Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, May 2008
It’s is just after a screening of the film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. Reed and artist Julian Schnabel, the film's director, sit onstage in informal interview format. Both are dressed terribly. Lou: running shoes, red socks, jeans with turned-up cuffs, plaid jacket over black hooded sweatshirt, messy curly hair, frameless glasses. Schnabel: purple running suit that looks like pajamas under black pea coat, scruffy pirate beard, horn rimmed glasses. Both sit in plush red velvet chairs in front of a red velvet curtain. Both hold up microphones as they speak. Journalist Lisa Robinson is the moderator.
Schnabel It was my responsibility that I had to make this film. I heard Berlin in 1973 when it came out and it had a huge impact on me and it was an important part of my life. (to Reed) You had a bad experience with Berlin a long time ago. This wasn't like someone doing a retrospective. I'm just amazed at having all this on camera.
Reed (bored) Uh, well, Julian knew the record better than me. He asked me, "Why wouldn’t you want to do that?" And I said, "But I did do that." And he said, "Well, that was then and now we’re over here." So I said, "Okay, why not do that."
Robinson Lou, was it a luxury going back 35 years -- or a curse?
Reed Yes. (audience laughs) It's 1973, and we're watching it now.
Robinson If not now, then when?
Reed In the old days I'd wear sunglasses; now I can't wear sunglasses or I'd fall over a cable. I had grand ambitions for Berlin. I was trying not to use street slang, and musically, was trying not to date it too badly. Still, I wouldn't change a hair on its head since the film not going to be in the main theaters. No one wants it here, but it is popular in Europe.
Schnabel Yeah, Germany and Brooklyn, right? (polite laughter from audience)
Reed I don't think I need to answer that again. There are certain questions that have run their course.
Schnabel You should ask me how long does it take me to paint a painting, the answer would be 56 years and 5 minutes. (chuckles from audience) No, but I think there has to be a level of trust with a project like this. Lou knew that if I was going to film him, he could be comfortable. Trust is important. I think trust wasn't there for Lou in his life.
Reed Probably in everybody's life. I could bitch and moan, but if I can't do it with Julian, who could I?
Robinson Do we have any questions from the audience? Yes, you in the back...
Audience Member Mr. Reed, would you acknowledge that the music on Berlin was way ahead of its time?
Reed That is a lose-lose question.
Audience Member Lester Bangs said Berlin was the most depressed album ever made. What are your thoughts on that?
Reed Huh. I don't have ANY thoughts on his comments. What does that have to do with anything?
Schnabel I just thought a comment like that obviously made me want to make the movie.
Reed Who is Lester Bangs?
Schnabel Isn’t he the guy who Chris Walken drowned in At Close Range?
Reed Who IS Lester Bangs?
Blackout. Robert Quine, a somewhat sinister-looking bald guitarist with a beard and sunglasses enters and addresses the audience. He wears a ratty bathrobe and slippers.
Quine Thing is, it’s a heartbreaking thing for a rock writer not to be able to be a rock star. On the other hand, it’s entirely feasible for a rock star to be a writer, and not just about music. Lou wanted both and got it. Lester couldn’t. It must have been heartbreaking – to have a doppelganger who could outclass you in his chosen field as well as yours. It bodes the question of whether the world even needs you at all, if you have been naturally selected to fail and be your own witness to it.
Robert Quine’s Apartment, New York City, December 1980
Joe “King” Carrasco’s “Caca de Vaca” plays over this scene.
Lester (dressed in Texas garb, bean dip on his Lacoste shirt) Lennon was just shot? Good! Good riddance.
Lester No, seriously, who gives a flying fluck? You wanna hear about PURE tragedy? Tex Avery died and no one noticed.
Quine ...it’s three forty-seven in the morning.
Lester Q, you’re an asshole for even liking that limey stupe. D’you know he once said that comic books are “the nigger of literature”?! What right does he have?
Quine As offensive as that is, you've said much worse.
Lester I have not!
Quine Like when you went to that Bobby Womack party. You were begging for it. AND you hit on his wife. You're lucky they didn't string you up by your dirty sneakers.
Lester (on a roll) The late 70s-early 80s suck, Quine. The early 70s were wrigglingly, obscenely alive—the misery was spread around, and it was intoxicating. Now its being controlled, duped, doped, pharma'ed. You saw the election results. We’ve got Andy Griffith in the White House now. The vise is clamping. "Everything looks brand spunkin’ new when you put an ’80 at the end of it!" I can feel it coming, Q. I have Romilar-spiked visions: young clean cut men in narrow ties and white shirts, carrying Bibles, spreading well-meaning pus out all over the city. The Moral Majority, whoever they are…
Quine Didn’t they sing that song "Up Up and Away"?
