Sylvia Reed – Lou Reed’s ex-wife, art designer, manager, and reading partner – offers insights into the most productive period of Lou’s career
Sylvia (Morales) Reed was Lou Reed’s wife, but she was also his integral creative half during arguably Lou’s most consistent run of solo work. Having met around the infamous CBGB scene in 1977, they were married in 1980, divorced in 1994. In between, Sylvia designed all of Lou’s album art, consulted on his videos, and ultimately became his manager, right up to the long-assumed impossible Velvet Underground reunion tour in 1993.
Despite the “kill your idols and bury the past” stance of the punk rock culture Lou Reed helped invent with the Velvet Underground, the whole original NYC punk scene can be just as suspicious, guarded, and coy as an old school Oscars roomful of 1940s actresses. Understandably, many musicians of the original Bowery scene sometimes hold back in interviews, either out of past journalistic dick-overs, sober dispensing of a sordid past, or, “Well, I’m working on my own book, so I’d rather not go into that.”
Lou was perhaps the king of such interview dancing, though by the 1980s he was clean, sober, touring a lot, and willing to work his albums. Remember the Honda TV commercial? Sylvia, though, has mostly avoided the press fray, aside from some very public admonishments of a 2015 Lou Reed biography.
But given the “Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit that is currently on display in Manhattan, and given that Sylvia was responsible for all of Lou’s graphic design action for more than a decade, we thought she’d be amenable to talking about that end of Lou’s life. And yes, she is actually working on her own book about Lou, but she was gracious enough to meet up at a Chinatown tea café recently for a chat.
PKM: So how/when did you meet Lou Reed?
Sylvia Reed: That’s my little story for my piece. But it was in 1977.
PKM: Gotcha. Well since we just got past Halloween, I thought about that song from the New York album, “Halloween Parade.” Any memory of going to the Halloween Parade with Lou?
Sylvia Reed: Oh no, no, we tended to avoid those things. That was during a time when he was definitely avoiding people. He didn’t go to the number of events and openings that he’d later appear at as an “elder statesman of rock,” or whatever.
PKM: So as far as your work with Lou, what was your background in graphic design? How was it that you started doing the record covers? I think The Bells (1979) was the first album you worked on…?
Sylvia Reed: I was in the studio on that album. From early on, he was really receptive to listening to me, talking, examination of current musicians. He’d take suggestions on opening acts from me. Like when I suggested Ian Dury. He also knew a lot of the music from CBGB and all that, of course. I was hanging around there from right about when Punk Magazine started. And once we met, we spent a lot of time discussing and arguing intensely about that music then, at the beginning.
PKM: I always respected that about Lou. Most musicians, as they get older, tend to get more and more focused on their own music, and kind of drift from finding new bands, new sounds – and with punk, that was one of the complaints: that old bands get stodgy. Through interviews, opening bands, etc., Lou always seemed to be in touch.
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah, he totally was a scholar. When he liked something, he really liked it. He had some off choices though. I remember this singer, Brenda Bergman — she was wild, she was fun, sort of “in the moment.” She was the flavor of the week for a while, I think he even had her open a show. But yeah, I think that’s one of the main things people miss about Lou, is that he did kind of keep up, and for sure was really into discussing it all, and listening.
PKM: With The Bells, it seemed to me maybe that was the beginning of the era where Lou started to move away from the whole downtown, new music, whatever scene, getting out of the city, and a life of cleaning up…
Sylvia Reed: I would say, with my influence on him, his decision to get healthy made a big difference. There are other artists who had to leave town, and yeah, he was one of those. And we did spend a lot of time outside of the city for a certain period.
In that particular instance, Lou was already recording, and brought me over, for a week or so. I remember there was a track that he wanted me to fake a German accent on, ha, and I refused. So he tried to get the housekeeper at the studio, that was out in the middle of nowhere, to do it. She also said no. Don Cherry being there was a big thing. Everyone stayed up for two nights and got a lot done.
But he was always influenced by not just listening, but watching. And that Bells cover was a Charlie Chaplin reference. The B&W, the movie makeup look. He was watching a lot of movies around then. He had a lot of complaints about the business, and how things were handled with his work, the way the albums looked. So right around then I just figured, ‘well, maybe the cover should look like this, maybe try this’. But then also that’s when I found out about the limitations the record companies put on things like the artwork. Unless you were in the one-percent of artists who really make money for the label, you wouldn’t get much of a budget. And you’d get pushed into the room with, well, probably good people with good intentions, but people who were sort of churning out stuff just to get it done, really awful stuff. Someday I want to do a contest of really awful album art.
