Lou Reed, NYC Man

As a straight­for­ward biog­ra­phy of its sub­ject, “Lou Reed: A Life” is eas­ily the rich­est and most nu­anced de­pic­tion of the artist ever writ­ten. But does it tell us enough about Reed’s mu­sic?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Dan Ep­stein

LOU REED: A LIFE By An­thony DeCur­tis Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pany, 528 pages, $32

At first glance, Lewis Allan Reed wasn’t all that dif­fer­ent from the other mid­dle­class Jewish lads he grew up with in 1950s Freeport, New York. He was a dili­gent stu­dent and an avid ten­nis player; he liked to make week­end for­ays to Jones Beach with his friends, and could of­ten be spot­ted mak­ing out with girls in the bal­cony of the lo­cal movie palace.

But ac­cord­ing to “Lou Reed: A Life,” a new biog­ra­phy by An­thony DeCur­tis, the few friends who ac­tu­ally knew him well saw a much dif­fer­ent side to the fu­ture rock star. Young Lou had a re­bel­lious streak as wide as the Long Is­land Ex­press­way, and he pushed back against the sti­fling con­form­ity of sub­ur­ban ex­is­tence by play­ing rock ’n roll, smok­ing weed, writ­ing gritty po­etry, and ex­plor­ing his sex­ual iden­tity in a far more fluid way than was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered ac­cept­able dur­ing the Eisen­hower era. In DeCur­tis’s book, Reed’s friend Richard Si­gal re­calls that “Lou had a se­cret life”: Not only was he the lone kid in their high school crowd who ac­tu­ally knew where to buy mar­i­juana, but he would also oc­ca­sion­ally per­form mu­sic at the Hay Loft, a gay and les­bian bar near Hof­s­tra Col­lege. “Lou said that some­times the pa­trons there would grab his ass or crotch,” Si­gal re­mem­bers in the book, “I was pretty naïve at the time and it never oc­curred to me that he might have en­joyed it or en­cour­aged it.”

Lou Reed, in other words, was pretty much al­ways Lou Reed. While he would evolve through many mu­si­cal and per­sonal in­car­na­tions un­til his death from liver dis­ease in 2013, the ba­sic el­e­ments of Reed’s songs — bound­ary-push­ing; po­etic med­i­ta­tions on sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — es­sen­tially re­mained the same through­out his work with the Velvet Un­der­ground and as a solo artist. The 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed’s big­gest and best-known hit, was merely the most tune­ful of his many street­wise ex­plo­rations of New York City’s seamy un­der­belly.

There was also an el­e­ment of Oedi­pal rage in much of Reed’s work, such as in the 1974 song “Kill Your Sons,” a har­row­ing ac­count of the elec­troshock ther­apy that he re­ceived at the age of 17. While pre­vi­ous Reed bi­og­ra­phers have sim­ply par­roted Reed’s as­ser­tion that his par­ents were cru­elly try­ing to “cure” him of his bi­sex­ual ten­den­cies, DeCur­tis takes a broader view, not­ing that Sid­ney and Toby Reed gen­uinely adored their son and were heart­bro­ken over his se­vere de­pres­sion and mood

swings — is­sues for which such bru­tal treat­ments were com­monly pre­scribed in those days. At the same time, DeCur­tis ac­knowl­edges that Reed’s un­con­ven­tional sex­u­al­ity would cer­tainly have been fac­tored into the de­ci­sion. “For par­ents like Sid­ney and Toby,” he writes, “for whom mid­dle-class re­spectabil­ity was a para­mount con­cern, the pos­si­bil­ity of their son be­ing ho­mo­sex­ual would have been deeply dis­turb­ing.”

DeCur­tis takes a sim­i­larly even-handed ap­proach through­out “Lou Reed: A Life,” put­ting Reed’s ad­dic­tions — “Heroin” was one of his best-known songs, but booze and speed were much more to his lik­ing — his re­la­tion­ships, and his sex­ual ad­ven­tures in a broader con­text while also of­fer­ing up nu­mer­ous lit­tle-known tid­bits about the man.

A con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at Rolling Stone, DeCur­tis knew Reed well, and ap­pears to have had — un­usu­ally, since Reed was no­to­ri­ous for his ha­tred of jour­nal­ists — a very pleas­ant re­la­tion­ship with him. But while DeCur­tis shows us a Reed who was ten­derly ro­man­tic, hi­lar­i­ously funny and deeply (in Reed’s words) “sus­cep­ti­ble to beauty,” he also doesn’t shy away from de­tail­ing the more un­pleas­ant sides of Reed’s per­son­al­ity, such as his ten­dency to blame his record com­pa­nies for the poor sales of his most res­o­lutely un­com­mer­cial work, and his con­stant down­play­ing (or even out­right dis­missal) of the con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tions made to his work by col­lab­o­ra­tors like John Cale, David Bowie, Mick Ron­son and Robert Quine.

