The Prickly Life of Lou Reed

Lou Reed performing in Portland, Oregon in 2004.
Lou Reed performing in Portland, Oregon in 2004. Photo by Danny Norton/WikiCommons
The Life of Lou Reed: Notes from the Velvet Underground
By Howard Sounes
378 pp.
Diversion Books

“Prick” isn’t a word that usually appears in a rock biography. But it shows up multiple times in this tome on the late Lou Reed. That’s because it’s a common adjective used to describe him by a litany of people to sum up a seeming lifetime of boorish, prickly, vindictive, prima donna, misogynistic, and cruel behavior.

Paul Morrissey, a former business manager of Pop artist Andy Warhol (who gave Reed’s career its initial jumpstart by “managing” the Velvet Underground), put it to Sounes this way while being interviewed for the book: “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch [or] The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says this isn’t a biography of a great human being, because he was not. He was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.”


click to enlarge DIVERSION BOOKS COVER
Diversion books cover
And indeed, there have been a raft of new or updated Reed bios since his 2013 death by music journos like Mick Wall, Victor Bockris, Aiden Levy, and Anthony DeCurtis – as well as a memoir by ex-wife Bettye Kronstad. But Sounes’ stands out in that it gives the greatest page space to Reed’s frustrating and off-putting personal behavior to those he loved, hated, and all in between.

A man who would pick up and toss away acquaintances, lovers (of both sexes), managers, producers, and musicians as it suited (or benefitted) him without regard. A performer who could pursue David Bowie’s involvement in his career as it could help him, and then seethe in jealousy to the point of slapping Bowie – twice – in public (the pair would make up...though cautiously).

Lou Reed also spent decades in the midst of heavy use of drugs and crippling alcohol abuse that often derailed his live shows. Sounes documents how Reed would often doctor shop while on the road, summoning physicians to his hotel room in an effort to get amphetamines (while carrying his own pharmaceutical reference book), and summarily dismiss them and call for another if they wouldn’t comply. As former manager Jonny Podell told Sounes, “Lou could do hate. Drugs do that – take resentment to hate.”

And whiles Sounes’ concentration is often on the personal side of Reed, that doesn’t mean he skimps on what is ostensibly the reason for someone to pick up the book: his music.

From the Velvet Underground, to a wildly varying solo career (with wildly varying results), to a late-in-life reconsideration and stature of the essential New York street poet, to be a Lou Reed fan (like Neil Young) is to strap on for a rocket ride that sometimes tests the patience of even the most ardent admirer.

Reed was a man who wanted both complete artistic freedom and commercial success, and those twin ambitions were often at odds. When “Walk on the Wild Side” gave him his first and biggest hit, he would soon follow it up with a completely different sound, sometimes half-assed.

And remember this is the guy who, as a “fuck you” to his record company, released the legendary Metal Machine Music – a double album consisting of mostly screeching loud guitar feedback that more people have heard about than actually heard.

But like panning for gold, the discography of Lou Reed finds many, many priceless nuggets amid the jagged rocks. Few artists have pushed the boundaries of lyrics as Reed, from early works like “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” up to his last record Lulu, a collaboration with Metallica that featured some of his most gruesome words and themes. And his artistry was undeniably his own: there was no one like Lou Reed.

Sounes – who has previously penned thick bios on Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney – reportedly did 150 new interviews for the book, some with people who have never spoken on record about Lou Reed before. These interviews and observations are a core strength of the narrative, even if they cast great aspersion upon the subject.

And while it probably don’t go down as the “definitive” work on the life and music of Lou Reed (Anthony DeCurtis has the edge there), The Life of Lou Reed is a bold, raw, and revealing addition to the canon.
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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