More than a mere essay on Lou Reed, this is a consideration of how the notion of queerness has evolved over time.
The beautiful thing about the 33 1/3 series is the freedom of its format. The only real requirement is that the book focuses on an album that the author loves; beyond that, it can really do anything. Some choose to write a straightforward essay, others take a more unconventional narrative path. Lou Reed’s Transformer solidly fits into the former category, which isn’t surprising given that this is musician Ezra Furman’s first book, but given one’s familiarity with both the series and the artist being profiled by Furman, the forthright presentation could arguably be seen as a disappointment. However, what Furman has written serves as more than a mere essay on Lou Reed; it’s also a consideration of how the notion of queerness has evolved over time and what Reed meant both to queer culture and to Furman as a person.
Structurally, Furman follows the album track by track, bookending things with his story of the only time he met Lou Reed while performing at a tribute show for the man at SXSW. The book is otherwise light on personal anecdotes: while Furman does take time to discuss his own experiences about finding himself as a queer person, it all connects back to Transformer and its exploration of queer identity. Otherwise, Furman’s focus remains on the album and its songs, and it’s clearly a world that he has lived in for some time. Like any music obsessive, Furman writes with glee over the moments of Transformer he enjoys, and he delivers just the right amount of snark about the moments that leave him cold (his chapter on “Wagon Wheel” is largely about how lazy he finds the song). Crucially, though, Furman keeps the story focused on Reed and the album, rather than using it as a jumping off point to talk about himself.
And Furman doesn’t hold back when talking about Lou Reed. His main focus remains on Reed’s exploration of gender and sexuality in a time when exploring such topics was not an acceptable notion in mainstream pop culture. While Reed was inarguably a pioneer in this regard, Furman raises some interesting questions about Reed’s intent with Transformer. The author focuses on Reed’s inherent lack of sincerity, his contrarian streak and his outward desire to be a pop star on very specific terms. Furman also doesn’t shy away from Reed’s uglier sides, choosing to confront the singer’s past with domestic violence and his questionable attitudes about race head-on rather than dismissing them. Furman gives us the whole of Lou Reed here, and his intent is to present Reed as a real person with deep flaws rather than as an idol.
Anyone could have written a book about Transformer just to talk about its greatness. But here, Furman gives a nuanced take on the importance of the album both to him personally and to the wider culture as a whole. Furthermore, Furman delves into the idea of hero worship, exploring how Reed could be an important touchstone for many marginalized people while also being a complicated, shitty person in other aspects of his life. In its exploration of the nature of art and the artist in its portrayal of marginalized communities, Transformer is a welcome addition to the ever-growing 33 1/3 library.