SINCE HIS PROTO-PUNK BAND THE DOCTORS OF MADNESS FIRST HIT THE HEADLINES IN 1975, MUSICIAN, ACTOR, WRITER AND ADVENTURER RICHARD STRANGE HAS WORKED IN EVERY FIELD OF THE PERFORMING ARTS…
He’s continued to write and record songs, release CDs, appear in films (Tim Burton’s BATMAN, MONA LISA, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK amongst others) and onstage around the world, make videos, curate Live Art events, write an acclaimed memoir (PUNKS AND DRUNKS AND FLICKS AND KICKS in 2005), lecture and play live concerts. A new Doctors of Madness album, DARK TIMES, will be released later this year. But now, in Autumn 2019, Strange is heading out on a UK tour to celebrate the many characters who occupy space so vividly in Lou Reed’s songs. Reed wrote about the unsavoury reality he knew, in a manner which was willing to offend and disillusion. His lurid studies of New York misfits and outcasts inspired the counter-cultural movements which followed. Influenced from the beginning by The Velvet Underground and then by Reed’s work as a solo artist, Strange and his impressive newly assembled band of heavyweights will pay tribute to an artist of uncompromising honesty. In this new interview with The Mouth Magazine, Strange discusses Reed’s work…
ON THE FORTHCOMING TOUR YOU’LL BE PERFORMING THE SONGS OF LOU REED… OBVIOUSLY CERTAIN SONGS HAVE DRIFTED INTO A MUCH WIDER RENOWN OVER THE YEARS – PERFECT DAY, SATELLITE OF LOVE, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE… AND I’M GUESSING THOSE WILL FEATURE AT YOUR GIGS… BUT, STRAIGHT OFF THE BAT, I’M GOING TO ASK WHICH SONGS OF REED’S ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU, AND WHY…?
So many… I got hooked in 1967 – the Velvet Underground and Nico album. On that record alone there is more invention, creativity and innovation than most bands manage in a lifetime… HEROIN, WAITING FOR THE MAN, EUROPEAN SON, BLACK ANGEL, FEMME FATALE… Just listen to the skill with which a lyric is married to a melody, a rhythm, a tempo. Genius… I could list so many, but that record was my entrée to everything that followed – SISTER RAY, WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT, PALE BLUE EYES, MURDER MYSTERY, SWEET JANE… I always wanted Doctors Of Madness to be a sort of Velvets / William Burroughs sci-fi nightmare! Part caricature, part Theatre of Cruelty. And always in my head was the desire to make a real full-on racket!
I UNDERSTAND YOU WERE AN ‘EARLY ADOPTER’ IN THAT YOU WERE PROBABLY ONE OF THE FIRST PEOPLE IN THE UK TO OWN THE DEBUT ALBUM. OBVIOUSLY THEY ARE NOW WIDELY LAUDED, BUT BACK THEN THEY WERE UNKNOWN. DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN AND HOW YOU FIRST HEARD OF THEM, AND HEARD THEM?
Rather tragically, when other sixteen year-olds were going out with girls, I was going to art galleries! Me and my friend Joe were obsessed with contemporary art (and William Burroughs)! We used to visit all the commercial galleries in Cork Street, London – Robert Fraser, Waddingtons, The Mayor Gallery – and we subscribed to STUDIO INTERNATIONAL and ART AND ARTISTS, the two heavyweight art publications in the 1960s. We were crazy about the New York Pop painters – Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and, of course, the coolest man alive, Andy Warhol! When we read that he had adopted a rock band and was “producer” of their album, we just knew it was going to change our lives. The iconic image of Andy surrounded by the band, all wearing shades, all looking so cool, was intoxicating… Then we saw stills of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, with light-shows and Gerard Malanga’s whip dance! Wow! They were the sexiest, most game-changing rock band ever. We bought it at One Stop Records, in South Molton Street… a shop that stocked US imports in their original gatefold sleeves, and charged a premium price for the privilege of getting the records before they were released here. We got the banana-bedecked treasure home and played it twenty times non-stop. It melted our minds! You could get most of the lyrics just by listening to the songs, as Lou’s voice, and Nico’s, were mixed up high, but some tracks were so ‘out there’, so ‘Burroughs’, that you just surrendered to the sound… especially BLACK ANGEL DEATH SONG. The unlikely combination of personalities in the band all conspired to create an astonishing, genre-defying sound. Lou’s studied lyrics and vocal delivery, Cale’s avant garde use of drones and feedback, Nico’s ice-maiden chanteuse delivery, and Mo Tucker’s dumb-ass drumming. Individually they were all interesting – but collectively they were a speedball rush…
WAS IT A PARTICULAR THING ABOUT THEM THAT HOOKED YOU?