But as far as my experience, I was just a talented kid. I won one of those national art contest things, and I got a nice award. I was in Hawaii at the time. I knew I wanted to go to New York, so I just applied to two or three schools. I chose Pratt Institute first because they gave me some money first. I met a lot of great artists, and saw a lot of art, and I was confident in my opinions. If something looked like garbage, I would say so. And Lou was really receptive to that. He was a person who was extremely bright. For example, there was the music he really loved – the ‘50s doo-wop, Al Green, Otis Redding, a very intense love for that that remained his entire life. But in the same vein, he happens to be in New York in one of these crucible moments with Warhol and all that, it was a sea change. And it focused his mind on really looking at stuff.
Unfortunately, as I said, we were bringing these ideas to these in-house art directors who couldn’t be more bored and didn’t have a lot of feeling for it. So, we did end up with a couple things… well, I look back at some of those covers and I think, ‘wow, they’re really funny looking.’ Because there’s a concept that we brought, but then they rushed it or whatever. And that’s when I realized, if you have a concept, you really have to do it from beginning to end and have control over it. And you know, how it connects to the music and lyrics, everything.
PKM: Can I assume maybe cover art wasn’t the #1 thing Lou concerned himself with?
Sylvia Reed: I asked him that, because I am still fascinated at some of the choices Lou made early on. I mean some artists are very formal, and really thought things out from the beginning. So yeah, early, with the Velvet Underground, there’s the Warhol influence, but then there’re some really odd ones. There was that bird thing (the first, self-titled Lou Reed solo album)! But then the Berlin (1973) album was great, and we spent a lot of time talking about that, I spent a lot of time studying that art.
PKM: I thought Street Hassle (1978) was great! It fit the music, the street reflected in his glasses, neon, all that.
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah. That was during a period when Lou said, “That was when I looked good.” As far as that album, right before The Bells, I had nothing to do with assembling that one except choosing the picture. He had brought stuff to me, and he liked that picture, of all the options. The manner in which it was set up, I had some influence on that. Despite having past experience that maybe should have given him a clue, there were always things getting messed up with the artwork, as far as permissions, or the manner in which things were used, etc., going back even to the first Velvet Underground album, and that kind of ridiculous legal issue with the Eric Emerson image that delayed it. That kind of thing kept happening until I developed a way of working where I was engaged from the very beginning of the process. It happened again on Take No Prisoners (1978), because he’d seen that artist’s work in a magazine or something, and it turned out years later that the guy who claimed the work was not in fact the artist who had done the work. That’s a weird story that I don’t have much info on.
PKM: Though for the vast majority of his solo albums, it was mainly just his face on the cover. Was that because he always had a rotating cast of musicians, you know, always “solo albums?” Or was that an imperative from the labels?
Sylvia Reed: Well yeah, it’s like going from a band thing to just him. Admittedly, those years, it was kind of about him, sort of. I don’t know, I think Coney Island Baby (1976) was a sweet cover. I really loved the Rock and Roll Heart (1976) cover and album. The quality of his voice at that time! For some reason, I related it in my mind to Paul McCartney’s McCartney album – it’s really personal, and this person is almost sick, he’s weak. We’re seeing a real sort of struggle from this weak person. Lou always told everyone how he hated that album, but I loved it. And then the video look of it. He had a favorite thing he loved to do, where he would make these videotapes of light feedback, where you’d get these kind of “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” kind of images, and he would project those, and that would be his lightshow. I thought that was amazing.
And he was doing that a lot then, and thinking he could do music and visual art. And a lot of that alone year, around 1977, was spent with him doing that, and us talking about that. So it was an alone time, and doing video stuff, but he was always like, “Okay, I have to do another album, I need the money.”
PKM: Always good to have another album to tour on too, and have a label help you tour.
Sylvia Reed: Precisely! And the whole coinciding argument of whether he’d actually be able to make money on another tour. It’s always the same argument: art vs. commerce.
PKM: I recently interviewed Glenn Mercer of the Feelies, and he told me a nice story of how once, when opening for Lou, Lou’s band was late, and it looked like the club wasn’t going to give the Feelies a soundcheck. And Lou told them, “Well if the Feelies don’t get a soundcheck, I’m not playing.”
Sylvia Reed: Yes, that was always a deeply felt thing for Lou – how unfair the club system was. And that concerned Lou, and it was quite often that the opening acts didn’t get their soundchecks.
PKM: So, Growing Up in Public (1980), that title and album cover seemed to refer to this period of getting away from it all…
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, that velour shirt! I feel like now I can explain, but that was meant to be funny. Do you remember Mike Douglas? He had a Dear Mike album, and this was meant to kind of reference that kind of easy listening album, because Lou is so not that.
PKM: The title sounds kind of serious, though. It was always believed that Lou didn’t like to do interviews, and he shied away from too much press, but nevertheless he grew up in all that.
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah, the music was deadly serious. And you are of an age, I would guess, where you are now learning about growing up, and the physical things that come with that. Lou was dealing with some of that all in one big lump, as he tried to evolve into a healthier version of himself. It was very rough. But I’ve never seen anyone stronger. Nowadays, people have rehab and more social support for cleaning up, there is a little less social stigma. But he totally did it by himself, retreating, and spending a lot of time alone. He was very strong and determined.
