To those of us who spent our college years debating whether we should stick the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat on the turntable one more time or spare our dorm-mates the 2 a.m. noise by just melting down the vinyl and ingesting it — sure that VU front man Lou Reed would approve — it’s still something of a surprise, albeit a welcome one, that Reed had an old age at all. In 1973 or so, he took second place in a music magazine poll naming the rock star most likely to croak soon. Even Reed probably knew that nobody was going to beat Keith Richards in that showdown. Nonetheless, the Lou Reed of the 1970s, who was the Lou Reed my generational cohort got scalded by, was an ongoing reminder that “wasted” can have more than one meaning.
Often cynically, but sometimes wrenchingly, he spent much of the decade treating his genius, which the Velvets’ largely posthumous legend had enshrined beyond his solo career’s ability to measure up, as just another monkey on his back. Reading Anthony DeCurtis’s Lou Reed: A Life can sometimes give you the feeling that the author can’t wait for the absurd to quit courting the vulgar, but DeCurtis — a longtime MVP of the Rolling Stone writers’ stable — knows he can’t completely gloss over the seamy, abrasive, riveting spectacle Reed made of himself in those early post-VU years. His gross and hardly secret drug and alcohol abuse, bizarre behavior, and alarming physical mutations from boozy Pillsbury doughboy to strung-out ectomorph never stopped playing monster-mash hopscotch with his truculent interviews, hostile and often downright adversarial concerts, and well-advertised sexual envelope-pushing.
At least in public, his fellow propagandist for perviness David Bowie mostly just talked — and dressed — a good game. Reed, by contrast, spent three years flaunting his relationship with a striking-looking transsexual known only as Rachel before dumping her for his second wife, Sylvia Morales, and penning Reagan-era odes to heterosexual bliss. (Then again, one intimate claims that “Reed first encountered Sylvia at a meeting of the Eulenspiegel Society, the BDSM support group” — so deviancy’s honor was saved after all.) During that time, he also released a slew of albums — twelve total between 1972 and 1979, including three live ones — that ranged from the fey, sometimes strained wit of Transformer, his Bowie-produced solo breakthrough, and the metal move of Rock N Roll Animal to Berlin‘s cesspool idyll, Metal Machine Music‘s unlistenable rejection of stardom, Sally Can’t Dance‘s bitterness, the bittersweetness of Coney Island Baby, and the self-conscious art move of Street Hassle. Anticipating the man’s next record could give you a case of pre-traumatic stress disorder.
Once Reed married Morales and got sober, he turned maturity from an enemy into an ally. Beginning with 1982’s The Blue Mask, his music stopped casting about for outré alternatives to the Velvets’ indelibility — hey, what about making my jazz move next? — and settled into accepting his old band’s signature sound as the bedrock ensuring that his latter-day innovations and variations on it wouldn’t sound random. That was due in large part to kindred-spirit guitarist (and onetime VU obsessive) Robert Quine, at least until Reed got fed up with Quine getting so much of the credit for his renascence. As DeCurtis notes, this was a recurring pattern: “Reed was happy to collaborate until the goal of the collaboration was achieved. Then every collaborator became a competitor and needed to be cast aside.”
Both with and without Quine, Reed’s albums of the ’80s and early ’90s generally qualify as “better” records than his erratic Me Decade output. They’re more poised and surer of the true nature of his gifts. But with the partial exception of 1989’s New York, which added a stab at literal-minded topicality to the Velvets’ bleak projection of a permanent present tense, they also largely abandoned Reed’s old job of playing the zeitgeist’s most disconcerting and venomous pied piper. This was durable music for relieved longtime fans to admire and enjoy, not an assault on conventional preconceptions of good taste, artistic cred, and sexual or psychological waywardness.
In other words, Sane Lou wasn’t as culturally consequential as Warped Lou had been, a vexing conundrum — who’d have wished more substance abuse and emotional ravage on him? — that DeCurtis mostly ignores. He’s clearly happiest with his subject once Reed is safely ensconced as one of New York’s grand old men, resting on his laurels and contentedly married to performance artist Laurie Anderson after Sylvia Morales went the way of all lifesavers. For one thing, that’s when DeCurtis got to know him, and you can hardly blame the biographer for including fond reminiscences of their bantering encounters in Reed’s later years. But since he values his equanimity as much or more than his acquaintance with the man, maybe it’s just as well that DeCurtis apparently never came face to skeletal, snarling face with Warped Lou back in, say, 1974.
On the plus side, DeCurtis has put in commendable spadework, exhuming everything he can about Reed’s early years, from his simultaneously impudent, sitcom-esque, and damaged midcentury Long Island adolescence to the embryonic but recognizable Lou Reed his college pals and early girlfriend Shelley Albin recall, as well as the stint as a tyro songwriter for cheapjack Pickwick Records that fortuitously introduced him to future VU co-founder John Cale. Notoriously, Reed’s parents were so unnerved by their firstborn’s odder tics — glaring hints of then taboo homosexuality included — that he wound up suffering the electroshock treatments that provide the overt subject for his song “Kill Your Sons” and the subtext of his recurring portraits of father figures much more monstrous than the real Sid Reed apparently was. Add in the search for a nurturing, nonjudgmental mother that DeCurtis convincingly identifies as Reed’s default romantic mode (Rachel too? Yes, Rachel too), and the diagram’s Oedipal banality is offset only by the original uses Reed’s creative temperament put it to.
