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Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony de Curtis; Little, Brown & Company, $19.99
Someone once said to Lou Reed, "You always speak in italics. I love that." I suspect he must have found this remark an amusing observation since his life was filled with colorful if often imagined narratives, tirades, and his "outrageous behavior and innate desire to shock." Reed could never be underestimated. Whether it was glam rock or punk rock, Reed was a precursor, if not the godfather, of musical styles and rock-n-roll movements.
He grew up in Brooklyn, then Long Island, first in Freeport, then in Great Neck, about which he famously ranted, "If you run into a diseased mind, it's from Great Neck. Nobody goes to more great lengths to escape their upbringing than someone from Great Neck." In elementary and high school, Reed was a "nervous and frightened" child, "possessed a fragile temperament," and was prone to panic attacks. His parents believed their son might be schizophrenic, so at 17, he underwent "electroconvulsive therapy" (ECT). In the 1950s, ECT was not an uncommon treatment for homosexuality. Reed was "devastated by the treatments," and never forgave his parents for what he considered a cruel and unusual punishment. Years later, Reed may have got his revenge when Andy Warhol arranged for The Velvet Underground to perform at a psychiatrists convention held at the Delmonico Hotel.
One biographer of The Velvets wrote that they "were very much a product of their time." The whole notion of being underground appealed to their sensibilities. Their name came from a book of the same title published in 1963. While it purported "to explore the subterranean worlds of fetishism, consensual extramarital sex, and S&M," in order "to avoid censorship," the text carried a certain "tone of disapproval."
Underground filmmaker Paul Morrissey convinced Warhol to manage The Velvets, since "rock artists were becoming something like a new aristocracy." This gave the new band entrée into the life of The Factory that Reed "adapted with ease and enthusiasm." While Warhol was "the vacant center around which everything at The Factory revolved," Reed soon became one of his "lieutenants." Morrissey made a lot of decisions for Reed and The Velvets, including adding the "imperious" German actress cum model Nico to their repertoire, even though she was a second-rate chanteuse. With the release of their album "The Velvet Underground and Nico," the band was deemed "part of Warhol's multimedia circus." Its white peel-off banana cover revealed "a pinkish phallic fruit underneath." Years later, it was proclaimed "among the greatest album covers of all time." After so much hype, the album "was simply ignored." With such a letdown, Reed "seemed more interested in drugs and scotch, whatever made him happy."
Reed's classic hit "Walk on the Wild Side," which would pay his rent for years to come, was essentially a portrait of Warhol's Factory and the characters that inhabited this notorious demi-monde. He would come to resent the song's success, questioning, "How can you be an underground icon when you have a hit?" "Wild Side" was the only Top 20 hit of his career.
David Bowie, at only 25, proposed to the record label RCA that he produce Reed's first solo album. Reed knew this was what he needed, and that he would learn from Bowie's "knack for grabbing attention." Bowie said of Reed that "the nature of his lyric writing was unknown to rock. He supplied them with the street and the landscape, and peopled it." Bowie later confessed he was "nervous about collaborating with one of his idols."
Released in 1972, Reed's "Transformer" became known as "the degenerate side" of glam rock. He adorned the album cover as a "leggy vamp in high heels and lady lingerie, a hand artfully placed near his crotch." Reed described the album: "There's this very well-hung stud looking into a mirror, and looking back at him is this beautiful girl." Rolling Stone described him as "an effeminate Frankenstein monster."
Reed was insatiable in his haunting of New York's mid-1970s leather bars and sex clubs in Lower Manhattan, such as the notorious Anvil, Plato's Retreat, Hell Fire and others. "The most significant character Reed met on his late-night rambles through the city was the mysterious Rachael, a transsexual who would become his live-in lover" for several years. According to Reed, many characteristics endeared her to him: the fact that nothing really impressed her, she barely knew his music (and what she heard she didn't like) and had little interest in his fame. They soon became inseparable. But Lou and Rachael would not last forever. Their breakup would remain a mystery, and Reed never spoke of her again.
Reed married Sylvia Morales on Valentine's Day, 1980. With her moral support and encouragement, Reed entered a rehab program and became a "true believer" in the 12-step program. He "ended a life of wild excess to reunite with his love in quiet domesticity." She said he was not the "fucking faggot junkie he had once been and was now embarrassed by." Sylvia soon became not only his wife, but also his manager and gatekeeper. The couple bought a house in rural New Jersey, where Reed was more disciplined and produced the album "The Blue Mask." The New York Times declared it "the most outstanding rock album of 1982," but it generated little commercial enthusiasm. Rolling Stone commissioned him to interview Czech writer Vaclac Havel about the evolution of his nation's "Velvet Revolution." The piece was never published despite Havel's "thoughtful responses" while Reed "nudged the conversation toward his own preoccupations."
Sylvia Reed was eventually eclipsed by a more kindred spirit he would meet through the avant-garde scene, Laurie Anderson, when she was invited to play with him at the Munich Art Projekt, an annual festival of new music. Their personal and professional relationships flourished until the end of Reed's life. Anderson played with him in live concerts and albums while nurturing his talents as a photographer and poet. His rock opera "POETRY," based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, debuted shortly after 9/11.
Reed's final album "Ecstasy," "a searing examination of life in a complex, adult relationship," did not fare well, receiving little commercial or critical reception. But Anderson's influence on the latter years of Reed's life and work cannot be underestimated, especially "his adoption of her willingness to cross aesthetic boundaries, his desire to establish himself as an artist beyond rock and roll."
With his death in 2013, Reed's legend finally received the praise it deserved. From Rolling Stone to The New York Times, he received cover-story tributes. Bowie heralded him "a master." His memorial was held outdoors at Lincoln Center, and was made up solely of Reed's voice, guitar music, and songs — no speeches, performances, VIP or press sections. The several hundred people who gathered to remember Reed mingled freely. At a later tribute at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Anderson lamented, "His incredible complexity and his anger was one of the biggest parts of his beauty."