How Lou Reed Walked on the Wild Side...and Stayed There

Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed
By Aidan Levy
Chicago Review Press, 416 pp. $28.95.

There is no such thing as a fan of "Lou Reed music." That’s simply because there is nothing near any uniformity within his discography. Over the course of Reed's career, the late singer-songwriter freely dipped his musical wick into the pools of rock, pop, soul, jazz, proto-punk, classical, avant-garde, and even his beloved doo-wop with reckless abandon.

And while the bastard child known as “heavy metal” claims many sperm donors, few would have gone so far as to take the term literally and release a double album of little more than loud feedback as Reed did with 1975's Metal Machine Music, still one of the most “notorious” rock albums ever.

No, there is no such thing as a fan of Lou Reed, the music. But there are many fans of Lou Reed, the artist, and what he happened to create with his music. In the first major biography of Reed since his 2013 death and subsequent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Levy throws a literary lasso on the many facets of his career.

From his groundbreaking stint leading the "what the hell was that?" alt-rock pioneers the Velvet Underground, to a solo career that flirted (then cockteased and left) mainstream success, to later albums based on such varied influences as “The Raven” poet Edgar Allan Poe and “Save the Last Dance for Me” songwriter Doc Pomus.

Along the way, Levy conducted interviews with dozens of Reed’s friends, collaborators, and former significant others. These interviews certainly flesh out portions of Reed’s life and give insight into his attitudes and mindsets, particularly from his teen years to the dissolution of the Velvet Underground.

In fact, the VU’s legacy is still up for debate today, as their dissonant sound and off-kilter subject matter has made them a band for which there is still little middle ground in opinion. But — as Levy repeats in a quote often attributed to producer Brian Eno — only a thousand people may have bought the band’s first album, but they all went out and started bands of their own.

Gender and gender identity in Reed’s life and music is almost a sub-book of its own here. The topic is safe enough today for daytime TV specials and the cover of People magazine. But it’s something the bisexual Reed both struggled with and reveled in for a chunk of his life as he was with women, with men, and even had a longtime very public relationship with a transsexual.

And remember, Reed’s most popular hit — “Walk on the Wild Side” — finds subject matter in transvestites, prostitutes, junkies and dealers. Subject matter suited for the “Dirty Blvd.”, but not usually Top 40 radio.

Throughout his career, Reed was a literate chronicler of the underbelly of society and street life, carrying on in music the literary tradition of authors he admired like William Burroughs, Nelson Algren and Hubert Selby, Jr. One well-worn myth about Reed’s life that Levy debunks concerns his undergoing of electroshock treatment and stints in mental hospitals while a young man in beginning in the late 1950s.

Levy posits that it was not his parents’ attempt to “cure his homosexuality,” but rather the course of treatment decided upon by an aggressive medical team and a too-passive pair of parents to help with Reed’s diagnosed schizophrenia. This resulted in Reed receiving a total of 24 separate electrical charges of current through his already-addled brain (also the inspiration behind his vicious “Kill Your Sons”).

Levy also chronicles Reed’s usage of alcohol and narcotics for much of his life that included long relationships with heroin (the subject of two of the VU’s best-known numbers, “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man”) as well as Johnnie Walker scotch, speed and others.

That Reed would clean up later in life and become a proponent of healthy eating, meditation and tai chi (partially under the influence of his last wife, musician Laurie Anderson), gives the narrative a redemptive quality.

The book does has a weak point in that Levy – in making the case for Reed’s Music as Art — often falls into heavily florid, science textbook prose in describing the music, or ascribes feelings and motivations to Reed that rely on conjecture. Take the author's analysis of the Velvets' song “The Murder Mystery":

A nine-minute polyvalent romp, quickly devolved into pandemonium, flooding the auditory field with dadaist lyrics, Procul Harum-like organ drawl, and unintelligible reportorial logorrhea…A Pynchonian world of enigmatic signs and symbols on the verge of seismic change.


Overall, Levy’s book certainly captures the life and music of the "Sultan of Sulk." And for an artist whose canon ranges from the true crime ethos of “Street Hassle” and “Caroline Says II” and the sheer outrageousness of “I Wanna Be Black” and “Sally Can’t Dance” to the wistful romanticism of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Perfect Day,” Lou Reed not only walked on the wild side — he never even considered crossing over to the middle of the road.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero