Why did he say that?
TUCKER: I guess he figured it would just make trouble, or I'd be whiny or something.
GROSS: I really like your singing. Your singing really is kind of off-key, at least, you know, recorded it is. But it's so - it's really good. I really like it.
TUCKER: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Did you have to be convinced to sing since - you don't sing like a professional singer, if you know what I mean.
TUCKER: I did have to be convinced, yes.
We had to clear the studio because after like six takes, I realized if everybody was watching me, I would never be able to do it. So everybody had to leave except me and Lou and the engineer.
GROSS: This is when you recorded "After Hours"?
GROSS: So who convinced you?
TUCKER: Lou. He had written the song for me to sing. And I wanted to sing it. I was just a nervous wreck.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER HOURS")
GROSS: That was Mo Tucker, the drummer with The Velvet Underground, recorded in 1987. And my guest is Bill Bentley, who was a close friend of Lou Reed's, also worked as his publicist for several years at Warner Bros., produced one of his albums, wrote liner notes for some of his recordings.
And Bill, you know, what I find interesting about that interview is I think it's an example of why The Velvet Underground was such an inspiration to the punk bands that came afterwards, because Lou Reed's ear for music, it had room for John Cale, who was classically trained and part of, like, the classical music avant-garde; and Maureen Tucker, who was this amateur drummer, you know, playing in her bedroom who couldn't really sing, you know, as a singer, but Lou Reed liked her voice and wanted her to record and urged her to do it, glad he did.
Do you think of Lou Reed as really having an ear that helped create punk in that respect, that kind of like do-it-yourself sound?
BENTLEY: I think Lou really was the forefather of punk. When The Velvet started, they were just bashing away. They had no intention of playing in public. Lou had had bands before, and Cale had played in experimental groups. Sterling had played in, as he said, biker bars out on Long Island, and they just met in New York and started playing at home.
They were not trying to be in the music business at all. So it started as a very elemental pursuit. They had a drummer named Angus MacLise that had left the band because he refused to play in a group that - and be told when to start and when to stop. So he quit, and that's when they got Maureen to play drums.
And the genius things I think in getting Maureen, they insisted she play drums standing up. That made her approach the kit from a whole new perspective. I mean, you couldn't really get into hard backbeats if you're playing standing up.
One of her favorite drummers was the African drummer Olatunji, and so she styled some of her song beats on African drums, which was way before its time back then. And I think just that whole mishmash of different styles and not over-thought, that really was what punk was about too. You just, you get up there and do it and worry about it later. It's the inspiration and the emotional content that makes it so powerful.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Bentley. He was Lou Reed's publicist from 1988 to 2004 and remained a good friend. We'll talk more about Reed and his music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're remembering Lou Reed, who died Sunday at the age of 71. My guest, Bill Bentley, was Reed's publicist from 1988 to 2004 and remained his good friend. In the early days of The Velvet Underground, they performed as part of Andy Warhol's kind of multimedia experience, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. These were - this was in the years like '65 to '67. Did you get to see them in those years?
BENTLEY: No, I did not get to see The Velvet Underground in the '60s at all. There was a couple of chances that it just didn't work out for me. But I've watched movies, and through knowing Lou and Sterling and the rest of them, you know, vicariously I can envision it. But it must have been out there.
GROSS: What can you tell us about what they were like then from the stories you've heard and, you know, from Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison and from, you know, films you've seen?
BENTLEY: Well, when they started they were just playing in a Greenwich Village dive. I think it was called the Cafe Bizarre, and I think a couple of the Factory people came by and saw them, and they knew that Warhol was looking for a rock 'n' roll band to show movies on. He wanted to show his movies onto the band while they played. So that's how that marriage came together.
But immediately, they were playing 10-minute versions of "Heroin" and screeching and stomping, and Cale had his electric violin, you know, pitched up to the highest notes. And they really just were annoying people. Sterling said once that they got fired one night because they were told to turn it down, and of course they turned it up.
So when they retired basically from playing the clubs and started playing just only at the Factory, Warhol got a place in the East Village called The Dom - it was a Polish dance hall - and that's when they really came into their own as being sort of the toast of New York's elite hipster crowd. As Sterling said, we're the people who ruined the Lower East Side.
GROSS: I want to play another interview excerpt, and this is with Mary Woronov. And she was part of that whole Factory scene during the time that The Velvets were part of the Warhol group. And she - she is an actress and a writer who at the time, performed with The Velvets, sometimes doing the whip dance with Gerard Malanga, which she's about to describe in this interview excerpt from 1995, after her memoir was published. So let's listen back to this interview excerpt with Mary Woronov.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: So you became a dancer with the Warhol show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable; and you and Gerard Malanga used to dance to The Velvet Underground's performances.
