Lou Reed -- Rock-and-Roll Heart' An American Masters Special

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Title: “Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart,” An American Masters Special
VTR: 3/3/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And there is a most happy connection between the program we record today and the American Masters PBS special that will be seen on public-television stations around the country on Wednesday, April 29, 1998. As they say, “Check your local listings.” For even if you’re an old fogey like me, you really and truly won’t want to miss “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart.” For heaven’s sake, I’m more tone-deaf than otherwise, and essentially illiterate as far as rock-and-roll music ever was or is now concerned, and with the possible exception of The Open Mind’s own theme music, find my simple musical pleasures mostly with Sinatra and the big bands of my youth.

Yet, the fact is that I think “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart” is an absolutely smashing film, and I’m particularly pleased that a good friend and Lake Oscawana neighbor is its producer/director. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is a masterful portrait photographer. In magazines everywhere you’ve seen his outstanding celebrity portraits ranging from Jasper Johns to Mira Sorvino, to Madeline Albright, George Bush, Al Gore, and on and on. This first film of his, “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart,” is a portrait too. And I want to begin by asking Timothy if it must be seen differently than his works are seen in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Metropolitan, or the National Portrait Gallery. Is there a difference, Tim?

SANDERS: I think that I always wanted my portrait work, sort of the style that I’ve developed over the years, to come through in this film. And I was very conscious of that, especially with the screen tests that we see, and then where I kept the camera on the subject, had them staring into the camera, a lot the way I do when I take a portrait, very, very simple and kind of unpretentious. And that came out of Warhol. And that’s where I learned it from, I guess, 25 years ago, when I got interested in Warhol, when I first got interested in Lou Reed. So I think my portrait work, you can see this film and see the way I take portraits also. It’s very much connected.

HEFFNER: Now, what’s the difference?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, it’s moving, and it’s a very fast-paced film. And my portraiture is very minimalistic. That’s still in the film. But I think what you, the connections, I think, are the lighting. I use my kind of very beautiful, glamorous, if you will, Hollywood lighting in the film. But then, when we start to use the archival footage, we use it very quickly, and we use it, all this gritty material that we found, great archival photographs, wonderful old footage of Lou Reed singing and performing, and that’s what makes the film kind of have this great force. And also the music.

HEFFNER: You know, I couldn’t help but thinking back to the time I was still chairman of the film rating board, and Oliver Stone, with his “JFK” was bragging about the incredible number of cuts that you would find in that very lengthy film. And he was saying that he was playing with the viewer’s mind, with the viewer’s consciousness. Were you doing that too?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I can see what he’s talking about. I think for us it was different because there isn’t a lot of moving footage from the period, from the Sixties, and there’s almost nothing of the Velvet Underground. So what you do is, you think, “How do you make this moving picture move around?” And the way we did it was, as a photographer I knew that behind the one or two great photographs that you see in a magazine or that become the seminal picture of, say, Lou Reed from that period, there are contact sheets, and those contact sheets contain 36 other pictures. So when we started to research the film, we approached all of the photographers — Nick Rock, Steven Shore, Lisa Law, all these different people — and I said, “Let me see your contact sheets.” And that was a way to see what else was available, because there wasn’t anything moving that was available. And we use, and you remember, in the film, we kind of jump very quickly through the contact sheets. And it’s almost like an animation. And we use hundreds of pictures that way. So it’s really kind of a wonderful way to create motion without having it in the first place.

HEFFNER: Were you playing with our minds?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, I don’t think I’m playing with your minds, no. I think we’re just more playing with what was available to us. I think that there are little things that happen when you jump from these pictures that all of a sudden you think that you’re actually having a motion picture, and it’s not; it’s just still pictures that are moving very quickly. But it’s very effective.