PKM: Some might retreat from recording and touring, but Lou didn’t.
Sylvia Reed: Yes, and then later a similar thing happened, where it probably would have been better for him to stop working for a while. I encouraged him to stop. But he had this great work ethic – perhaps inadvisably. Although I was responsible for Take No Prisoners. He asked me if he should release it or not, and I said yes – I was younger, and maybe should have rethought that one. Ha.
PKM: Oh no, it is so great – so thank you!
Sylvia Reed: Well, he was very close to not releasing it, and a lot of people around him were saying, “Are you insane? Do not release this!”
PKM: What was your argument for releasing it?
Sylvia Reed: Ha, well it would be a live release that could buy him a little time between studio albums. But anyway, he took all that – recording and touring – very seriously.
PKM: With touring, being around all that, it’s not exactly the perfect environment to be around while cleaning up. Were the musicians he chose similarly trying to clean up, or…
Sylvia Reed: Ha, no. I don’t think they come in that variety, do they? Maybe they do now. It’s complicated, but he had a lot of control over his situation.
PKM: This might be personal, but a great old friend insisted that I ask about the song “Heavenly Arms” on The Blue Mask (1982).
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, that’s a very lovely song, and a great tribute. And it’s so specific. Maybe it’s not as timeless as “A Perfect Day” or “Pale Blue Eyes,” but for me, it’s my little thing he gave to me.
PKM: Did you know he was writing it before the album came out?
Sylvia Reed: That was the one he had me come in and listen to when it was all done, which was not normally the case. That one was played as a surprise.
PKM: I guess many people agree that The Blue Mask was a high point of that era.
Sylvia Reed: Oh, it’s a magnificent album!
Although I was responsible for Take No Prisoners. He asked me if he should release it or not, and I said yes – I was younger, and maybe should have rethought that one. Ha.
PKM: I think the artwork is a kind of a look back to an earlier high point, around Transformer, as that Blue Mask cover kind of looks like one of those iconic Mick Rock photos.
Sylvia Reed: Yes, that was extremely intentional, a direct, thought out, and conscious use of that Mick Rock Transformer cover. It was ironic to me that some people back then were saying, “Oh, he can’t even bother to come up with a new album cover,” because, yes, he did! It was both an homage and a commentary on Lou at that moment. The word “blue” has significance. It used to refer to like a blue movie – something raunchy, risqué, unseemly.
PKM: Like the Catskills comedians who “don’t work blue.”
Sylvia Reed: Yes, exactly. But more so, also like raunchy despair.
PKM: Weimar Republic style.
Sylvia Reed: Yes, exactly. And then the color blue – though we never really got it exactly right how we wanted it – the art department was a little baffled by it. But it turned out good.
PKM: Then there was that first song Lou recorded, the doo-wop number, “So Blue,” he did with his teen band. And of course, the blues.
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, and if you read the lyrics of the song, “The Blue Mask,” you’d know. But that was another disappointing thing, I mean that was behind a lot of his problems with journalism, they often just weren’t well prepared. Because his stuff was pretty deep.
PKM: But, of course, the kind of music journalists who are the often most excited, and will work really hard to get $10 for an article, are young and enthusiastic. But that also means they might just not know enough just yet. But now you’ve got Google, so there’s really no excuse.
Sylvia Reed: That’s true, and that youth and enthusiasm can serve them very well. But Lou just didn’t suffer fools.
PKM: That’s what I liked about that Punk Magazine interview with Lou, in the first issue. Legs (McNeil) and (John) Holmstrom were just amped up kids at a bar going, “Oh look, that’s Lou Reed! Let’s go stick a mic in his face.”
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah, and what came through very clearly to me was that he was actually being really sweet to them. He was teasing them in his Lou way, but allowing them tons of time, and he was sharpening his wit on them, but enjoying the moment. And John Holmstrom understood that, and they actually hung out a little while there. Brilliant interview, brilliant cover, brilliant magazine.
PKM: So back to The Blue Mask era, just on a day-to-day basis, what was your life together like then?
Sylvia Reed: I’d have to say, the struggle to stay sober dominated a lot of it. When we went out, it was to stuff that we were “meant” to do, some event or whatever. But it was often like trying to extricate a cat out from under a bed. He had to be dragged out.
PKM: I guess he was a big buyer of VHS tapes when that really came along.
Sylvia Reed: Oh yes, we were both big film fans, discussed it a lot. And books, culture in general. Very aware. So we were at home with that stuff. But then it was followed by this tremendous onslaught of work. Because as he got stronger and healthier, he just jumped in. If you looked at the amount of recording and touring he did after that, we were very proud of it. It was a very rough schedule, and he just kept on.
