Lou Reed Gets the Gritty ’70s-era New York Treatment in ‘A Life’

Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis has written an arresting, confrontational, and oftentimes beautiful biography of the notoriously cagy musician.

Lou Reed: A Life
Anthony DeCurtis
Little, Brown and Company
Oct 2017

“People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you get along with critics?’ “I tell them, ‘I get along fine with Anthony DeCurtis.'”- Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis’ opening line of Lou Reed’s biography, simply titled
Lou Reed: A Life, expertly sets the stage for the almost 500 pages to come. For anyone who has a basic knowledge of the notoriously cagy musician, the quote is pure Lou Reed. While DeCurtis certainly doesn’t need validation as a music journalist, it establishes some serious credibility. After all, Reed will likely have dozens of bios written about him in the coming years but it’s hard to imagine them being as thorough, respectful, and brutally honest as A Life.

There are few rock musicians whose life seems tailor-made for a great biography than Reed. Like many kids in the ’50s, he became obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll. Unlike many kids, however, his parents grew so concerned with his rebellious behavior that he was eventually treated with electroconvulsive therapy. After graduating with an English degree from Syracuse University, he worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, a sort of song factory. While he was laying foundations for songs like “I’m Waiting for My Man”, and “Heroin”, Reed was also taking orders to write such generic stuff like “a Detroit song” or “a car song” from Pickwick. This skill helped blend the accessible with the avant-garde on tracks like “Sweet Jane” and his biggest hit, “Walk on the Wild Side”, a song Reed would repeatedly embrace and deride throughout his career.

In the ’70s, his songs about the sexual underbelly of New York and drug use mirrored his own life. In the ’80s, he stopped doing drugs (for the most part), but his flirtation and disdain with mainstream music resulted in a recording cycle that included an album that toyed with radio or MTV success, followed by an experimental album that virtually destroyed any mainstream momentum he gained.

Throughout the biography, DeCurtis returns to two recurring elements of Reed’s personality that drove his creative process. The first was his continued resentment toward his father, Sidney (primarily for his decision to have Lou undergo electroconvulsive therapy). This resulted in Reed relishing the role of being a provocateur. Shelley Albin, an early girlfriend of Reed’s, said Lou “would flip his hand around, and kind of wiggle his ass on purpose near his father or near people on campus.”

The second element of Reed’s personality that drove him was his love for the written word. During his college years, he gravitated toward the poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz, who was teaching at Syracuse. Schwartz looked down at rock ‘n’ roll, feeling it didn’t have the artistic merit of literature. The mentoring relationship between the two gives the reader a sense of Reed’s purpose as a songwriter. He didn’t set out to prove Schwartz wrong. Instead, Reed tried to prove to Schwartz that he was talented enough a writer to elevate the artistic elements of rock music.

DeCurtis covers another notorious pattern of Reed’s personality that carried throughout his life: his repeated efforts to crowd out creative partners. The first major example of this was Reed’s reaction to when Andy Warhol brought Nico into The Velvet Underground. Feeling The Velvet Underground was very much Reed’s band (along with John Cale), Reed eventually pushed Nico’s role in the band to virtually nothing. But soon, he began to employ that same resentment toward John Cale. Eventually, Reed demanded that Cale leave the band, but not before asking founder guitarist Sterling Morrison break the news to the co-founder.

This pattern rose again in the ’80s, when Reed met up with guitarist Robert Quine. Quine idolized Reed, but he was confident enough to prod Reed into playing guitar again on his albums. Reed began to feel re-energized as a musician, gaining raves for his live shows. But soon critics were taking notice of Quine’s guitar playing. Reed eventually saw Quine not as a partner, but as a competitor, and began reducing his role in subsequent albums. Much like Cale, Quine was a threat to be eliminated.

DeCurtis makes it tempting for a reader to want to make comparisons between Reed and another artist who both chased and shunned mainstream radio: Kurt Cobain. Like Cobain, Reed would butt heads with nervous studio heads. Also like Cobain, Reed would complain to managers when his music was not on MTV or the radio. In one amusing story, DeCurtis tells the story about how Reed complained that he went into a record store and he didn’t see any posters of himself. DeCurtis goes as far as to theorize that Reed most likely didn’t even step foot in that record store, and heard about the lack of posters from a roadie.

A good portion of DeCurtis’ ’70s reporting focused on Reed’s relationship with Rachel, who was transgender, and was his live-in girlfriend. Like his future wife, Sylvia Morales, Rachel initially showed little to no interest that Reed was a rock musician, which made Reed all the more attracted to her (another recurring theme in Reed’s life). After his relationship with Rachel ended, Reed’s relationships were heterosexual. However, politically, he was still one of the most outspoken artists on topics such as AIDS and homophobia during the ’80s, a decade when many artists were slow to come around to the cause.

Aside from DeCurtis’ controlled, evenhanded flow throughout the book,
Lou Reed: A Life‘s biggest strength is DeCurtis’ refusal not to slip into the rock bio cliché of either ignoring certain albums from an artist, or lazily lumping their post-artistic peak work into a single page that essentially says “the artist released a series of poor-selling, and critically panned albums.” With Lou Reed: A Life, DeCurtis spends almost as much time documenting and analyzing lesser-covered Reed works like The Bells and Ecstasy as he does covering works like Loaded and The Blue Mask. While Reed no doubt treated some of his albums as contractual obligations, that did not diminish the fact that he considered himself a writer, and thought of each of his studio recordings as a critical element to his legacy.

After reading
Lou Reed: A Life, and given the cordial relationship between Reed and DeCurtis, it’s hard not to imagine what Reed would have thought of the book. In typical Reed fashion, he would have probably called DeCurtis at 2AM and would have yelled that the book makes him out to be an unlikable asshole. However, DeCurtis offers plenty of anecdotes and evidence of Reed’s warmth, and loyalty. If you were to break that impenetrable shell, and earn his intellectual respect, Reed would be your friend for life. If you have a solid knowledge of The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed as a person, most of what’s told in Lou Reed: A Life will be familiar. What DeCurtis manages to do is to get Reed fans to remove themselves from the mindset that Reed stopped being relevant after 1989’s New York. In true literary style, DeCurtis challenges readers to look at the sum of Reed’s output and revisit his lesser-known works with the same reverence as his critically-hailed (and commercially modest) triumphs. With Lou Reed: A Life, DeCurtis manages to be both in awe of his subject, and unsparing in his treatment.

RATING 9 / 10