It was that combo of New York contemporary art world cool, Warhol, The Factory and the fact that the lyrics were so uncompromising, I think. Also Lou’s delivery was like no other. I’ve always been attracted to vocalists who can sell a lyric – like Dylan, Cohen, Shane McGowan, Waits, and Lou – rather than ‘real’ singers. Attitude is all – and Lou had that in spades. He was also erudite, well-read, and knew about stuff outside music… I always like that.
THE POET JOHN COOPER CLARKE ONCE TOLD ME THAT HIS DEEP LOVE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND WAS BECAUSE THEY WERE THE ANTITHESIS, IN THE LATE 1960S, OF THE ‘ABSOLUTELY POINTLESS’ STONER THING GOING ON OVER ON THE WEST COAST OF AMERICA… THEY WERE ‘HONEST’ AND MEANINGFUL – DOCUMENTING UNSAVOURY TIMES IN A DIFFICULT URBAN ENVIRONMENT. SO THEY WERE DEALING WITH REALITY, AND NOT JUST ‘TUNING OUT’… WOULD YOU HOLD WITH THAT?
Yes, totally… While West coast bands tended towards Californian hippie chic, the Velvets were hard, cool, and knowing. Their subject matter was confrontational… drugs, the street, hustlers, S-and-M sex… they were everything that the 1967 ‘Summer Of Love’ was not! Cynical, sassy, smart ass. I guess their closest West coast equivalent were the Mothers Of Invention… but only in as much as neither band would play the game. Both were uncompromising.
I’VE ALWAYS FELT LOU’S LYRICS WERE THESE KEEN-EYED SNAPSHOTS OF WHAT WAS GOING ON RIGHT AROUND HIM – SO YOU COULD SAY THAT HIS WORDS WERE MOST OFTEN ‘EXTERNAL’… ONE OR TWO EXCEPTIONS OVER THE YEARS (PERHAPS NOTABLY THE MAGIC AND LOSS ALBUM, AS THAT SEEMED TO BE WRITTEN WITH A SORT OF ‘INTERNAL’ EYE)… SO, IN ALMOST EVERY WAY, TO ME, THE SONGS ARE REPORTAGE… WHAT IMPRESSIONS OF LOU’S LIFE, AND THE THINGS HE SAW, DID YOU MOST TAKE FROM THAT VELVETS STUFF?
Sex, drugs and a love of poetry. He was the songwriting equivalent of the archetypal New York street photographer… like Joel Meyerowicz or someone… and certainly without Lou there would have been no Nan Goldin. Lou writes in black and white, not in colour, doesn’t he?
THE SONG DIRTY BOULEVARD FROM THE NEW YORK ALBUM IS DEFINITELY JUST WHAT YOU’VE SAID – A BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPH. YOU CAN ALMOST SEE THAT PHOTOGRAPH IN YOUR HEAD WHEN THE SONG PLAYS, CAN’T YOU? IT’S SO RICH IN DETAIL AND, AS EVER THERE’S DEPTH AND PERSPECTIVE AND SO, ULTIMATELY I THINK, REAL COMPASSION. I LOVE THE LINE “GIVE ME YOUR HUNGRY, YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR AND I’LL PISS ON ‘EM”… IT’S DEALING WITH A BIG ISSUE, BUT IT’S SO STREET, AND IT’S ALMOST FUNNY, A WISE-ASS CASUAL THROWAWAY ALMOST… I WONDER WHAT YOU THINK LOU MIGHT MAKE OF AMERICA TODAY? CAN YOU IMAGINE HIM SITTING IN A ROOM WITH DONALD TRUMP, CHATTING? THEY’RE BOTH HUGELY ASSOCIATED WITH NEW YORK… HOW DO YOU IMAGINE THAT MIGHT GO?