PKM: I think right around that time, by the mid-80s, the influence of the Velvet Underground was coming around again, past that initial early-70s time, but this time via a lot of college rock or indie bands name-dropping the Velvets again. And then Polygram reissued Velvet Underground albums and unreleased material in 1985-86. So was that coming into his world again? Or did the label just do those things because they owned the rights or whatever?
Sylvia Reed: Absolutely that was in his world again. Yeah, they didn’t exactly ask permission as such, but they would organize it and ask Lou about how much he wanted to get involved, what should we included, etc. He loved to get involved in all that.
PKM: Though he does strike me as someone who doesn’t want to dote on the past, and always wants to keep moving forward, focus on the next project, and not be too nostalgic.
Sylvia Reed: Well he had some mixed feelings about it. Yeah, he was always engaged with the next project. But we just did a tremendous amount of work, very busy, and that Velvets reissue stuff was another part of it.
PKM: Also around that time, there was that movie, Get Crazy.
Sylvia Reed: Oh yes, he enjoyed doing that. That was a nice and very productive time. We had a ball working with [director] Allan Arkush. Great fun! There was another movie around then, this early Keanu Reeves movie called Permanent Record…
PKM: Oh yeah, I still have that soundtrack.
Sylvia Reed: It was hilarious, I was explaining to my son who Keanu Reeves is, and I went back into that movie, and well I have some amusing stories about that I’m gonna save. But like Lou also worked on that One Trick Pony movie… Anyway, it’s amusing all the films and actors Lou interacted with, despite that we were not going out to all the New York Film Festival parties and all that. But Lou knew I enjoyed film. He got me the job of PA on Martin Scorses’s King of Comedy.
PKM: Oh my god, I love that fucking movie! So many music people in that one. The Clash was in it for a second, and were supposed to have a few lines actually, I think. And Chrissie Hynde is in a scene.
Sylvia Reed: I was Marty’s PA for about three months on that. Guerilla filmmaking in the streets of New York, and suddenly Jerry Lewis comes walking into a scene. And Sandra Bernhard was like a tornado of energy. Great fun!
PKM: So that scene in Get Crazy where Lou was sort of playing Bob Dylan…
Sylvia Reed: Well, it was cute, they set designed that scene, the room, to that Bob Dylan album cover.
PKM: Bringing It All Back Home.
Sylvia Reed: Yes! I was very intrigued by that, that was a neat thing to do.
PKM: Obviously Lou was a big Dylan fan, and kept following his career as it went on… or no?
Sylvia Reed: Um, he was not a huge Dylan fan, at least during that time. Later on, he came to a real appreciation. There’s a lot of story behind that too, but I’m going to save that. Ha…
[About the Lou Reed interview and cover in the first issue of Punk Magazine]: He was teasing them in his Lou way, but allowing them tons of time, and he was sharpening his wit on them, but enjoying the moment. And John Holmstrom understood that, and they actually hung out a little while there. Brilliant interview, brilliant cover, brilliant magazine.
PKM: I feel like The Blue Mask got at least critical attention, and was lauded a bit. But for me, I feel like the next one, Legendary Hearts (1983), has as much emotion and feels kind of more open and free or something. That is definitely one of my favorites of his. The song “Bottoming Out,” where he’s out riding a motorcycle – motorcycles were a big thing for him at that time, right?
Sylvia Reed: Absolutely!
PKM: It dawned on me that on most of these album covers, it’s just Lou’s face mostly, and obviously they’re going to put Lou Reed on the cover of a Lou Reed album. But also, it always conveyed a kind of solitude or loneliness. And here’s this song where he is explicitly out by himself, and it sounds kind of free. But of course, bottoming out means kind of hitting a low point…
Sylvia Reed: Actually, we were mostly together on those rides. It was always him and me on the bike.
[At this point, Sylvia pulled out her cell to find a picture of the cover of Legendary Hearts.]
Sylvia Reed: There he is. This helmet has those little black thingies on them that held the visor. And I put his name in those. And that was considered very outrageous to do that with the lettering. The label didn’t want to do it.
PKM: Why? The name is too spread out or something?
Sylvia Reed: They thought it was just odd. But now Daft Punk definitely credited that cover for that Random Access Memories album a few years ago. But that’s my handwriting with the title, and those are my gloves. It was yet another reference to a mask, another kind of mask that Lou wore.
PKM: Do you have any memories of stopping in diners on motorcycle trips, like in that song?
Sylvia Reed: Oh yes, a lot of that, and listening to music from the jukeboxes. We’d ride out in the wilds of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, near where I had a home. A beautiful place, and he treasured it. That’s the home he’s standing in front of on the back cover.
PKM: Lou started to work with Robert Quine on The Blue Mask, and again on Legendary Hearts, but I’ve that read a lot of his parts were mixed down. Why was that?
Sylvia Reed: Yes, he was mixed down.
Sylvia Reed: I don’t really have anything to say to that. Quine was an amazing guitarist. I was the person who brought Quine to him. I knew him before I met Lou. But that’s about all I’ll say. But anyway, with Legendary Hearts, there is a little more uplift, this “new Lou” that was happening.