DeCur­tis rarely tries to make ex­cuses for his sub­ject’s bad be­hav­ior, though he does prac­ti­cally con­tort him­self into a pret­zel while at­tempt­ing to ex­plain one par­tic­u­larly ugly in­ci­dent where Reed — irate be­cause he had to wait in line at an ATM on a cold New York City af­ter­noon — fo­cused his rage on a home­less man sleep­ing in the bank vestibule, and de­manded that the branch’s se­cu­rity re­move him im­me­di­ately. “Most artists would have been too savvy and im­age-con­scious to be­have as he had in public,” DeCur­tis writes. “It’s another ex­am­ple of Reed’s in­abil­ity or un­will­ing­ness to play by any­one else’s rules.” Or, just maybe, it’s another ex­am­ple of Reed act­ing like an ut­ter jerk.

As a straight­for­ward biog­ra­phy, “Lou Reed: A Life” is eas­ily the rich­est and most nu­anced de­pic­tion of Reed ever writ­ten. Where the book falls short, un­for­tu­nately, is on the mu­si­cal side of the equa­tion. For all of Reed’s iconic sta­tus, his ex­ten­sive solo out­put was in­con­sis­tent at best; ei­ther by de­sign or be­cause his ego or sub­stance abuse got in the way, his artis­tic or com­mer­cial tri­umphs of the 1970s and ’80s were al­most in­vari­ably fol­lowed by un­fo­cused and unin­spired ma­te­rial (as in 1978 with “The Bells”), or ex­per­i­ments cal­cu­lated to puz­zle fans and crit­ics alike (a la the 1975 all-in­stru­men­tal “Metal Ma­chine Mu­sic”). DeCur­tis gen­er­ally spends three or four pages on each al­bum, dis­cussing the ba­sic cir­cum­stances of its record­ing, its high­lights and its re­cep­tion, but he rarely of­fers any­thing in the way of new in­sights about the mu­sic. He also de­votes only two pages or so to Reed’s ex­ten­sive (and quite fas­ci­nat­ing) pre-Vel­vets work as a song­writer and record­ing artist for the bud­get la­bel Pick­wick Records, and com­pletely ig­nores the 1965 “The Surf­siders Sing the Beach Boys Song Book,” the so-bad-it’s-amaz­ing cult LP that’s long been ru­mored to fea­ture Reed on un­cred­ited lead vo­cals.

There’s also dis­ap­point­ingly lit­tle in the book about Reed’s in­ter­ac­tion with (or opin­ion of) the 1970s punk or 1980s indie-rock move­ments, both of which were heav­ily in­spired by Reed’s work, im­age and at­ti­tude. While DeCur­tis does touch upon R.E.M.’s record­ing of the Vel­vets’ “There She Goes” for the B-side of its 1983 sin­gle “Ra­dio Free Europe,” there’s no men­tion at all of the Feel­ies, the Je­sus and Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, Space­men 3 — to name just of few of the dozens of other bands that car­ried the Vel­vets’ legacy into the ’80s.

DeCur­tis does ex­cel, how­ever, at il­lus­trat­ing Reed’s deep and en­dur­ing con­nec­tion with New York City, his home and muse for most of his adult life. As com­plex (and of­ten as mad­den­ing) as the city that in­spired him, Reed was as in­trin­si­cally New York as an egg cream, a folded pizza slice, or a nickel bag of oregano sold to a clue­less tourist in Wash­ing­ton Square. And since “Lou Reed: A Life” is filled with so many ref­er­ences to New York City’s neigh­bor­hoods, clubs and restau­rants that he loved and fre­quented, the city es­sen­tially be­comes a sup­port­ing char­ac­ter in the drama of his life. Whether you’re a life­long New Yorker or some­one who has just ad­mired the rhythm and ro­mance of the Big Ap­ple from afar, read­ing “Lou Reed: A Life” will make you feel in­tensely nos­tal­gic for the gritty, pre-Gi­u­liani NYC that spawned so much of Reed’s most im­por­tant mu­sic — and un­der­stand that the loss of Reed was as heavy a blow to the city as the loss of any of its land­marks. “An artist of in­cal­cu­la­ble sig­nif­i­cance,” DeCur­tis writes, “Lou was also, as one of his song titles put it, the ul­ti­mate ‘NYC Man,’ as in­ex­tri­ca­ble a part of the city as, say, the Twin Tow­ers. Now he and they are gone and the city still stands, how­ever di­min­ished.” It’s hard to dis­agree.


NYC MAN: The bio makes the reader nos­tal­gic for pre-Gi­u­liani New York.


WAIT­ING FOR HER MAN: Reed with the singer, ac­tress and model Nico dur­ing the Velvet Un­der­ground years.

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