No matter how many times you re-check it, Lou Reed remains dead today. But we are all still alive. That’s a good thing. One out of two ain’t bad.
Ideally, what Lou would’ve wanted us to do right now would be to get a bin liner, kick his mortal remains to the curb, and just wait for an NYC garbage truck to come along and compact them without a second thought. But what Lou Reed also would’ve wanted was for people to have a healthy disregard for the wishes of dead rock gods. So it’s in that spirit that we’re going to add a bit more to the heap of reasons why he was a more interesting, more engaged figure than you'd ever imagined – hopefully at least some of which will be new to you.
ONE OF HIS MAIN INFLUENCES WAS A FORGOTTEN DRUNK COLLEGE PROFESSOR
At the age of 21, one Saturday, Delmore Schwartz sat down at his desk, and wrote a short story: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. By the Monday, his friend reported meeting Schwartz who was beaming, convinced he’d written a literary classic. It was exactly that: Nabokov later put it in his all-time top six American short stories. The rest of his career, though, turned out to be far more promise than results, and by 1966, he was dead at age 52, drunk, estranged, drugged-up and unloved, but simultaneously hymned for his genius by the likes of Saul Bellow, who wrote Humboldt’s Gift about him. In-between, Schwartz taught English at Syracuse University, where he befriended one of his pupils – the young Reed – who fell straight under his spell. The spare, simple, semi-vacant verse in which Uncle Lou specialised is Burroughs all over, but it’s also Schwartz, to whom he dedicated "European Son" and about whom he wrote "My House", the opener from 1982 LP The Blue Mask.
PRE-FAME, HE WAS IN MANY TERRIBLE BANDS
Reed spent his teenage years playing guitar in a range of school and college doo-wop bands, that were constantly splitting and merging. “We were so bad we had to change our name every few weeks. No one would ever hire us twice – knowingly,” he said. In 1958, he began his recording career by cooing along on backing vocals for doo-wop gang The Jades’ "Leave Her For Me". It's not terrible, but it's not exactly "Street Hassle".
HE HAD A JAZZ SHOW ON COLLEGE RADIO
Until he was thrown off it for belching during a public service announcement about muscular dystrophy.
HE WAS A TIN PAN ALLEY MAN AT HEART
The story of how Reed ended up in the arms of experimental longhair John Cale is a weird one. The pair only met when the Welshman was brought in to front a novelty band for one of the novelty songs Reed had written in his day job. Pickwick Records were slick rip-off merchants who’d developed a successful business model pirating the fashions of the hour, and selling off quick, cheap versions of them. Here, he picked up classic Tin Pan Alley tricks about how to angle a lyric. How to start with an image. How to keep things simple and visual. At first, he used these tricks to pay the rent by churning out songs about surfing and hot rods. As things progressed, you could hear the same tricks being used, only now it was to write songs about heroin and bondage instead.
AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS COOL, HE LIVED WITH HIS PARENTS
Many of history’s great men have lived with their parents. It’s surprisingly cheap. Napoleon lived with his parents through most of the Peninsular Campaign. But it can’t have been anything but humiliating when the Velvet Underground shut up shop for good in 1970, and Reed was met at Freeport, Long Island station by his parents, and driven back to his childhood home. There, he lived, doing office errands for his tax accountant dad for $40 a week while he plotted his next move. For over a year. Somehow, he never wrote any songs about the dark underbelly of suburban tax accounting.
BERLIN WAS MORE ART-MEETING-LIFE THAN PEOPLE SUSPECT
Bettye Kronstadt was the waitress who briefly became the first Mrs Lou Reed. In 1972, Bettye learned that her mother had died, but her mother had already been estranged for years. As an 18-year-old single mum, she had already fled her abusive soldier husband, and then, unable to cope, had Bettye pulled off her by social services. Coincidentally or not, this sort of scenario became the central plot hinge of Reed’s masterpiece, Berlin. By an even grimmer coincidence, this also seems to have coincided with Lou’s most unhinged dilatory drunk period. “He gave me a black eye the second time he hit me,” Kronstadt later recalled. “Then I gave him a black eye, too, and that stopped him from using his fists. Everybody knew he was abusive – abusive with his drinking, his drugs, his emotions – with me. He was also incredibly self-destructive then.” The couple divorced after not much more than a catalogue of fights and a year of marriage.