PKM: This is also when Lou started having to do some music videos, which were getting popular. There are two off Legendary Hearts.
Sylvia Reed: That is a particularly intense topic. As you know, they were just coming out, and people were just exploring and trying whatever, and lots of them were pretty bad.
PKM: Lou was a film fan, so I would think he would be interested in the medium; but then like most musicians of the time, I assume he might’ve been a little leery of them too.
Sylvia Reed: Particularly this area, there was a lot of pushing and control from the record company. I don’t really want to get into it that much, but that era of music videos says a lot about the whole record business in general, and who controls what, what they ask for and what they expect from an artist. It was fraught. So I have different opinions about how things turned out with his videos.
PKM: Then came New Sensations (1984). The cover of that one – did Lou really play video games much?
Sylvia Reed: Oh yes. He had the most amazing video game collection. I only wish I had hung onto it. He had the original Pong game. He was really good at it. He was also totally into pinball, and when we married, for our reception – the first part was at a friend’s fabulous restaurant, and then the second part was at the Broadway Arcade. Our friend Steve had the whole arcade closed for us. Gigantic baskets of quarters, people running around like mad and playing for hours and hours. It was great fun. We had four pinball games in our house.
PKM: No way! Can you remember which ones?
Sylvia Reed: Ha, oh my, how could I forget?! Well a Western-themed one that I didn’t really appreciate. But it worked really well. That’s a good question, I just can’t remember. Ha. But yeah, that New Sensations cover. For all our collaborations up to that point, that was the first one I really liked and thought, “Ah, now I’m getting it.” But the record company does not necessarily want to hear from the artist’s wife, as I found out in depth later, as I became more and more into the role of manager. So for the first time, Lou really just did not listen to the record company, and I knew to be very specific. And they started to call me, and that was how I got more of what we intended on that cover. Then later, by the time we started working with [graphic designer] Spencer Drate on the New York (1989) album and Magic and Loss (1992) – both of which I am very proud of – then we really had it down.
PKM: Mistrial (1986) too?
Sylvia Reed: Oh no, no. There was something going on with the record company at the time. The basic idea was just lopped off, and that one did not go well.
PKM: I like some things about Mistrial, but I wonder what Lou thought of it. It did seem like he was really trying to go for more of that ‘80s sound, louder drums, cleaner production…
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, I think my impression was there were problems and flaws, and he was going to make as best of it as he could. He didn’t feel happy with the final result. But I guess I’d rather not talk about the albums he didn’t like and the covers I didn’t think were successful. Ha ha.
PKM: Then New York came, and that was the first time you worked with Spencer Drate?
Sylvia Reed: We had done something before that. I can’t remember exactly. But we’d been working with the photographer Waring Abbott, and I think I pointed Spencer toward Warring, or Spencer pointed me towards him. Spencer is still involved with the New York scene, but Waring has sort of disappeared. I‘ve been trying to locate him, as he has some lovely photos of Lou and I that I’ve been trying to get my hands on.
So anyway, there was this photographer who we’d admired a lot, and there was this photo, I think it was called “Big Al’s Street Gang” – or at least the French version of that. [La Bande Du Grand Albert (1931-1932), by Brassai.] The picture is very evocative of Paris street life and these ne’er-do-wells. And we wanted to sort of refer to that for the New York cover, and it was very hard to do.
I titled that album, which I am proud of, but was very hard, because Lou thought it was presumptuous. I told him, for many, many other artists it would be too presumptuous to name their album that. I said, when we call it that, reviewers will have to say, “Lou Reed’s New York, and I enjoyed that tremendously. But he said, “No, that’s pretentious, presumptuous. Who am I to say that?” But I convinced him, and everyone else immediately understood it. It also helped to define the moment. I think he was really letting go and had a lot of stuff to say. I think there had been this stance for a really long time in the kind of underground scene or whatever, like, I’m too cool to get involved or have an opinion about the small meanderings of things like politicians, who cares. But he just let all that go and let loose, and that’s what all came out of that album. I thought it was pretty amazing. There was all this blast of opinion and noticing that things were at stake.
PKM: As far as the sound, to me it sounded – from all the albums of that ‘80s period – the most sort of “live” sounding, like a band live together in a studio, consistent over each song. It doesn’t sound worked-over or meticulously remixed, it sounds pretty straight.
Sylvia Reed: I think there were some other albums around that time that were willing to let something be that clean and fresh that we liked.
PKM: In a weird way, it kind of brought to mind the hip-hop production of the time that was very stripped back, just a few instruments or beats and a voice out front. I remember reading a Lou interview around then, and he said he was getting into Run-DMC.
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, he was a big fan of that early period of hip-hop.
