David Bowie gave Lou Reed a new lease of life when he helped to create the classic Transformer album – and was repaid with jealousy and loathing, according to Howard Sounes, author of Notes from the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed.
I do like a biography that doesn’t spare the awful truth about its subject and apparently the truth about Lou Reed is that he was pretty awful and that he stayed pretty awful for pretty much all of his life, which went on to last a remarkable 71 years.
The longevity was remarkable because the late great left-field rock musician was a booze hound, a drug fiend and woman-bullying bisexual to boot right through the Aids years and somewhere beyond, though he ended his life married to the rather lovely Laurie Anderson, who must have seen some light shining in the leathery and combative old coot.
The light, albeit a dark one, certainly shone out of Reed in his glory years with The Velvet Underground, a band that cast its odd and powerful musical shadow out of New York in the last half of the 1960s.
It seemed at the time it was as if they were out to hex all the hippies, who were loving it up way over on the other side of America in the warm California sun. That didn’t quite pan out, though. Well, certainly not immediately.
On an ill-conceived tour of the West Coast at the time, the bombastic San Francisco promoter Bill Graham told the Velvet Underground as they went on stage, ‘I hope you fuckers bomb’, and they duly did. Hippies must have hated them.
Instead of California dreaming, Reed’s songs, delivered in his nasal sing-speak sneer, addressed drugs and dealers and the bruises and cruelties of love, subjects the precocious Reed had soaked up from the outré books and cinema that had excited him from a rather early age.
And seedy inspiration was certainly all around him once he’d fallen in with Andy Warhol and his circus of freaks at the Factory, where the Velvet Underground became the house band and the soundtrack they provided was unlike anything or anyone else.
Their scratchy droning other-worldly weirdness meant their first album, featuring German model Nico as a second singer, sold next to nothing – but famously, as someone clever later observed, every one of those kids went and started a band.
A large part of that is because Reed made it sound easy, in an uneasy sort of way. But he was an uneasy sort of a person.
Reed grew up a Jewish middle class New York kid. His dad, Sid, was an accountant who worked for a Long Island packaging company. When he was young, Reed liked to make himself seem more interesting by pretending to be from a wealthy family, but ‘Lou was no more the son of a millionaire than he was a child of the streets, though he also adopted that image,’ says Howard Sounes in Notes From the Velvet Underground.
It’s a biography that might be a rough read for anyone in search of a respectful nod to a great artist. Sounes doesn’t much like Reed, painting him as a prick from the start, a pig-headed and precocious kid, indulged at home, bullied at school, subjected to shock treatment in a hapless attempt to get him onto a straighter and narrower path than he seemed set on.
By college, he’d taken up heroin, contracted hepatitis and was sleeping with guys, though he claimed to prefer girls.
Later, he said of that time, ‘Being gay, I found that so many women – deluded creatures that they are – are attracted to you because you’re not interested in them… it came across as the ultimate cool.’
Oh and he had a guitar and ambitions for pop stardom of some sort, though he knew not quite what until he ran into the odd collection of misfits who help him form the Velvet Underground and in the process helped invent what would become known as alternative rock music.
Most of the band were barely musicians at all, at first anyway. The most talented, John Cale, was an unrepentant avant-gardist, a cellist and pianist, not a rock and roller. Guitarist Sterling Morrison was learning on the job and drummer Maureen Tucker was a primitive whose lack of technique became a cornerstone of the band’s primal sound.
According to Sounes, Reed established himself as a non-negotiable bandleader from the start, though he had a smattering of cred, having previously been signed as a staff songwriter by Pickwick Records for whom he wrote a string of non-hits for little-known acts like The Intimates.
The Welsh-born Cale helped Reed move his style from the folky approach he favoured at first to an edgier, more abrasive approach and soon Reed was coming up with songs to match.
