In the 1990s, rock 'n' roll colossus Lou Reed (1942-2013) and his equally prodigious partner, multimedia visionary Laurie Anderson, were a common sight around Manhattan, engrossed in conversation, a city of two. One Sunday morning they ventured into a bistro where my wife and I were having brunch, Reed sporting his trademark leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, Anderson tossing a cupid's-bow smile in our direction.
"Lou Reed," Will Hermes' captivating new biography, fires on all cylinders: It's exhaustively researched and opinionated, with a swagger that evokes its volatile subject. For most of the book there's precious little of Reed's later domesticity. Like many postwar Jewish families, Reed's joined the exodus from Brooklyn to Long Island, where he and his younger sister could thrive in Eisenhower-era conformity. He couldn't wait to escape. His literary ambitions surfaced at Syracuse University, nurtured by poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed's musical talent also bloomed, along with his bisexuality and a deepening dependence on speed and heroin.
He landed in Gotham in the mid-'60s and formed the Velvet Underground, which was adopted by Andy Warhol as the Factory's house band. Despite bouts of estrangement, the street tough and the enigmatic painter were drawn to each other; Hermes deftly sketches the back-and-forth of influence as Reed crafted "the id-monster persona" that would dominate his oeuvre. Here, Reed is a mess of contradictions, an avant-gardist who longed for radio play, a brawler and addict with sudden bursts of tenderness and vulnerability. The songs poured forth.
A City Pages alumnus, Hermes writes with kinetic flair, an homage to gonzo journalists Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe: "The arc of the band's three records shows a band with its ears to the ground the whole way: the Dylanesque poetics, Motown-Stax thrust, and proto-psychedelic sound experiments of the debut; the thrillingly overmodulated jamming of 'White Light/White Heat,' not far from what Cream and [Jimi] Hendrix were doing; and now the magnificent ... songcraft" of the final album. Hermes' critical insights seam Reed's troubled, herky-jerky life into a lean narrative line.
Post-Velvets, Reed was prolific, wedging into the mainstream with "Walk on the Wild Side," a hymn to the Factory's denizens. For years he performed at the Bottom Line, mutating through styles, while taking in younger acts at CBGB — Patti Smith, Television, and Talking Heads. Hermes' emphasis on Reed's queerness lends a gratuitous gossipy tone, but also reveals the star's shape-shifting, from a poignant relationship with gender-nonconforming Rachel Humphreys to three marriages. Throughout cycles of crisis and creativity, Reed's obsession remained "work. He cultivated a fetish for cutting-edge music gear and precise sound reproduction."
Faced with mounting health problems, Reed decamped (a favorite Hermes verb) to East Hampton; buoyed by Anderson, he wrote amid a steady stream of accolades. But the spirit of edgy experimentation never left him.
"Lou Reed" is a scrupulous chronicle of a rock outlaw who sought an authentic self on stage. As Hermes opines, "[M]aybe — in the face of the familiar screaming darkness, blinding lights, and hungry fans — Reed thought nothing, feeling only the river-rush anticipation of the next chord change and verse."
Hamilton Cain — who reviews for a range of venues, including the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post — lives in Brooklyn.
Lou Reed: The King of New York
By: Will Hermes.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pages, $35.