Lou Reed: A Life
(Little, Brown and Company, 2017)
A teenage Lou Reed wrote under his High School yearbook photo that he had “no plans, but will take life as it comes.” It sounds like a Lou Reed song already. Young Lewis also wrote that he liked basketball, music, and “naturally, girls.” The adverb is conspicuous, as Anthony DeCurtis points out in this new biography. The same Reed who would later achieve cult fame for romanticizing cross-dressing and BDSM still felt obliged in the early 1960s to enact some kind of a discrete parody of heteronormativity. He had probably read Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs' books too. He read Raymond Chandler. Lou played in bands that performed at school dances. He dated hip intellectual girls his same age, listened mostly to Doo-wop records and studied literature with poet Delmore Schwartz at a prestigious upstate university: Syracuse, N.Y. He also experimented with hard drugs, including the opiod heroin. From this using, he contracted a form of hepatitis while still a teenager.
The same parents who made Reed undergo electro-shock treatment, supposedly to cure his depression (or homosexuality, as Reed has claimed...) would also come to help him, driving him back to his childhood home from Max's Kansas City the night after The Velvet Underground broke up. Speaking with Terry Gross on NPR, DeCurtis admitted he never got that family/car story fully confirmed, though he believes it's true. He left it out of the book. Lou Reed: A Life does, however, tell of how the Brooklyn-born singer took a little break from music before launching his solo career. He briefly (and willfully) took a menial job as a typist in his father's accounting firm out on Long Island. Lou's parents continued to support him in various ways even after he made grotesque caricatures of them for songs like in “Kill Your Sons” off of Sally Can't Dance: “Mom informed me on the phone / She didn't know what to do about Dad / Took an axe and broke the table / Aren't you glad you're married?” In many ways, Lou radically embraced and embodied all the so-called sins of the city that his parents thought they had successfully left behind by moving to the suburbs of Long Island in the 1950s.
Lou, with his Sally Can't Dance‑into‑Metal Machine Music-era toxic blonde hair-dye, aviator sunglasses, and black leather assaulted countless societal and artistic norms, while also influencing fashion, new alternative lifestyles, and a generation of younger musicians, many of whom already worshiped the Velvet Underground. Then one day, Lou decided to get married (to a woman) on Valentine's Day—and he meant that with all his heart too. In another fit of conventionality, Reed gave his longtime friend, girlfriend, and muse Sherry Albin a giant heart-shaped box of chocolates. Countless other gestures that might seem cliché by someone else's hand became something hyper-real and textured with meaning when they came from Lou Reed. DeCurtis includes a transcript of Reed's famous Australia airport press conference:
Why is your music so popular, Lou?
I didn't know it was popular.
Do you think it's a decadent society we're living in?
Would you describe yourself as a decadent person?
How would you describe yourself?
Reed would later sing “I'm just an average guy” while juxtaposing references to transformation, redemption, masks, Halloween, parades, and animality. This straight-ahead, heavily fact-checked biography couldn't have been written while Reed was still alive, DeCurtis said on the radio, “...because it sees Lou in a way he didn't always want to be seen,” which is to say it is unbiased, fairly objective, heavily fact-checked and verging on encyclopedic.
Reed hated being alone. He would draft his wives into working double-time for him as a manager on more than one occasion. He alienated industry colleagues and musical collaborators with a neurotic desire for always-greater control. Some of this might've been leftover from his experiences collaborating with pop artist/Svengali Andy Warhol. If the band had stuck with Warhol, they never would've been taken seriously at all. Reed wanted to make rock ’n’ roll songs where the lyrics might also appeal to brazen, high-minded literary aesthetes like Delmore Schwartz. Sadly, Schwartz didn't live to see the realization of that with albums like Street Hassle, or Reed‘s ’89 comeback simply titled New York.
As a solo artist, Reed recorded 22 studio albums, eighteen of which (excepting Metal Machine Music, The Raven, and Hudson River Wind Meditations) charted somewhere on the Billboard peak top 200; half made the top 100, with 4 gracing the top 40. As DeCurtis kindly phrases it, Reed's record sales had a habit of “plateau-ing” like in the ‘70s after Transformer pretty much ran its course. The audience (and the record companies), rightfully wanted more. The collaboration with Metallica in 2011, Lulu—the last album he recorded before dying—hit 36; the highest since Transformer in 1972.
Lou Reed always eschewed the labels of glam, punk, gutter rock, experimental, and avant-garde that got thrown at him because he felt he could be a genre by himself. Musically at least he showed himself to be more than just the guy from the Velvet Underground. “Walk On The Wild Side” assured him special freak status in the rock ’n’ roll pantheon; it even got him on the FM radio, something the Velvets never accomplished.
BEN TRIPP is the author of What About Frasier (Gauss PDF, 2015). More of his writing can also be found via BOMB, Hyperallergic, CCM Entropy, and HTML Giant.