In late summer of 1970, Lou Reed, just shy of thirty, quit his rock band and moved back into his childhood bedroom at his parents’ house in Freeport, Long Island, a town he once called the most boring place on earth. The Velvet Underground had been nearing the end of a ten-week residency at the iconic Max’s Kansas City, playing rollicking, trippy, fantastic shows, sometimes for no more than thirty people. Reed was living at the time in a stark, Upper East Side one-bedroom he could barely afford, suffering from depression and prolific drug use, nervously breaking down. He went into therapy, and likely got back on meds—the legit kind. He logged nine-to-five days as a typist for his father’s company. The ultra-transgressive, already revolutionary musician settled himself into bourgie normality. One sad evening, he called his college girlfriend, Shelley Albin, wanting to reconnect; and she, married, with a new baby, in a room full of people, heard who was on the other end of the line, told him he must have the wrong number, and hung up. Back in the city at a reading at Saint Mark’s Church several months later, sharing the stage with the illustrious beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the young New York poet Jim Carroll, Reed announced he had given up music to focus on his poetry.
There’s always a temptation in documenting an illustrious career to look at the unfolding, particular instances of the artist’s life through the lens of the triumph just around the corner. How do we view Reed’s strange return to Freeport at thirty? As a bottoming out? A brief reboot? A mere hiccup that was never going to stall such a titanic creative force? It’s worth reminding ourselves what Reed’s discography looked like at that point: “The Velvet Underground & Nico” (1967), one of the essential records of rock music; “White Light/White Heat” (1968), the avant-garde and just as important second Velvets album; and the simple garage genius of “The Velvet Underground” (1969), their third and John Cale-less record. There was a devoted following, but it was small. Years later David Bowie would talk of first hearing The Velvet Underground and having his ideas about what music could be utterly transformed. “I was hearing a degree of cool,” Bowie would say, “that I had no idea was humanly sustainable.” As Brian Eno would famously quip, maybe only ten thousand people bought that first Velvets record, but every one of them started a band. All good, but the music industry, the critical establishment, the pop-music charts, and general listening public had been less than enthusiastic. From that childhood bedroom in 1970, Reed was left to reckon with the prospect that, like so many of the bluesmen and R&B and doo-wop artists he admired, his musical genius had gone relatively unnoticed.
Much of the appeal of Will Hermes’ new biography, “Lou Reed: The King of New York,” resides in allowing us to inhabit moments such as these from Reed’s life. Hermes peers behind the gruff, abrasive, often alienating persona who was Lou Reed to discover the vulnerabilities of the man and the many intimate sources and life crises on which his music drew. Notoriously enigmatic in his self-presentation, Reed made a career out of being hard to pin down, maybe even for himself. “Lou Reed is my protagonist,” he once said in an interview. “Sometimes he’s twenty-, sometimes eighty-percent me, but never a hundred. He’s a vehicle to go places I wouldn’t go or say things I don’t go along with.” Hermes helps us perceive the continuity between Reed’s versatile songwriting and his lifelong habit of experimenting on himself, only sometimes in control of the experiment.
Reed was apt at inhabiting points of view that were not his own, spinning stories that sought the taboo. Hermes celebrates Reed’s talent for writing in point of view—“the idea behind it,” Reed once told the writer Neil Gaiman, “was to try and bring a novelist’s eye to it”—in songs that dealt with sexual and social transgressions, the great variety of queer lives, interpersonal violence, and messy drug use. Hermes recovers Reed as a queer icon, with emphasis given to his frequent self-identification as gay, something past biographies have perhaps undervalued, as he carefully explicates lyrics from songs like “Candy Says,” “Sister Ray,” and “Walk on the Wild Side” to uncover points of reference to the Warhol Factory scene and its esoteric queer culture. At one point Hermes ventures the hypothesis that Reed slept with Andy Warhol, but then halfway retracts the assertion when he quotes John Cale doubting the friendship was ever sexually consummated. Such vacillation seems somehow worthy of Reed who did often self-identify as gay, had one long-term relationship with a trans woman, Rachel Humphreys, and, other than that, mostly heterosexual partnerships.
If Reed comes off as quick-tempered and radically self-destructive, in his prolific drug use, in his personal and professional resentments, Hermes suggests Reed was often masking, riffing on, and reconceiving past pains. Foremost among those are his early struggles with his sexuality, so at odds with suburban Long Island culture, and the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) he endured as a young man. His freshman year at New York University, Reed dropped out of school and returned home dead-eyed and uncommunicative, soon tagged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a recommendation from doctors that he undergo electroconvulsive therapy, which his parents signed off on. In later years, Reed would say the doctors had been targeting his sexual attraction to men, and although there isn’t evidence to suggest that the ECT was aimed at anything other than his anxiety and depression, Reed’s memory clearly fused those two defining traumas of ECT and repressed queerness.
Hermes’ biography is at its best when helping us to listen again to some of Reed’s greatest songs with insights based on the personal tumult. It is hard not to be devastated anew, for example, by that underestimated classic “Kill Your Sons”—with its opening salvo, “All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electro shock”—when you hear in it the bitter cry of the ECT survivor, betrayed by medicine and family alike. We come away from Hermes’ biography reminded just how complicated and vulnerable early Lou Reed was and how, even as he broke with his past selves, broke relationships over and over, he carried the hurts and failures forward into adulthood.
Hermes often diverts from the life of Reed for several pages to sketch a portrait of, say, Delmore Schwartz, Barbara Rubin, John Cale, Andy Warhol, David Bowie or Laurie Anderson, and then narrates the moment when that person’s life intersects with Reed’s. The biography navigates around arguments about influence and encourages us to think instead about intersections as foundational for the life and growth of the creative mind. It would be fair to say, encouraged by Hermes’ observations, that Reed made his best music when paired with other major artistic talents in collaborations that were often fraught, sometimes downright antagonistic. In case after case—John Cale, Andy Warhol, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker, David Bowie, Robert Quine—Reed thrives on the creative back and forth to produce those first Velvets records, or “Transformer” with Bowie and Mick Ronson, or “The Blue Mask” with Quine, but soon blows things up, often at the expense of his art.
Reed’s solo career was a vexed enterprise, his commercial viability always in question. After a flat first solo record, he came together with Bowie to make one of his best albums, “Transformer” (1972), which delivered his only radio hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” But by the end of that decade Reed would bottom out in debt and drug use, time and again delivering experimental albums that undersold the record company’s hopes for them. As The Velvet Underground gradually earned more of the recognition they deserved, Reed had to compete with his own legacy, because music critics and record company execs constantly measured Reed against his past genius which they had failed to acknowledge the first time around. At a London dinner with David Bowie at the end of the 1970s, Reed asked his one-time friend to consider producing another Lou Reed record. Bowie said he would consider it, but only if Reed cleaned up his act first. Reed slapped Bowie hard on the face twice, seized him by the shirt collar, and pulled him across the table, threatening, “Don’t you ever say that to me.” The reunion never happened. The self-defeating antics weren’t part of the story but central to it. It’s a safe bet that as Hermes chronicles the ups and many many downs of Reed’s tumultuous career, he is having a good laugh with his subtitle, in calling this a king’s life. But biography, especially biography about artists subject to the whims of market and taste and the diverse factors that determine immediate reception, is most persuasive when it challenges narratives of inevitability. To that end, Hermes’ biography is most poignant time and again when it imagines the Lou Reed who almost didn’t become Lou Reed.
“Lou Reed: The King of New York”
By Will Hermes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages