Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, where his work has appeared for more than 35 years and was also a friend of Lou Reed. His new book finds the famously difficult to deal with rock & roller to live up to the abrasive persona he portrayed. But also that the leather‑clad invulnerability hid an insecurity underneath and, despite being full of contradictions, Reed was far ahead of his time and every bit the avantgarde artist.
Primarily known as the frontman to the Velvet Underground, the band who still sound as fresh and cutting edge 50 years after they started performing together, was the perfect counter to the hippie love-ins and flower power of the time. With their dark sunglasses, black leather jackets and New York swagger, they sang songs about BDSM, scoring drugs and shooting heroin with a detached cool. Once the band fell apart, due to Reed’s paranoia and need for complete control, he embarked on a solo career that would last almost four decades and swing from such extremes as the acclaimed rock opera of ‘Berlin’ to the near career-killing ‘Metal Machine Music’. The latter an amphetamine-driven double album with nothing but affronting, squalling guitar feedback.
“Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all” Reed wrote on the sleeve notes, “It’s not meant for you… This is not meant for the market”.
Having received electroshock therapy as a teenager for mood swings and apparent homosexual tendencies (which his sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, has refuted), it had a profound effect on the young Reed and caused a rift between him and his family which would survive until his death, and be fuel for the fire behind much of his work.
Always a provocateur, he would do everything he could to cause outrage. Anti-semitic comments, shaving a swastika into his hair (Reed was actually of Jewish heritage himself), mimicking injecting heroin during stage performances to being notoriously difficult with reporters who he felt were out to get him.
He was immensely susceptible to criticism, the end result was an unresponsive and aloof Reed when it came to explaining his work, a vulnerability he hid behind his ubiquitous sunglasses. An intensely paranoid man, he would shed collaborators – and eventually his spouse – once he had gained what he wanted from the relationship, or once they became too close. DeCurtis gives us access to all the people Reed encountered in his life, and their own experiences and thoughts of the troubled man. The biographer’s captivating writing style is excellent, not passing judgment but rather letting the reader decide for himself on the merits of his actions.
Charting Reed’s life from his adolescence on Long Island to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art Factory scene (with New York’s darker drug and sex filled side always lurking in the background) the book is almost split in two as by the 1980s Reed abandoned Manhattan as he morphed into the happy suburban dwelling husband. Forever a man of contrasts, Reed would say that he is far from the Lou Reed that everyone knows, and yet he would admit there is a lot of himself in the idea of Lou Reed.
Ultimately, we are left with a huge back catalogue and an ongoing contribution to and influence on modern music. This candid retelling of Lou Reed’s unique and controversial life as an artist helps the reader make sense of a life that was often difficult for those around Reed but also a real struggle for the man himself. The question that remains is, can an artist be forgiven for their idiosyncrasies and occasional wrong footings (the widely canned Metallica collaboration for example) if it is backed up with astonishing work, such as Reed achieved in his lifetime?
Photo by Christopher Makos