Metallica's Lars Ulrich remembers Lou Reed
After Lou Reed passed away last Sunday at the age of 71, we reached out to one of his friends and collaborators, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who worked with him on his last major recording project, the 2011joint album Lulu. He spoke to us about his first introduction to the Velvet Underground as a kid growing up in Denmark, their first meeting at an amusement park years later, and what working with Reed was like.
“My dad had a music room across from my room in the house I grew up in in Copenhagen, Denmark. There would be all kinds of crazy stuff coming out of there from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: Hendrix, the Doors, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, all that kind of stuff. Among the things that came out of that room at that time was the Velvet Underground. I maybe wasn’t super aware of that when I was six years old, but a few years later we moved to America and [my Dad and I] started exchanging music that we were passionate about. I would sit there and play Iron Maiden or Motorhead, and he would play me some crazy stuff. And I remember we had some pretty next-level sessions with ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sweet Jane,’ and with Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, some of that stuff. This was the first time I sat and got into it on a different level, probably around 1980 or 1981.
So obviously that type of stuff had a tremendous impact. I wasn’t quite in tune with the cultural impact of the New York scene and what it all meant, but as a musical relationship, it was very rich, and I loved what I was hearing and I connected with what I was hearing. Some people will talk about ‘the forefather of punk music’ and all that type of stuff. I wasn’t able to put it together in that type of context at that time because I was only 16, but those were the first couple of times I experienced Lou.
“Of course, as I grew older and got a chance to experience and throw myself into a lot of this stuff and started studying art history and getting an understanding of what went on at the Factory. It was so ahead of what everybody else was doing at the time, and what was so cool about what they were doing was they were in their own world. They were completely unaffected, at least directly, by what was going on around them. They were autonomous and free from everything else, and they just went on this mindf— of exploring, and we were the benefactors of what they came up with.
You could argue about certain elements of Warhol’s art, like the very nature of pop art was about things around him. But what Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were doing, it existed on its own planet. As I got to understand later, it was very New York. It wasn’t until quite a few years later that I started to understand the difference in culture at that time between the stuff that was coming out of California and the stuff that was coming out of New York. The stuff coming out of New York was just darker and more f—ed up, and was maybe derived in a contrary energy or maybe a negative energy. A lot of the stuff going on in California was about peace and love and inclusion and all that kind of stuff.
I first met Lou in Copenhagen about ten years ago. He was in Copenhagen at an amusement park called Tivoli, and I was there with my kids and my cousin or something like that, and we were literally like, ‘Oh hey look, there’s Lou Reed.’ So I went over and introduced myself, or he came over and said hello to me, I can’t remember, one of the two. And we had a five minute conversation, and I think one of us had a hot dog in his hand.
[Then] In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame asked us to host a segment for the 25th anniversary shows at Madison Square Garden. So we were hosting a segment, and one of the people we wanted to collaborate with was Lou. We just felt his energy and his attitudes and body of work and way of doing things would compliment what we were doing. So we reached out and he was in.
A day or two before the festivities, we were in a rehearsal room somewhere in midtown and he walked in and didn’t say a whole lot. He turned on his guitar and started complaining about everybody being too loud, and this was wrong, and that was wrong, and it was like, ‘Ah! His reputation proceeds him!’ Like they didn’t send a doppelgänger—it really was him. He just cursed and complained and was annoyed for the next hour. We started fiddling around a little bit, and at some point we just had a conversation that was like, ‘Hang on, let’s just talk.’ So we talked, and I was like, ‘Listen, let’s find a way to make this work.’ And then somehow he thawed, and for the rest of the day it was beautiful. I can’t remember exactly what was said, though the other guys thought I was at my diplomatic best.
We were together for the next three or four days. The next day there was a sound check, and that got better and better, and he got more and more comfortable. The thing you have to remember is that he’s been f—ed so many times. A lot of the guys from his generation got f—ed. Every time they extended their hand out, they got f—ed by somebody, and stolen from, and double-crossed. The business end of it back then was such a wild west frontier. When you meet a lot of guys from his generation, they’re very cynical and they’re very guarded, because they don’t want to extend themselves and then get f—ed. So they have these guards up, and somehow I had a conversation with him where I convinced him I was not there to f— him. We were not going to f— him over.
So he let his guard down, and when he let his guard down then it was totally cool. Over the course of the sound check and the gig, it got better and better and we connected more and more. Eventually we realized we were long lost soul mates in terms of attitudes and ways of looking at the world. By the time we were done at Madison Square Garden, he asked if we could make a record. It really went that quickly. As we were leaving the elevator in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, he asked me—he didn’t ask me even, he said to me, ‘Let’s make a record together.’ And I said, ‘That’s great Lou, that sounds fantastic,’ not thinking anything would ever come of it. But he called like two weeks later! That kind of purity and that kind of follow through and that complete f—ing lack of bulls— was so unusual and so refreshing.
He came in with a lyric idea and the story of Lulu, and that was something he had worked on for many many years. There was a story there, and 10 or 12 sets of lyrics about this character and these things that happen to her and her relationship with men in her life and with sexuality and this type of stuff. We just started doing what we do, which was come up with music that could support this awesome story.
What was he like to work with? He’s the most direct, pure person I’ve ever met. In every moment, he spoke his truth. I’ve never met anybody with less of a filter than him. Of course, there were times when he would speak his truth, and then ten minutes later he would speak his truth again and they would completely contradict each other. Stuff like that could drive me bonkers, because I’m quite a linear thinker. In the studio, being confronted with that kind of abstract approach was something that was actually really good for me, and it really was inspiring.
I was listening to the record last night with my kids as we were driving. What an incredible piece of work that record is. I’m so f—ing happy I have that for the rest of my life. Not only as something that inspires me but something that I was a part of its creation. So when people ask what he was like to work with, it was inspiring, it was maddening, it was impulsive, it was all over the place. But it was very pure and honest, and he always came from a place of intuition and heart. It was never cerebral. That was the coolest thing.
His lyrics were cerebral. He spent a lot of time on the poetic side of it, and he was an American treasure. A genius. Unequaled in modern age rock music in terms of the poetic elements of what he was writing. What we did with him, the music that we created with him, it was like I didn’t even know what hit me. I woke up three weeks later and it was over. Most Metallica records, it takes three weeks just to load the equipment in.
I would say for me, it’s all about the attitude. Lou always felt he was an outsider, and we always felt like we were outsiders, and I think at the end of the day, that was the main bond between us. We never felt like we belonged to anything other than what was in our own Metallica bubble, and we were autonomous and ultimately the only people we had a responsibility to were ourselves. I think that was Lou’s thing and that’s what we bonded over. He’s the definition of an outsider.
I was talking to my kids yesterday, we spent a lot of time talking about Lou Reed and listening to Lou Reed, and how it didn’t connect necessarily at a commercial level in the way that someone like David Bowie did. I think it was Brian Eno that said that not a lot of people bought the first Velvet Underground record, but every single one of them that bought it ended up forming a band. What a f—ing great quote! Every single musician knew who Lou was and understood the lineage and respected him and appreciated him.
I think every musician who marches to his own tune and is carving out his own thing and not just sucking up to the business owes something to Lou Reed. He’s the Godfather of that. He’s the Adam. He’s Ground Zero. He’s the Big Bang of people who do it their own way. So all of us who like to think somewhat out of the box, we all owe something to him.”
The Velvet Underground