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The Mensch, the Bastard, Lou Reed
A new biography shows both faces of the great transgressor of American rock, who didn’t permit his listeners to resolve their feelings about him into either awe or disgust.
IS LOU REED’S METAL MACHINE MUSIC (1975) a real album or a put-on?
Reed’s notorious fifth solo album—roughly an hour of guitar feedback, with no vocals, no songs, no clear edges or boundaries beyond the seemingly arbitrary division into four “tracks” of roughly equal length, arguably no melody or rhythm (though to my ear it does at least remain somewhere in the neighborhood of E-major)—makes that question inescapable, along with several others. Does intention matter in art, and if it doesn’t matter there, where does it matter? Is there such a thing as “formlessness,” or must our minds always find forms, impose shapes, for perception to occur at all? If, occasionally, an artist decides to trust wholly to those formalizing processes of the mind to make all the decisions that we would normally expect artists themselves to make, is that a legitimate move in the game of art, or is it, as Pauline Kael once said of Last Year at Marienbad, “like making a mess and asking others to clean it up”? If I enjoy the record, does any of this matter? Why, when I do enjoy it, is my enjoyment lessened by the feeling that Lou Reed’s ghost is snickering at me?
Many of the people who know about Metal Machine Music—it’s not the world’s biggest club—would already consider those sorts of questions too naïve to ask. I’m not sure that Reed would, though. The naïve questions are the ones that matter most: Why are we here? Is there a God? Does the trick-mirror resemblance between my speech and the output of a large language model mean that I am just a robot? Is everything just dirt? And indeed, those are just the sorts of questions that Lou Reed himself asked, insistently, both through the voices of the narrators of his songs—the various Lisas and Stephanies and Candys who want to know why they hate their bodies, or how to walk away from themselves—and through the wised-up, disaffected, sometimes tender Sprechstimme that he seemed to want us to regard as, or to confuse with, Lou Reed himself. Sophisticated as he was, cynical and decadent and cruel as he could be, Reed never stopped asking the questions that nag, often with a disarming middle-of-the-night artlessness that could make you forget that he was supposed to be rock music’s great transgressor.
His answers to these questions were relentlessly, programmatically dualistic. For example, he told interviewers that Metal Machine Music was a joke, a way to break his record contract while also frightening away all the gullible young fans who had had the temerity to make Sally Can’t Dance (1974), one of his dullest albums, into his biggest-selling one to date. He told other interviewers that it was a sincere work of modern classical music, influenced by Xennakis and by the drone music that his Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale used to make with the minimalist composer La Monte Young. In the 2000s, he revisited it onstage with the classical ensemble Zeitkratzer. It influenced Sonic Youth, Merzbow, industrial rock. “The truth is that I really, really, really loved it,” he told the writer Amanda Petrusich in 2007.
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And that was Lou Reed. He was one of the century’s great icons of sexual fluidity, but some of his lovers still insist that he was fundamentally straight. He was an avant-gardist who loved doo-wop and Ricky Nelson. He was a mean, abusive drunk and professional grump who, to the right people, was the most passionate and generous friend they’d ever meet. He was the edgiest hipster who ever lived past 30 and a certified cheeseball who once wrote a musical tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. He was a consummate artist whose greatest works often have a defiant artlessness about them. He wrote a song about taking speed, “White Light/White Heat,” that was also a paean to the spiritual teachings of the New Ager Alice Bailey—that’s what the white light was. He was the late twentieth century’s participant-observer, but his observing nearly got him killed, and when he withdrew, he did so with a speed and finality that could look like betrayal. He needed two poles to generate a field. “Here comes two of you,” he sang on the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light” (1969), and if he chose either one of them, it was usually temporary.
