Lou Reed's friend Joseph Arthur crafts musical tribute to the icon
Joseph Arthur sits on the couch in his Red Hook apartment, surrounded by the tools that made his unlikely tribute to his friend the late Lou Reed come to life.
His espresso is perched next to the piano that was the centerpiece of the songs on the album "Lou" (Vanguard), which hits stores May 13. The bass he used hangs on the wall above his recording-studio setup and the shelves where his special microphones are kept.
"I've had that bass since I was 16," Arthur says. "It's barely held together. It's a miracle it stays in tune."
The miracle of the 26-year-old bass is only one of the many unlikely occurrences that went into the making of "Lou." Arthur doesn't like calling the album the product of divine intervention, but there was certainly something special going on.
"It wasn't even my idea to do the album," Arthur says. "I didn't think I even wanted to do it. . . . After it was finished, though, I was really proud of it."
The idea for "Lou" actually came from Bill Bentley, Reed's longtime friend and publicist who is now a vice president at Vanguard Records. Bentley had read Arthur's tribute to Reed on the American Songwriter website shortly after Reed died in October at his home in Southampton. Bentley was so moved and impressed by the sentiments that he felt Arthur would be the perfect artist to record a tribute album to Reed.
Through a mutual friend, Bentley called Arthur and told him about his idea. "He didn't really want to do it, but I asked him to pick a song," Bentley says. "He said he would think about it."
Arthur says he was honored by the request, but wasn't sure an album of Reed songs was something he wanted to tackle. "One of the reasons is what we're doing right now," Arthur says, pulling his long legs underneath him, as he sits on the couch. "I didn't want to do interviews about Lou's death. He was a friend, but I'm no expert on him."
Arthur had met Reed on one of the biggest nights of his life, when he auditioned for Peter Gabriel at Manhattan's Fez nightclub in 1996. Gabriel was interested in signing Arthur to his Real World label and brought his friend Reed along to get his opinion.
"I was already nervous," Arthur says. "Meeting Lou Reed on top of that was intimidating the out of me."
However, they both were taken by Arthur's distinctive voice and inventive singer- songwriter style. Gabriel signed Arthur to his label, and Reed eventually became friends with Arthur, a relationship that deepened in recent years when they would go to movies together or watch "Dexter."
It was that relationship that allowed Arthur to write so eloquently about the Freeport native's music, as well as the man he idolized. While Arthur was on tour supporting his album "The Ballad of Boogie Christ," with R.E.M.'s Mike Mills in his band, he thought he would do some original work to honor Reed.
When he returned from the tour, on the same day as Reed's memorial at the Apollo Theater, Arthur began thinking about Bentley's offer again and how he would turn it down. After the memorial, though, Arthur decided he would try to do "Coney Island Baby," which he once told Reed was "the best song ever written."
Arthur recorded it with just a piano, an acoustic guitar and his voice, using several layers of vocals to create a chorus for Reed's anthem about "the glory of love" and the importance of high school football.
"I just really liked the way it turned out," Arthur says.
He decided to do more. After all, there was a snowstorm outside, and he was still kind of decompressing from the tour and trying to make sense of his feelings about Reed's death.
Arthur started to come up with "Brian Eno-like restrictions" for the project. No electrical instruments because "Lou was electric enough."
"You have to approach Lou's music from some place different," Arthur says. "He's covered so many grounds. Acoustic minimalism -- that one, I don't know that he's done so much. And it just seemed to work. It felt right for the mood of the occasion."
Arthur took on one Reed song after another, initially thinking he would stay away from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's best-known work. "But I was here by myself, so I thought, 'Well, why wouldn't you try them?' and did and thought that it was interesting," he says. "It became kind of an obsessive undertaking, which is how I do a lot of my records. I isolate myself and don't leave."
Putting out the album
After 10 days, Arthur had finished 12 songs that he felt could hang together as an album. He called Bentley to let him know the album was done and got what he thought was a lukewarm response.
In reality, Bentley was worried. He'd asked Arthur to do the album, but his label was, at that point, more interested in a multi-artist tribute record, featuring more recognizable names than Arthur. "I thought, 'Well, now what?' " Bentley says. "I didn't have a commitment from Vanguard for the album. I started to backpedal. I didn't think we were going to put it out."
Arthur says he toyed with the idea of skipping Vanguard entirely and simply offering the album on his website to his fans for free on Christmas, though he quickly realized that a posthumous tribute to Reed didn't exactly scream, "Happy holidays!" He decided to send a copy of the album to Bentley to see what he thought.
"The first time I heard it, I knew -- it was so moving and incredible," Bentley says. "This record has to be."
Bentley played the album for Vanguard Records president Kevin Welk, who gave his approval. "Everything on this record just came together," he says, adding that he told Reed's wife, Laurie Anderson, of the project and she thought it sounded like a good idea and thanked him for working on it.
"There's just this otherworldly way that everything was guided by Lou's spirit," Bentley says. "It had a magical velocity to it."
Arthur says he could never have made "Lou" now. "It would be too overwhelming a task," he says. "Something just happened in that moment. It was a beautiful recording process. I'm just really happy with the way it turned out."
WHO Joseph Arthur
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday, City Winery, 155 Varick St., Manhattan
INFO $22-$32; 212-608-0555, citywinery.com
Arthur's other projects in the works
Even though Joseph Arthur's tribute album to Lou Reed doesn't hit stores for another week, he's already in the middle of two follow-up albums of his own as well as work with his numerous side projects. Here's a look at who else Arthur is working with:
RNDM The band -- which includes Arthur, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and former Fastbacks drummer Richard Stuverud -- will start work on the follow-up to 2012's "Acts" soon on Ament's Montana farm.
R.E.M.'S MIKE MILLS & PETER BUCK They haven't recorded anything yet, but Arthur and Mills have been performing together plenty recently, with Mills joining Arthur for numerous dates on his "The Ballad of Boogie Christ" tour last year. When Arthur played "Walk on the Wild Side" on "Late Night with David Letterman" last month, Mills joined him and called in his pal Peter Buck to play guitar on the show.
FISTFUL OF MERCY The band -- featuring Arthur, singer-songwriters Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison -- has recorded one song to follow up 2010's "As I Call You Down" album and plans to work on more.
THE AFGHAN WHIGS A longtime friend and collaborator of frontman Greg Dulli, Arthur sings on "Can Rova" on the alt-rock heroes first album in 16 years, "Do to the Beast."