Aussie rock writer Barry Divola reveals his most awkward encounter with a music great — 15 minutes of shame dished out by the legendary, and extremely difficult, Lou Reed.
Is truth more awkward than fiction? Ask music writer BARRY DIVOLA, whose new novel is about a rock road trip like no other — and who today shares a comically cringe-worthy peek behind the scenes of his day job.
My new novel, Driving Stevie Fracasso, is about two estranged brothers trying to reconnect on a road trip in a stolen Nissan Stanza from Austin, Texas to New York City in the days leading up to 9/11. Older brother Stevie is the former frontman with cult ’70s band Driven To Distraction. Younger brother Rick is a jaded music journalist who just lost his job, his girlfriend and his apartment in the space of 24 hours.
As I’m best known as a music journalist, a lot of people have asked how much of Rick’s character is based on me. The answer is: as a music journalist he shares my world, but as a person he’s a fictional creation. With that said, we both share the experience of an awkward encounter with a famous musician.
My worst ever interview was with one my favourite artists — Lou Reed.
When he visited Sydney in 2001, he cancelled every interview on his press schedule apart from two — a well-known breakfast television show; and me. And he was offering a mere 15 minutes of his time to each of us.
I asked if I could at least sit in to watch the TV interview being filmed first. And so it was that I got to see someone else perspire and slowly die in a harbourside hotel room before I was due to face the firing squad.
The first thing Reed said when he walked in was “I want to know who everyone in this room is and why they have to be here.” His publicist, who appeared to be in the midst of having a nervous breakdown, introduced everyone.
The second thing Reed said was “I’m not sitting on that couch.” That couch was where the TV crew had been setting up their lights, cameras and sound for the previous hour. “I’ll look too small on that couch,” he said, before pointing towards a completely different part of the room. “I’m sitting in that chair.” The film crew frantically rearranged everything they had just set up.
The TV journalist sat down, extended his hand and started telling Reed about his love of the Velvet Underground. Reed put up his hand and drawled: “Can I just stop you there? I won’t be saying anything until the camera is rolling.”
Everyone started looking at their shoes. I was sussing out the nearest exit.
Then Reed started pointing and yelling “Stop! Stop! Stop filming! You don’t start filming until I say so!”
The target of his wrath was a hapless video camera operator who had started rolling.
“Erase it!” Reed shouted. “Erase it!”
The video operator apologised and nervously fiddled with buttons to erase what he had.
After watching the toe-curling TV interview, it was my turn. I sat down opposite him, shook his hand and the first thing he said to me was “Why are we here?”
Was this some sort of existential question, a gnomic riddle to test me, to see if I was worthy of being in his presence?
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“This beautiful city with a beautiful harbour outside, and we’re sitting in a hotel room?” he said.
I looked around.
“Well,” I said. “There’s a balcony over there. We could sit outside if you like.”
We walked out into the sunshine of a blue-sky Sydney summer day. I put on my sunglasses against the glare. Lou, of course, had been wearing his inside the whole time.
We sat and he made a point of looking at his watch. “Fifteen minutes,” he said, noting the time with a deadpan croak. “Go.”
The ensuing 15 minutes found him arguing with my questions while I occasionally gained grudging brownie points for knowing my stuff. Reed claimed he was proudly drug/alcohol/nicotine/caffeine free. He was travelling with his Buddhist master/spiritual adviser. Questions that even hinted at his well-documented seedy past were dismissed as if his well-documented seedy past had never happened.
At the end he looked at his watch again, and said “There you go. That’s 15 minutes.” He signed my cherished copy of the debut Velvet Underground album in so much haste that I hardly recognised the name.
When we walked back inside he went up to the video operator he’d shouted at previously, and the nicotine-free Reed bummed a cigarette from him. Then he put a hand on the guy’s shoulder and said, “I hope I wasn’t too harsh with you earlier, but I’ve done this before, and I know how to make things run smoothly.”
Somewhere out on the harbour a ferry blasted its horn. Or maybe it was Buddha groaning.
Driving Stevie Fracasso, by Barry Divola, is published by HarperCollins and is available now. On a different tack, this week is your last chance to pick up our Book of the Month — Kelli Hawkins’ Other People’s Houses — for a special deal. Head to booktopia.com.au and enter code HOUSES at checkout to receive 30 per cent off the RRP of $29.99. And come share your own awkward encounters (and favourite books) at the Sunday Book Club group on Facebook.