At Syracuse University, Reed encountered his first artistic role model-cum-substitute dad: poet Delmore Schwartz, who was an alcoholic, paranoid wreck by then. But still a charismatic conversationalist, apparently, at least if his campus acolytes were bombed too. “Delmore was not half as interesting or magical to me as he was to the people who were drinking around him,” Shelley Albin says, and let’s count our blessings. If she’d confessed that to Lou back in ’63, he might not have written “Pale Blue Eyes” about her in 1969.
Perhaps because Schwartz was accommodatingly dead by the time the Velvets’ first album came out, he was the only mentor Reed never felt compelled to disown, harping on instead about “Delmore’s” example for the rest of his life. While DeCurtis is shrewd enough to recognize that Reed’s “version of Schwartz was, in part, his own invention,” he never notes the fatuity of Reed’s oft-stated ambition to raise rock ‘n’ roll to the level of literature. Considering how much he did to redefine rock as an art form in its own right, his persistence in trying to upgrade its — and his — status by playing the Joyce-and-Shakespeare card was always wince-worthy.
Once Reed had left Schwartz, Syracuse, and then Pickwick hackwork behind, next up for the mentor slot was, of course, Andy Warhol. Warhol and his Factory factotum Paul Morrissey recruited the then barely germinal Velvet Underground — they’d played only a handful of gigs — for the multimedia show they dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and took on tour in 1966. The Warhol association would have guaranteed the Velvets fleeting pop world notoriety even if they’d stunk, but as the world now knows, they didn’t.
Nonetheless, the world might have stayed unsuspecting if, to Reed’s annoyance, Warhol and Morrissey — “visual artists, after all, not musical ones,” DeCurtis notes — hadn’t insisted on adding tall, glacial German fashion model Nico to the lineup as the group’s somnambulist chanteuse. That guaranteed photographers would have something more glamorous to shoot than a quartet of Lower East Side oddballs: Reed, classically trained Welsh expat Cale, Reed’s Syracuse buddy Sterling Morrison, and Maureen “Moe” Tucker, an unlikely — but who wouldn’t have been? — candidate to become the first important woman drummer in rock history.
Minus Nico, DeCurtis speculates, the band might never have gotten a record deal, but they did. Hence The Velvet Underground & Nico, perhaps the only album of 1967 that rivals Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in influence — even though the Beatles’ influence was immediate and the Velvets’ long delayed. Hence Brian Eno’s famous quote about how everyone who bought The Velvet Underground & Nico ended up forming a band. Hence, back at the time, Reed’s irritated decision to get the hell rid of Nico — and, eventually, Warhol and then Cale, two other collaborators who’d outlived their usefulness. As his future collaborator David Bowie might have — and in fact, did — put it, only then did Reed become “the special man / Then we were Ziggy’s band.”
A writer who’s prone to donning surgical gloves when he’s confronted with sleaze, DeCurtis isn’t wowed by the echt-’60s flash and filigree of the band’s Warhol period. Besides providing the material for 1972’s “A Walk on the Wild Side,” the only Top 20 hit Reed ever had, the Factory’s lowlife-gone-highlife cast of transvestites, junkies, misfit society gals, and rent-boy riffraff certainly crystallized his fascination with extreme demimondes. But if part of his interest was journalistic, he was clearly more than just a notepad-toting observer of other people’s kinks. Here and elsewhere, Victor Bockris’s sloppier but more flavorful and astute Reed bio, Transformer, is at home with dirt in a way that underlines how anodyne DeCurtis can be.
Even so, scenesters-by-proxy will no doubt find the Factory era — Edie Sedgwick! Jackie Kennedy! — the most interesting part of the book. But the edition of the Velvets that fans are most likely to dote on today is the post-Warhol, post-Cale VU of their third album, titled simply The Velvet Underground. After the frantic assertiveness of the debut, whose most “daring” tracks haven’t aged too well — its haunting chorus aside, “Venus in Furs” is a post-collegiate showoff’s rubbishy notion of perturbing S & M — and the breakneck brain-melt of White Light/White Heat, Reed opted to seek out forms of beauty he didn’t feel compelled to be ironic and/or distant about. Grasping that those two attitudes aren’t necessarily synonymous may be the key to the album’s idiosyncratic, unmistakably Velvets-y compassion.
That era was also when the band, besides recording any number of unreleased-at-the-time nuggets that went on resurfacing — in distinctly subpar versions — on Reed’s solo albums for years, played the club dates preserved on 1969 Velvet Underground Live and, much later, the three-CD boxed set most often known as The Quine Tapes. (Reed’s future Blue Mask Jiminy Cricket had been no garden-variety obsessive in his apprentice years.) To any VU devotee faced with the waking-up-with-the-house-on-fire dilemma, grabbing either one might make more sense than trying to choose among their four official studio albums. Nowhere else can you hear the disjunctive phases of their eclectic career reconciled into a harmonious and cohesive whole, because they sound like a great band at work in a way that resolves every inner contradiction of their — the right word, for once — oeuvre.
