There is something ridiculous and even a bit menacing about listening to a Lou Reed solo album while sitting shotgun on a drive up the coast of California along Highway 1 on a typically ideal day, as I did this summer. A sound could hardly be more at odds with its context: the fog lifted off the resplendent ocean waters just as Reed’s domestic violence rock opera Berlin (1973) came to its eighth track, “The Kids,” which features an extended interlude of children wailing. While I shuttled around the Bay Area beneath optimistic billboards advertising an uncanny status quo (“AN AI BOT TRAINED ON ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE WANTS A JOB ON YOUR SUPPORT TEAM”), Reed proclaimed through the car stereo with drop-dead derisive authority, “Americans don’t care too much for beauty / They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream.” The track is “Last Great American Whale,” off his 1989 album New York. It concludes:
Lou Reed Didn’t Want to Be King
A new biography tries to pin the rocker downHannah Gold
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me:
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn ’em over, they’re done”
A bit of found and tossed-off nonsense posing as hard-earned wisdom. Who even is Donald? Must be some guy Reed knew in New York. His music feels more suited to the visible and psychic tumult of that city, where he famously launched his career. Reed and the rest of the experimental downtown Manhattan crowd he came up (as well as down) with during the 1960s and early ’70s—anchored by Andy Warhol’s Factory scene—felt nothing but contempt for the utopian hippie crazes that were sweeping the nation by way of Northern California at the time. John Cale, who co-founded the Velvet Underground with Reed, referred to the free love camp as “scruffy, dirty people”; at Warhol’s suggestion, Reed wrote the refrain “You hit me with a flower” for a 1972 solo track called “Vicious” that uses sarcasm to fight the maudlin scourge of flower power. In opposition, Reed and his band members honed a rock’n’roll sensibility that bounded from extremes of frayed vulnerability to ecstatic self-laceration and cruelty. They were speedy, high-brow, and sexually possessive. Still, Reed shared at least this much with his West Coast antagonists: as the music critic Ellen Willis once wrote, “he was enough of his time to crave transcendence.”
What makes Reed a quintessentially New York artist? Is it his profound mutability or the consistent inspiration the city provided him with? (“New York City man, you blink your eyes and I’ll be gone”; “I’m a Coney Island baby now”; “New York City lovers, tell it to your heart.”) Could it be his blunt attitude, his capricious moods, or his notorious hostility toward the press? Or is it just that he stayed there—within city limits or nearby, in New Jersey and Long Island—for most of his life? For Rolling Stone critic Will Hermes, it is a little of each of these things, but above all it is his participation in a conspicuous scene, or series of scenes, that shaped and branded the city’s culture half a century ago.
“Lewis Allan Reed . . . was a mirror of post–World War II New York City arts writ large,” Hermes contends in the introduction to his new biography, Lou Reed: The King of New York. Reed said he was a New York City man, and Hermes promises a New York City book, with new material drawn from Reed’s archives at the New York Public Library and a suitably scholastic approach. But Hermes is so smitten with the era in the city’s history that brought Reed to prominence that he risks shoehorning Reed into narratives of political progress and social import that the artist, on most days, emphatically eschewed. Reed did not preside over the city, nor did he reflect its shiniest, bravest qualities, at least not most of the time. He was, rather, something of a peripheral figure, no matter how famous he became, and this was by design. He was a reinventor, marketer, and anonymizer of the self.
Hermes runs into trouble when he tries to make Reed stand for anything. Reed didn’t want that.
The Velvets’ sneering rejection of hippie sentimentality was only the first of many artistic rebellions for Reed, who went on to put out nearly two dozen solo studio albums of vastly different, even contradictory styles: glam rock, pure dissonant noise, a collaboration with Metallica—he tried it all and succeeded at some of it. He also said it all. Whether he wrote from his own experience or from sketches of real and imagined others, he had an insouciant flair for character. His proliferating personas made him a particularly difficult subject to take at his word, both in interviews and song.
“Writing songs is like making a play,” Reed once remarked, “and you give yourself the lead part. And you write yourself the best lines that you could. And you’re your own director. . . . And you get to play all different kinds of characters. It’s fun.”