SUCH A LIFE INVITES BIOGRAPHERS for the same reason that it makes their jobs impossible. There have been several: Victor Bockris, Mick Wall, Aidan Levy, Anthony DeCurtis, and now Will Hermes, whose Lou Reed: The King of New York arrives this week, near the tenth anniversary of his death (October 27, 2013). At this point, the lineaments of the life are reasonably well known. Born to striving Jewish Long Island immigrant stock, he rebels as only a teenager raised in Fifties comfort could rebel. He hates his father, who most of the biographers insist (as does Reed’s sister) was a nice guy, never raised a hand to anyone; nevertheless, Sidney Reed did send Lou for electroshock therapy, on a doctor’s orders—perhaps because his son was depressed, perhaps because he was attracted to men. It is a defining trauma of Reed’s life. He goes to college, plays in bands, studies under (and worships) the sadly decayed Delmore Schwartz, writes self-consciously shocking poetry and stories. He tries heroin, partly because he wants to be William Burroughs: a fake becoming real. He falls in love with a brown-eyed woman named Shelley Albin. He turns her into his babysitter and drives her away. (When the perverse little imp later records, in Albin’s honor, the greatest rock ballad ever made, he calls it “Pale Blue Eyes.”) After college, he gets a job writing imitation pop songs for dollar-bin compilations; when one of them, “The Ostrich,” threatens to become a minor hit, he assembles a band to do some gigs in its support. One of his hired guns is John Cale, a Welsh musical terrorist in the La Monte Young mode. Cale becomes his roommate and right-hand man, for a while. The group they eventually form, the Velvet Underground, is named after a peekaboo paperback exposé of America’s S&M subculture.
They bring on Sterling Morrison, rhythm guitarist, and Moe Tucker, self-taught drummer. They do their first show as a support gig at a suburban high school dance and frighten most of the kids away before the headliners take the stage. The experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin catches them during a disastrous residency at a New York City folkie hangout joint called Café Bizarre, and introduces them to her friend Andy Warhol, who in turn becomes their sponsor, introducing them to a chanteuse/actress/model/Sick Soul of Europe who calls herself Nico. She hooks up with Lou, then with John. The band hooks up drone, noise, free jazz, pop, folk, cabaret, doo-wop, hard-boiled storytelling. They are the greatest American rock band of all time, and they begin breaking up almost immediately. First they all dump Nico, then Reed dumps Warhol (Warhol, with uncharacteristic passion, calls Reed, “You rat”); then he fires Cale; then Reed himself leaves. Brian Eno later says that only thirty thousand people bought their first record, but that each of those people formed a band. One of those people is Eno himself; another was David Bowie; another was Patti Smith. Another was a band known as the Plastic People of the Universe, who used to play for an astonished young Václav Havel until the Czech government revoked their music license.
After leaving the Velvets, Reed woodsheds. He lives with his parents, works part-time in his dad’s office, tries to make it as a writer, releases a decent but ignored solo album using mostly Velvet Underground leftovers. He marries a nice woman, Bettye Kronstad. He turns her into his babysitter and drives her away. David Bowie, flush with success, produces Transformer (1972), whereupon Reed is a bona fide star. He takes up with another nice woman, named Rachel Humphreys—she was born with another name, had lived, to the world’s eyes, in a different gender, and so the relationship is daring in its time, but she, too, he turns into a babysitter and drives away. There are credible accounts of Reed hitting both Bettye and Rachel, though both of them, thankfully, were capable of hitting back harder. He wasn’t a huge guy. Bettye’s memoir is pretty straightforward about his abuse and his misogyny; it also calls him “a teddy bear.” Irreconcilable dualities, again.
Punk emerges, making him look both prescient and redundant. By the late ’70s, he’s reached the stage where every record is a “return to form”—no two fans agree on which ones are returning and which ones are giving in to entropy, though most of us will tell you that “Street Hassle” (1978) is one of his greatest songs, one of the greatest songs. In the early ’80s he hooks up with Sylvia Morales and with the great guitarist Robert Quine. Reed and Quine make The Blue Mask (1982), the comeback on which everyone agrees. He drives Quine away, as he had done Bowie and Cale and Warhol. Guess what he does to Sylvia. One more divorce and one more masterpiece—New York (1989)—follow. In the 1990s he meets the performance artist Laurie Anderson and, for novelty’s sake, doesn’t turn her into a babysitter. She never leaves. His attempts at rehab finally take. He becomes an inspirational figure to, but never quite an elder statesman for, younger artists: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Thurston Moore, Anohni, Ezra Furman. When he dies of—what else—liver failure, even the Vatican mourns.
THOSE ARE THE ROUGH OUTLINES. They offer enough material for many different Reeds. Bockris, writing in 1994, gave us an abusive monster with ears of gold. Hermes, in a biography that comes as close to any as being definitive—though DeCurtis sometimes discusses the music more thoroughly, and both DeCurtis and Levy give fuller pictures of some of Reed’s intimate relationships—clearly wants to tell a fundamentally less depressing story. Near the beginning, he telegraphs his ending: “And toward the end, in a storybook denouement, he achieved a kind of redemption, and grace, in large part through love.”
