CANNES, France—Still looking extremely frail following his recent liver transplant, Lou Reed nonetheless made it to Cannes Lions for the Grey Music Seminar here Thursday, and spoke about his legendary career, his time with Andy Warhol and the irreversible passing of time.
For those who wondered why he made the trip, Reed's comments early on may have cleared that up.
"In the world of downloading, the only people who will pay you for what you do are you guys," he said to Tim Mellors, global creative chief at Grey. "Nowadays, people say, 'Oh, that was a great ad.' Before, it used to be, 'You fucking sellout." But what's fair is fair. And the ad people play fair with you."
Reed largely bemoaned the current state of the music business—the squeeze on artists but also the lack of real talent. However, he did reveal his admiration for one of today's big stars.
"The only person who's out there really doing something is Kanye West," he said. "This guy is really serious, trying to do something. This new album of his is hard to believe. It's incredible—the mixture of genres, the melodies, the sounds. He's really good, whatever you might think of him on other levels. And he's also very, very funny."
Reed also looked back at his legendary career, particularly the time when he and the Velvet Underground were Andy Warhol's personal band and entourage. When they got their first record on the radio, Reed recalled, "We got a royalty check for two dollars and six cents. That's pretty much what I get from downloads now. I'm back where I started! I understand that younger people were brought up downloading. Steve Jobs tried to make it into some kind of business, which benefits Apple. But as an artist, you get about a sixteenth of a penny."
Reed was inducted with the Velvets into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and is blunt when assessing their impact on the history of rock.
"I always thought we were easily the most sophisticated, articulate group in the world," he said. "We didn't get to keep going because of strife. But there was no one near us—to this day. If you look note by note, word by word, subject by subject, my idea was essentially: What would happen if you had the lyrics of Tennessee Williams or William Burroughs and you put it in a rock context? That was my idea, and I was trying to write up to that."
Reed remains stunned by Warhol, the singular genius he's known in his life. "I was just writing down everything that was going on around me," Reed said of his songwriting at the time. "And look where I was. I was next to the greatest artist of the 20th century. Not that I knew that at the time. But you'd have to be profoundly stupid to look at Andy and not say, 'Wow. Look at that.' … He was an astonishing person in every way.
"He would say to me, 'Lou Reed, you're so lazy. How many songs did you write today?' And I would say, 'Three.' And he'd say, 'Three?! What's wrong with you? How do you ever think you'll be anything? You're so lazy. I can't believe it. What do you do with the rest of your time?' Meanwhile, he'd be doing his art 24 hours a day."
At the end of the session, Reed remarked about how the 45 minutes had passed in what felt like a moment—which put him in a reflective mood.
"How can time go that quickly? It never ceases to amaze me," he said. "Just the other day, I was 19. I could fall down and get up, no big deal. Now, if I fall down, you're talking about nine months of physical therapy, make sure you take your vitamins. 'Is he OK?'"
"The most important thing is, you are here," Mellors said. "At this moment, you are here."
To which Reed replied: "And that is the only moment that counts."