Lou Reed thought the Beatles were garbage. Or at least he did when he started out in music, as he reveals in a 1987 interview. “We had an ambition and a goal: to elevate the rock song and take it where it hadn’t been before,” he says of his first band — perhaps you’ve heard of them — the Velvet Underground. “I just thought the other stuff couldn’t even come up to our ankles,” he adds. “They were just painfully stupid and pretentious. When they did try to get ‘arty,’ it was worse than stupid rock-and-roll.” Having graduated from college wanting to write “the great American novel,” Reed eventually decided to incorporate literature, and all the culture he knew, into music, to “write rock-and-roll that you could listen to as you got older and it wouldn’t lose anything. it would be timeless in the subject matter and the literacy of our lyrics.” The conversation appears first in “The Outsiders,” a compilation of three recordings made with three pillars of alternative American culture and imaginatively animated by Blank on Blank.
The second, which we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture, finds Studs Terkel sitting down with Hunter S. Thompson in 1967, talking about his first book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. “The Angels came out of World War Two,” Thompson explains, “this whole kind of alienated, violent, subculture of people wandering around looking for either an opportunity, or if not an opportunity, then vengeance for not getting an opportunity.”
But if people insist on thinking of the Angels and their kind as the only violent troublemakers in existence, “then it’s just putting off the recognition that the same venom that the Angels are spewing around in public, a lot of people are just keeping bottled up in private.” In exploring the culture of the Angels, Thompson found that the venom filled him no less than it does everyone else: “I was seeing a very ugly side of myself a lot of times. I’m much more conscious of the kind of anger that lurks everywhere.”
The third, a 1971 interview with Frank Zappa, takes on the subject of fads. Zappa considered everything a fad, including the supposed political awakening of youth in the 60s: “It’s as superficial as their musical consciousness. It’s just another aspect of being involved in the actions of their peer group. One guy in the group says, ‘Hey, politics,’ and they go, ‘Yeah, politics.’ Or they go, ‘Grand Funk Railroad,’ and they go, ‘Yeah, Grand Funk Railroad. It’s the same thing.’ ” In America Zappa saw “a lot of changes, but I think that they’re all temporary things, and any change for the good is always subject to cancellation upon the arrival of the next fad.” That’s what happens, he explains, in a country that “doesn’t have any real culture. It doesn’t have any real art. It doesn’t have any real anything. It’s just got fads and a gross national product and a lot of inflation.” Does that, asks interviewer Howard Smith, make Zappa himself a fad as well? “I’m an American, I was born here,” Zappa replies. “I automatically got entered in a membership in the club.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.