One of Reed’s song writing rules went, ‘To be terrific, be specific’ and that was what put the power in the extraordinary Reed originals that studded the first Velvet Underground album, songs like I’m Waiting for the Man with its hammer-on-nail opening lines, ‘I’m waiting for my man/Twenty-six dollars in my hand/Up to Lexington 1-2-5/Feeling sick and dirty more dead than alive.’
It’s all there, price, address, medical condition and that song’s such a long way from She Loves You and even Somebody to Love.
Then Andy Warhol saw them play and though he didn’t know diddly about rock music, he liked them enough to offer to manage them and make them part of the scene at his Factory.
Much to Reed’s distress, a fifth member was forced on the Velvet Underground when Warhol and his offsider the film-maker Paul Morrissey decided Reed didn’t have enough charisma.
The new star of the band was Nico, a gloomy gorgeous German model, 10 years older than Reed, deaf in one ear and utterly tuneless, but in a charismatic way that suited the few of his songs Reed let her warble.
He hated her, until he slept with her, but then he went back to hating her again and drove her from the band, which, meantime, had made its masterpiece with their debut album. Three more followed without Nico and, eventually, without Cale, who Reed turned on too and drove from the band.
Reed was, as Sounes reminds us somewhat relentlessly throughout Notes From the Velvet Underground, a nasty piece of work and the growing conviction of his own genius only made him nastier.
But loads of those rock star buggers are, especially the ones, like Reed, who did their great work early and never quite hit the heights again.
I interviewed a few difficult rock stars over the years, but I never met Lou. He was famous for being unpleasant with interviewers. Once, when foolishly asked by one of them what he regarded as ‘the lowest form of misery’ and he replied, ‘Being interviewed by an English music journalist.’
I wasn’t sorry to have missed him. I did see him playing once, though. It was during his low years in the mid 70s. He was featured at the mid-afternoon midway mark on the bill of a big rock concert at the Charlton Footie Grounds in London headlined by The Who.
The bright natural light of mid afternoon didn’t much suit Lou, who came on stage looking bad, pale as a vampire, his hair a yellow peroxide stubble save for the swastikas dyed black on each side of his head. During his performance of his most notorious song Heroin he pulled out a needle and did actually appear to shoot up. His performance picked up a little after that, but band, meantime, had turned his songs into characterless hard rock. I’d been quite into him up to that point, but after that I drifted.
Lou himself had been drifting for some time, according to Sounes. Or, as he puts it, ‘So fat that his belly hung over his leather trousers, his pancake makeup slick with sweat, Lou lurched around the stage, stooping now and again to swig from a bottle of Scotch which he kept stashed behind a monitor. Commercial success had been a long time coming, but when it arrived in the summer of 1973 he was unable to cope.’
He turned against everyone who tried to help – including David Bowie who he was jealous of, according to Sounes and his witnesses.
After the groundbreaking records with the Velvet Underground, he went on to make one solo classic album, Transformer, land one big hit (Walk on the Wild Side) and then drift through the rest of his career, occasionally rising to make something remarkable, like the Berlin album, or something remarkably bad (the assaultive Metal Machine Music, the dreadful late-career collaboration with Metallica).
He married, he had no children, he didn’t want the competition. He was, according to Sounes, an abusive man who really didn’t think much of women, to put it mildly.
‘I’m a chauvinist down to my toes,’ he said in an interview in 1979. ‘I think women admire force all the more for not having it… a woman can get turned off if you’re appreciative of her when what she really wants is to be smacked across the mouth.’
But I suppose none of this comes as much of a surprise and Sounes does tell his tale straight and apparently true. He interviewed 140-odd people for the book, including several of the major players, but no one much adores Lou and it shows.
Sounes isn’t quite so good on the music, somehow failing to catch the spark of it. It’s simply a book of the life of the dark star. It’s chunky, well written and chock full of photos – glossies in a clutch and black and whites scattered through the text.
Reading it did make me go back and play the Velvet Underground, but then I’d play them every few months anyway. In the end, it’s the music that counts, not the life.