It’s always been somewhat obvious that Lou Reed’s sneering persona and transgressive antics were cover for a sensitive soul. This is a man who escaped the stultifying suburbs of 1950s Long Island, found a place at the Warhol Factory, and then helped revolutionize rock and roll by telling the stories of junkies, drag queens, street hustlers, and other denizens of New York City’s underbelly, first as the leader of the Velvet Underground and then as a solo artist. For all his aggressive posturing, and sometimes genuinely bad behavior, Reed was a purveyor of empathy above all. He helped the rest of us understand what it’s like to be on, or beyond, the edges of society.
But the persona made quite an impression, especially since he was such a ubiquitous New York character until his death in 2013 at age 71. I met him a few times, and he was always suitably grumpy. The one time I interviewed him, for this magazine, he hung up on me. I don’t think he was offended by anything I said. He was just being “Lou Reed.” Obviously, I was flattered.
If anyone could bring out Reed’s softer side, it was his wife and partner of 21 years, Laurie Anderson. A renowned musician and performance artist, Anderson is as cheerfully Midwestern as Reed was snarlingly New Yawk. And the choices she has made as the keeper of Reed’s legacy are slowly, steadily sanding off the edges of his bad-boy image.
According to Anderson, Reed devoted the bulk of his time and energy in the last eight years of his life to the practice of tai chi. Last year, Anderson published The Art of the Straight Line, a book collecting Lou’s reflections on the form alongside testimonials from his many teachers, students, and friends. Among its more poignant revelations comes from the musician and artist Ramuntcho Matta, who remembers Reed weeping with remorse in 2011 over the damage he’d done to his body in his druggy heyday.
And now comes Hudson River Wind Meditations, a collection of hauntingly beautiful ambient tracks that Reed released in 2007 to accompany tai chi sessions with his longtime teacher, Master Ren Guangyi. Anderson describes it as “a quiet version of Metal Machine Music,” Reed’s 1975 noise album, which was so blisteringly panned that RCA pulled it from shelves after just three weeks. Naturally, it, too, is now the stuff of legend.
I’ve always been curious about the shockingly functional relationship these two mavericks seemed to share, so I jumped at the chance to interview Anderson about the new release. Over a delightful hour, we talked about everything from Kung Fu magazine, to Barbie and Gen Z feminism, to the trans dimension of “Walk on the Wild Side,” to Lou’s “cartoon” persona, to her exceedingly dim view of biographers.
Vanity Fair: I’m really excited to talk about this…I don’t know, can we call it a record?
Laurie Anderson: Let’s call it a record. Why not?
Okay, this record. I wanted to start by asking how it was made.
He made this late at night by sticking the microphone out the window and processing all of the sounds of the Hudson River. I thought it was such a good idea. You’d think you’d hear more traffic, but with a directional microphone you can pick up a lot of sloshing and surface noise. There’s a lot going on in that river, the current going up as well as down. And the wind currents around it are also pretty complicated. The way the water responds to the wind is…I just feel it in there.
He filtered that a lot and just made it as a quiet version of Metal Machine Music, in a way. He really made it for his teacher, Master Ren Guangyi. And they tried to use it in class, and people hated it. But they kept playing it, and then they realized this is the best tai chi music ever.
I don’t know if you’ve played it in the background at all, but it’s a really interesting thing to have going on in a room quietly. It definitely works its magic on you after a while. He put it on his website. It wasn’t a secret. But we decided finally, Let’s do a vinyl thing. I’ve fallen in love with vinyl again. I like the process of putting a record on. It’s a slightly ceremonial thing, to put a disc onto a record player. Do you listen to records?
It’s funny, all of my vinyl is hidden away now. I have a three-year-old, and I know what I did to my parents’ vinyl collection when I was a little kid. But I think I can bring it back out soon. She’s not ripping things apart presently.
I think for kids, records are really magic in a way that sound coming out of speakers and laptops isn’t. Because you see the physicality of the needle and the weirdness of the sound being embedded in those grooves.