Lou Reed: A Life
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (October 10, 2017)
Take a walk on the wild side.
Yes, the line above was the title of Lou Reed’s 1972 hit single, certainly his most famous, most popular song. The sentence can also serve as a succinct summation of the life of the singer/songwriter/ guitarist who spent many years immersed in New York’s wild side, especially during the 1970s. The line can also serve as a summary of rock critic and Reed confidante Anthony DeCurtis’s 2017 biography of a figure DeCurtis knew well for many years.
Speaking of many years, I’m happy to admit Reed got on my radar screen all the way back in 1967 when The Velvet Underground and Nico was released. I was apparently one of the 30,000 listeners who had a copy of the LP with the original Andy Warhol peel-off banana skin cover. Through the ‘70s, I was aware of Reed’s connections with the “glam rock” and punk-rock circles including David Bowie and Mick Ronson, of Reed’s close association with hard drugs, and his very public intimacy with the gender-benders of New York’s gay and trans-sexual populations. But I had only a surface awareness of these aspects of Reed’s public and private life, nothing like the detailed depths revealed in DeCurtis’s very surprising journalism.
While I owned some of Reed’s 20 solo albums released between 1972 and 2009, Rock and Roll Animal being my absolute favorite, I never had the depth of knowledge or insight into Reed’s music DeCurtis demonstrates on nearly every page of his biography. That’s because DeCurtis’s focus is on Reed’s musical legacy and much of his book is critical analysis of all those albums with a special emphasis on the more important songs, Reed’s musical development over the years, and the unique up and down pattern of Reed sometimes fighting commercial success, sometimes courting it.
I wasn’t really aware of Reed’s rejection of all the drug and sexual trappings in his life inspired by his second wife, Sylvia Morales, in the 1980s. That relationship is but one of many DeCurtis analyzes to show how both musical collaborators and personal friends and lovers could be close to Reed one minute and then exiled from his confidence the next whenever the thorny musician felt he had been slighted or misused. In some cases, it was simple pride or paranoia or insecurity that precluded Reed from accomplishing some goals, such as his insistence he be seen as the main motor of the Velvet Underground during the failed reunion attempts in the 1990s.
Gratefully, Anthony DeCurtis gives us a multi-dimensional portrait of Lou Reed, warts and all, as the expression goes. Wild warts, in this case. If you’re like me, after reading this book, you might be inspired to track down some of Reed’s work you didn’t explore before. Most music fans likely know about the mostly unsuccessful collaboration between Reed and Metallica and/or the romance between Reed and performance artist Laurie Anderson. I didn’t know about Reed’s staging of some of his earlier albums in the 21st century, his latter-day interest in martial arts and meditation, or his interest in sonic technology and photography. I didn’t know about the soft-skinned Reed many people saw when they met Reed during his final days with Anderson until his death in 2013.
Clearly, any reader picking up this title will be a fan wanting to learn more about Reed, the Velvet Underground, or the sub-genres of rock Reed contributed to or influenced. All such readers will be handsomely rewarded. Drawing from his own past experiences with Reed, interviews with Reed intimates, and more basic research, Anthony DeCurtis has given us what will certainly be the definitive retrospective of a significant figure in rock history.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on March 7, 2018: