Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed

So much rougher than velvet


Author: Howard Sounes

Doubleday, £20

If you are a Lou Reed fan, you will love this book. On the other hand, if you are a Lou Reed fan, you may hate this book, as it tracks in meticulous detail the miserable life of The Hateful Bitch, as one of his ex-friends described him.

If you adore the song Walk on the Wild Side or countless famous songs from Reed's first and most famous band, the Velvet Underground, you may not want to know that he charged through life like an emotional barbarian, first charming then cruelly betraying almost every friend, lover and colleague he ever met. Once in a blue moon he displayed a generous streak, but his habitual modus operandi was to meet you, love you, then chew you up and spit you out.

Well-documented here is his trail of ex-friends, ex-gay lovers, ex-straight wives, ex-managers, ex-record label execs and ex-band members. If you lent him your car, he would crash it. If you gave him your trust, he would crush it. It was almost as if he hated himself so badly that he marked you for destruction for daring to love him.

A suggestion for the title was: 'The Worst Person Who Ever Lived'

Author Howard Sounes, no stranger to difficult characters - he has also written biographies of Fred and Rose West, plus others of Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan - has eked out details from people from every possible corner of Reed's life. Mind you, with a man with scorched-earth tendencies, many were eager to put their two cents in. Gerard Malanga from the Warhol Factory simply suggested titling this book: The Worst Person Who Ever Lived.

Lou Reed was born in 1942 in Brooklyn. His father Sid and mother Toby Reed - formerly Rabinowitz, a Russian Jewish family - moved to suburban Long Island in 1952, which their son later dubbed the "Armpit of the World". In high school, he exhibited a flair for poetry, an intense interest in sex, and a foul mouth. Later, at NYU in Manhattan, he became depressed and had what they used to call a nervous breakdown. His anxious parents, whom Reed would slander his whole life, agreed to the then trendy cure-all for mental illness: electric shock therapy. They would live to regret it as Reed's bitterness about it boiled in him for years. Some said that this anger fuelled his creative drive for the rest of his life.

He eventually recovered and went to Syracuse University upstate and began his pattern of seduction and betrayal. He also started playing in bands, eventually attracting the attention of a talent scout from a New York song-writing company. Reed went to work for them, learning the craft, with demands like "give me ten surf songs".

New York City was where the pill-popping, young, would-be bohemian met the similarly emotionally twisted John Cale, a Welsh classical violin virtuoso with a taste for minimalist avant-garde. They collaborated on what would become some of the Velvet Underground's best songs, like Heroin, Waiting for My Man, and Venus in Furs. By 1964, they had met and started playing with Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. While the rest of the New York downtown scene were grooving to folk and protest songs by Dylan, these proto-punks were pumping out loud, hypnotic, minimalist rock.

One of Andy Warhol's crew spotted them playing at a Greenwich Village club and alerted the Pop Master to something unusual going on. He came to see them and instantly recognised a kindred weirdness, three skinny guys and a girl drummer, all in black, producing a hellish noise. Warhol hired them to play at "Happenings" where rooms were wrapped in foil and images projected on the walls while strange dancers writhed around. You could not be more outlandish in the early '60s, when even the Beatles' modestly long hair was a shock to straight-laced America.

Reed felt at home in the headquarters of the avant-garde and famously paid tribute to its characters in Walk on the Wild Side. (An interesting fact about that song is that the "coloured girl" chorus comprised three white Irish girls.)

He immersed himself in that wild side. Over the years, he was to break up with the Velvets, break up with a few wives and boyfriends, and indulge in drink and drugs "until it hurt" - with painful, medical consequences, including a liver transplant.

His ex-friends filled graveyards from overdoses, Aids and penury. After the initial critical (though not commercial) success of the Velvet Underground, Reed spent most of his career attempting comebacks. The most successful of these was the fabulous album Transformer. He toured Europe often but most tours were exercises in overindulgence. He became increasingly moody and strange, spending eight hours adjusting a microphone in the recording studio or strumming two chords for days. Woe to anyone who challenged him.

In his last decade, the only successful saviour in the story emerged: his last wife, the composer and poet Laurie Anderson, who was tough enough to win Reed's respect, and loving enough to mellow his "wilful, demanding, petulant and egocentric" tendencies. In 2013, luckily for him and unlike many of his friends, he died happy.

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