HEFFNER: Do you not like… Let me pursue this. Do you not like this notion of playing with our minds?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, I think I like the notion. I think that what I discovered about making this film is how unbelievably powerful the medium is, and that when you…

HEFFNER: The medium film.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Film. And that when you set up something, you can have someone say something, and then whatever comes afterwards really can twist what they’ve said. And you can go any way with it, and you can turn someone’s simple statement into something that makes them look foolish, and you can also make them seem very brilliant. It’s much more extraordinary than one realizes. When you’re sitting in the editing room and you think, “God, I could really make that guy look like a jerk.”

HEFFNER: Or, the opposite.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Or the opposite. Absolutely. Or the opposite.

HEFFNER: Now, does that mean that my good friend Timothy is going to head toward the Hollywood hills?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, I would hope that there might be a project that I’d be really excited to do. One of the other things that I’ve learned is that there’s just so much more work in making a film. Photography, you do a shoot, you have a day of preparation, you have a kind of wonderful shoot day, and then it’s over. And with a film it just goes on and on and on forever. And you really have to love what you’re going to do.

HEFFNER: What did you do here? What did you do, in a social sense? What’s the significance of Lou Reed?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: When I was 16, I got my first Velvet Underground record, and I was living in Miami, Florida. And it really changed my life, I think. I listened to songs that were not like the records that you listened to at the time. They were very different. It was kind of language that was unusual, and it was also subject matter that was very, very unusual for rock-and-roll. And he also opened me up, Lou Reed did, to Warhol. Because Warhol had produced the first Velvet Underground record. And I thought, “Who is this guy, Andy Warhol?” And I started to read about him. And I became very, very interested in Warhol and that whole New York scene, to the point that I ended up going to college at Columbia because I wanted to be in New York. And I think that Lou Reed is one of the musicians who has really had an effect on rock music like no one else. He changed the course of rock music in so many ways. And, you know, in the film, Penn Gillette says, “There’d be no such thing as alternative music without the Velvet Underground.” I think it’s very true, that Lou Reed brought so much adultness, if you will, to rock-and-roll. It was a kid’s medium before.

HEFFNER: A “kid’s medium?”

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Yeah. I think, look at the lyrics of rock-and-roll in the Sixties, or even the Fifties. There’s no substance. And Lou Reed started to talk about drugs and about sex and about issues that were never, ever, that were out there but were never pat of rock-and-roll. Rock-and-roll was for young people. So this was sort of a dangerous thing.

HEFFNER: Tell me more about what you mean about “a dangerous thing.”

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, to have records that young people would listen to that talked about heroin or talked about junkies, or talked about transvestites. That was something that was pretty shocking. I mean, to us today it’s nothing because you can turn on daytime television and watch any of those TV shows and have that discussed. But if you think back to the Sixties, it was not the subject matter of rock-and-roll.

HEFFNER: What does that mean about the musician? Does he lead, follow, create, mold, reflect?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: No, I think about Lou Reed as a musician; I also think about Lou Reed as someone who was very, very… He was college-educated, he was someone who was interested in William Burroughs and Ginsberg and Raymond Chandler. And those were his influences. And he brought that to rock-and-roll. He brought this kind of interest in subterranean, he brought this interest in the outside world, the outsiders, he brought all that to rock-and-roll. And that was revolutionary.

HEFFNER: Timothy, good, bad, or indifferent? Obviously you think good.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I think great. Yeah. I think that he, you know what it is, really? When you look back at that period of music and you think of who has stayed with you and continued to grow as an artist, and with the exception… Really, for me, it’s only Lou Reed, that as I got older and I got more interested in other things, I followed his career, and, you know, he got into glam rock, and he got into sort of the gender-bending period of the Seventies, and then he moved into this whole album about Berlin, which was all about abuse and people not getting along and subjects that were never a part of rock-and-roll records. And he continued to do that through his career. He had an album called “Metal Machine Music” that’s all feedback, that at the time I bought that album I couldn’t stand it. That was the most horrible thing I ever…

HEFFNER: And now?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Now I actually like it. Yeah. Yeah, I like it. But I wasn’t hip enough for it at that point. I wasn’t ready for it.

