Books: Tender and vicious

Two new biographies explore the rough and angry life of rocker Lou Reed.

Lou Reed performs on the Isle of Wight in 2006 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lou Reed performs on the Isle of Wight in 2006
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Erland Josephson, the Swedish Jewish actor who became Ingmar Bergman’s alter ego, knew a little about pop music.
He was surprised that his son Ludwig was impressed to hear that he had met one of his favorite singers, “Lee Rude.”
He meant Lou Reed, the rudest man in rock. Now, rock is a rude, crude music, but Reed, who died in 2013, was so rude a rocker that one early collaborator advised that his biography be titled “The Hateful Bitch,” or “The Worst Person Who Ever Lived.”
Although two new Reed biographies eschew these suggestions, their titles still reflect the question of Reed’s obnoxiousness, and their understandings of its inspiration.
Aidan Levy adopts the title of a Reed song. His Reed walks on the wilder side of life’s “Dirty Blvd.”; Reed’s often sordid subject matter is a kind of reportage.
Howard Sounes fits the name of Reed’s pioneering ’60s group, The Velvet Underground, inside Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground; his Reed is a literary artist, and the art and the author are not the same.
What made Reed rude? Rock being a music of adolescent revolt, rock biographies are heavy on pop Freudianism.
Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Lewis Allan Reed was the son of Toby Futterman, a secretary and beauty queen – the Queen of the Stenographers, 1939 – and Sid Reed, an accountant who had changed his surname from Rabinowitz, possibly because he did not want to be associated with his cousin, the labor organizer Shulamit “Red Shirley” Rabinowitz.
When Lewis was eight, the Reeds moved up and out to suburban Long Island, where he acquired a younger sister, Merrill. Lewis made his stage debut reading parashat Ki Tisa at Congregation Bnei Israel of Freeport, and received a guitar as a bar-mitzva present.
So far, so ’50s. But the adolescent Lou suffered from phobias, anxiety and repressed homosexual desires. Precociously interested in Beat literature, avant-garde jazz and pot smoking, he entered New York University to study English, but had a nervous breakdown. The cure, Electro-Convulsive Therapy, gave him a whole new condition. Reed claimed that his parents paid for the ECT to cure him of homosexual tendencies. Merrill, who became a psychoanalyst, insists that Sid and Toby were not homophobic but were misled by Reed’s doctor. The treatment exacerbated Reed’s mental delicacy and permanently enraged him against his father in particular. From then on, Reed was a man with a fork in a world of soup.
Reed returned to his studies in literature, rock & roll, and domestic chemistry.
Determined to do for music what Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs had done for literature, he took work in a Tin Pan Alley song factory and got jaundice from shooting heroin. In 1964, these three elements converged into “Heroin,” a song without precedent in pop: a deadpan, Burroughs-style account of the pursuit of oblivion, half-spoken over two repeated chords.
Among the realities from which the protagonist wishes to escape is the image of “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds” – surely the first reference in popular music to the Holocaust.
The group that recorded “Heroin” was also without precedent. Apart from Maureen Tucker, perhaps the only female drummer in the US, the Velvets had John Cale, a Welsh prodigy trained in the classical avant-garde; an iceberg of a German singer, Nico; and the patronage of Andy Warhol, too. Their first album, issued to general disapproval in 1967, was pop as high art: songs about drugs, violence, paranoia and other “Lee Rude” hobbies, all set to a throbbing, atonal soundtrack, like a bunch of wellread speed freaks playing R&B in a classical conservatory.
But Reed had more shpilkes than a Singer factory, a considerable methamphetamine habit, and a growing fury at the group’s lack of success. First, he fell out with Nico, who departed with the immortal words, “I cannot make love to Jews any more.” Next, after a second, even noisier record, he expelled John Cale. Then, he lost Warhol’s support.
Taking care never to work with someone as talented as Cale, Reed turned the Velvets into a paisley-clad Pop act. They recorded two more albums, including some melodious, heartbreaking confessional ballads, before expiring exhausted and ignored in 1970.
Reed returned to Long Island, worked in his father’s typing pool, and then resumed his efforts to become a star in a business he despised. In the following four decades, Reed recorded some of the best and worst rock music ever made, including the atypically hummable pop hits “A Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day.”
On a good day, Reed was a superb lyricist, capable of fitting Modernist poetry into rock’s tight corsetry of heavy rhythm and limited harmony. On a good night, he was a guitarist of crude and minimalist brilliance – if he was not too addled to play.
Reed’s music was as divided as his self, and in the ’70s, the image of “Lee Rude” overtook its creator. Masquerading as the cartoonish “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal,” backed by the worst bands money could buy, and consoled by a knife-carrying, speed-shooting transvestite named “Rachel,” Reed slurred and stumbled through the decade. Skeletal from drugs, or paunchy with booze, he beat women, exploited band mates and pretended to shoot up on stage.
For Levy, Reed’s collapse into alcoholism and amphetamines is the heroic bohemianism of the Romantics and the Beats. But Byron was never bitten on the buttock by a fan, and Kerouac never called Bob Dylan a “pretentious kike.” For Sounes, much of Reed’s solo work is “substandard tosh” by an alcoholic and drug addict trading on his back catalog.
Reed had become ridiculous, the kind of tough guy who threatens to eviscerate a journalist – with a butter knife.
Reed survived, and straightened out. In 1980, shortly after saying that he was gay “from top to bottom,” he married for the second time. He stopped the drugs and reduced the drinking, bought a cabin in the woods and began to play the guitar again. He endorsed American Express and Honda mopeds, took up pinball, tai chi, motorbikes, headless guitars, bicycles and golf, and grew his hair long at the back in what Sounes calls “the unfortunate mullet style.” Still, when the Velvets reformed in 1993, Reed flew business class, and the band flew economy.
Reed’s last decade was a miserable man’s happy ending. Acclaimed as the zayde of New York punk, he asked the Wise Son’s question at the Knitting Factory’s alt-Seder. He married yet again, to Laurie Anderson – they were King Neptune and Queen Mermaid at the Coney Island Parade – bought a beach house on Long Island, and put his back out exercising with a StairMaster. He had learned, Anderson says, “how not to be Lou Reed.”
He could “put Lou Reed on and take him off like one of his jackets.”
The cost of playing “Lee Rude” could not be avoided. Years of hard living, Sounes writes, had given Reed’s face “the texture of an ancient deflated leather football, with an underlying redness that indicated health issues,” including hepatitis C. Diabetic, Reed learned to say “No butter, no sugar” in several European languages. After a failed liver transplant – the doctor played “A Walk on the Wild Side” as he operated – Reed died in Anderson’s arms while doing tai chi.
Why was Lou rude? Levy follows Reed’s lead: Blaming the parents, he sees abusive behavior as artistic fearlessness. But Levy worships Reed and writes the purplest of prose: He calls Reed’s clumsy 1973 comeback concert “the Normandy invasion” of rock.
Sounes, a cooler head and better writer, traces Reed’s belligerence to his confused sexuality. Like Dostoevsky’s “underground man,” Reed was a “damaged, hyperconscious outsider.” Sounes has written an honest account of a “complex, difficult man.” The question is not whether we like or dislike Reed. “It is enough that he is significant and interesting.”
Erland Josephson noticed that “Lee Rude” seemed determined not to be liked. Lou Reed almost succeeded, but his music was too tender, too vicious, too intelligent, too harsh – too full of life and suffering for people not to mistake the singer for the song. Reed’s story is sorry proof that great art can be made by petty people.
Dominic Green, PhD, worked for many years as a professional musician and teaches political science at Boston College.