Lester …they’re saying it’s a "victory for decency." It feels like Phnom Penh just before the Khmer Rouge marched in.
Quine Don’t change the subject, Les.
Lester Eat my wongo, Q!
Quine I told you I don't want to be around you when you're flying.
Lester I’m not. I tell you. Austin was a steam bath. It cleansed my pores. New York is a sick maggoty toad’s head -- and Lou Reed is its calcified Ringmaster. I know you feel differently, Q. But it’s a fungus in the brain. Mark my words, Austin is the future!
Quine You haven’t been outside of New York for years and all of a sudden you get on a plane and it’s the Second Coming of music cities? C’mon. I know a kid from Escondido who would have laughed at you before blowing snot on your shirt.
Lester (starts rummaging in Quine's cabinets) I’m telling you, Q. It’s not just Austin. That’s the future of this thing we love: these small pockets of resistance. Spread out far apart from each other. It’s not about LA of NY: the monoliths, surrounded by dumb apes touching it and coming away meat eaters. Nosireebob. It’s these small towns with bored people: Austin, Athens, Chapel Hill, Seattle, Denton. Not even knowing there’s others out there like them. Working in complete isolation from each other, yet all working towards the same vague cosmic goal. Because that’s what I’ve come up with in my mind, Q: The best art, the best rock and roll, comes from places where no one is looking. Like The Basement Tapes, only on a mass scale. Like Cleveland.
Quine Like Hilly’s.
Lester No! No. No. No. Not like Hilly’s. Well, yes, Kind of. (finds a bottle of cheap cooking wine and takes a gulp) Hilly’s before HE started hanging out there. His blood already poisoned by Bowie’s glitter needle. As was Iggy’s.
Quine That’s cute, Lester. You do know I'm going out on tour with him, right?
Lester Who? Iggy?
Quine No. The Ringmaster himself.
(Lester's kinetic energy seems to deflate. He looks confused, then hurt.)
Lester Can I come?
The sounds of the Dictator’s “Go Girl Crazy!” blasts over the intercom. John Holmstrom and Legs MacNeil, two scruffy-looking young hipsters, enter the stage.
Legs MacNeil Am I the only one who thinks Richard Hell looks like Victor Mature?
John Holmstrom What’s the difference?
CBGB, The Bowery, Fall 1975
Legs and Holmstrom sit at the bar.
Holmstrom (reading manifesto) "Kill yourself. Jump off a fuckin’ cliff. Drive nails into your head. Become a robot and join the staff at Disneyland. OD. Anything,. Just don’t listen to disco shit….That’s wrong with Western civilization is Disco. Eddjicate" – I misspelled ‘educate’ on purpose –
Holmstrom "Get into it. Read Punk!"
Legs So, it’s settled then. We’re calling it Punk.
Holmstrom From Burroughs, right?
Legs Yeah, the five Burroughs. Ha ha.
Holmstrom We’re gonna wrote about what? Junk?
Legs Yeah. Not the stuff you put in your veins.
Holmstrom The stuff you put in your brains! Before you blow them out.
Legs Yeah: Lame reruns on TV, getting laid, cheeseburger wrappers, comic books, B-movies and this weird music no one seems to like, cheapo wrestling shows on black and white TV. Only problem is we’ve gotta find someone for the cover.
Holmstrom I like Victor Mature, personally. He knew he wasn’t talented. Which makes him the greatest actor ever.
Legs No, that’d be too much to start with. How could we follow that?
Legs Yeah, right. You wanna go interview him the Acute Ward? He'll probably chew your arm off.
Holmstrom Wait, wait, Legs. Legs. Look.
Holmstrom It’s Him.
Holmstrom At the end of the bar!
Holmstrom There. Lou Reed. Sitting not ten feet away from us.
Legs He looks drunk.
Holmstrom That’s 'cause he’s wearing sunglasses.
Legs I didn’t know he had eyes.
Holmstrom They’re not eyes. It’s that line from Kesey: ‘burnt fireplugs.’
Legs Let’s go talk to him.
Holmstrom Don’t pull my leg, Legs. He’s not going to like your teeth.
