Anthony DeCurtis’ “Lou Reed: A Life” confirms just how perverse Reed could be, and I am not talking about drug use or sexuality.
Reed had a “propensity to switch conceptual gears mid-project while refusing to communicate his ideas to the people around him,” DeCurtis writes.
Gifted collaborators, notably John Cale and Robert Quine, helped him make breakthrough music – and Reed pushed them out of his bands.
In 1975, he released “Metal Machine Music,” more than 64 minutes of processed guitar feedback, distortion and effects, but no songs, no lyrics and no melodies.
Reed, who died in 2013, had only one hit single in the United States, the memorable “Walk on the Wild Side.” But as leader of the Velvet Underground and then as an erratic but sometimes brilliant solo performer, he has had an outsize influence on rock music. That influence flows from his characteristic defiance and from his uncompromising, ambitious approach to songwriting. Bob Dylan expanded rock songwriting into poetic realms; Reed took it into the gutter, into S&M joints and mental institutions, even the notorious meeting between Kurt Waldheim and Pope John Paul II. Yet Reed never completely lost touch with his love for innocent pre-Beatles rock and doo-wop. One of his last great songs was an enthusiastic ode to a favorite boyhood beverage, “Egg Cream.”
DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, had a long and solid enough connection with Reed to make this book possible. DeCurtis offers a thorough account of how the Velvet Underground came to be, and of the power struggles that plagued this commercially unsuccessful but massively influential band. Reed pushed Cale out, and in turn was pushed out by a scheming manager. In the long solo career that followed, Reed would both reclaim and react against the music he made in the Velvets. As DeCurtis makes clear in his account of Reed’s battles with record companies, Reed wanted commercial success, but usually was not willing to compromise or adjust what he was creating to pursue a wider audience. As “Metal Machine Music” proves, Reed sometimes had a powerful anti-commercial instinct.
DeCurtis seems to have talked with most of the surviving important people in Reed’s world, including David Bowie before his death. Bowie, with crucial help from guitarist Mick Ronson, produced Reed’s solo breakthrough LP, “Transformer,” which included “Walk on the Wild Side.” Bowie’s career at that time also offered Reed an androgynous, theatrical template; for a spell, Reed was one of America’s best-known gay icons and had a public romance with a transsexual person. Yet he also married three women, including performance artist Laurie Anderson. DeCurtis’ interviews with first wife Bettye Kronstad and early girlfriends are particularly illuminating. Regarding the rock star’s sexuality, you have to fall back on that old Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.
Reed became notorious for his antics in concert while performing his song “Heroin” (whose deadpan lyrics, to be fair to Reed, do not promote use of that drug). But DeCurtis reports that speed and alcohol were Reed’s preferred pathways before he sobered. Given some of the self-destructive behavior portrayed here, his guardian angel must have been getting hazard pay.
As a teenager, Reed was treated for severe psychological problems with electroconvulsive therapy (i.e., shock therapy), an experience he memorably addressed in the song “Kill Your Sons.” Some have suggested those shocks were applied as a form of homosexual-aversion therapy, which his younger sister Merrill vigorously disputes. “He was depressed, weird, anxious, and avoidant. My parents were many things, but homophobic they were not. In fact, they were blazing liberals. They were caught in a bewildering web of guilt, fear, and poor psychiatric care,” she wrote in an essay after Reed’s death. Some Reed songs suggest that his father was harsh; a few hint he was abusive. Short of courtroom specificity, which would be impossible, DeCurtis explores their difficult relationship fairly and realistically.
“Lou Reed: A Life” is a biography, not a detailed critical study of Reed’s music. In context, DeCurtis offers some evaluations.. But Reed’s musical path was a messy, complicated one. Diehard fans often disagree on the merits of individual recordings. Through his reporting and judicious writing, DeCurtis does a quality job of illuminating Reed’s challenging, artistic life.
“Lou Reed: A Life”
By Anthony DeCurtis
Little, Brown, 560 pages