“Lou Reed” by Will Hermes (published by Viking)

Poet of unpleasantness

“I’m just your average guy,” Lou Reed sang in that grating singing/non-singing voice of his (it’s hard to get past that whine), an ironical assessment if ever there was one by a complicated and cocky man often full of drugs, booze and aggro but nonetheless regarded by many as an unbending songsmith, musician, performer, poet and photographer.
3. February 2024 5:26

Certainly it can’t be denied that there was always something different about Reed and he was pretty much a one-off. Biographer Will Hermes does a thorough job of investigating the disparate elements that coalesced to produce a creative, controversial artist, way outside the common mould — ancestral genes, family upbringing, education, electroconvulsive therapy, addictions and sexual confusion, for starters.

To get things under way, Hermes offers a lengthy Preface that is especially keen to enlighten the unconverted, to show that even if Reed was never one of your favourites, probably he should have been. You may not have been over-keen on that deadish voice and quite a few wonky solo albums, but perhaps the fault was entirely yours.

Plenty of other hardened dope addicts and grumpy buggers have achieved fame, and while Reed suffered from both self-doubt and arrogance, he still had the chutzpah to carry it off. As he liked to say, “No one else can play Lou Reed like me”.

The book is subtitled “The King of New York”, and Hermes presents his case: “Reed’s supreme muse was New York City: its wild cacophonous beauty; its lures and dangers; its millions of stories.” (But here at The Budapest Times, our king of New York would be Woody Allen. And American crime writer Lawrence Block is just one of many others who have plumbed the “eight million stories” of the Big City. Martin Scorsese? Jerry Seinfeld?)

Still, if NYC is “the city that never sleeps”, Reed participated to the fullest, fuelled up on amphetamines and other intoxicants that could keep him awake for days. And legendarily nasty. When he died aged 71 on October 27, 2013, he’d been suffering for a while, his shattered liver having been replaced by a less-than-perfect transplant, but it failed too.

Similar lifestyles took their toll on friends and enemies, but at only 10 years distance from his death there are still contemporaries around to flesh out the story for biographer Hermes. For instance, he found a couple of people in the family of Rachel Humphreys, Reed’s trans partner and muse in the 1970s who died during the AIDS epidemic in 1990 and was buried in an unmarked grave. The family shared memories and showed him photographs.

Also, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts purchased the extensive Lou Reed Archive in 2017, and Hermes is apparently the first biographer to have access. He says he spent weeks and weeks there in the Lincoln Center Public Library going through 200-plus boxes of the most tedious business documents, faxes, everything. He suggests a visit if you’re in town, to see for yourself. You need a library card and time to burn.

Other biographies followed Reed’s death but without this benefit, for instance Anthony DeCurtis’ “Lou Reed: A Life” (2017), “Dirty Blvd: The Life and Music of Lou Reed” by Aidan Levy (2016), “Notes From the Underground: The Life of Lou Reed” by Howard Sounes, “Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait Of Life With Lou Reed” by first-of-three wives Bettye Kronstad, and “Lou Reed: The Last Interview and Other Conversations” (all 2015).

As for pre-2013 accounts, such as “Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story” by Victor Bockris (1994, updated in 2015), the cantankerous Reed is quoted as saying, “All the books about me are bullshit except Jeremy’s”, referring to Jeremy Reed’s “The Life & Career of Lou Reed”, published in 1994 and extensively rewritten for posthumous republishing in 2014.

So is Will Hermes “the king of Lou Reed biographers”? It’s possible. To start, he went to Freeport Public Library to research this Long Island seaside town where Lewis Allan Reed was brought up. Reed had been born in nearby Brooklyn on March 2, 1942, the son of Sidney Rabinowitz, a certified public accountant, and Toby, a housewife.

They moved to Freeport when Lewis was nine. It was a sizeable Jewish community, and not uncommonly the Rabinowitz family changed its name, to the non-Semitic Reed.

There, Hermes found a single-storey, stand-alone brick house where the youngster played stickball until dark, then back for a home-cooked meal. But such suffocating suburbia demanded a normalcy of Lewis that just wasn’t there. The fragile, bullied boy was perhaps dyslexic, definitely depressed and attracted to both sexes, giving him a sense of otherness.

He was turned on by doo-wop: the Solitaires, Chantels, Valets. His high school group the Jades recorded a single, “So Blue”, in 1958 then faded quickly, but it gave Reed experience as a guitarist and frontman. He was at New York University in 1959, not completing first year after a major emotional breakdown and the electroconvulsive therapy, probably ill-advised.

Another early group of his was L.A. and the Eldorados in 1961. As an undergrad at Syracuse University Reed took journalism and creative writing classes, and was a late-night DJ on radio. Hermes found the mimeographed literary zines that he did there, such as the “Lonely Woman Quarterly” which he spearheaded in 1962, with poetry and fiction by Reed.

The author tracked down his college buddies, and Syracuse was where Reed met one of the two decisive influences on his creative life: the poet, short-story writer and legendary burnout Delmore Schwartz, with whom Reed studied writing. He had a very urgent need to make rock and roll, and became a hack commercial songwriter and folk singer.

His striking lyrical ideas included writing the novelty song “The Ostrich” in 1964 to parody silly dance crazes. Pickwick record company assembled a group called The Primitives to promote it, resulting in Reed meeting John Cale, a Welshman in New York to participate in experimental and minimalist music. Cale liked to drone away on viola.

Reed’s other mentor was Andy Warhol, and when Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker formed the Velvet Underground, Warhol made them the Factory house band, part of his multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable. They became a fixture of Warhol’s pop art demimonde, and he set the scene for the Velvets’ experiment in mixing rock with the avant-garde. Liking to stir things up, Warhol initially forced the German singer Nico on them.

Reed and Cale, primarily within the band, fused street-level urgency with European avant-garde music, marrying beauty and noise. Very few people understood what they were doing. “Heroin”, the drug-scoring song “I’m Waiting For The Man” and the sadomasochistic “Venus In Furs” on “The Velvet Underground & Nico” album in 1967 weren’t top-ten material.

So, as the 1960s were petering out, the notoriously decadent Reed was approaching 30 and hadn’t achieved fame or fortune. When “Loaded,” the Velvets’ fourth and final long-player, came out in 1970 he was living in his childhood bedroom and working at his dad’s firm as a typist. The band had burnt out on drugs, rivalry and a spectacular lack of sales.

David Bowie was one who had fallen under the spell of the 1967 album, and in 1972, now world-devouringly famous, he never forgot the revelation. He picked Reed off the discard pile and produced his second solo record, “Transformer”. It contained the indelible “Walk On The Wild Side”, a chronicle of taboo subjects, and “Perfect Day”, which would evolve into a beloved wedding favourite. A diverse but patchy solo career followed, with mixed reviews.

Reed and his demons, painstakingly catalogued by Hermes, make for an often revelatory read. In later years he mellowed, as we all should. The recounting of his death is very sad.

At The Budapest Times, there’ll always be the memorable lyrics of Reed’s “Venus in Furs” — “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years, A thousand dreams that would awake me, Different colours made of tears”. We love that.

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