God forbid I should ever be nice to people: it would ruin everything. – Lou Reed
Anthony DeCurtis’ Lou Reed: A Life, is likely to go down as the definitive biography of the legendary street poet rocker. As one of the few music journalists that the infamously prickly Reed got along with and a professor of creative writing, DeCurtis has the connections and the chops to thoroughly examine his subject’s life and art. One of my favorite parts of rock biographies is learning about the aspects of the musician that are unlike their stage persona. Not so with Lou Reed. He was on a lot of drugs (mostly speed) when he jammed out the original Velvet Underground songs with John Cale in a squalid apartment. He was in a very public three year relationship with a trans woman during his glam and “Rock and Roll Animal” phase in 70’s. He was sober, married and avidly into the NFL when he wrote “Average Guy” in the 80’s. His wonderful 1992 album Magic and Loss was about his friends who were dying at the time.
I have more Lou Reed solo records in my collection than any other artist. All of them, besides Berlin, have at least a couple irredeemable songs and a few of his albums are so misguided that I’m not entirely sure if the parts I like about them are even good. All of that said, I always come back to Lou Reed because he’s more on than almost anyone when he is being real. DeCurtis skillfully weaves what was going on in Reed’s life at the time with the songs in a way that keeps an impressively consistent psychological through-line on a volatile life. One aspect that struck me was Reed’s lingering resentment about the Velvet Underground. Although there was the short lived reunion in 1993, there are numerous stories of not just journalists, but close friends getting totally closed down by Lou for bringing it up. The famous Brian Eno quote about how “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band,” was more of a reminder to Reed about the slights the group suffered decades ago than something to be incredibly proud of. He always thought his next record (perhaps even Metal Machine Music) was going to be not only his best, but also his big break into the mainstream, all the way up to the near universally derided Metallica collaboration, Lulu, which was his last major release before his 2013 death at the age of 71.
Iggy Pop said of Reed, “I think he’s one of the few guys or gals who’s been in this biz a long time and still has a feeling for the world around him. Most of the others just end up singing to the mirror.” When I put on a Lou Reed album, I know that I’m going to have him front and center, confronting me without a care for how it’s going to make me feel . He’s going to disappoint me with some misplaced jazz number, an unfortunate reworking of a Velvet’s song, or blow me away with how he can blend tenderness and cruelty with aplomb on the three part song “Street Hassle.” He does not comfortably slide into a new role like David Bowie or find a new sound to match the same relatable message like Bruce Springsteen. Instead, Reed inhabits a place where the antics are uncomfortably real, what sounds upbeat is going downhill and that he had no intention of writing a “Perfect Day” or “Heroin” again.
For a guy who shot up on stage, fired John Cale and openly sang about spousal abuse, Lou Reed found a kind of redemption in his relationship with musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. DeCurtis goes into detail about the truly remarkable union between these equals, that is relatively rare for famous artists, especially given how late in life they met. The balance that they struck to continue their creative endeavors while still be a regular sight together in New York was the most unexpected and illuminating part of the biography. It is almost improbable to think that a man whose career aim and life choices were geared towards driving gaps between himself and his listeners and those close to him, found a such a resonant coda in his last marriage.
Lou Reed was extremely generous with friends who were dying, almost becoming as close in the final days as the family members. He worked to revitalize the careers of some of the fifties and sixties rockers he grew up idolizing such as Doc Pomus. He grew to be remorseful about his prior drug abuse and violent behavior toward women and was quite explicit about discussing it in his music. All of that said, Reed kept true to his maxim about being difficult. There are far more important things than being nice, but I found a few nuggets of Reed breaking character and decided to pair them with songs that aren’t so nice.
Known for a stripped down sound, Reed was a surprisingly serious music gear fiend who would show house guests his pedals and amps for hours. He also was an early adopter of the Atari system and would readily play video games with family friends’ children after he gave up the drugs and alcohol. Probably not where he was going with “Video Violence,” but it’s easy to imagine him getting really competitive in Pong.
As many New York celebrities in the 60’s and 70’s, Reed was on familiar terms with Dr. Richard Freymann, otherwise known as Dr. Feelgood for his special shots of amphetamine and vitamins. When boozy writer Ed McCormack was ill after a binge, Reed showed up early to drag him to Freymann’s office saying, “Don’t worry about it. This guy gets in early. And he can cure anything – including cirrhosis – as long as you’re honest with him about your habits.” Although McCormack only received X-rays on his liver and bill of good health, Reed footed the medical bill in advance. Here’s a knowing drinking song called “Underneath the Bottle” from the excellent Blue Mask.
Reed was supporting the release of his 1979 album The Bells at the Bottom Line and confronted his producer Clive Davis onstage, saying, “Where’s the money, Clive? How come I don’t hear my album on the radio?” Uncharacteristically, for the man who named his prior record Take No Prisoners, Reed issued an apology, saying, “I’ve always loved Clive and he happens to be one of my best friends. I just felt like having a business discussion from the stage. Sometimes out of frustrations you yell at those you love the most.” Apologies are pretty nice, especially when you can acknowledge your failings in business and friendship. Here’s “Stupid Man,” from the same album he thought was going to do so well on the radio.
Leonard Cohen fell for Nico from a distance and followed her around New York when he first arrived in the city. About one particularly lonely night, he said:
“I remember lingering by the bar, I was never good at that kind of hard work that’s involved with socializing, and a young man came over to me and said, ‘You’re Leonard Cohen, you wrote Beautiful Losers.’ which nobody had read, it only sold a few copies in America. And it was Lou Reed. He brought me over to a table full of luminaries – Andy Warhol, Nico. I was suddenly sitting at this table with the great spirits of the time.”
There is nothing that lifts a depressed writer’s spirits more than recognizing their obscure book and introducing them to the person they are hopelessly in love with. We’ll end with “Berlin,” which sure seems like it is about Nico.
DeCurtis, Anthony, Lou Reed: A Life. Little Brown and Co., 2017.
Simmons, Sylvie, I’m Your Man. Ecco, 2012.