John Belk­nap ab­sorbs in­nu­mer­able de­tails of a rock mu­sic hero’s anti-so­cial be­hav­iour. Ivy Gar­litz sees red

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE -

IF YOU are a Lou Reed fan, you will love this book. On the other hand, if you are a Lou Reed fan, you may hate this book, as it tracks in metic­u­lous de­tail the mis­er­able life of The Hate­ful Bitch, as one of his exfriends de­scribed him. If you adore the song Walk on the Wild Side or count­less fa­mous songs from Reed’s first and most fa­mous band, the Vel­vet Un­der­ground, you may not want to know that he charged through life like an emo­tional bar­bar­ian, first charm­ing then cru­elly be­tray­ing al­most ev­ery friend, lover and col­league he ever met. Once in a blue moon he dis­played a gen­er­ous streak, but his ha­bit­ual modus operandi was to meet you, love you, then chew you up and spit you out.

Well-doc­u­mented here is his trail of ex-friends, ex-gay lovers, ex-straight wives, ex-man­agers, ex-record la­bel ex­ecs and ex-band mem­bers. If you lent him your car, he would crash it. If you gave him your trust, he would crush it. It was al­most as if he hated him­self so badly that he marked you for de­struc­tion for dar­ing to love him.

Au­thor Howard Sounes, no stranger to dif­fi­cult char­ac­ters — he has also writ­ten bi­ogra­phies of Fred and Rose West, plus oth­ers of Paul McCart­ney and Bob Dy­lan—has eked out de­tails from peo­ple from ev­ery pos­si­ble cor­ner of Reed’s life. Mind you, with a man with scorchedearth ten­den­cies, many were ea­ger to put their two cents in. Ger­ard Malanga from the Warhol Fac­tory sim­ply sug­gested ti­tling this book: The Worst Per­son Who Ever Lived.

Lou Reed was born in 1942 in Brook­lyn. His fa­ther Sid and mother Toby Reed — for­merly Rabi­nowitz, a Rus­sian Jewish fam­ily — moved to sub­ur­ban Long Is­land in 1952, which their son later dubbed the “Armpit of the World”. In high school, he ex­hib­ited a flair for poetry, an in­tense in­ter­est in sex, and a foul mouth. Later, at NYU in Man­hat­tan, he be­came de­pressed and had what they used to call a ner­vous break­down. His anx­ious par­ents, whom Reed would slan­der his whole life, agreed to the then trendy cure-all for men­tal ill­ness: elec­tric shock ther­apy. They would live to re­gret it as Reed’s bit­ter­ness about it boiled in him for years. Some said that this anger fu­elled his cre­ative drive for the rest of his life.

He even­tu­ally re­cov­ered and went to Syra­cuse Univer­sity up­state and be­gan his pat­tern of se­duc­tion and be­trayal. He also started play­ing in bands, even­tu­ally at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of a tal­ent scout from a New York song-writ­ing com­pany. Reed went to work for them, learn­ing the craft, with de­mands like “give me ten surf songs”.

New York City was where the pill-pop­ping, young, would-be bo­hemian met the sim­i­larly emo­tion­ally twisted John Ca le, a Welsh clas­si­cal vi­o­lin vir­tu­oso with a taste for min­i­mal­ist avant-garde. They col­lab­o­rated on what would be­come some of the Vel­vet Un­der­ground’s best songs, like Heroin, Wait­ing for My Man, and Venus in Furs. By 1964, they had met and started play­ing with Ster­ling Mor­ri­son and Moe Tucker. While there st of the New York down­town scene were groov­ing to folk and protest songs by Dy­lan, th­ese proto-punks were pump­ing out loud, hyp­notic, min­i­mal­ist rock.

One of Andy Warhol’s crew spot­ted them play­ing at a Green­wich Vil­lage club and alerted the Pop Mas­ter to some­thing un­usual go­ing on. He came to see them and in­stantly recog­nised a kin­dred weird­ness, three skinny guys and a girl drum­mer, all in black, pro­duc­ing a hellish noise. Warhol hired them to play at “Hap­pen­ings” where rooms were wrapped in foil and im­ages pro­jected on the walls while strange dancers writhed around. You could not be more out­landish in the early ’60s, when even the Bea­tles’ mod­estly long hair was a shock to straight-laced Amer­ica.

Reed felt at home in the head­quar­ters of the avant-garde and fa­mously paid trib­ute to its char­ac­ters in Walk on the Wild Side. (An in­ter­est­ing fact about that song is that the “coloured girl” cho­rus com­prised three white Ir­ish girls.)

He im­mersed him­self in that wild side. Over the years, he was to break up with the Vel­vets, break up with a few wives and boyfriends, and in­dulge in drink and drugs “un­til it hurt” — with painful, med­i­cal con­se­quences, in­clud­ing a liver trans­plant.

His ex-friends filled grave­yards from over­doses, Aids and penury. Af­ter the ini­tial crit­i­cal (though not com­mer­cial) suc­cess of the Vel­vet Un­der­ground, Reed spent most o f hi s ca r e e r at t e m p t i n g come­backs. The most suc­cess­ful of th­ese was the fab­u­lous al­bum Trans­former. He toured Europe of­ten but most tours were ex­er­cises in overindul­gence. He be­came in­creas­ingly moody and strange, spend­ing eight hours ad­just­ing a mi­cro­phone in the record­ing stu­dio or strum­ming two chords for days. Woe to any­one who chal­lenged him.

In his last decade, the only suc­cess­ful saviour in the story emerged: his last wife, the com­poser and poet Lau­rie An­der­son, who was tough enough to win Reed’s re­spect, and lov­ing enough to mel­low his “wil­ful, de­mand­ing, petu­lant and ego­cen­tric” ten­den­cies. In 2013, luck­ily for him and un­like many of his friends, he died happy.

John Belk­nap is the JC’s cre­ative di­rec­tor

Asug­ges­tion for the ti­tle was:‘The WorstPer­son Who­Ever Lived’


Lou Reed: ‘wil­ful, de­mand­ing, petu­lant and ego­cen­tric’

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