The latest instalment in one of my very favourite series of books. The title partly indicates what’s offered, the last formal interview granted by its subject. But the sub-heading indicates other conversations: the promise of more. The books are published posthumously about the recently deceased. And until now, they’ve all be writers: David Foster Wallace, Jacques Derrida, Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolaño. As the series has expanded it has grown to include the not-so-recently deceased (Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin) and grown to be more inclusive in its definition of writing (not only novels and short stories but also philosophy and now music). I was as surprised to see Lour Reed in this series as I was to see Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But both grew to make sense to me. And certainly here Lour Reed refers to what he does mainly as writing, the only exception being to when he’s performing. Also, his influences and his aspirations all reference writing, the novels of Dostoyevsky, the work of Hubert Selby, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Delmore Schwartz and other American post-war writers and poets of subcultural urban alienation.
I’ve loved all the books in the series because they seem to offer a distillation if not a summation of their subjects’ concerns at or near the end of their lives, like they’re passing on to us that little bit of knowledge they’ve acquired after a life-time of experience. ‘Learning to live should bean learning to die’ says Jacques Derrida in his last interview book, ‘learning to take into account, so as to accept, absolute morality (that is, without salvation, resurrection, or redemption — neither for oneself nor for the others)’. For Kurt Vonnegut life was about helping each other get through this thing, this life, whatever that is: ‘There are all kinds of ways we can help each other get through today. There are some things that help. Musicians Really do it for me.’
Lou Reed’s music has certainly been important to generations of people. But his last interview doesn’t offer the kind of neat summation that is found in other books in the series. Part of the pleasure of the book is in seeing celebrated writers trying to convey why he meant so much to them, whilst also trying to take some lesson in life or even merely an insight into the music that they can take away, and ending up leaving with nothing. Here’s the legendary Lester Bangs, florid and self-aggrandising, telling us much more about himself than about Reed. Here’s Neil Gaiman, fan-boy purity in adulthood, chasing Reed around to express appreciation and to gain insight and getting so little from Reed he’s reduced to conveying his own journey. Here’s Paul Auster much more interested in himself than in Reed. It’s amazing how Reed skirts, dodges, bypasses and then accuses and demands; all whilst giving his interviewers so little. ‘If you want to ask a question, you should know what you’re asking about, don’t you think?’ he challenges Farida Khelfa from Rolling Stone ,…’Someone will say, ‘Have you head that so-and-so sounds like you?’ Why? Because they sing out of key?’ For him it’s all in the music. For some of us, the music is why we especially love reading interviews like these. His ornery modes of evasion tell their own story.