Reed was born in 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, to descendants of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His mother was a homemaker, and his father abandoned dreams of becoming either a writer or lawyer for a career as a certified public accountant. In 1953 the family, which by then included Reed’s little sister, moved to Freeport, Long Island, where his father had gotten a job as treasurer of a company that manufactured potato chip bags. This quiet, conformist community, populated by a newly ascended and anxious middle class, was Reed’s first antagonist. His sister later recalled that Reed suffered from panic attacks and “a fragile temperament” in his teenage years. He was angry, despondent, and painfully attracted to men as well as women at a time when homosexuality was classified as a disorder in the DSM. By the spring of his first year of college at New York University, Reed was suffering from an extended depressive episode. He took a leave of absence and returned home, where, under advisement from his parents and doctors, Reed received electric shock treatments that his sister said damaged his short-term memory and deepened the lifelong rift between him and his immediate family.
Reed knew, as his father had, that he wanted to write, and he transferred to Syracuse University the following semester in search of more auspicious forebears. He quickly gravitated to another Jewish writer from Brooklyn, Delmore Schwartz, who was by then deeply alcoholic and teaching a series of enigmatic classes on James Joyce. Reed took the classes, though he first met Schwartz carousing at a campus bar. He told Schwartz he was going to be a writer, but he was “going to use music” to do it. Schwartz discouraged Reed from the music part, warning him that it would render the words “worthless.” But Reed had no problem taking what he needed from the writers he loved—including Hubert Selby Jr., Sylvia Plath, and Edgar Allan Poe—and leaving the rest on the table.
Reed met his other artistic father figure, Andy Warhol, in 1965. Reed was in his early twenties and spending much of his time on the Lower East Side, already in a creative partnership with Cale but not yet getting much traction from it. After overcoming some initial skepticism, the artist-impresario brought Reed and Cale into the Factory, his midtown temple of grindset arts production, and got to work retooling the Velvet Underground.
The majority of Hermes’s book focuses on the years that immediately followed, and it often swerves away from its marquee subject to deliver potted biographies of artistic collaborators like Warhol and Nico as well as important figures in their orbit like Candy Darling and Valerie Solanas. Reed’s social circles were full of famous artists, future luminaries and legends, but he tended to withdraw from or even estrange his closest friends and greatest champions, including Warhol. Alienation creeps subtly into the story of glamorous personalities and radical times that Hermes intends to tell. In keeping with his keenness on presenting the portrait of a city as well as of a man, for example, Hermes attempts to substantiate Reed’s identification with queer, insubordinate New York in the ’60s by associating him with the Stonewall riots—even though Reed was performing in Philadelphia with the Velvets when the originating incident happened. That “years later, Reed would move into an apartment in the building” hardly puts him at the center of the action.
None of this detracts from Reed’s sexual daring by the standards of his day, nor from his musical experiments. (Mindful of Warhol’s credo, he also experimented liberally with selling out.) Reed wrote plenty of songs from the perspective of queer characters, which was sometimes how he identified, too. But Hermes runs into trouble when he tries to make Reed stand for anything. Reed didn’t want that. He was slippery, frequently disavowing statements he’d recently made, turning on himself in anger and inspiration. In classic New York style, every interaction was a potential altercation, never an opportunity to pander. When it came to commenting on his lyrics to journalists and concert-goers, Reed liked to adopt a sardonic approach. He once introduced “I’m Waiting for the Man,” which narrates a drug deal, as “a tender folk song from the early ’50s about love between man and subway.”