PKM: And the cover evoked that a little too, right? The brick wall, the different kind of street characters Lou was inhabiting…
Sylvia Reed: And the graffiti on the wall, yeah, that was an inspiration. My dear friend Charlie Ahearn did that Wild Style film. And if you were a little younger, you’d remember there was the initial beginnings, the Last Poets and other things, and there was a connection from that to what the young kids were starting to do, that hip-hop flavor, and it was intense social commentary. And when I heard that first Run-DMC album, I was knocked out, and insisted that we ask them to open a show. I think that was 1985, maybe a little earlier. It was kind of hilarious. It was in the Capital Theater, and they were so brave, because they were used to something else entirely, as far as a venue to perform. And it was the first time they performed in front of a very white audience, and they were trying to do their call and response, and there was nothing coming back. Man, they had to have guts! And then within about a year and a half, they were huge, and everybody wanted them to open. It was really exciting.
PKM: I saw Lou on the New York tour at the Palace in Columbus. They shot the video for “Busload of Faith” there.
Sylvia Reed: Did they have that whole stage design, with like the buildings and all that?
PKM: Oh yeah.
Sylvia Reed: I designed that, I was very proud of that. I liked how we put the drummer off to the side, partially just to fit him in. It was hard for me to explain to them why it worked visually. Then sound-wise, it looked like it was going to be challenging, but it worked beautifully. And I remember the drummer saying, “Yeah, why do drummers always have to be in the back?!” That was cool.
At that point, well Lou had a lot of problematic relationships with managers, which can be proved by the lawsuits. The records are probably right down the street here at the courthouse. Other than John Fogerty, Lou is like #2 in terms of the intensity and number of lawsuits with managers and record companies and accountants. He had nine going when I met him.
PKM: Whoa. It’s interesting because during that whole period he was on, what, maybe two labels – Arista and RCA. So it’s not like he was constantly bouncing around to other labels.
Sylvia Reed: Well no, but I don’t know if you remember the moment when that record exec Saul Zaentz – John Fogerty actually wrote songs about how nasty that guy was, and he was! They actually said John had to be prevented from going to a studio on his own with no control, because if he does, he will ruin the record and make it terrible just to get out of the contract. That same argument was used against Lou. “Oh, he’s such a mess that he can’t be trusted.” That’s what was going on when I met Lou. And it continued until about ‘86, ‘87.
PKM: So you go from New York – which was this kind of confident, political, louder album that sold pretty well, got a lot of press – to this kind of darker album, Magic and Loss (1992), about two years later, right?
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, well there were other projects going on too. I remember this freezing cold thing in Toronto, some movie or video. And I think we did about two or three big benefits a year. We did Farm Aid, we were at one of the Live Aids, when Nelson Mandela was at Wembley Stadium, we were there.
PKM: Did you get to meet Nelson Mandela?
Sylvia Reed: No, but we met Winnie. It was a madhouse, really a crush. We didn’t want to push forward or whatever.
PKM: Did Lou enjoy playing those kinds of huge outdoor shows, with tens of thousands of people?
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah. Sometimes it would work out okay on stage too – ha. But more often, that wasn’t really the thing. It was more about being there, and a sense of everyone being there, being committed to this cause. It was great fun!
PKM: So the places he was playing around town here in New York were what – I think the Bottom Line…
Sylvia Reed: Yes, he loved the Bottom Line. He announced our engagement from the stage at the Bottom Line on Christmas. That was his personal favorite club. He also loved the Paradise in Boston – we played that a lot.
PKM: The Cleveland pride guy in me always likes to point out that, aside from New York and Boston, the Velvet Underground played Cleveland the most. And then a lot there once Lou went solo.
Sylvia Reed: Yes, that’s true.
PKM: So yeah, so Magic and Loss – going from New York to this more sprawling, sort of sadder record. What was in between New York – a successful, almost brash record – to this album that had “loss” in the title even?
Sylvia Reed: Well it’s very much about those topics: death, disease, AIDS, losing people. And sadly, again, that became an album that the record company couldn’t understand. I think they completely failed to understand that they were dealing with a real artist. And you cannot convince an artist, “Hey, why don’t you just do ‘Son of New York,’ do the sequel, ‘cause that was so great.” They never got it. And of course, there was Songs for Drella (1990) in there too.
[Songs for Drella was the Lou Reed and John Cale collaboration album, a tribute to Andy Warhol, who passed away in 1987.]
There was a rejuvenation of some sort of looking back with that. So when you’re doing a reexamination, well, he was older at that time, and that’s what an artist does, they look at where they are at that moment.
PKM: And you did the artwork for Songs for Drella too, right?
Sylvia Reed: Uh-huh. I worked with the Warner Bros.in-house people, and that was a really nice experience. And what I brought to it was that it should be velvet, that nice black velvet was easy to associate with mourning. So the special limited packaging was a real velvet package. We were actually nominated for a Grammy for that one, so that was nice.
