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EXCURSION ON A WOBBLY RAIL: A review of "Lou Reed: A Life" by Anthony DeCurtis

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BOOK REVIEW: Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis (Back Bay Books) 2017

The day before I wrapped up reading Anthony DeCurtis’s fantastic biography of the late Lou Reed, who died in 2013 at the age of 71, I noticed a few posts popping up, including one noting that a demo of Reed singing “I’m Waiting For The Man” had recently been discovered.

Then, another post wished happy birthday to Reed, who would have turned 77 that day. I then realized that the day, March 2nd, was Reed’s birthday. A neat synchronicity in light of Reed’s music and art being on my mind of late, and me finally diving into Lou Reed: A Life.

And what a life Lou Reed led.

Born into a non-practicing Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, Reed seemed born a contrarian and one to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in button-downed late 1950’s and early 1960’s American culture.

But even at a very early age, Reed was always interested in pushing the envelope, particularly when it was pushing back on his somewhat domineering father, Sidney. (The Reeds were descendants of Polish emigres who were named Rabinowitz, but the name was changed to Reed).  Reed also had a sister, nicknamed Bunny. It was a pretty stable household, but Lou Reed's sometime outrageous behavior at home at times (even though he dated women, his parents thought he might be gay), alarmed his parents and they would send Lou off for shock treatments, something Lou would never forgive his parents for, particularly his father.

DeCurtis, a writer and editor at Rolling Stone was a fan of Reed’s music and his music with the Velvet Underground. But it was not until 1995 that the two met, and briefly discussed DeCurtis’s 4/5 star review of Reed’s 1989 album New York, an album that really opened my eyes to greatness of Lou Reed at that time, now 30 years ago, which is hard to believe.

The picture DeCurtis paints is of Reed as an artist, first and foremost. A true artist who worked in music, but also in style and in attitude. While he did not practice his Jewish faith, DeCurtis notes how the Velvets 1968 album White Light/White Heat was not about speed, necessarily, but a subtle reference to the New Age teachings of Alice Bailey in her book A Treatise on White Magic, a book Reed talked about in interviews. The author notes that the “white light” Reed referred to in the song (which was a Lou Reed concert staple) was a “kind of healing power” and that a song on the same album, “I Heard Her Call My Name” is actually about enlightenment and the feminine divine.

Reed said of the album, which came on the heels of the Velvets’ legendary 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, which was produced by pop artist Andy Warhol, “You listen to … this album – there is the real stuff. It’s aggressive yes, But it’s not aggressive bad. This is aggressive going to God.”

And so when you read that and hear the songs, you get a different impression of what was really going on in Reed’s life, a life that many of us were led to believe was devoid of spirituality and that it was firmly materialistic.

But that’s why Lou Reed: A Life is so good. You get so many different facets of Reed, from his early years, discovering avant-garde jazz of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and getting a brief gig on a Syracuse University student radio station (Reed’s show was perfectly titled “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” named after a Cecil Taylor jazz number) and living a bohemian college lifestyle. We learn about his mentor, writer/poet Delmore Schwartz, who would hold court at a student bar and thoroughly impress young Lou.

We learn about Reed’s brief efforts to “go straight,” living with his folks and working for his printer father, but it wouldn’t take. New York City and a thriving counterculture were calling. And after recording some silly studio pop-rock tunes in New York, Reed decides to take things in a more serious direction, hooking up with musicians Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker – both friends from his Syracuse days – and, later, viola player and multi-instrumentalist John Cale, a strong-willed and talented Welshman who would prove too strong of a musical partner as the Velvets took hold at Warhol’s zany Factory and Reed came up with songs like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs,” songs that did not play well to Mr. & Mrs. America in pop radio land. After all, it was Lou Reed who famously said that the Beatles weren't all that great. A top-shelf contrarian at heart, that Lou Reed.

But Lou Reed, like any New Yorker, was always going to do it his way, the author tells us. So, as the Velvet Underground begins to find its musical legs in the wild Sixties, Reed is open about exploring sexuality and gender roles, an aspect of his life that will come to fruition, publicly, as the new decade of the 1970’s – and the Velvets part ways, on a strong note with 1970’s fantastic Loaded – where Reed’s biggest solo single, “Walk On the Wild Side,” released in late 1972 and featured on his groundbreaking Transformer album (produced by Velvets fan David Bowie) would blow minds with his depiction of oral sex, male prostitutes, drugs and transsexual people.

It was not long after this that Reed began a four-year relationship with a male transsexual named Rachel who was always by his side during the height of Reed’s Seventies popularity, and further cementing his persona as a guy who actually lived what he sang about in songs like “Walk on the Wild Side.”

All the while, Reed continues to work with different producers and musicians and record labels, but those relationships always seemed to fray over time because of Reed's particularities about who was involved in a musical project and why. 

The 1970's were a turbulent time. He rarely talked to or about Andy Warhol, even though it was Warhol who famously gave the Velvets their start at The Factory and was involved in The Velvet Underground and Nico. The drinking, drugs and wild party lifestyle put Reed up in the ranks of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as a rock star who would probably crash and burn any day now.

But as the 1980's dawned and Reed left Rachel in the dust, a more simple, dignified "country squire" lifestyle seemed to agree with Reed, as he married British designer Sylvia Morales and settled down - to a degree. A point of contention was Reed's reluctance to have a child with Sylvia, something that would lead to their divorce a decade or so later.

But Sylvia was a stablizing force and, like his contemporary David Bowie, was getting hip to a more poppy, now sound in the glitzy 1980's. Surprisingly, some of Reed's best material was recorded during this decade and is often overlooked, like 1980's Growing Up in Public, 1983's Legendary Hearts and 1984's New Sensations, the last two which came out during the rise of MTV and helped Reed's single "I Love You, Suzanne" gain some interest with the younger set.

Reed, with Sylvia's encouragement, would get more politically active in the 1980's appearing at Farm Aid and standing up for environmental causes (1989's "Last Great American Whale" is an example of the eco-material that mattered to Reed). 

With the 1990's and his divorce with Sylvia, Reed's musical output was slightly darker. He was older and considered a wise sage in musical circles, particularly by younger musicians like Suzanne Vega and R.E.M., who revered Reed's work both solo and with the Velvet Underground. In fact, the early 90's saw a revival of interest in the Velvets, something that led to a brief reunion in Europe in 1993 that resulted in a live album and little else. Reed was not to compete with John Cale again (even though they put out the fantastic Songs For Drella, a moving tribute to the late Andy Warhol, in 1992). A few years later, Velvets member Sterling Morrison died and Reed showed up to offer him friendship and support in his final days.

And while there were instances of warmth and even love noted here, there was a cruel side to Reed's personality that was undeniable, and DeCurtis remains intellectually honest in portraying tha nastier side in Lou Reed: A Life.

The author does a great job in presenting Lou Reed (who would die in October 2013) as an undeniably talented, interesting and individualistic artist and personality. Yes, his Lulu project with Metallica was a bit of a bust, but that just shows you he was willing to take chances. Did his ideas always work? Well, not always. But Reed believed in what he was doing at any given time and that comes through quite clearly in Lou Reed: A Life.

And today, as I finish this review, I was stunned to see a New York Times story today note that "the Lou Reed Archive at the New York Public Library’s performing arts branch at Lincoln Center opens to the public on Friday. And to celebrate, the library is issuing 6,000 limited-edition library cards featuring an image of Reed taken by Mick Rock in 1972."

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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