October 26November 2, 1995
Mr. International Velvet
An interview with Lou Reed biographer and relentless name-dropper, Victor Bockris.
By a.d. amorosi
I rarely envy rock writers' lives, wives, or styles but Victor Bockris, author of many a literary, art/rock biography is another story. He's tackled Burroughs and Keith Richards at their most dangerous, Warhol at his droopiest, and now the sourpuss sage Lou Reed (in Transformer: The Lou Reed Story, Simon & Schuster) at his meanest all the while making it seem so damned civilized.
Talking with Bockris in NYC ("I love to be interviewed") is an exercise in giddy lucidity with Bockris' unending chatty voice. He sounds like Lauren Bacall and Peter Sellers impersonating Capote. Very much the old school bon vivant, this Brit born, '71 University of Pennsylvania grad seems like the hostest with the mostest a charm that seemingly got him where he is today. "It was just one unending dinner party," he giggles.
His father and mother worked at Penn, as prof and med school tech, respectively. During his formative years, he lived in Powelton Village where he started Telegraph Books.
"A small concern that proudly put out a few things like Patti Smith's first books Seventh Heaven and Kodak," Bockris' voice feigns modesty, knowing full well of their importance. Telegraph Books (which he started with Aram Saroyan and mega lit-agent Andrew Wylie) was a mecca for burgeoning young writers.
"It was such an exciting period," he says when I mention Telegraph's now rare silver Mylar publication, LIP magazine. "We published poetry, prose. I also worked for the Drummer interviewing people. I might've even been an editor," he says blithely.
Bockris says he was very active here: profiled in Philly Mag and in a PBS documentary. He moved to New York in late '73 "that's what one who is successful does" where Wylie/Bockris became an interview/writing team. They were working for brand new mags like People and Interview.
"Andy [Warhol] didn't really pay you anything but an honorarium of sorts, $20 or so. Who cared, it was a truly dramatic time; the beginnings of glam rock into punk rock. People were open to experience and merging cultures and aesthetics. Interviewing was a good way to meet people. You could just sit and talk to people who were your heroes. Andy taught us how to interview: Never have any questions ready. Treat it like a cocktail party."
It is here that life with Warhol and William S. Burroughs intersected at an axis that led directly to Lou Reed. "If people like Lennon, Dali, and Burroughs liked you, you felt like you were in the center of NYC '74 at the time, it seemed not only like the cultural center of the world, but the center's center. "
The veteran scenester says New York is back on an upswing.
"People are coming back. Look at the Voice and its music pages there's so much going on. Patti's back, now that her husband's died. I think I'm gonna write an essay about her."
He ruminates on Smith's brilliance: "You know, it's tough when a woman ages. It's not cool to age like Keith Richards. He becomes a rebel, she becomes a hag. My good friend Debbie Harry had the same problems."
When Bockris first interviewed Burroughs in 1974 he remembers that people hadn't heard from him in years. A sighting at Max's caused Bockris to cowardly approach Burroughs to be interviewed for People magazine. (People Magazine profiling Burroughs!!??)
Bockris brought over a bottle of whiskey to Burrough's "bunker," only to be rewarded with a terrible, "monosyllabic" interview.
"He was so paranoid, he thought we were agents of another country. Spies." A couple of years and a bunch of drinks later ("when he warms up he's brilliant, a true raconteur") Bockris would have enough information to write The Bunker, a retelling of Burrough's first few years out of exile.
At the same time, Bockris began an association with Warhol, hanging and working at the Factory and at Interview.
"I did everything from co-host dinner parties to help edit the magazine. In those days, there was a great deal of crossover between all the scenes art, drug, music, literature. Soho was developing around the same time as was the punk scene. I had a roving editorship at High Times and would hang out with Burroughs during the day and Warhol at night. It was a hell of a lot of fun; a great openness to gay life." He talks about his "funky pad" in the Village where Leary, Mappelthorpe and Capote would drop in. Throughout each dinner, Bockris would tape and photograph the entire evening, leading me to believe that he should publish these shots as well as a book of recipes.
"Yeah, that would be good. I used to know how to cook brains. What do you marinate it with?"
After working with Gerard Malanga on the first major book on the Velvet Underground (Uptight, now re-released), he got a taste for Lou Reed. With Reed's appearance in the film Blue in the Face, a new album with Hal Wilner due out, and the just released, Velvet box set Peel Slowly and See, the Godfather of punk is omnipresent the Harvey Keitel of rock.
In the new book, Transformer, Bockris talks with glee of his friendship with Reed. A friendship, like all of Reed's friendships, that ends badly.
"Yes, Lou is manipulative and distrusting but one can hardly blame him. He's been ripped off, like so many others have, terribly in the early part of his career. Very paranoid."
While this paranoia seemingly fuels all of Bockris' subjects, I wonder if it's simple paranoia that makes Reed the bitter, megalomaniacal, money hungry, humorless cretin that he is portrayed as in the book.
"I believe so," agrees Bockris, "The Lou Reed I knew was an extremely funny man. My friend, his paramour Laurie Anderson, says he's hilarious. Others don't seem to think so. There's two factors involved. One, he stopped drinking and taking drugs. The second is that the world of rock 'n' roll is not a funny place. It's a very emotional world where people either die young or grow old bitterly. Sometimes it's just a caprice."
Reed, says Bockris, has a particularly mean side. "I hand delivered to him a letter saying that I was contracted to do Transformer in the same fashion I had other biographies: looking only into the lives when interrelated with the art... When Cale, Tucker and Morrison got together with him for the recent Velvet reunion, one of the conditions was that they not speak with me."
In talking about the interest of all things Velvet, Bockris whispers, "It's about fucking time. I've been listening to the Velvets over and over in the last few weeks. It's amazing how fresh it all sounds."
With all this, Transformer winds up as one of the funniest and most memorable time lined rock documents around, adding successfully to Bockris' catty ouvre.
Catch Bockris is reading at Borders Book Store, Friday Oct. 27, at 6 p.m.
SPACEJUNK: Remember the Downstairs Bar at 9th & Christian? It just became "Kathleen's": a groovy retrogangster place where the waiters wear tuxes, the gals have beehives, the lounge band plays loudly and no has a last name... Carol Schutzbank is recovering nicely after heart transplant surgery at Temple Hospital... EF/Joe Gruscheky/Springsteen show: scalpers asked for/got $100 for tix. The Boss wore a baseball cap; is he going bald or just doing the '90s Hootie thing like he did the oiled Rambo thing in the '80s? And is his new disc "Blindspot" coming out next week? Speaking of Columbia, Lauren Hart is recording in L.A. now for the label for spring release. Any truth to the story that she's collaborating with the Hooter duo that made beautiful music for Joan Osborne and Cyndi Lauper?