HIS TRANSSEXUAL LOVER WAS PANNED BY REVERED MUSIC CRITIC, LESTER BANGS
While Bowie’s flirtations with bi-sexuality often came across more as art statements, Lou Reed’s ambi-sexual private life was a lot more, well, gay. In the 1980s he was a regular at the anything-goes NY gay bar Ninth Circle. In the mid-70s, he took up with a transvestite-transsexual (no one seems quite sure which), called Rachel/Tommy. They stayed together for four years, despite having spectacularly little in common. “Rachel was wearing this amazing make-up and dress and was obviously in a different world to anyone else in the place,” recalled Reed of their first meeting. “Eventually I spoke and she came home with me. I rapped for hours and hours, while Rachel just sat there looking at me saying nothing. At the time I was living with a girl, a crazy blonde lady and I kind of wanted us all three to live together but somehow it was too heavy for her. Rachel just stayed on and the girl moved out.”
A vampish half-Mexican Indian, Rachel reportedly had no idea of Lou’s reputation, and had no interest in his songs. Instead, she was some kind of smiley, shiny counterweight to whatever else was going on in Lou’s career at the time. Rachel is alleged to have died in the early 1990s, but even now, despite all the VH1 Behind The Musics and Hunter Davies types poring over Reed & The VU, and despite being photographed by Mick Rock and a regular at Max’s Kansas City, next to nothing is known about this post-gendered cypher. Lester Bangs later deeply regretted describing her in print as: ”Long dark hair, bearded, tits, grotesque, abject… like something that might have grovelingly scampered in when Lou opened the door to get milk or papers in the morning.”
BUT HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH BANGS WAS PERHAPS LESS PERSONAL AND MORE PROFESSIONAL THAN THE WRITER ALWAYS MADE OUT
Guitarist Bob Quine remembered going round to Lou’s house to tell him that Lester had asphyxiated after a night on the cough syrup. “When I told him that Lester died, he didn't believe me. That marked the end of my friendship with Lou Reed because he said, ‘That's too bad about your friend.’ But then he launches into a 45-minute attack on Lester. He's an egomaniac and that's the way he is and that's why he has no friends. If you're not a yes man, you're not his friend. He respected the fact that I wasn't a yes man, but ultimately I had to go. He mentioned the article in Creem when Lester describes Rachel. He says, ‘Do you understand, Quine? This is a person I was close to. And he is calling her a creature.’”
HE WANTED TO BE BLACK
IF YOU FIND MANY INCONSISTENCIES IN THE LOU REED STORY, IT IS BECAUSE HE PUT THEM THERE
Reed spent much of the 60s and 70s telling lies about himself. Not widely renowned as a fan of interviews, his key objection was often simply that they were too personal. That every berk with a pen and a half-read copy of Freud wanted to lay claim to a half-ounce of his personal pain. That people would come along and expect him to cough up intimate confessions just because that’s what he’d done on record. Whereas, from his perspective, the fact that he’d done it on record absolved him from having to re-vomit his pain for the press. So, rather than spend his life objecting, he began to just invent things. “Some writer was asking me something once,” he recalled, “and Andy [Warhol] said, ‘You're not going to tell the truth are you? You know you don't have to tell the truth. You can say anything you want,’ and that's what I did for years. Unfortunately, I'm still haunted by those lies. People continue to ask, ‘Did you really put a rifle to a guy's head?’ and ‘Do you really have a degree in music from Harvard?’”
HE ONCE HIT DAVID BOWIE IN THE FACE
David Bowie is seldom hit in the face, probably because his face is so very beautiful, but in 1987, in Hammersmith, he and Reed were at dinner after a show at the Hammersmith Odeon. At some point in proceedings, Lou had asked David whether he wanted to produce his upcoming album. Bowie had very kindly agreed, but very kindly also suggested that his one condition was Lou sobering up. Unwilling to debate the point at a purely semantic level, Lou instead lamped him one. He was then led away in classic hold-me-back hold-me-back hold-me-back style by his assistants. “It should be noted that this verbal bantering also continued into the night back at the hotel,” said witness Chuck Hammer, who’d played with Reed that evening. “With Bowie in the hallway demanding that Reed, ‘Come out and fight like a man.’ Eventually it all quieted down as Lou never reappeared to continue the fight, and was most likely already fast asleep.”