Reed’s volatility and snark were of a piece with his abundant nastiness, which included abusive behavior toward some of the women he was romantically involved with. Hermes’s anodyne approach to these episodes at times works against his book’s stated ambitions to “disrupt the standard Great Man Narrative” and embrace Reed’s many warring personalities. Reed himself did not shy away from mining his abusive outbursts for some pretty agonizing lyrics, but there is nothing particularly revelatory or perceptive in the few anecdotes that Hermes includes. Whereas Reed’s more progressive songwriting and rebellions are held up by Hermes as catalysts or responses to the liberation movements of his times, the awful side of Reed can induce awkwardness. For instance, when Reed tells an interviewer in 1979 that women are “deluded creatures” and want to be “smacked across the mouth,” Hermes wonders if alcohol or perhaps a recent breakup is to blame. For better and worse, there is less destructiveness and angst here than in fellow rock journalist Anthony DeCurtis’s 2017 biography, in which the author admits that only Reed’s death gave him the license he felt he needed to write an honest book. DeCurtis, who spoke with Reed often as both a journalist covering his career and a floating acquaintance on the rock circuit, does not believe Reed would have liked his biography at all.
I’m sure he’s right about that. For what it’s worth, I imagine Reed would have hated this latest biography too.
In the decades following Reed’s break from the Velvets and Warhol, the prolific aging rock star still commented on his times, but he no longer reflected them. If anything, he reflected their disappearance, engineering sonic resurrections that honor the passage of time as much as they resist it. In “My House” (1982) Reed imagines that the ghost of Schwartz, who died only a few years after they met, inhabits a spare room in Reed’s home. “Delmore, I missed all your funny ways / I missed your jokes and the brilliant things you said / My Dedalus to your Bloom was such a perfect wit / And to find you in my house / Makes things perfect.” “Halloween Parade” (1989), Reed’s ode to the Greenwich Village costume procession once frequented by Warhol and his crew, is also something of a eulogy for the scene of his youth, sweeping by him in ornate disguise for one night only. Reed reunited with Cale on Songs for Drella, their 1990 commemoration of Warhol’s life. On one track, Reed sings from the perspective of Warhol to a shifting “nobody like you,” who at various points might be a lover, a stalker, a wannabe actor, or a fan: a member of the abstract, ever-present public for whom Warhol and Reed both made art.
It is here in the city’s anonymous public where I prefer to meet Reed, in any mood.
This nebulous collective was as vital for Reed as the activists and celebrities who preoccupy Hermes. Reed may have kept loved ones on their toes and at a distance, at least while they were still alive, but he made sure the crowds of nobodies like him stayed close. Strangers populated Reed’s lyrics and attended his shows. They worshiped and reviled his albums. He was really fucking rude to them in the street. DeCurtis’s biography has a great anecdote that illustrates Reed’s explosive combination of accessibility and agitation, as told by Hal Willner, who co-produced his album Ecstasy (2000):
People would go, “I saw Lou Reed on the street when I went to New York, and I went up to him and he was an asshole.” . . . I would say, “Was he a bigger asshole than Bob Dylan was to you?” “Oh, I’ve never seen Bob Dylan.” Right. “What about Miles Davis—was he nice to you?” Lou was just out there; he was on the street.
It is here in the city’s anonymous public where I prefer to meet Reed, in any mood. Stalled on a street corner or the subway, running circles around the park, or strutting briskly down the sidewalk. My New York City has quite a different face from Reed’s, but if I listen carefully to his music I can better recognize its many masks in the moments they slip on and off. The store fronts dim and shutter, only to be replaced by facades that burn brighter and faster. One person shows a cold shoulder to the stranger in need; another turns toward them in kindness. In New York City, where it’s normal to glimpse hundreds of people on an average day, you are bound to be a nobody to just about everyone. If you live here long enough, this inescapable anonymity becomes something of a spiritual property. Lou Reed is a quintessential New York City artist because he tapped straight into this spirituality and found in it a glittering potential for transcendence.
Hermes recounts how when his second solo album, Transformer, was released in 1972, Reed “fretted over how the real-life subjects of ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ none of whom he knew especially well, would take to his pop song profiles of them.’” Now everyone knows “Walk on the Wild Side”; it turned out to be Reed’s biggest hit, and yet at the time Reed, like most of America, had only a passing familiarity with the song’s subjects, many of whom were regulars at the Factory. One of those subjects was the transgender actress and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, who listened to the song along with everyone else when it came out.
“Honestly, I’d never met [Lou],” Woodlawn told Hermes, “but I was a fan of his music. A friend called me up one night and said, ‘Holly! Turn on the radio! There’s a song about you!’”