MARY WORONOV: Yes, that was - well, actually, what happened is the first thing that happened is I did a movie. And then I thought, well, this is fine, I have a job, you know, I'm going to do these movies for Warhol, for which I'm not paid. What a great job.
I was very naive. And then added to - what happened is the - Barbara Rubin brought The Velvets in, and they would play, and you know, Gerard was not one to give up his stage. So he would get up on the stage and start dancing, and I was with him. So I would get up on the stage and start dancing, too. And it just became this, like, show.
They put a movie in back of The Velvets, and we danced in front, and The Velvets played, and then Andy started moving it around as The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and we went to California. But yeah, I danced in front of them all the time. It was great.
GROSS: I want you to describe the dances that you and Malanga did to The Velvets.
WORONOV: It's going to sound very strange, but - well first of all, both of us are dressed in black leather by now, and both of us have, you know, whips. But the - it was definitely rock 'n' roll dancing. It wasn't, you know, Martha Grahamish at all. It was rock 'n' roll, but we would have all these different things like black lights, and like those flickering strobe lights and crosses, and we would dance with these objects. Gerard and I were just very good together. We were very instinctive. So you know, you dance; both of you have a whip, you know; you do all these sort of, you know, pretend S&M things while you're dancing.
GROSS: Like what?
WORONOV: Oh, he spent a lot of time on his knees, and he kissed, you know, kissed the whip because, you know, in one of the songs, it says kiss the whip lightly. He would do that. And, you know, we would just - it was actually very sexy what we did.
GROSS: That song also says something about licking your shiny boots. Did he lick your boots too?
WORONOV: A lot of kissing of boots and licking of boots. Look, we were very young, and we just did things, you know, and nobody said no.
GROSS: Well, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Warhol road show, went to California, and it was a disaster there.
GROSS: What happened, nobody came?
WORONOV: No - well, there was one night where several people came, like Cher, and they all thumbed their noses at us. And then nobody came, and then they shut down the club that we were at, which was called The Trip. The reason why is because there was tremendous antagonism between New York and L.A. L.A. was, you know, full of color, full of acid, full of hippies, and we were not like that.
We dressed in black and white. We did not like free love. We liked S&M and real restraint, perversion too. We took amphetamine; they took LSD. They were, you know, sort of loving and happy, and we were - we weren't really evil, we were more intellectual, more about art.
GROSS: That was Mary Woronov, recorded in 1995. We'll talk more about Lou Reed with Bill Bentley in the second half of the show. Here's one of The Velvet songs Woronov danced to, "Venus in Furs." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering Lou Reed, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who co-founded The Velvet Underground, and then had a long solo career. He died Sunday at the age of 71 of liver disease. Let's get back to our interview with Bill Bentley, who was Reed's publicist from 1988 to 2004, and remained his good friend. Back in the '70s, Bentley was in a band with Sterling Morrison, a founding member of The Velvet Underground.
When we left off, we were talking about the early days of The Velvets, from 1965 to '67, when Andy Warhol was their manager. After Warhol's death in 1987, Lou Reed and John Cale - who co-founded The Velvets - reunited for a project. I talked to Bentley about it.
John Cale and Lou Reed did a collaboration of songs about Andy Warhol, and it was called "Songs for Drella." Bill Bentley, would you like to choose a song from "Songs for Drella"?
BENTLEY: Yes. I'd choose "Hello It's Me," because Lou had such a deep love for Andy Warhol, and, of course, Warhol had died pretty suddenly. And this was a song Lou had written as if Andy were still alive, and was able to speak to him again. And it always just really touched me that just the love he had for Andy Warhol and how much Andy Warhol had done for him.
GROSS: You know, but I have to say, at the same time, I always felt like, listening to "Songs to Drella," that there must have been a lot of ambivalence about his feelings towards Warhol, because he seems to think of Warhol, too, as somebody who toyed with people.
BENTLEY: Well, I think Lou Reed saw Warhol's sides all the way around. And sometimes, I guess, Andy Warhol did toy with people. But also, he was a true artist. And from that, Lou learned a lot. I know at one point, Lou wasn't comfortable around Warhol because Warhol was always recording things and taking pictures of everybody. And Lou figured that, you know, if those recordings just really cut into his privacy - and at heart, Lou Reed was a very, very private man. And he had to stop going around to where Warhol was because he didn't want to end up on those tapes or with all those photos.