And in the Nineties, even, he did an album called “Magic of Loss” about cancer. And we all, you know, I’m 46, at a certain point you’re starting to deal with your parents dying. My father died last year of cancer. You start to, these are subjects that you still can relate to, and it still has rock-and-roll connected to it. And this is unusual.

HEFFNER: Let me go back to the question of what the impact of the artist is upon the society. And you seem to be saying that he was, Lou Reed was, is, the Pied Piper, and takes us with him. And obviously he doesn’t take us with him just in terms of the sounds, but in terms of the subjects, as you have pointed out. Now, you’re a son, and a good son. You’re a father, and I know a good father. What about the concerns of many Americans who couldn’t let themselves get wrapped up in the sound and were appalled by the content? I’ve wondered what makes this music, and what makes this message, fit for American Masters? How did it come about?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: It came about because I had been, I became friends with Lou Reed a number of years ago. I started to hang out with him more and more and started to take a little High Aid video camera with me. And I amassed a certain amount of footage just hiding out on stage when he’d be performing, and I’d be videotaping the concert, and a lot of behind-the-scenes, the stuff, just for myself. And one day I bumped into Susan Lacey, who is the executive producer of American Masters, and I said, “You know, Susan, I think I have a film I’m thinking of doing. I haven’t done a film in 20-something years. But it’s about Lou Reed, you know. And I’ve done this, shot this video and stuff.” She said, “I’m calling you tomorrow. It’s a great idea.” And she did. She called me the next day, and we started to do it. And I think it’s wonderful… You know, rock-and-roll is 50 years old now, I think it is. Fifty years old, almost. So some of these musicians who started out as sort of young, punk rock-and-rollers have moved on and become the grandfathers of rock-and-roll. Lou Reed is certainly the godfather, more likely, of rock-and-roll. And he has had such an influence on so many people. And I think Susan realized that, whether she knew that much about his music, she knew enough to know this is someone who is an important artist. And that’s what’s great about this film is it’s the artist in him.

HEFFNER: Tell me about how mainstream Lou Reed is. Because, you know, I don’t know about Lou Reed.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: He’s not mainstream. Yeah. Lou’s not mainstream at all. His one, big song was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which was a song about these transvestite characters at Max’s Kansas City that, by fluke, by luck, got onto radio and became so popular in 1972, I think it was, that it became his big single. And most people know him for that. What’s behind that though are 20-something other albums and an incredible body of work that really pushed the edge every time he had a chance to.

HEFFNER: Go back to the question of his being a social phenomenon. As a leader and a molder? Or as a reflection of something that was happening in American life?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, probably both. I mean, Lou doesn’t believe that he has a big following and a big influence, which it’s really funny to hear, because he does. And in music, I mean, just look at… In this film we have Patti Smith, David Byrne, David Bowie, all talking about how Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground influenced them. And these are major, major musicians, major influences on other music, that it all kind of stems from the Velvet Underground period in the Sixties, and then from Lou’s own solo career. So I think he’s one of these people who has a great influence on artists, and that artists have influences on other people.

HEFFNER: How do you parallel what he has done and the influence he has had with your own sense of what you do, have done, and want to do, perhaps now more in film, but as a photographer?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, I think, as a photographer I’ve always tried to push myself as much as possible. And certainly I see that in Lou. Lou is always doing this. He’s always trying to do something new. And I think he’s probably more successful at it than I am. But I think there’s also this work ethic that comes through in the film. And it really stems from Warhol and Warhol saying that “All that matters is work.” And certainly there’s…

HEFFNER: But he told Lou Reed that he was a lazy bum.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: That he was lazy. Exactly. And Lou said, “And he was right. And I’ve tried to work harder.” And I’m very much that way too. I kind of feel like work is so important. And I’m very fortunate because I love my work. So if one of these few, I’m one of the artists who really enjoys what I’m doing. I wish there were a hundred hours in the day.