This is perhaps the right note for a biographer to hit. As a statement about Lou Reed, it jars. Reed the mensch was real, but Reed the bastard never fully goes away. If Reed “achieved” redemption—language that my Protestant soul cringes from, anyway—some people in Reed’s life who worked equally hard, or much harder, still never got it right, and Lou Reed, if he were narrating his own life, would probably have ended with a glimpse of those people, as “Street Hassle” contrasts a story about unexpectedly transcendent sex with a grim anecdote about a drug addict left for dead. Rachel Humphreys seems to have ended up in one of the mass graves they used to bury AIDS patients in. Nico, after years of heroin abuse, finally tried to get clean, then fell off her bike (!) and died. Andy Warhol got shot by Valerie Solanas and retreated behind fame. (Once Warhol died, and there was finally enough room around Reed’s fragile ego for him to simply love the man he had learned so much from, he reteamed with Cale to mount a moving, album-length elegy, 1989’s Songs for Drella. At one point on that record he seems to call for Solanas’s execution, which would have been impossible by that point, and which seems not to fit with Reed’s generally charmingly normie-boomer-liberal politics; it shows how raw his grief still was, and his fear.) I’m not saying that this is somehow Reed’s fault, or that he could have prevented it; I’m saying that Lou Reed, the artist, is memorable precisely because he rarely ended a story on its happiest part. The gentlest Velvet Underground album, the self-titled third LP, ends with the fragmented, ugly “The Murder Mystery”; Reed’s last albums were, respectively, a collection of New Age loops designed for t’ai chi practitioners (he and Anderson were devoted students) and a famously unpleasant collaboration with Metallica on an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays. As I’ve said, he never quite retreated into elder statesmanhood.
Similarly, his life, when studied in detail, never allows one’s feelings to fully resolve on awe or disgust. It is wonderful, reading this book, to see him gradually mend fences with Cale; it’s horrible to see nastiness erupt again between them, after the 1993 Velvet Underground reunion tour. (Worst of all are his gratuitous insults to Moe Tucker, the member of the Velvets most loyal to him and, for much of her life, an underpaid working mom. She seems to have forgiven him for all of it.) His treatment of women, at least in the first half of his life, is frequently downright abusive. We read again here of the moment that ended his friendship with Bowie for many years: They’re out for dinner at some point in the late ’70s, reconnecting, enjoying each other, and Reed asks Bowie to produce his next album. A partially rehabbed Bowie, back from Berlin, tells him he’ll do it, but Lou has to “clean up [his] act.” Here is how Hermes renders Reed’s reaction:
In an instant, Reed reached past [Sylvia] Morales and slapped Bowie hard across the face with the back of his right hand—then slapped him again, this time with his palm, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him across the table. “Don’t you ever say that to me,” Reed hissed drunkenly into his face.
How does Reed not recognize the incredible kindness that Bowie, just a few years after his living-on-cocaine-and-white-peppers-while-hiding-his-bodily-fluids-from-imaginary-witches period, is trying to do him? How was he such a great observer of other people, and, sometimes, such a dim reader of his own life? We’re back to the sorts of questions that would make a good Lou Reed song. He is a mess that generations to come—writers, artists, biographers, fans—will struggle, and fail, to clean up.
So is his art. I have listened to Metal Machine Music end to end at least five times during the writing of this review. I still don’t know if it’s a put-on. Here is how Hermes, always adept at tracing influences and finding connections—skills well on display in his excellent chronicle history of music in New York from 1973-78, Love Goes to a Building on Fire (2011)—deals with it:
Reed would never stop trying to contextualize Metal Machine Music as a fusion of “high” and “low” art, which in a sense had been his project all along. He compared it to Warhol’s soup can, and his eight-hour single-shot film Empire. He’d also describe the LP as “shit on a platter.” In any case, Reed’s aesthetic impulse proved prescient. In November, Brian Eno released Discreet Music, an album of hushed, pulsing electronic drones that was in many ways a quiet Metal Machine Music, though it was received very differently.
Which is helpful, but doesn’t really rule out the possibility that the record is “shit on a platter.” Hermes dares do all that may become a biographer; who dares answer this question is none. I will say, for what it’s worth, that Metal Machine grows on me each time. If this makes me worry that I have fallen for a forty-eight-year-old practical joke, well, that is the cost of life with both Lou Reeds.