GROSS: Interesting. OK. So this is "Hello It's Me," Lou Reed's song from "Songs for Drella," songs about Andy Warhol.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IT'S ME")
GROSS: That's one of Lou Reed's songs on the album he did in collaboration with John Cale, called "Songs for Drella," songs about Andy Warhol. And my guest, Bill Bentley, was a close friend of Lou Reeds'. He was his publicist for many years - from about '88 to 2004. And he wrote the liner notes for the album that we just heard, the song from "Songs for Drella."
You actually went to Paris with Lou Reed and John Cale after "Songs for Drella" was released. Would you tell us the story of that, maybe tell us a little bit of what it was like to be with him?
BENTLEY: When "Songs for Drella" came out, the Cartier Foundation decided to put on an exhibit in Paris about the Factory years and The Velvets and a lot of early Warhol things. And they asked all four surviving Velvet Underground members - Nico, of course, was dead - but to go to Paris and just be a part of that exhibition and greet the press and look at it.
And so they all went - Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, John Cale and Lou Reed. And when they got over there, there was this - at the opening day, there was a stage set up for another band that was going to play. And just completely off-the-cuff, the four Velvets got up on stage and played "Heroin" together, and that was the first time they performed since John Cale left the band in 1967. You know, over the years, there had probably been some animosities and some different dealings that might not have made Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison the greatest of friends, but once they were in Paris together, it was like watching a family reunite. It was one of the most touching things I've ever seen, especially for Sterling, because he had sort of been the odd man out. He'd finished his studies and gone on to be a tugboat captain of the Houston Ship Channel.
BENTLEY: And to get back with The Velvets and spend those three or four days with them, I think, was probably just a wonderful thing for all of them. They left as very close friends, and then they reunited for a while and made a live record that Sire put out in the early '90s, and did a European tour with many dates, opening for U2. And then there was going to be an American tour but, of course, the business end reared its head, and some things didn't work out, and that was the end of it.
GROSS: What was the experience like for you?
BENTLEY: To watch The Velvets come back together and finally see them play a song, I was just - I was crying. It was so emotional. And to have been friends with Sterling those years and kind of known what he went through leaving the band, and then being slightly shunned by the band, I just - I was so happy for Sterling Morrison and everyone else. It was like a little dream. I look back on it now and go, like, wow, did that really happen? And then, you know, I find little cards the band had left for me or, you know, pictures or things like that and go, like, it really did happen. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.
GROSS: Since we heard a collaboration between John Cale and Lou Reed years after The Velvets split up, I want to play an excerpt of an interview that I did with John Cale in 1994. And one of the things I asked him about was why The Velvets split up. And here's what he had to say about it in 1994.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: So that was John Cale, recorded in 1994. And my guest is Bill Bentley, who was a close friend of Lou Reed's, worked as his publicist at Warner Bros. Records from 1988 to around 2004. He wrote liner notes for some of his albums, and that's just a small part of Bill Bentley's music career, but a very important part.
So, listening to John Cale tell the story about why The Velvets split up, a key part of that story is that, at that point, there was just like one, quote, "artist" in the band, and the implication was that was Lou Reed. And was that your impression, that other members of the band - or specifically, Cale - felt that Lou Reed was taking the band in his direction, more so than in a group direction?
BENTLEY: Well, in speaking with Sterling about the split up of the band, he could never be released specific to explain it. But he did say that the band had become Lou's band, and Lou had the vision for it, and the way he wanted it to sound. And while it had started a little more experimental, it had become less so in terms of Cale really stretching out on his instrument.
And Sterling told me an interesting story. He said one time, he was at a club in New York, and Lou Reed came to him and said, look, I'm dissolving the band. There is no more Velvet Underground. But I'm going to start a new band called The Velvet Underground, and would you like to be in it? And it really took Sterling aback, and he thought for it a minute. And while his loyalty was to the whole band - which included John Cale - as Sterling said, I might have been corrupted at that point and had put so much time into playing these songs, I just wanted to continue. And the only way to continue was with Lou Reed and the new version of The Velvet Underground, so I stayed.
And I think that always haunted Sterling a little bit, that he hadn't stood up more for John. But, as he said, there was no discussing it. It was like that's what it's going to be, or I was out, and I opted to stay in.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Bentley. He was Lou Reed's publicist from 1988 to 2004 and remained a good friend. We'll talk more about Reed and his music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're remembering Lou Reed. He died Sunday at the age of 71. My guest, Bill Bentley, was Reed's longtime publicist and remained his good friend.
So you were Lou Reed's publicist from 1988 to around 2004. And I would imagine that was a very challenging position to be in because Lou Reed was kind of famous for having rough interactions with members of the press. And I'll include myself in that. I did an interview with Lou Reed in 1996, after his solo album "Set the Twilight Reeling" and he walked out on me in - I don't know - about four minutes into the interview, maybe six.
