Howard Sounes, author of The Life of Lou Reed: Notes from the Velvet Underground, is used to chronicling the lives of some “unusual” characters. From Paul McCartney to Charles Bukowski, through Amy Winehouse and British serial killers, Fred and Rose West, Sounes can’t be accused of shying away from difficult subjects. Here, he turns his gaze towards Lester Bangs’ favorite sparring partner, Lou Reed.
Does Sounes reveal to the world that ol’ laughin’ Lou was a bundle of fun behind the shades and black leather? No. He does not. Popular opinion is that Lou Reed was not a nice man. After exhaustive research, Sounes corroborates this fact. In spades.
Sounes interviewed around 140 people while writing this book and because of (or possibly, in spite of) this he can show us facets of Reed that we’ve never seen before. While band members, acquaintances, and former partners remind us just how dark and frankly unpleasant Reed could be, his sister Bunny and Velvet Underground percussionist Moe Tucker (who called Reed “Honeybun” — imagine that) are quick to point out that he could be a kind and loving man. A former girlfriend, Barbara Hodes, hits the nail on the head: “There were so many different sides to Lou. He could be really sweet—with his sister he was very sweet— then he could turn around and be a complete prick.”
If you are already of the view that Lou Reed was an asshole, this book will do nothing to try and persuade you otherwise. Sounes has taken a remarkably measured approach to his subject – possibly because there was no need to overplay or sensationalize Reed’s life. It seems that, although Sounes respects Reed’s body of work, he isn’t a fanboy and that makes all the difference.
If you’re looking for a rose tinted, “misunderstood genius” tome, move along. If it’s a National Enquirer-styled catalog of salaciousness you’re after, then look again. Sounes never shies away from chronicling Reed’s excesses but there’s always a context. Iit’s that context, alongside the exhaustive research, that sets this book aside from the vast majority of Reed’s biographies – and most music biographies per se. As a side note, there are a handful of salacious-leaning stories, including an unlikely, bizarre, and almost comical tale of David Bowie challenging Reed to a fight. What a Pay-Per-View event that would have been.
In spite of the book being called Notes from the Velvet Underground (with, of course, the word “Velvet” typographically emphasized), Sounes does not dwell solely on Reeds work in the 1960s, with just a cursory mention of “Walk on the Wild Side”. He catalogues the entirety of his solo career, too, discussing albums such as 1972’s Lou Reed to 2011’s Lulu via 1975’s Metal Machine Music. It’s all here.
Sounes wisely doesn’t comment too critically on Reed’s output, but when he does – for example, he describes Metal Machine Music as “an artistic tantrum” – it’s well thought out. Many biographies of artists across the arts, are a thinly veiled excuse for a writer to either pour scorn or plaudits on the subject. Sounes will comment on the commercial success and the critical reception of an album or performance, but rarely commits himself.
Sounes devotes a fair-sized chunk of the book to Reed’s partners – all of whom seem to face a single doomed chronology. Attraction turns into devotion until a new shiny object takes his eye, leaving his inamorata dazed and confused. The notable exception to this inevitable narrative is Laurie Anderson, his final companion. Sounes paints a picture of a relationship based on mutual respect and real love here. Maybe Reed was sick of being called a misogynist. Or maybe he was in love for the first time. His almost rose-tinted love for Anderson comes as a genuine shock, coming from the man who in 1979 told Creem magazine “I think women admire force all the more for not having it—nobody admires strength more than a weak person. It’s axiomatic that a woman is all the more impressed that you could kill her.”
In spite of the often-bleak narrative, the book is very readable. Sounes stands back dispassionately from the events unfolding and simply reports on them. Scenes of heroin abuse, overdoses, and misanthropic behaviors are handled as if they were everyday occurrences – which they probably were. We’re led through Reed’s life and times chronologically and although the cast of characters is bewildering, Sounes manages to balance this wide-net approach with an engaging writing style. While you may not get detailed information on the minutiae of the recording of 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance, for example, there’s enough detail to keep the Reed aficionados interested.
Notes From the Velvet Underground is a beautifully considered book, with enough detail for the geeks, enough context for the historians, and just enough juicy stuff for everyone else. Tucked away in the middle of the book is a quote which sums up Lou Reed in one pithy epithet. Guitarist Ritchie Fliegler was so enraged by Reed’s behavior whilst recording 1978’s Street Hassle, he told Sounes: “Lou was an easy person to despise. He was the biggest prick I ever met, or ever worked for, but he sure wrote some great songs.” Amen.