HE WAS NEVER QUITE CURED OF HIS GAYNESS
In the end, Reed settled on the ladies. His first wife Bettye Kronstadt, his second Sylvia Morales, his third, the artist-composer Laurie Anderson. But in his younger years, Reed had been the subject of a failed attempt to de-gay him by local quacks that his parents had turned to after becoming aware of his tendencies. The medical advice of the time was simply to gun him with electro-shock therapy. “The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.” He never forgave them, and the episode could claim much of the credit for filling the never-emptying well of resentment that fired his best work. Thanks, Mr and Mrs Reed!
HE WENT SO FAR AS TO RE-MASTER METAL MACHINE MUSIC
Was the album a contractual cut-switch, or an industrial-techno pathfinder released 20 years ahead of its time? Why does it always have to be one or the other? Reed, for his part, maintained an unblinking seriousness about the seriousness of his intent, so much that he re-acquired the rights from his old record label and re-mastered and re-released Metal Machine Music. Was this the ultimate meta-joke about the Emperor’s New Clothes? The part of his career that starts near Metal Machine Music seemed to have the arc of a joke, anyway – the zagging between the sublime and the ridiculous, between the balls-kissing commercialism of Sally Can’t Dance and the ultimate unknowability of Metal Machine Music, was basically the sound of one man self-consciously trying to wrong-foot everyone. Bowie defined his genius as one for being "uncomfortable with being comfortable", and in that light, MMM works whichever way you slice it.
HE JUST COULDN’T GET ENOUGH TAI CHI
If reports from his hospital bedside are to be believed, Lou Reed was doing tai chi the hour before he died. Exactly the mechanics of a man with terminal liver failure doing Chinese movement-meditation within minutes of death are unclear, but it remains certain that Reed had been hopelessly devoted to the mystical martial art for about 25 years. He took his instructor with him whenever he toured, and in 2003 had put a tai chi performer onstage as a Howard Jones-style freaky-dancing art spectacle. “People think I lift weights,” he said recently. “But It's purely from doing Chen Tai Chi with Ren Guang Yi. I do two hours a day, every day.” In 2007, he released what was to be his final solo record: 50-odd minutes of electronic meditation chimes that could’ve been the ambient lightside to Metal Machine Music. Yet all that happy chi bubbling up through his chakras still didn’t stop him from biting the dicks off of various interviewers.
EVERYONE SEEMS TO WANT TO FOCUS ON LULU, BUT THERE HAVE BEEN ANY NUMBER OF JARRING ODDITIES IN HIS CATALOGUE
Warhol called him lazy, but a long and sprawling career saw him cough up 22 albums and a lot of that was devoted to challenging the very medium he was working in, leading to predictably mixed results. There was The Raven – his double-album-take on Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. The tai chi soundtrack Hudson River Wind Meditations. Time Rocker – his avant-garde theatre adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, made with stage director Robert Wilson. It was all out there, and most of it out-there. If a German expressionist theatre cod-opera about dismemberment made with a stadium metal band is not to your tastes, then brother have you tried Elbow?
DESPITE HIS HARD-MAN REPUTATION, HE SPENT A LOT OF TIME BEING QUITE SENTIMENTAL
Most people write one good album about a dead friend. Reed put down two. Songs For Drella: Him and John Cale’s re-match, a 54-minute tribute to Andy Warhol after the pop art king’s untimely death. Then there was Magic And Loss, which was Reed writing with a clear-eyed adult candour about his friend Doc Pomus succumbing to cancer, in a way that seemed to yet again have him turning new soil for rock. In his youth, he’d attacked young man’s issues with a fresh new lexicon. As he got older, he wasn’t afraid to turn that same extended vocabulary to older guy problems. Of grieving. Of a death that wasn’t a shock, but a creeping fog of intubated inevitability. He’d only known Pomus for a couple of years, but it is still typical of the fickle fire of his devotion. Behind the snarling, Reed seems to have been devoted to the people in his life in a way that went beyond the capacity of people with more ordered tempers. In fact, many of the bones he’s picked with critics or interviewers have been about getting too personal. Perverse as it sometimes seemed, he showed a fierce tenderness towards his friends.
ARE YOU AWARE OF LOU REED’S THOUGHTS ON YEEZUS?
While most of the Velvet Underground chose to keep their thoughts on Yeezus hidden from the public, one of Reed’s final public utterances turned out to be a sprawling review on Kanye's latest album for The Talkhouse. “He keeps unbalancing you,” he noted. “He'll pile on all this sound and then suddenly pull it away, all the way to complete silence, and then there's a scream or a beautiful melody, right there in your face. That's what I call a sucker punch.” Kanye West is the Lou Reed of our era. Discuss.
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