HEFFNER: But work toward what end? If I seem to be pushing you, I am.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I think as a photographer certainly I’ve built up a kind of gigantic archive of the art world. That was my world for 20 years, portraits of artists. And I have an archive that is huge, that ranges from the Fifties artists through the Nineties artists, and includes all of the sort of hot moments of the Eighties, and everyone that I thought was interesting in New York. And in Europe, to some extent. It’s a life’s project that I’ve been working on and continue to work on. Now I’m kind of hooked on film, slightly. This was a great project to do, and I could see myself doing more films.

HEFFNER: Give you more opportunity? Does film give you more opportunity to express what you want to express?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I think it probably does, and it probably gets seen by more people. This film will probably have a viewing audience of five million people. Probably not that many go into museums and take out pictures and look at them, or look at books that have my portraits in them. So I think it’s reaching a larger audience, which is gratifying.

HEFFNER: Timothy, what about the role of drugs in the whole rock-and-roll movement, particularly in terms of Reed’s involvement?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, he was certainly very, very important as a figure that people looked at for a long time as someone who was, sort of became a king of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll. But that’s so small a part of him. He stopped drinking and drugs in late ’79, ’82 I think it was he stopped drinking. To me that part of rock-and-roll is sort of the cliché that I didn’t care that much about. Because what differentiates Lou Reed from the garden-variety rock-and-roller is that he is an artist who has an interest in issues that are much beyond rock-and-roll. And he brought literature to rock-and-roll. And he put a musical beat to literature, in a sense.

HEFFNER: You don’t mind if I go back now and ask you: Timothy, what in the world is rock-and-roll?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, I’m not the expert on rock-and-roll, but it certainly…

HEFFNER: You better be, given the film.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: No, I’m an expert on Lou Reed and his work. But what is rock-and-roll? Rock-and-roll was a really American music form that started in the Fifties, came out of blues. So many great musicians, so much great music. But what Lou did was he brought this sort of literary influence into rock-and-roll. That’s the real key to this man’s art, is it’s, he combined music with a sort of serious, literary bent. And he studied with Delmore Schwartz. I mean, this is someone who learned from Delmore Schwartz how to take an entire novel, reduce it to a short story; how to take a short story, reduce it to a few lines. And that’s why Lou’s lyrics are so extraordinary, because he can say so precisely, so carefully, so cleanly what he wants to say.

HEFFNER: Do you think there will be repercussions to the fact that this rock-and-roller is the subject of a Susan Lacey special?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, Lou Reed is always controversial, and he always has been. There are people who love him; and there are people who hate him. I’m sure we’ll have some people who will say he doesn’t deserve it. It’s ludicrous. This man is so, so important, and so talented, and has done so much to influence everyone in music that he really should be in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame himself. It’s a crime that he isn’t at this point.

HEFFNER: Why isn’t he?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I don’t run the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Oh, come on, come on, Timothy. Why isn’t he?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, I guess politics. I don’t know. I guess there’s probably… He should be soon. I guess he will be.

HEFFNER: What’s your next project?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, I have a couple of documentary…

HEFFNER: Don’t forget you promised you were going to take a picture of me.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I’m taking a picture of you. That’s the most important one.

HEFFNER: Right. Okay.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I want to do some more portrait work for awhile, because to do this film I’ve taken off an almost entire year away from photography.

HEFFNER: So, come on, I’ve seen Madelyn Albright, I’ve seen Al Gore, George Bush.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: You’ve seen, I’ve accepted a few assignments to do important pictures, because I felt I couldn’t turn them down. You can’t turn those down. But I’d like to work on a new series of portraits if I can. And I’d like to do another film.

HEFFNER: Subject matter?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Can’t talk about it yet. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Oh, come on. No one’s watching.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: There are people listening. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I promise.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Lot of listeners here.

HEFFNER: All right. But the portraits, what area, I mean, are you going to continue to do what you’ve done?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I feel that the last few years I’ve gotten away from younger artists. I haven’t done enough of the younger artists, so I want to do more of those people. And it’s very easy. In the Eighties I was so tuned into everyone that was important and that was doing interesting work, and I’m not that tuned in anymore. So I want to kind of get back into that and get those people, photograph those people.

