A reassuring document of autumnal romance in the New York underground.
As the new biography of iconoclastic rocker Lou Reed (1942-2013) enters its final quarter, Warner Bros.’ Jeff Gold is quoted in a candid and prescient remark. A long-time fan, Gold was excited about a personal invitation to the star’s home in the early ‘90s. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, what a trip—going to Lou Reed’s house!’” After patiently listening to the legendary rock star show off his guitar collection, Gold sadly noted, “It was so mind-bogglingly uninteresting.” Anthony DeCurtis does somewhat better than that with the 500-page tome Lou Reed: A Life, but for such a pivotal musical career, there shouldn’t be a dull moment in the book. Surprisingly, there are more than a few.
Reed had a reputation for being something of a crank, especially when it came to journalists. But DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who has spent more than 30 years at the music rag, was a rare exception; Reed actually considered him a friend. DeCurtis would then seem a natural to publish this major posthumous biography of the Velvet Underground founder, whose music has been so influential that it’s entirely fair to call him the Godfather of Punk. Yet while the author doesn’t shy away from his late friend’s more unpleasant traits, the book is only intermittently intriguing, and it’s further marred by indifferent editing.
A foreword briefly describes the unusual trust that Reed placed in the author, and DeCurtis is indeed best when he charts Reed’s personal life. When he was a child, Reed’s parents pulled up roots from scrappy Brooklyn for a Long Island suburbia that the rebellious teenager would refute at every turn; it’s suggested that Reed’s sexual exploration was in some part an act of defiance against restrictive parents who were so concerned about his mental state that they sent him to shock treatment.
These early years are described with a mostly dry journalistic tone, though DeCurtis touches on a promising thread when he suggests that Reed’s drug use and attempt to “nullify my life,” as he wrote in “Heroin,” was a kind of spiritual path to negate the self and find some kind of enlightenment.
It’s an easy enough read, especially if you’re not familiar with Reed’s life story. Yet, look at Victor Bockris’ book Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by comparison. First published in 1997 and updated in 2014, Bockris opens his book with Reed’s teenage shock treatment sessions. It may be a sensationalistic approach with some degree of poetic license, but it immediately brings Reed to life in a way that DeCurtis just doesn’t do.
After mapping out the foundations of Reed the man, DeCurtis threads the life by way of the artist’s recording career, with each album marking a new book chapter. As much as Reed’s career took unsuccessful turns—sometimes willfully—these chapters stall with Reed’s solo career. As an ex-Velvet, Reed fell into a pattern of following a success—say, the commercial hit of Sally Can’t Dance—with something guaranteed to fail: Metal Machine Music, anyone? But in terms of prose, the ‘70s can seem like a blur as DeCurtis’s interest seems to occasionally flag, only to pick up again with more personal stories of Reed’s second wife Sylvia and his creative resurgence in the ‘80s.
Throughout the book, stylistic tics can be distracting; it’s hard not to mentally edit out every instance of “at around the time.” Fans who know Reed’s career well may gripe at omissions—there’s no mention at all of Get Crazy, the 1983 movie that co-starred Reed as a fictional rock star and resulted in one of this greatest songs of the ‘80s, the non-LP ballad “Little Sister.” If DeCurtis doesn’t always seems engaged with his subject, Reed’s late-life relationship with Laurie Anderson becomes a final redemption for the musician and for Lou Reed: A Life, which becomes a somehow reassuring document of autumnal romance in the New York underground. In the end, the book does capture something of Reed’s solo career: the frustration that it could have been better.