Then Magic and Loss was Spencer and I again doing that one, because that involved some very detailed stuff. It was inspired by the subject matter – we already knew what it was going to be. Then this amazing photographer, Louis Jammes, who we ran into in France at the Cartier Foundation on the day where we had that impromptu Velvet Underground reunion.
I thought that cover was very effective, very emotional and yet distant, and smaller. I think they alchemical symbols worked. The idea of loss, decay, passing through fire – we needed to reflect that on the disc itself. So we, very challengingly, worked with Dennis Ascienzo to design the CD disc to look like it was burnt. And it was so effective, that a lot of people returned the disc to the store thinking it was defective! Ha ha.
Yes, he loved the Bottom Line. He announced our engagement from the stage at the Bottom Line on Christmas. That was his personal favorite club. He also loved the Paradise in Boston – we played that a lot.
PKM: So the impromptu Velvets reunion in 1990…
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah, well okay it wasn’t so “impromptu.” It was a monumental commitment from Marie-Claude Beaud, who was the Cartier Foundation events coordinator. And the French always had a wonderful appreciation for the Velvets. So she thought if I could get them all to Paris, she could wine and dine them beyond measure and give them all great Cartier gifts, then they’d all be very happy. And so we had this lunch, and they “happened” to have a stage set up and all ready to go. I can’t remember if we’d already been doing a lot of stuff over there. We’d been in Prague meeting Vaclav Havel, and I believe this was right around the same time. Anyway, Lou had his guitar with him.
So they had this stage set up, everyone was in a great mood, and they just wandered up and played for the first time in all those years. It was outside at the Cartier Foundation estate. The stage was fancy, but not huge. It was all invite-only, it was incredible. The idea was already there in my mind, ever since Songs for Drella. Like we had that one amazing show at BAM for that album, and you’d think, ok, now we’re going to take a reunion idea further. That didn’t happen, but the seed had been planted for more work later.
And I should say that, in fact the other thing that really nurtured the seed of a Velvets reunion was that Maureen Tucker took Sterling Morrison out on a tour. I was out on Lou’s tour, and I would escape and go over to Maureen’s shows, which were with a really bouncy band, and Sterling was there, and it was really a hoot. And we had some great times. And Maureen is an amazing person, and it couldn’t happen if it weren’t for her. And it was especially important to Lou, as well as me, to make it happen for her. We were proud of the fact that, monetarily, she was able to be moved a lot by that reunion – for all her kids, she had a lot of kids. So we sort of built this concept that this could happen. And then I became very committed to that idea.
Maybe there were missteps, to make it work economically. They chose to add in some shows with U2, which was kind of like a really cool thing for U2, but not quite the right idea for the Velvets. Though the one at Wembley was amazing. There were a bunch of hardened British journalists standing in the corners weeping. However snarky they got about it later, they were very, very happy.
PKM: So you worked on the live CD, Live MCMXCIII (1993), that came out of that tour.
Sylvia Reed: Yeah. I had to do that kind of long distance, because I was in London working on that video. I had done the lighting design for that show. And I was long distance explaining to Spencer that foil cover; and that it needed to have that cheesy old velvet that’s not luxurious, a cheaper level of quality, like you were in an old lounge somewhere.
PKM: Was that live Velvets CD was the last thing you worked on with Lou?
Sylvia Reed: Well there were books. There was a lot of intense work on Between Thought and Expression (1993), the poetry collection. Spencer and I did that too. It was meant to evoke “gravitas,” but again, it’s always a bit sly. Obviously these were originally lyrics, but then this is a poetry book too – so those things have to work together. That was very beautiful.
PKM: During Magic and Loss and then the book, was it getting harder to work on these things emotionally, as I assume things were dissolving around that time between you and Lou?
Sylvia Reed: After the Velvets reunion, Lou and I attempted to work together despite our marriage eroding. We tried to work together because we both still had the same values. We both believed very much in doing his work. He had a great commitment to that. I totally think he was a very meaningful, very important artist. But yeah, we struggled through a lot. But I’m pretty proud of the fact that we didn’t do what maybe other couples have done. We tried to behave a certain way to get things done.
PKM: And obviously by then he knew that you were equally invested in getting his stuff out there.
Sylvia Reed: Oh yeah, well, he knew he would not find someone again who would be quite that, uh, involved and invested. And I’ve heard nice things from other people who spoke of his acknowledgment of that experience.
PKM: What did you think of the “Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit?
Sylvia Reed: Oh, I think it’s really well done. To couch it in the environment of the times was very important, to know everything else that was happening, I think that was very well done. Also to pay attention to some of the lesser known characters. A lot of these people were featured in what Lou was writing at the time. And he had a great ear, noticing phrases, and language, and sayings that were around him at the time are what show up in his lyrics.
PKM: Especially with Angus MacLise, and how vital he was to the Velvets forming. And in the Sterling Morrison section, there were so many images I had never seen before…
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, it’s amazing. Sterling was such a big factor in the band, and I still don’t know if people got that, Sterling was very key and important, but people were so focused on the whole thing between John Cale and Lou. And it was distracting.