Yes… Trump and Reed – two very different faces of New York, and both, in many ways, typical New Yorkers. Almost certainly they would have been in the same room together at some point, probably more than once… Think of openings at MoMA, Charity galas at the Met and the Guggenheim, the essential nightclubs of the 1970s and 1980s – Studio 54, America, Area… It’s inconceivable that a parvenue like Trump would not have sought to have ingratiated himself with the New York art crowd. I don’t think Lou would be wearing a MAGA cap today – although who knows? Mo Tucker is now best known for sharing racist, pro-gun lobby, anti-immigrant and anti-women memes across social media, and she’s a massive flag waver for Trump… Whatever happened to the Enlightenment!?
THE MOST MOVING SONG IN LOU’S WORK IS, I THINK, HELLO IT’S ME – A SORT OF REGRETFUL AND ‘TIME-SOAKED’ EULOGY FOR ANDY WARHOL, WHICH FEATURED ON THE SONGS FOR DRELLA ALBUM IN 1990… I HAVE A FEELING THAT WARHOL IS MORE INTRINSIC TO THE DIRECTION OF ROCK MUSIC THAN MANY MIGHT GIVE HIM CREDIT FOR… THE VELVETS, BOWIE, ROXY MUSIC ETC… THEY COULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED IN THE SAME WAY THEY DID WITHOUT HIS INFLUENCE… AND THEREFORE PUNK WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED, SO THEN NEW WAVE WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED… AND SO ON AND SO ON… OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE LOTS OF FIGURES ON THE PERIPHERY OF MUSIC WHO HAVE ALTERED ITS COURSE, BUT WARHOL IS ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL…
Yes, indeed… HELLO IT’S ME is a very poignant song, drenched in regret and nostalgia… Warhol was a visionary, as well as a great colourist. So much of what he invented is now part of the visual vernacular. We tend to forget he was the first… He is much pastiched and visually quoted – in fashion, in art, in interior design – and because we are all post-modernists now, and we are all very knowing, we don’t feel the need to credit Andy for being the first to combine violet, cerise and lime green, or for creating multiple images of banal objects, or being the most successful artist since Goya at turning human tragedy into iconic images, or for making non-narrative documentary films, or for understanding the nature of celebrity… And let’s not forget he more or less invented the notion of being a ‘difficult’ interviewee! An art much copied – not least by Lou, but especially by counter-cultural icons such as punk rock bands…
I SAID HELLO IT’S ME IS HIS MOST MOVING SONG, BUT ACTUALLY HARRY’S CIRCUMCISION FROM THE 1992 ALBUM MAGIC AND LOSS MIGHT BE UP THERE WITH IT… ON THAT ALBUM I JUST FEEL HE’S DIGGING INTO HIMSELF A LOT. I THINK THAT PARTICULAR SONG DISPLAYED LOU’S GOOD HEART, DESPITE THE ‘DIFFICULT EYE’… HE WAS A MUCH WARMER PERSON THAN ‘THE LEGEND’ WOULD CHOOSE TO HAVE IT….
That’s a song in the tradition of THE GIFT, isn’t it? A macabre short story set to music. You can tell he’s a huge fan of Edgar Allen Poe! How dark can humour get! I shared an elevator with him and Laurie once, leaving a party someone had hosted for Laurie when she had curated the MELTDOWN Festival… Just as the doors were closing I heard a voice shout “Wait!”, and I pressed the ‘open doors’ button and the two of them got in… I was star struck, but my overwhelming feeling was… if this lift crashes to the ground and we all die, how do I explain to St. Peter that I’m not with Lou?!
