TORONTO - Toronto native Bob Ezrin produced Lou Reed's ambitious 1973 album "Berlin." What follows is an extended discussion between Ezrin and The Canadian Press about the Velvet Underground songwriter, who died Sunday at age 71.
Canadian Press: How did you first become involved with Lou?
Ezrin: I had done a version of "Rock and Roll" with Mitch Ryder and Detroit, which was his favourite cover of the song. So when he came out of "Transformer," I think he was looking for something a little more gritty and a little less pop and was hoping to do more of a rock thing and so he wanted to get that guy who did "Rock and Roll." So the record company found me, and suggested I go see him. In fact, I saw him play here, at Massey Hall, and the opening act was Genesis. So it was a prophetic night for me.
Anyway, I fell in love with Lou.... Then Lou and I met, and we talked about working together, and I just found him blazingly smart and challenging and inspiring. There was no question in my mind after spending 15 minutes talking to him that I wanted to work with him.
CP: He was a year removed from this great commercial success. Did he feel pressure after making "Transformer"?
Ezrin: I think he felt slightly separated from the success. Not from the song ("Walk on the Wild Side") — he loved the song. (But) he never saw himself as a pop guy, and the song was beginning to have actual pop success. I think that felt foreign to him. It didn't feel comfortable. He liked being the street poet and ... the voice of the new beat.
CP: You were only 23 years old at the time and he's a notoriously formidable presence. Did you feel intimidated by him at all?
Ezrin: I was too much of a punk to be intimidated by anybody. But I was in awe of him. No question I was in awe of his brilliance. "Rock and Roll" was like the anthem. It articulated what had happened to all of us when we were little kids that changed our lives and made us not become accountants and dentists and lawyers like our parents but pursue this ephemeral, crazy, dangerous, seductive, addictive lifestyle. So there he was. The guy that actually wrote those words, that wrote my life, and he was sitting on the floor in my house on Summerhill Avenue in Toronto with an acoustic guitar.
I told him, you tell a life in two minutes and 30 seconds. And that's an amazing facility that you can do that. But every once in a while, you tell a story that I wish I knew the ending of. I said as an example, you wrote this song "Berlin" about this couple ... and what happened to those people?
I said we should tell a story like that and tell it all the way to the end. (But) instead of telling a story LIKE that, why don't we tell THAT story? And he loved that. He flipped. He took it as a challenge. He went home, back to New York, and he came back a month or so later, and we sat on the floor again, and he started playing me those songs.
Just magnificent, visceral, elemental writing. So unadorned. So simple. So to the point, but eloquent, sensitive and kind of romantic. That's Lou. Unadorned but romantic to his core. He found a way to take the reality of the street and make it beautiful.
CP: It's since been called one of the most depressing records of all time. How do you feel about that designation?
Ezrin: (Laughs) Well, it is a story about a woman, a speed freak, who loses her children and commits suicide. So it wasn't overly surprising when people found it a little bit down. But there's actually a celebratory side to it, when you listen to the record. It really has some energy. It rocks. And at the end, "Sad Song," is actually really moving and kind of upbeat until you really listen to the lyrics.
CP: This year actually marked the album's 40th anniversary.
Ezrin: I know, and they've remastered it. I will tell you, the last conversation I had with Lou was just a short while ago. He called me (and) he says, "It sounds so beautiful." ... I said, "I can't wait to hear it, and I can't wait to see you." And actually, I was just making my schedule up (Sunday) morning (as I) got on the plane from L.A. to Toronto. I was setting a trip to New York for November, and I made a note: "Breakfast with Lou." I was going to call my buddy and have a little get-together.
And then I got on the plane, and I used the onboard Wi-Fi, and I saw the story. I almost fell out of my seat. I was a captive for five hours. All I wanted to do was run up and down the aisles screaming. By the time I got here, I was pretty drained.
The world has lost one of its great artistic treasures. Lou Reed is not just the voice of a particular place — though nobody speaks New York like Lou spoke New York — but he was a voice of a couple generations of rock music and he opened up doors for us. He gave us new language. He gave us permission to touch on the truth in our music and not whitewash it and not gloss over it, but to really talk about what we knew. And what he knew was the street side, and he told that with absolute honesty, (with) no commercial consideration. He had a singularity of vision. He was 100 per cent uncompromising.
The things that he made were uniquely poetic, beautiful, insightful, powerful and, for many of us, life-altering.
CP: He was infamous for having a prickly personality, with journalists and sometimes fans. Were those stories accurate or overblown?
Ezrin: Oh no, he had no patience. He was impatient and he was also somewhat suspicious of people from the outside. You guys are in a tough position because you come into a room, you're strangers, and you ask probing questions. And your job is to try to get to the centre of someone who in many cases doesn't really feel like letting anybody in, including their closest friends, never mind somebody they met five minutes ago. So he was prickly with journalists and sometimes people would call me and say "I'm about to interview Lou; what should I not say?" I could make a big list. (Laughs)
But by the same token, he's a total romantic. But he comes from a place where much of what he was doing in his formative years was taboo, and couldn't be shared with other people without there being some recriminations, starting off with his parents disapproving of his lifestyle. And actually having him taken to a hospital because they thought he was crazy instead of he was just a genius and had a tendency to a different sexual orientation than theirs. I lived directly across from him, by the way. I could look out my kitchen window into his bedroom in the '70s in New York. But I never thought of Lou as being bisexual or gay. I just thought of Lou as being Lou. Just a unique man. Just different from anybody else that I'd met and anybody that I cared to know.
CP: Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Ezrin: I think the happiest thing for me was to see Lou get together with Laurie Anderson and be witness to their love and devotion to each other. They became almost like a cross between teenagers in love and a little old couple. (Laughs)
And I think this is going to be so difficult for her. Because I know how deeply, deeply she loves Lou and how much his love meant to her. I just remember the first time I ever saw them together was in Cannes, in the south of France. I was walking into the hotel, and I walked into the room and there was Lou and Laurie at the table, holding hands, and I walked in the room and they stopped. And it was sort of like I caught someone in the act.
I have been a huge Laurie Anderson fan from the first time I ever heard her stuff on the radio. I literally missed my exit on the 401 (highway) and had to pull my car over. So then to see my Lou and her, together, in that place, it was just wonderful. It filled me with such a feeling of hope and joy for him.
And he was happy with her. He was truly, truly happy for the first time since I had known him and I've known him for 42 years. So we should mention that. In the years since he's been with Laurie Anderson, he's been essentially a happy man.
Answers have been condensed and edited.
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