PKM: Over the years, Lou stayed in touch with the other Velvets?
Sylvia Reed: With Maureen particularly. Sterling, yes and no. Sterling was a very acerbic personality as well. The fact that they did eventually get back together at all was amazing.
PKM: This reminds me of a Cleveland Lou show I tried to go to, at the outdoor Nautica Stage. I can’t remember exactly, I believe it was 1991. Everyone was really excited because he was bringing Mo Tucker as opening act – I think only on that show, or maybe like three on that tour — and rumors were flying about her playing on a few songs. So we get down there, waiting for a while in line, like too long. And word comes down that Lou slipped off the stage stairs, or they broke or whatever, on the way down after soundcheck – and he broke his foot, and the show was cancelled. He eventually sued the local promoter Belkin, which we were all in favor of given their, uh, somewhat interesting reputation at the time. But nonetheless, we missed a possible kind of Velvets reunion and a Lou show. I recently went back to the same bar where we went after that cancelled show to drown our sorrows.
Sylvia Reed: I remember that! I remember rushing through the airport there with Lou in a wheelchair. Yeah, he had to cancel the rest of that tour. There was another incident around then with a car accident in California. Crazy.
PKM: I never did get to see Mo Tucker play.
Sylvia Reed: That’s too bad, she’s great. We did take her on a tour in Japan where she did play tom-toms with him on stage, she was amazing. So that was part of the reunion too. She’s really, really nice, a great person. Actually, I did a single cover for her too, for that single, “I Spent a Week There the Other Night.” I did a T-shirt for a Bottom Line show once too, which I just found the other day. It had two fists with “Lou” and “Reed” on them, holding electrical wire that spells out “Bottom Line.” Kind of bizarre, but nice to find again.
Sterling [Morrison] was such a big factor in the [Velvet Underground], and I still don’t know if people got that, Sterling was very key and important, but people were so focused on the whole thing between John Cale and Lou.
PKM: So, what was your favorite Lou album cover, and which one were you most unhappy with?
Sylvia Reed: Hmm, well, I mean you give a little piece of your heart each time you’re involved with one. But I was very pleased with Magic and Loss. I guess that one is particularly lovely to me. Also New York. And yeah, Mistrial was the one where, well, that’s the one I wish I had a do-over on.
PKM: You did the inner sleeves too?
Sylvia Reed: In general. Maybe not Mistrial, but definitely we worked every single page, every little tiny corner of the later stuff. Once you learned you could have that kind of control, you want to make sure it’s coherent, one seamless presentation. That was part of what I enjoyed about it.
PKM: So the last time I saw Lou was in the late summer of 2013, at the former CBGB, the now John Varvatos store. He and Mick Rock did a Q&A for a new Mick Rock book of all the photos he made around the Transformer album. That was really great but of course it was strange and sad too.
Sylvia Reed: Yeah, he was pretty ill at that time.
PKM: Yeah. I would always catch these Lou Reed in-stores and talks around town. And this time, well you could just tell he looked markedly different. And then – compared to the general stereotype of Lou’s usual moods, and definitely compared to all those previous in-stores – this time Lou kept reiterating how much he loved Mick, and the photos, and thanking everyone a lot, and standing up and hugging Mick. And, you know, you could just kind of tell something was different. It was very emotional, not the usual Lou Reed book store appearance.
Though we all got a great last grumpy Lou moment, a great New York moment actually. Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators was kind of crouching and moving about the folding chairs, trying to get some good pictures. Then suddenly his cell phone starts ringing, and it’s the “Godfather” theme. Ha. So then Lou finally spoke up louder, and was like, “Hey buddy, fucking sit down and listen or get the hell outta here!” And bouncers finally led Handsome Dick out, as he of course was yelling, “I’m Handsome Dick Manitoba, I know you, man!” It was a pretty funny scene, and a pretty good metaphor, actually. I think that was Lou’s last public appearance before he passed away in October.
Sylvia Reed: Yes, it was. Did you see the thing he did at BAM, Time Rocker? It was great. You know he always altered what he did and explored those other areas that you couldn’t strictly call “rock’n’roll” or whatever. He did his photography too. He was a true artist. He kept exploring and pushing to do what he wanted to do.
Lou and VU interview on Zach Martin Rocks! Radio show, w/ Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz:
“It’s a Long Way to the Top – album design talk at Howl w/ Spencer Drate, Sylvia Reed, and John Holmstrom:
MORE FROM PKM:
LOU REED’S ARCHIVE HOLDS SIX HUNDRED HOURS OF MOSTLY UNRELEASED AUDIO, AND OTHER REVELATIONS FROM HIS ARCHIVIST
STERLING SPEAKS! STERLING MORRISON’S LAST INTERVIEW WITH LEGS MCNEIL, 1995
MOE TUCKER: ON THE VELVET UNDERGROUND