Life With Lou Reed Wasn't Always Perfect Days

Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed
By Bettye Kronstad
Jawbone Press,
312 pp., $22.95

From the ages of 19 to 23, Bettye Kronstad was Lou Reed’s girlfriend, then fiancée and eventually wife. In that period, he was struggling to build a solo career post-Velvet Underground, and at one point wanted to chuck rock and roll entirely for poetry.

He found massive success with the Transformer record and the single “Walk on the Wild Side.” Then, it was back down to earth with the lukewarm response to his concept album, Berlin. But even in this era of gender-bending and partner sharing, there was a third party in the Reed/Kronstad relationship that would come between them: a chap named Johnnie Walker. Red.

Yes, Lou Reed liked to drink Scotch. A lot. Even more than take the copious amounts of cocaine he ingested during this period. Kronstad is a seemingly reliable narrator as week after week on the road and in the studio, she acts increasingly like a minder, a substance-abuse counselor and a nursemaid to her man.

But Kronstad also writes convincingly of the wild dichotomy — even trichotomy — of Lou Reed’s (or “Lewis,” as she refers to him throughout) personality and how he related to others. Sure, he was a dick, but maybe it was just a defense mechanism to aid his ever-present feelings of unworthiness. He could spout romantic notions while gingerly caressing Kronstad’s hair in bed, and really, really feel notions of love. But then he'd treat her cuttingly with insults and rage; the instances in which he acts like a petulant child in these pages are numerous.

Musically, there just seemed to be no way the prickly Reed could ever be satisfied. If concert audiences responded too favorably to his VU material, they weren't giving his current work enough respect. If they liked the new stuff, they weren't knowledgeable of the classics he'd already written. "Walk on the Wild Side" became the monster hit he'd always wanted, but then he grew tired of playing it only months after it had come out — and he derided audiences who came to hear only that.

Kronstad doesn’t come off scot-free either. She freely admits to indulging in substances with Reed, if only to keep him company. She didn’t mind his mining their real life for subject matter for, say, “Perfect Day” (one of the best romantic rock songs ever, and based mostly on fact) or “Satellite of Love,” but was offended when he utilized some of her family’s history as lyrical inspiration in other tracks, as if it were utterly unexpected from the talented-but-tortured writing genius she freely admits he was. There are also appearances by David Bowie, his wife Angie and Iggy Pop in the tale-telling.

The final straw in their roller coaster was one too many drunken outbursts and the occasion on which she saw another woman inject him with heroin at a party, although how much of a surprise that could be from the man who wrote “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man” is questionable.

Finally, despite her obvious help in building his career, she unwisely signs away almost any financial claims, gets a quickie divorce in Santo Domingo and then is back with Reed less than a week later.

When Kronstad first met Reed in a hospital where he was visiting a friend, he shouted to her “Hey, beautiful” and slapped her on the ass. When they last laid eyes on each other in a Paris hotel room, in 1973, he was holding onto a chair in his drunken equilibrium and had milk she had thrown at him running down his face.

Both would go on to find a happy balance with new partners (Reed with fellow musician Laurie Anderson), and Kronstad continues to work in theater, teaching and writing.

Reed’s liver disease-related death in 2013 at the age of 71 initially prompted Kronstad to write the book. It is of great service to Reed’s fans, providing, indeed, a much more “intimate” look than other bios. And while she may have mixed memories of her time with the other Man In Black, just knowing that the song “Perfect Day” exists because of her is, as she mentions, a great comfort and legacy.

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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