And he just said - after telling me that he didn't want to talk about being middle-aged, and he didn't want to talk about his early music, and he didn't want to listen to his early music because he hates listening to his early music, and he didn't seem to really want to talk about anything - and he just said to me, this isn't working, and he walked out. He was in Cleveland, I think, and I was in a studio in Philadelphia. And I was disappointed because I was so looking forward to talking with him. And I felt bad that he was having such, like, a miserable time in the interview. But considering that I know I'm not the only person I know had, you know, a difficult interaction with him, what was it like being his publicist?
BENTLEY: You know, being Lou Reed's publicist was easily the most challenging thing I've ever done, but also, I must say, it was the most rewarding. Because I knew going in - I'd been reading magazines since, you know, Rolling Stone and Creem and those magazines started. I kind of knew the lay of the land. So I really handled trying to set up the writers that would be speaking with Lou with real care, hopefully the ones who could figure out a way to open Lou up, which wasn't always easy.
And I would always tell writers, like, maybe for the first 15 or 20 minutes, let him guide the conversation, which, even if it started slowly, to give Lou a little degree of comfort because he was very, very sensitive. And if he snapped at the writers, who were trying to take him somewhere he didn't want to go, he would shut it down. I mean, I saw him walk out of a lot of interviews, and sometimes become, you know, spars with these - sparring with these people verbally would get to be very, very hard to watch. In a lot of the early interviews, I was told to sit in the room with him while he did them.
GROSS: Told by him?
BENTLEY: And he could give me - yes. He wanted me in the room in case it went bad, and he had signals he would give me if he felt it was going bad, and I had to end the interview. So it was almost like this drama that was always going on, especially as he started back with New York. It's interesting, because when we started doing press for New York and we started doing interviews in 1988, his wife Sylvia Reed - who was his manager at the time, a wonderful woman - had sent me a list of writers that Lou would not talk to, so don't bother asking them about doing interviews. And it was a very long list. It had gone all the way back to some Velvet stuff.
BENTLEY: So I had the list, and I looked at it about three or four years after we'd gotten rolling with New York, and then "Drella" and everything. You know what's interesting is that we'd done interviews with almost every one of those writers. So I found it wasn't really like a rigid thing, but it just - it took a lot of care. And, you know, you'd win some, you'd lose some. I mean, some of the things that wouldn't happen were very painful to watch because, you know, it cost Lou exposure.
But I knew enough not to go there unless I felt it was really important. One of the things I'm most proud of, working with his outside publicist, in 1989 he was actually able to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, who'd he almost been in open warfare with since The Velvet Underground. The Velvets felt like Rolling Stone was a San Francisco magazine and had nothing but disdain for them.
And all those years of that had kind of built a bad relationship. But we broke that down, and Lou actually got on the cover. So what I learned with Lou is like, he would go in with a little bit of an edge. But there are ways around it that worked sometimes, and sometimes didn't.
GROSS: But it must be so challenging for you because on the one hand you know he really wanted the publicity and the attention, and felt that people often didn't appreciate what the band was doing. At the same time, the way to get that attention isn't to, you know, insult the person who is a big fan of yours and wants to write about you.
BENTLEY: It was a very difficult position to be in because as a publicist, I like the press. I used to be a writer. I know how hard that job is. So I was always rooting for them. But as Lou's representative, you know, that was my first loyalty - was to try to make sure that it worked for him. So it was a tightrope and a lot of times, you know, it caused me a lot of anxiety. And sometimes, I failed.
And I would be miserable, thinking like, you know, somehow I'd made a mistake. But just in the world of publicity, you just keep going and with Lou, you know, the records would keep coming, and we'd keep trying. And some of them were loved, and some of them were hated.
But I always go back to "Metal Machine Music." You know, he destroyed his career to make a point, which is that he could do anything. And so I realized, you know, there really wasn't any talking Lou Reed into doing something he didn't want to do. That was something I learned very, very early. And I...
GROSS: "Metal Machine Music" was just a long album of, like, feedback and distortion.
BENTLEY: Right. That - Lou said it was making several sonic points, but it was very hard to listen to. And it came after "Walk on the Wild Side." So I think that was his way...
GROSS: Which was his big radio hit. That was a big hit.
BENTLEY: His biggest hit. Lou always told me an interesting story about "Walk on the Wild Side" because he was always like, people were always waiting for the next one and he would say, like, Billy B, I'd write it if I could - which I always got a big kick out of because it was the truth. If he thought he could write another one, he would have but, as he said, how do you do that?
