Waiting for the Man is a beautiful read, fluid like a long conversation with a friend in your favourite coffee shop.
Jeremy Reed's first book on Lou Reed (published in 1994 under the similar title of Waiting for the Man: A Biography and Critical Study of Lou Reed) was recognised by the subject himself as a great book, with Uncle Lou saying that “all the books about me are bullshit except Jeremy’s”. But that was 20 years ago, and since Reed’s death in October 2013, fans have been waiting for the definitive biography.
Mick Wall quickly produced the somewhat sketchy Lou Reed: The Life, but now in close succession the heavy hitters have published their books: Victor Bockris has recently released an update to his biography, Transformer, and (in the UK, shortly to be published in the US) Omnibus has also brought out Jeremy Reed’s follow-up to his successful first book (which, out of print for some time, was going for ridiculously high prices on eBay). This 2014 version of Waiting for the Man, the Life & Music of Lou Reed is in fact a completely new book, re-written from scratch.
It should be noted at the outset that anyone attempting to write a review of Jeremy Reed on Lou Reed may struggle to keep the respective Reed’s clear in the reader’s mind, due to the common surname, although they are not related. For the uninitiated (where have you been?), Jeremy Reed (sometimes defined here as “the author”, which is surely better than “JR”) is a renowned and prolific British poet, novelist, counterculture biographer, prose-stylist and performer with Ginger Light, whereas Lou Reed (or sometimes referred to here as “Uncle Lou”) was, of course a famous (some might say infamous) American musician/singer-songwriter. Both, however, share the common ideology of art as an outsider’s game, provocative enfants terribles who can shock and delight through their use of language and performance.
Waiting for the Man is a beautiful read, fluid like a long conversation with a friend in your favourite coffee shop. This is no traditional linear biography, although as a translucent framework we are guided through the records one by one, starting out with Uncle Lou’s early years in influential band the Velvet Underground all the way through to his death. It's written in a conversational tone, meaning that the author can return or zoom forward in the story to make pertinent points about Lou Reed’s overall career.
Jeremy Reed has a fine frame of reference, so that the comparisons he makes are effective and wide-ranging. As an example, he matches the disappearance of The Velvet Underground’s debut with the originally obscure publication of Rimaud’s “A Season In Hell”, “privately published by the author in 1870, at the time known to ten or twenty people and later acclaimed as one of the seminal texts of underground modernism and transgressive counterculture spearheading.”
As we continue on into the solo years, the author adds colour by detailing New York’s gay scene in the ‘70s and noting that Transformer “couldn’t have been timed better to intersect with the increasing politicisation of gay rights.” The author is also particularly insightful in noting that much of Reed’s ‘70s output was written in the days of the Velvet Underground, and traces the arc of songs through demos and live recordings on various bootlegs.
The author injects a large dose of empathy in considering what made Uncle Lou tick; the electroshock treatment the latter endured as a teenager is sensitively discussed, and dysfunctional behaviour cannily explained. The book is meticulously researched and filled with quotes from interviews and analysis of all the work (including important gigs and books) that made Lou Reed such an important figure in rock.
Possibly for legal reasons, the author’s previous book on Uncle Lou had to skip over the rock star’s relationship with his transgender friend, Rachel. This time around, however, the author is free to consider Reed’s attractions to men and women in striking terms, so that “for arguably the first time in his sexually scrambled life, Lou had met his polarised ideal, a woman who could out-glamorise glamour, as a man upstaging a woman, while remaining genitally a man.”
Indeed, Uncle Lou was a complex character, and as a result he couldn’t have been an easy subject. However, the author doesn't shy away from the more difficult zones; Lou Reed’s personal life was often non-traditional to say the least, and his music could veer from extraordinarily brilliant to bland and mediocre. In sympathy with this, the author’s rush of words often matches Reed’s prodigious drug intake. The author’s poetic ability also helps him convey to us Reed’s own focus on language in his music.
He writes particularly articulately about one of Reed’s most difficult albums, Metal Machine Music, by putting it into context with what was going on in the rock star’s personal life: “Whatever the album’s defiant motivation, and speed psychosis has to be an ingredient, the controversy surrounding its anti-commercial hostility and radically solipsistic self-indulgence has resonated through the decades as a freak anomaly, an insanely delusional slice of weird, or a record that is continually ahead of its time, its subtle changes of tempo and tone the coding to idiosyncratic genius.” Entertainingly, Lou Reed is quoted as saying that “they should be grateful I put that fucking thing out, and if they don’t like it, they can go eat rat shit.” Take that, Lester Bangs.
Fortunately the author does not sit on the fence in analysing or judging Uncle Lou’s work. Despite being an obvious fan, Jeremy Reed takes firm positions on what he hears, considering Uncle Lou’s work in the ‘80s as generally insipid due to his “pampered self-indulgent subjectivity – do rock stars really live such interesting lives?” He sees Reed’s return to form with New York, Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss as redemptive, and this reviewer has to agree with this standpoint. Reed makes the point that Uncle Lou’s later success was a step change universalising rather than personalising experience, so that his stature changes to “rock humanist” rather than “self-occupied terrorist”. And indeed, this move from selfishness to a focus on others may be one of the lessons to take from the book, as well as Lou Reed’s life.
There are some fascinating inside details of Reed’s habits: an inclination for fad diets and a love of cashew nuts, a failure to stop smoking despite its counter-effect on his love of Tai-Chi, an almost obsessive insistence to point out in interviews he had studied literature at university, and the repeated confirmations that rock music was a dumb enterprise. The author also tracks down a list of the rock star’s eight favourite records, featuring perhaps some surprising choices, given Uncle Lou’s own music, from Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me Baby” to Ann Peebles “I Can’t Stand the Rain”.
Waiting for the Man, the Life & Music of Lou Reed is a thoughtful, challenging book, and remarkably enjoyable book. Jeremy Reed has a vast knowledge of his subject and the reader’s experience is heightened by references to modern history, literature and popular culture, to make this a charming, insightful tribute to a musical icon. Bravo Mr. Reed(x2).