Tuesday 25 September 2018

Malevolent man of rock

Music: Lou Reed, Anthony ­DeCurtis, John Murray, ­hardback, 538 pages, €30.49

Walk on the wild side: Reed, seen here in 1983, received electroshock therapy, which damaged his short-term memory
Walk on the wild side: Reed, seen here in 1983, received electroshock therapy, which damaged his short-term memory
Lou Reed by Anthony DeCurtis

Lewis Jones

Lou Reed emerges from this devoted fan's biography as even nastier than we'd ever imagined.

With the four albums they released between 1967 and 1970, The Velvet Underground challenged the prevailing musical fashion set by California hippies. Instead of peace, love and soft drugs, they sang about paranoia, perversion and hard drugs.

Gleefully uncouth, they were also cool and witty, and their sound was exhilarating. They made pop music at its least popular, and their sales were feeble, but although they lost the battle, they won the war: flower power turned out to be a dead end, while the Velvets inspired countless "art" and punk bands.

Their shifting personnel were a remarkable bunch. Andy Warhol, as patron and "producer", bestowed instant glamour, and imposed on them the fascinating German chanteuse Nico. Sterling Morrison was an excellent guitarist who later became a professor of medieval English and a tugboat captain. Maureen Tucker, the "chick drummer", played standing up and without cymbals or pedals. And John Cale, "the mad Welshman from India", was a musician from the classical avant-garde who played hypnotic "drones" on his viola.

But the star was Lou Reed, who wrote the lyrics and delivered them with an atonal camp sneer that charmed as it insulted. He later described himself as a "f*****g faggot junkie", but it seems he preferred women to men (he married three times) and amphetamines and whisky to heroin, so that was just a pose.

After demolishing the band by firing Nico, then Warhol (who called him a "rat"), then Cale, he abandoned it himself in despair at its commercial failure, to embark on what Rolling Stone called "one of the most self-indulgent and self-defeating solo careers in the annals of rock".

Nearly everyone who had dealings with Reed agreed that he was remorselessly obnoxious. Cale called him "a twisted, scary monster", and when he had a liver transplant a satirical magazine reported the news under the headline "New Liver Complains of Difficulty Working with Lou Reed".

So his ghastliness is hardly news. But it is striking that he should emerge from this monumental biography by a devoted fan as even ghastlier than hitherto imagined.

Anthony DeCurtis describes many instances of Reed's vileness. He sang indignantly about the wretched of New York, but a journalist recalled visiting a bank with him in winter, so Reed could use an ATM in the vestibule, and his being so outraged by the figure of a sleeping homeless person that he summoned the manager to demand he be kicked out.

He beat up his first wife, Bettye Kronstad, and used the collapse of their marriage as material for his appalling album Berlin. In a rare foray into understatement, DeCurtis writes that "hearing a character based on her mother essentially described as a bisexual whore and drug addict in a song written by her husband was quite a blow". And so on.

DeCurtis's admiration remains undimmed, though. He calls Reed an "artist of incalculable significance", and "as inextricable a part of the city as, say, the Twin Towers. Now he and they are gone and the city still stands, however much diminished." As Warhol used to say about everything: wow.

But however much DeCurtis adores Reed, Reed adored himself still more. He once said that he expected to become "the greatest writer that ever lived on God's Earth... I'm talking about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky." In his youth he wrote a handful of terrific songs ('I'm Waiting for the Man', 'Sweet Jane', 'Venus in Furs'), and during a solo career that spanned 22 albums he wrote a few more ('Vicious', 'Walk on the Wild Side'). But without the music they are nothing, and he was not in the same class as Bob Dylan (whom he dismissed with anti-Semitic insults), or Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell. Most of his output was frankly dire, and to listen to him warbling 'White Light/White Heat' over the thrash accompaniment of Metallica on his last album, Lulu (2011), is just embarrassing.

The main reason Lou Reed is so long is that DeCurtis gives every single song, however negligible, the full Rolling Stone treatment (he is a contributing editor there), solemnly burbling on about this one's "unnerving empathy", and that one's "bone-chilling clarity". Which is not to say that his book is without interest, not least in its elucidation of how Reed, who a friend said was "supposed to be a nice Jewish boy", came to be such a prize pig.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1942. Sidney, his father, was an accountant whose family came from Russia, changing their name from Rabinowitz. Toby, his mother, was crowned "Queen of the Stenographers" at the Stenographers' Ball of 1939, and was of Polish extraction. Of his Brooklyn primary school, Reed recalled: "It was like being in a concentration camp, I guess." In 1950, Sidney was hired by a plastics firm on Long Island, so they moved to the suburbs, where Reed attended Hebrew School and was bar mitzvahed. He would later shave a swastika into his hair.

His sister Bunny, who became a psychotherapist, said he had "a fragile temperament", and had been terrified of Brooklyn. On Long Island, he affected an air of urban swagger. A schoolmate found him "more advanced": "We were drinking quarts of beer, but Lou was smoking joints... we were looking at girls in Playboy, Lou was reading The Story of O." Reed was keen on girls, but in order to shock began writing "queer" poetry and behaving effeminately. Sidney and Toby took him seriously, and sought psychiatric help. Doctors thought he might be schizophrenic, and recommended electroshock therapy, as it was then called, which permanently damaged his short-term memory, and poisoned his relationship with his parents and the world.

By the time he arrived at Syracuse University, he had adopted the persona that would define him: hostile, sarcastic, cynical and cruel.

As his first girlfriend recalled: "He wasn't happy unless he made somebody more miserable than he was." We don't expect artists to be nice, but few have been so thoroughly nasty as Reed.

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