Rock icon Lou Reed on his new meditation album, doing tai chi, and the hardest thing he’s ever done
Even now, decades after the grittiest Velvet Underground years, with a long-term commitment to tai chi practice and clean living, Lou Reed’s latest project is surprising. A meditation album? From the man who told us to “take a walk on the wild side” and growled “heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.”
But devotees need not worry that Reed has strayed into Yanni territory. On “Hudson River Wind Meditations,” an album that overflows with electronic and natural sound, there is not a scrap of tinkle nor an ounce of chant. Reed’s venture with Sounds True, a label best known for its personal growth CDs, is a hypnotic, multilayered disc that both soothes and wobbles the mind.
The notoriously interview-phobic musician recently opened up to Beliefnet about turning wind into music, how tai chi transformed him, and why he prefers not to give anyone advice about anything.
Hi, Lou. How are you doing?
It is pretty cool.
Do you have a direct line?
No, I mean to Him.
Oh, to Him.
Sometimes, I think. I heard that you recorded this album for yourself and then shared it with friends and it kind of grew from there.
That’s pretty much it. I made it for myself to do certain things. I use it for meditation and tai chi and body work. And I wanted to have some music that I liked. So, I made this for myself. And since then, different—we use it in our tai chi class now. And I have it on usually all the time. It’s really nice in the city because it seems to absorb the outside sounds and blend them into something. And that’s it.
The album is very spare, but it’s also very layered. And there are times where I can actually hear that nice ambient whoosh of the city in it. Was that something that you were consciously thinking about?
Well, on track three, you certainly are hearing the whoosh of the city. On track two, we were hearing that as we did it. And track one, the same thing. So, it’s an integral part. It’s what I’m hearing as I’m doing things. So, I purposely put on track three, so you could really hear it.
And what kind of instruments were you using?
They’re a combination of all kinds of different electronic gadgets.
Was there actual Hudson River wind?
Oh, yeah, that’s real. Oh, God. No, that is not a simulated wind. No, that is the wind. That is the wind off the Hudson that I’m looking at as we speak. It was just a particularly good day to record it because it was whistling, it was so strong.
All of that nature sound came off of one day, in one day?
Yes. Yeah, made a pretty long recording of it. And I got very lucky with the microphone I was using, so.
You made this because you felt like other meditation music wasn’t really meeting your needs, it sounds like. What did you feel like you needed that?
Well, it’s not like I’m familiar with everything that’s out there. It’s just, this isn’t New Agey or anything like that. This is coming from a different place, I think. And it was just—I liked that it was a sound you’ve never heard before. And that it was from a time you wouldn’t hear. It was very contemporary. And that it was a sound you couldn’t identify with, so you didn’t have to think in that kind of musical term.
Explain what you mean there.
I mean that it freed you from preconceptions—so, music or tempo, this, that or the other thing. It was, I thought, a pretty enabling kind of thing. I hate to use that word, but there it is.
And when you say enabling, you mean conducive to that relaxed or serene state during meditation?
I just think it’s very, very useful for centering yourself, for experiencing these different kinds of disciplines, be it meditation, body work, tai chi, yoga, whatever. Or I like to just have it going all the time because it makes the outside sounds into a more musical environment.
And what kind of physical or emotional state does it tend to put you in?
Well, that’s for me to know and you to find out, isn’t it? Hopefully, an alpha state.
Was that the idea? For other people to be put—?
Yeah. The idea is to make things better, to make things more beautiful, have more access, be able to ground yourself, be able to experience something in a more agreeable environment.
I read somewhere that you asked your tai chi master for his approval for this album. Is that true?
No. I mean, this music is also useful for doing tai chi forms slow and fast. And we tried it in class in that sense. But, it certainly didn’t need his approval for these other applications. But it’s a moot point because he loves it.
What did he say when he first heard it?
Very much in favor. Very much liked it. We used them. We used two of them in class.
And I notice in the music, there are moments where there’s a high pitched noise. When I was listening to it, it kind of wobbled my brain a little bit, very unlike other meditation music where it seems like—
Oh, that’s really good. The activity is way up there, but it’s also—the better your speakers, the better you can experience it. There’s some really wonderful things happening in the bass area, the bottom, that you should physically feel if you have speakers that can carry it. That high end thing, that was enormous fun to play.
It was just fun to play. I’m a musician. It was fun to play.
That was using a Moog Analog Voyager. So, it’s a real sound. It’s not a sampled sound. It’s actually created in the contemporary instrument. Very, very brilliant, smart instrument, to say the least. So smart. I think every musician in the world should have one of those. Share the knowledge.
And I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about it, but I’d be curious to know what kind of meditation you practice.
My original meditation was taken from an herbalist acupuncturist named Dr. Shelly Peng. The other one I do is with my teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche. And he’s got a book out now called “The Joy of Living.” And he’s a great teacher.
And is it kind of a breath focused meditation? Are you—is it a mantric or—?
Okay. And how often do you do it?
I do it every chance I get. I do it in the subway. I do it walking. I do it whenever I remember to do it.
And what do you think—why do you think maybe more people should be practicing meditation?
I’m not given to advising anybody to do anything, actually. So.
I’m not the one to talk to that. I just put some music together for those who want to, to hopefully enrich the experience of doing any one of a couple of things—body disciplines, meditation, body work, different kinds of exercises.
Does it have a different effect, depending on the activity that you’re doing with it?
Stabilizing. Strengthen your foundation. Energy.
And it seems like you have an overall approach to wellness. Are there other things that you do to keep yourself centered and grounded and clear?
Well, I’ll tell you, you know, quitting cigarettes was a bitch. That’s about the greatest thing I’ve done.
When did you do that?
A little over a year ago.
And what changed?
I would imagine, especially for meditation and tai chi, it’s just so focused on breath that—
Well, you know, up to a certain point, your body can take some of that. But, past a certain point, at least for me, it couldn’t. And it was pretty contradictory to do breath-oriented things and smoke.
Like the people standing outside of yoga class with their mats and a cigarette?
Well, you know, if you’re young and can do it, knock yourself out, you know. But, at a certain point, things change.
And speaking of that change, when you started doing tai chi, how did that change you?
Mentally and physically stronger. It physically changes your body and your energy and builds you up. People think I lift weights, but I don’t. It’s purely from doing Chen Tai Chi with Ren Guang Yi. I do two hours a day every day.
And do you really notice the shift in your—
Big time. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, so I’m not new to it. If I miss a practice, my body starts to hurt. It used to be the other way around.
And have you noticed a strengthening in your spiritual connection or your relationship to whatever—is out there?
I’m not a great one to talk to people about spiritual relationships. I’m just talking about the physical body, mental strength. Spirituality is the domain of other people far more knowledgeable than me. I would never advise anybody about anything. This is just something I put together that helps me. And with any kind of luck, maybe it’ll contribute to other people.
How you relate to New York as a meditative place?
Well, New York is an island. It’s a center of energy. It should be a great place to meditate in if you have some good music like mine to put all those ambient sounds into one cohesive whole. Okay?