HEFFNER: And in politics?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I’d love to do more politicians. It would be great. I’d love to do a Washington series.

HEFFNER: But you’ve been doing a lot in Washington.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I’ve been doing a lot. I’d like to actually go down there and set up a studio and do a month of portraits. Something like that would be really fun. The way Avedon did back in the, was it, the late Sixties he did the wonderful series of portraits. It’s time to do those again.

HEFFNER: What’s the distinguishing characteristic of the political portrait, if any?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Politicians are tough. They’re like… They don’t give you a lot of time, which is always a problem. And they’re a lot like actors, where they know what their good angles are, the better politicians do. And they’re kind of hard to control that way. So you have to be able to really get in there fast and get something good without being controlled by them. It’s not easy.

HEFFNER: How do you do that? You say it’s not easy.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Tricks. Lots of little tricks. Little tricks.

HEFFNER: What do you mean? Preparation?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Preparation, being completely ready for the shot, and then just… You know, in a way it’s that ability to talk to someone and get them relaxed right away. And I’m good at that. I’ve been doing it a long time. And if you go back to the film, you look at the interviews that I’ve done, those interviews are very relaxed. What I’m so proud of in the film, in fact, are the way these people are so, kind of, like they’re sitting right with you. And it’s because I lit them a certain way, they look very real, and they just feel like they’re right in your living room talking to you. And they’re very relaxed. Because I know how to talk to someone and get that person to forget that there’s a camera on and there’s lights and there’s microphones. And within a few minutes you can just have a conversation, like we’re doing right now. That’s what’s great about the interviews in the film. And I do that as a photographer. That, as a photographer, came through in the film.

HEFFNER: But, of course, I was so impressed by the feeling I had that, by gosh, Timothy has scripted all of this. How did he get them to say with such naturalness everything that he wanted?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: I give all of the credit to Karen Greenfield-Sanders, my wife, who really took these hour-long interview that we did with people and just reduced them down to the most important expressions, most important statements that they made, and then really kind of strung this dialogue together, because we don’t have a narrator. What we’ve done is we’ve done this film without a narrator, and it just goes from person to person and tells the story. And that is so hard to do. And Karen really, really gets the credit for making that narration work. And I think it’s marvelous, because you don’t feel the presence of someone talking over you; you really feel the story being told through the people who were there.

HEFFNER: Now, the film that you showed at Sundance was, what, 70…

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Seventy-five minutes.

HEFFNER: Seventy-five minutes long.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Right.

HEFFNER: On PBS it will be its usual one hour…

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Yes.

HEFFNER: …minus the “thanks to.”

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Yes.

HEFFNER: What’s the ratio between what you shot and what’s on, what was on the screen at Sundance?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Well, we lost 20 minutes.

HEFFNER: No, no, no, I don’t mean that. If you take the 75 minutes that was shown at Sundance…

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Right.

HEFFNER: …how many minutes of film did you have?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, how much did we shoot?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Oh, well, I shot…

HEFFNER: What was the ratio?

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: …probably 50 hours of B-roll of just me running around with Lou Reed all over the world, on high-8. And we shot probably 40 hours of interviews; 35 interviews, approximately an hour each. And then there are hours and hours and hours of archival footage that we brought in. So the ratio is going to be 100:1 — my math isn’t great — 125:1, something like that, yeah.

I think a lot of what I shot was junk. [Laughter] But, you know, you shoot a lot of junk to get that one little moment when the guitar is perfect and the light is right and someone says, “That perfect little moment.” That the interview in the balcony in Amsterdam where Lou was talking about Delmore Schwartz and how he was so influenced by Delmore Schwartz, and then at the end of the film we come back to that wonderful interview. That was priceless. I mean, we could never… That just pulled the whole film together for me.

HEFFNER: Now, what does pull the whole film together is the ability to watch it when it’s on PBS stations now. And this is the point at which I have to thank you, Timothy, for joining me today. I hope everyone sees your “Lou Reed” film.

GREENFIELD-SANDERS: Thank you so much for having me.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join me again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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