THE POWER OF THE HEART IS ANOTHER SORT OF ‘FORGOTTEN GEM’ FROM LOU’S WORK – IT’S ACTUALLY A ‘DIFFERENT’ SORT OF SONG IN HIS WORK, I THINK. IT’S REALLY ROMANTIC (WITH THE ODD FRANK LINE)… IT’S FROM 2008, WHICH IS THE YEAR HE AND LAURIE ANDERSON MARRIED – SO WE CAN ONLY SURMISE THAT IT WAS OBVIOUSLY WRITTEN WITH HER IN MIND… AS HE SEEMED TO BE ‘HAPPY’ (MAYBE WITH A USEFUL SIDE OF SELF-LOATHING?), I WONDER IF THE SORT OF ‘IMAGE’ / ‘LEGEND’ OF LOU REED WAS FIRMLY FIXED GLOBALLY, AND HE WAS CONTENT TO NOT DO MUCH ABOUT CORRECTING IT, SO HE WAS ABLE TO ‘HIDE’ BEHIND THAT AND LIVE A RELATIVELY NORMAL LIFE? YOU HEAR PEOPLE LIKE SUZANNE VEGA SAYING HE WAS (I MISQUOTE BY REDUCING HER WORDS DOWN) ‘A BIG SOFTIE, REALLY’…
Lou’s image was pretty locked-on, wasn’t it? His professed antipathy towards music journalists – the main conduit between him and us – was legendary and self perpetuating. But I also heard that he mellowed a lot post-meeting Laurie… They’re almost cuddly when they appear on the Charlie Rose chat show together in 2003 to promote NYC MAN…
INTERESTINGLY, THE POWER OF THE HEART WAS COVERED BY PETER GABRIEL IN HIS ‘SONG SWAP’ PROJECT SCRATCH MY BACK AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS… WHICH LED TO LOU COVERING GABRIEL’S SOLSBURY HILL… A HIGHLY MELODIC SONG WHICH LOU KIND OF DECIMATED ON HIS VERSION… IT ALMOST PLAYS AS AGGRESSIVE RETALIATION, WHICH SOMEHOW MAKES ME THINK OF METAL MACHINE MUSIC… WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT ALBUM? ART STATEMENT – OR MERELY A ‘FUCK YOU’..?
METAL MACHINE MUSIC is probably both art statement and fuck you… Lou always fancied a bit of ‘real’ avant-garde, Soho / boho performance art. METAL MACHINE MUSIC is not a million miles away from the music that John Cale, Lamonte Young and Tony Conrad were making years earlier, in the mid-1960s, under the aegis of The Theatre Of Eternal Music, later known as The Dream Syndicate… those hypnotic durational ‘drone’ pieces… But yes, as a contractual get-out, METAL MACHINE MUSIC was genius.
OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD I JUST REMEMBERED A LIVE VERSION OF LENNON’S SONG JEALOUS GUY WHICH, I HAVE TO SAY, WAS MORE AFFECTING THAN THE ORIGINAL, GAVE A DIFFERENT ANGLE ON IT… IT WAS SO ‘BROKEN’)… WHAT DO YOU THINK OF LOU’S HANDLING OF OTHER ARTIST’S MATERIAL OVER THE YEARS?
There’s also a great version of Lou singing Sam and Dave’s SOUL MAN somewhere. Now that’s a departure!
SO, BACK TO YOUR OWN TOUR… THE BAND ASSEMBLED FOR IT IS ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC – RUN THROUGH WITH REAL PEDIGREE…
Wow – what a band, as you say… Kevin Armstrong was with Bowie at LIVE AID, and with Iggy ever since… Terry Edwards has played with everyone – Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Madness, Tindersticks… We met the first time when we were performing the Tom Waits / William Burroughs / Robert Wilson musical play THE BLACK RIDER, on a world tour. He plays on the new Doctors of Madness record, too, and is stellar! Paul Cuddeford plays with Steve Harley and Ian Hunter, Florence Sabeva plays with Earl Slick and Dave Imby is Kid Creole’s drummer. Wow… just wow! I keep thinking that I will get a call saying it’s all been a ghastly mistake! This is a hell of a band and I really have to step up! Not least because it’s my name on the poster!
ARE YOU YOURSELF ‘DECISION MAKER’ ON THE SET LIST? OR IS THAT UP FOR WIDER DISCUSSION?
I was presented with a draft set list, and I said “yes” to most songs, “no” to a couple… and I added a couple.
WHAT’S YOUR AIM FOR THE TOUR – TO PAY TRIBUTE TO THIS AMAZING BODY OF WORK?
Pure and simple. To visit Lou’s rogues gallery and say “hi” to them all individually: My Friend George, Romeo and Juliette, Sally, Caroline, Jim – and, of course, Holly who came from Miami, Fla.! Shake them by the hand and introduce them to our audiences…
Richard Strange portrait by Chris Walters.
Richard Strange plays the songs of Lou Reed tour
Sat 21st Sept Middleton Hall, Uni HULL Tickets
Sun 22nd Sept Zanzibar LIVERPOOL Tickets
Mon 23rd Sept Arts Centre NORWICH Tickets
Tues 24th Sept O2 Academy ISLINGTON Tickets
Weds 25th Sept Arts Centre COLCHESTER Tickets
Thurs 26th Sept O2 Academy BIRMINGHAM Tickets