You know, he probably didn't even know how he did the first one. It just - these things would come to him. They - a lot of things, he would channel. Just, you know, he loved music so much, and it came at him from all angles; and he could somehow put it together in these very, very unique combinations and create those Lou Reed songs that to this day, I don't think anybody else has been able to do.
You hear a lot of bands influenced by The Velvet Underground or influenced by Lou Reed but, you know, there is not a band that sounds like either.
GROSS: So you said Lou Reed said he'd write another hit, if he could. Well, his song "Perfect Day" almost became a hit in the sense, you know, it's been used in a commercial.
BENTLEY: Right. "Perfect Day," I think, is one of the most beautiful songs Lou wrote. He did it on the album that also had "A Walk on the Wild Side" and I think those are the two sides of Lou. There's a side where, you know, he's out at 4 in the morning, dealing with all the people on the street and the hustlers, and the this and the that.
And then you turn it around. and it's this very romantic, loving, really partner to someone writing a song just about the ultimate day of bliss. And the reason I chose it - because there'd be some days in New York where we would just hang out in the park or do things that were so wonderful and just easy and enjoying life, and then we'd go to the movies.
And that song references that. but it also brings up that other side of Lou that he knew was always waiting to come out too. and it's told in that line that said, like, "such a perfect day, you made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good."
And that was a thing that Lou carried around too, whether it's from his childhood or whatever. I think there was a lot of questions in his mind, you know, how do you become a good person; and how do you fight off the demons and the devils that take you down the other road? And that was his lifelong struggle, but I think that's also what made him such a great artist. Because he never backed down from it. He acknowledged it. He wrote songs about it - like, what is that line between good and bad in a person and where does it take you?
GROSS: Oh, OK. So this is Lou Reed singing "Perfect Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT DAY")
GROSS: That was Lou Reed singing his song "Perfect Day." My guest is Bill Bentley, who was a close friend of Lou Reed's, was his publicist for many years, wrote liner notes for some of his music. I'm glad you chose that song to play. You know, you were talking about that line between what may - the division in somebody between what's good and what's bad; and what do you think Lou Reed's demons were?
BENTLEY: I think Lou's demons were how to control the side of him that made him less than loving. I think he might've come up in an era where being different was a really bad thing, and it probably gave him either some guilt or definitely some turmoil. I know there have been reports that, you know, he received shock treatment when he was a teenager, and he was given medicine to try to control himself.
I don't really know that any of that was ever true. I never talked to him about what happened when he was a teenager. But I think with Lou, he really saw the beauty of life and wanted to be a person who could live in that beauty as often as possible. And sometimes trying to find that sense of contentment, you know, might take you to drugs, might take you to drink, might take you to a lot of things that might not be that good for you.
But Lou wanted to be there, and he really tried to find a life to where that's the way he could live. And I think over the years as he got older with his wife Sylvia Reed and then, you know, in the '90s he met and ended up marrying Laurie Anderson, I found Lou to be a much, much happier person. And it was just - it was like a wonder to see that happen to him because you listen to some of the songs, and you just - you hear and feel the pain of what he carried around with him and what he expressed.
I mean, he would - say, you listen to a record like "Berlin," and it's just horrific. And just there are moments of that thing where you just feel like the person can't go on living. And some of the people in that album don't go on living. So to watch Lou's progression through all this music and then in his life as well, it really was an inspiration to believe that, you know, things do evolve and there is really, like, hope for everyone.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Bentley. He was Lou Reed's publicist and remained a good friend. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're remembering Lou Reed, who died Sunday at the age of 71. My guest, Bill Bentley, was Reed's publicist from 1998 to 2004 and remained his good friend. I thought it might be nice to close with the song "Magician" from his album "Magic and Loss," which is about death. And this is a song called "Magician." What do you think of this song and where it fits into his work?
BENTLEY: I think Lou wrote this song from probably one of the most personal places ever. He'd lost two very close friends when he did the "Magic and Loss" album. And we used to talk about it because I lost a very good friend around that time too, and he said, well, just listen to "Magician," Billy B.
Just listen to it, and you'll know the way through. You'll find a way through. This is to help you and me and everybody who loses their loved ones, to get through. And I think he really was proud of that song because it accomplishes that.
GROSS: Bill Bentley, thank you so much for sharing some time with us. I really, really appreciate it. And again, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.
BENTLEY: Well, he was a wonderful man and just for me, it's like one of those things in life, you don't know how you get that lucky to work with people like that.
GROSS: Bill Bentley was Lou Reed's longtime publicist and good friend. He is now director of A&R at Vanguard Records. Lou Reed died of liver disease Sunday, at the age of 71. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGICIAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.