Legs Can you imagine having Lou Reed as the cover of our first issue? This is what the old timers called a “scoop.”
Holmstrom Okay, I’ll get the fedoras. You get the little card that says “PRESS” and we’ll put them in the brims, and…
Legs I’m doing it, John. I’d never forgive myself if we passed this up. Nor would I forgive you, either.
Holmstrom It’ll be like interviewing the Mummy. Look how old the guy is.
Legs Then if we move in quick we can hear the death rattle.
Legs Hi, Lou. How’s it hanging?
Lou just looks past/though/around Legs.
Legs We’re from Punk magazine!
Holmstrom Yeah, Lou. We’d love to put you on the cover.
Reed Really. Your circulation must be fabulous.
Holmstrom No, my hands and feet are always cold.
Holmstrom sits down next to Legs, begins threading a reel-to-reel tape recorder clumsily.
Reed Look at this, the holy triumvirate. Are we having a séance?
Legs (begins lighting candles and placing them on the table) Holy what?
Reed Nothing you’d understand. (to Legs) What the hell are you doing?
Legs Lighting for the photos, Lou.
Reed I see. I hope you figured this into your budget of $0.
Just then, the Ramones take the stage, none of them playing the same song. Johnny Ramone throws down his guitar, swears and stomps offstage.
Legs Wow. Was that the Gestapo?
Reed You’re lucky I’m a lapsed Jew. Long Island division.
Holmstrom What do you think of the Ramones, Lou?
Reed Oh. I. Think. They’re. Fantastic.
Legs What about Television?
Reed Never watch it. But Tom Verlaine’s nice.
Holmstrom Patti Smith.
Reed She’s great. Uh-huh.
Legs What about Springsteen? I think he’s a piece of shit.
Reed Is that your question? Is that even a question? Why would you ask something so stupid. What difference does it make what I like? Do I ask you what you like? I don’t give a shit what you like. I don’t even give a shit what I like. You’re so predictable. Is this supposed to be the underground press? You're asking what everybody asks!
Holmstrom What does an interview mean to you, Lou?
Reed Nothing! They don't mean SHIT. They don't sell records, that's for sure.
Holmstrom Then why do you do them?
Reed Just to find out what people like you are up to. I mean, if I didn't have people like you around, I'd have to pay someone on the streets to say, 'Hey Lou, what's happening?' Okay? That enough for you?
Reed blows out a few of the candles before he gets up and leaves.
Holmstrom Well, that was incredibly boring. He’s like a sour old person!
Legs Yeah, we try to pick the guys brain a little bit and he treats us like, like, we’re…
Holmstrom Lester Bangs.
Legs Yeah! We’re not Lester Bangs!
Holmstrom We’re Punk!
Legs & Holmstrom Punk! Punk! Punk! Punk!
They pass a wizened old figure in a fedora and old suit sitting at the bar, who turns to the audience.
William S. Burroughs (holding up a metal vibrator) That’s funny. I always thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass.
He clicks the ‘on’ button, the sound of Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids” plays.
Blackout. Enter Lester's childhood friend, Andrea Di Guglielmo, a fetching and theatrical brunette dressed like Nancy Sinatra.
Andrea Everybody agreed that it was Lester who came up with the concept of “punk,” even before Dave Marsh coined the phrase “punk rock.” Lester may have got there first with his unpublished 1968 novel Drug Punk. But there was no uniform for this music yet. No razor blades, no safety pins, no torn clothing, no ripped mesh stockings or day-glo hair. The correct term should have been “blob rock,” from Lester’s Autobiography of a Blob. ‘Blob’ referred to the boredom and claustrophobia of being poor and fired up and trapped in a lower middle class nightmare, what Lester once called “the cowering rodent citizenry of elm-lined tract homes”: cinder block hotboxes passing as domiciles, the racism, one movie theatre, terrible reruns on TV, pulp comic books, sniffing glue and inhaling paint, shitty exploitation soundtracks for $1.99, that iron lung called religion. I mean Lester grew up in El Cajon, which is Spanish for “The Box.” In fact, while Lou Reed was four-years into changing rock music with the Velvet Underground and hanging around The Factory with some frozen-faced Midwestern freak named Andy, Lester was living in a Box and hanging out with me, a girl named Andy.
El Cajon, California, Summer 1968
A young Lester is squatting in an abandoned meat locker, scribbling in his journal. Next to him is a mattress, a record player, and a crumpled paper grocery sack. He is surrounded by discarded wrappers, beer cans, cough syrup bottles.