Because the Velvets have inspired more exegetes than you can shake a Ph.D. at, it’s no surprise DeCurtis doesn’t provide much that’s fresh in the way of (cough, cough) rock criticism. Virtually his only departure from orthodoxy — and it’s not even that big a departure anymore — is his view of the band’s valedictory album, Loaded, as a market-friendly sheep in masterpiece’s clothing. Not that he comes out and says so; he just praises “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll,” Loaded‘s two most famous songs, while keeping mostly mum about the drivel surrounding them. The lone potential exception, “New Age,” is so much better in its Live 1969 version that Robert Mitchum would weep.
DeCurtis’s most fruitful insight is his guess that the reason Loaded didn’t gel wasn’t so much the presence of Cale’s much blander replacement, Doug Yule — who virtually took over in the studio once Reed lost interest, and who usually gets the blame for the album’s pasteurized sound — as the absence of Moe Tucker, who was pregnant at the time and got replaced by a hodgepodge of session drummers. It wasn’t only that Tucker’s musical idiosyncrasies had always prevented the band from sounding conventional even when they wanted to be. As DeCurtis explains, “Every band that manages to stay together for any length of time has a member who serves as its glue.”
Why he doesn’t follow up that observation by mentioning that one of the very few songs Reed wrote for Tucker to sing actually includes the line “I’m made out of glue” beats me. Maybe working for Jann Wenner trained him to avoid anything resembling wit. DeCurtis also didn’t interview Tucker herself, who’s still with us — albeit a bit daffily — and the VU’s only surviving member besides Cale. Ironically duplicating Tucker’s MIA status on Loaded, she’s one of the two female voices most prominently — and puzzlingly — missing from Lou Reed: A Life. As rock biographers go, DeCurtis may have more Doug Yule in him than he realizes.
The other glaring absentee — particularly as Reed’s other two wives, Morales and Berlin‘s reluctant anti-heroine, Bettye Kronstad, did give DeCurtis their side of the story — is Laurie Anderson. The lack of firsthand testimony from Rachel is more understandable; hands-down this book’s saddest supporting player, she drifted into such obscurity that no one knows for sure how or when she died. However, Anderson seems to have captivated Reed more successfully than any of his previous romantic partners, simply because she refused to play mommy to him. Unlike her predecessors, she had her own work to do, and even Reed had to accept that it was as important as his.
Interestingly, the John-and-Yoko parallels, which the couple can hardly have been unconscious of, aren’t the only way Reed’s life can be seen as New Yorky, much artier (and more depraved) parody of John Lennon’s — including, of course, the tantalizing glimpse of what Lennon’s later years might have been like if he’d lived. Even though the Beatles conquered the world and the Velvets only conquered the future, both men led 1960s bands so consequential that their 1970s solo work amounted to a series of hectic attempts to dodge, displace, and sometimes flat-out piss on a mythic status they were simultaneously capitalizing on to guarantee the audience’s continued — if often exasperated — attention. Then, at age forty, they both arrived at a fragile but promising tranquility: Lennon with Double Fantasy, Reed with The Blue Mask.
The problem with this equation is that using Lennon as the point of comparison shrivels Reed into insignificance as the coterie artist of the two. (Sorry, fellow Velvets fans, but pop outreach does count for a lot.) No doubt that’s why DeCurtis doesn’t explore it. But he doesn’t explore much else, either. While he’s skillful at assembling the biographical building blocks that reward interest at a casual level, his book isn’t just short on dirt. It’s short on resonance, advocacy, identification, deep-dive cultural spelunking, provocative arguments, nuance, fervor, and everything else that sums up the difference between perspective and an actual point of view, particularly when the subject is an artist as gnarly and passion-provoking as Lou Reed.
Tellingly, the figure in Reed’s life to whom DeCurtis is most openly hostile is rock critic Lester Bangs, who epitomized the ardent, unruly — and sometimes loutish — engagement with Reed’s music and persona a book like Lou Reed: A Life eschews. As addled, self-promoting, and occasionally tiresome as Bangs’s obsession with Reed was, it did have a dimension that’s painfully absent from DeCurtis’s biography: the beauty, ugliness, and zest of true fanhood, dramatized without any self-censorship by a writer whose thrashing White Whale style could never be mistaken for anyone else’s.
By contrast, if there’s an interestingly phrased sentence anywhere in DeCurtis’s book, good luck finding it. As usual, he’s capable, intelligent, suave, informed, readable — and bloodless. His book is sure to strike lots of people as the Lou Reed biography simply because it’s the classy one, but there can be an awfully big gap between “classy” and “definitive,” especially when we’re talking about a reprobate genius like Reed. Just because he’s now venerated, that doesn’t mean biographers do him any justice by taking a walk on the tame side.
Photo of Lou Reed street art: Chelsea Marie Hicks via Flickr