Lester (reading aloud) ‘Andy came to me last night and told me Bobby Kennedy was just shot. I was too busy thinking about Andy Warhol getting shot two days later. She tells me, ‘America is disintegrating, Les’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. ‘I know it, I’ve known it for a long time…The reason it’s falling apart this way is that the people of America have been living in the past too long…For too long, we’ve broadcasted the American Dream on all networks as gospel…The nation is falling apart now because its people haven’t been able to face it when the granite thunderbolt plows square into their upper plates, that the American Dream is only a dream. I keep returning in allusions to the Velvet Underground, no, specifically, Lou Reed, who made it out of the New York maelstrom relatively intact…’
Andy comes up the hill.
Lester Halt, whose goeth hither! Showeth thyself, young Trojan lass!
Andy Les, you live in a garbage dump. Have you realized that yet?
Lester Every day I spend on this hill I get stronger. I can see ‘em coming from up here.
Andy Great, good for you. I have a message.
Lester From Rolling Stone? You know, I’ve been sending them my record reviews.
Andy No, it’s from your mother. (imitating the movie Shane) “Leslie, Come back, Leslie! Come back to Kingdom Hall”!
Lester But doesn’t she know? I’ve got you Andy. That’s all I’ll ever need.
Andy That’s sweet. Barf.
Lester Such a lady.
Andy Don’t change the subject, “Leslie.” You mom says she wants you to come to Kingdom Hall. The Elders would like a word with you.
Lester Oh man! Yes! What I’ve been waiting for! We can sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ together and I can amuse myself by counting all the hairs coming out of their ears.
Andy Look, I’ll be the first to admit Norma is a nightmare, okay? But she really seems to be trying this time. Obviously, she wants you back. She says she needs a man in the house.
Lester Uh-huh. Andy. Did I ever tell you about the last time I saw my moth—Norma?
Andy Uh no. You never told me. You probably wrote it down in that notebook of yours.
Lester I was home on a day hotter than today, right? I’m blasting John Coltrane’s “Africa” and jumping up and down on the couch, splitting my lip trying to play this rusted old saxophone I stole from the music room. But this didn’t seem like enough, so I popped some bennies and put on my Superman costume and resumed my jumping on the couch. But that still didn’t seem like enough. So I got out my copy of Howl and So Norma comes home from work and sees me doing this, and I tell you it was worse than if she had caught me jacking my meat hammer and I left gooey stalactites all over the scenery. Do you wanna know what she was most angry at?
Andy That you stole the sax?
Lester No, not the “forbidden horn of iniquity.” Guess again.
Andy The Coltrane.
Lester Nope, not the “coon caterwailing.” One more try.
Andy The Ginsberg?
Lester Wrong wrong wrong-o, not even the “degenerate homo poet”! It was the Superman outfit! I was committing multiple sins all at once and it was the outfit that pissed her off! And do you know why, Andy?
Andy Les, you’re sweating all over me. When's the last time you showered?
Lester False idols! I was dressed like a false idol. I yelled at her: ‘I am Superman! I am ruler of the world!’ And she pulled me down off the couch and screeched, ‘No, God is the ruler of the world!’ That’s what she got from that. That was the most important thing she could think of. (pause) Goddamn. We’ve gotta get out of here, Andy. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m wrapped in cellophane.
Andy I know, Les. We will. We just need a plan. Maybe—and I’m just thinking out loud, so don’t get mad—but maybe you could, you know, go back down the Hill…
Lester Here it comes.
Andy …and just talk to Norma, okay? I mean, she’s your mother. She’s obviously trying very hard.
Lester I got everything I need right here.
Andy Les, comic books and beer and records and cough syrup are not a substitute for life.
Lester Neither is El Cajon. (pause) Wanna jerk me off?
Andy Psssh! Why don’t you get Lou Reed to jerk you off?
Lester I’m working up to it.
Blackout. "The Old Rugged Cross" plays. A young Unidentified Jehovah’s Witness in white shirt, thin black tie, bearing a sign reading ‘Do You Know What Time It Is?' and copies of The Watchtower.
Witness Here’s the continuum as follows: Andy Warhol hires the Velvet Underground to play his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events, which features Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker and sometimes a girl named Nico. Gerald Managna dances around shitless in leather pants and a whip. The EPI goes to California and plays L.A. and San Francisco, which are choked with hippies and Laurel Canyon pseudo-cowboys. The EPI hates California and vice versa. The local press calls the shows examples of “the urban evil of New York.” A kid named Jim Morrison sees the EPI show in L.A. and learns nothing, save for the sight of Managa’s leather pants, which he steals when he fronts the Doors with Ray Manzarek. A kid from Detroit sees Morrison's leather pants and learns nothing from the Doors, who make music that seems likes its coming from some Haight-Ashbury dentist’s office. That kids name is also Jim, but he changes it to Iggy and wears a pair of cheapo imitation-leather pants and no shirt, and steamrolls through brutal shamanistic performances to crowds of mentally deranged and unemployed people in rural Michigan. His gang of Stooges make their first album with John Cale, who hears the Velvets' influence in their obsession with playing one riff over and until the listener is hypnotized into submission. Ray Manzarek, who has been looking for a Jim Morrison substitute since Jim drowned in his bathtub, tied to corral Iggy for another record but Iggy falls apart and so does his band. In walks this pale delicate-boned British boy named Bowie, who has previously rescued Lou Reed from obscurity by producing the Transformer record. He tries to rescue Iggy and the Stooges for Raw Power, but messes up the recording mix. The one thread through all of this is a fat guy with terrible B.O. and a cheesy Rob Reiner moustache. This is Lester Bangs. He wrote about all of them. (coughs) I guess it doesn’t make any difference because everyone I just mentioned of is going straight to the Lake of Fire. Well, that’s it then. You're up to speed.
The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” blasts as the Jehovah's Witness exits and is replaced by a sclerotic, glam-dressed British rock journalist named Nick Kent, who smokes as he speaks to the audience and absently pages through a cop of The Watchtower that the Witness has handed him.
Kent Lester was a hick from the West Coast who looked like a blob. Everything about him looked wrong, and wrongly conceived. The wrong clothes on the wrong body, the wrong face and the wrong hair. Quite simply, Lester was an abortion whose head didn’t get sucked into a vacuum cleaner. He should have died at birth. He was a California hick. He was obnoxious and artless in his waking life. He even did the wrong drugs. Who the hell drinks Romilar cough syrup in the 1960s? Lou was a hick from the East Coat. He already had a uniform: the Beatle boots, the leather jacket, the wraparound shades. When those two men met, that’s when blob and punk came together. What came out of their marriage, their verbal fucking, was everything we know now. (takes out a Zippo and lights the newspaper on fire) Punk rock. They were fighting over who could claim the end of everything.
CREEM Magazine House, Walled Lake, Michigan, Winter 1973
"Up, Up and Away" by the Fifth Dimension plays over this scene. Lester appears, older and slightly more put together in a new leather jacket and old, nubby plaid shirt. His hair is sweaty and messed up. He is reading a copy of a review that Kent wrote. As he speaks, he fires off a list of rhetorical questions to the young scribe, who repeatedly tries to answer but is interrupted by Lester's Foghorn Leghorn-style speed-patter.
Lester So you like this music? Why? What do you mean, it’s got a nice middle-eight and the cow-bell sounds cute on the finale? That’s not good enough. What are these guys really trying to sell us here? What does this music say to your soul? Do these guys even sound like they have souls to you? What’s really going on here? What’s going on behind the mask?
Kent (nodding off on Quaaludes) The...mask?
Lester YES. The MASK. They all wear it. They aren't born with it, right? They have to create it. And the winners, kid, the winners are the ones who wear the biggest masks, the shiniest and most impenetrable ones. But the stories -- the real stories people like us crave -- lie with the losers of the world. And in rock and roll, the LOSERS have the most compelling stories. They have NO masks because they can't afford to have them! Do you understand what I'm saying?
Kent I can honestly say...that I don't.
Lester Obviously then, I need to show you. You know what? You should come to Detroit with me.
Kent (wipes drool from mouth) But it's snowing out, Les. Really bad.
Lester The guys on tour with the Motown shows had to do it. Papa Zita and Jamerson faced death every night on these roads, stuffed in their little unheated cars. So will we. And do you know who never had to do that?
Kent Uhhh, Leonard Bernstein?
Lester Close. I will show you. Exhibit One of what I've been speaking of. Let's go.
Kent Les, I think I'm not feeling so well...
Lester grabs a notebook, a tape recorder, some ephedrine inhalers and a few liquor bottles and stuffs them in a paper grocery sack.
Lester Don't worry. I'll drive.