We talked to the author of a new biography, "Notes from the Velvet Underground," about how we're all "beginning to see the light" on the beloved proto-punk provocateur's personality.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
"When Lou Reed died in October 2013," says Howard Sounes, the author of the new biography Notes from the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed, "many journalists who loved his work were quick to regurgitate their nostalgia into eulogistic newspaper obituaries. They seemed to forget the truth that almost every journalist who ever met Reed knew: He could be very unpleasant."
If you were the wife he gave a black eye, the girlfriend he hit during a dinner party, or the sister he publicly humiliated in song lyrics, "very unpleasant" is perhaps an understatement. After growing up in a liberal, middle-class household, Reed had an artistic career that has earned him infamy and adoration among those who consider themselves serious about music: In the mid-60s, he became the frontman for the Velvet Underground, now widely regarded as a band unduly underrated but nevertheless entirely influential to pretty much anything that came after it. Following his sudden departure from the group in 1970, Reed went on to have a spotty but nevertheless significant solo career, with hits like "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Perfect Day." For pretty much his entire life, however, the artist was plagued with mental illness, drug addiction, and aggressive, jealous tendencies, and this led him to suck, personality-wise. "He allowed himself to become a self-parody, a punk-like provocateur, to sell records," Sounes says. "He was the junkie bisexual rock star who (pretended to) shoot up on stage and said outrageous things in interviews to get attention. It was a deliberate policy, and a very unfortunate one, because it undermined his artistic credibility. He was a better artist than that."
Where is the line between apologism and realism here? It's hard to say. Reed's fans, many of whom have a particularly sentimental attachment to his work because of its appeal to the outsider, charitably describe the guy's "essence" as "tricky," evoking complication to spin flaws as positive qualities, just as we might when critiquing a work of art. But humans are not works of art, which is maybe why we keep trying to make works of art. After Reed's death from liver cancer in 2013, at the age of 71, Sounes—who has also written books about Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, and mass murderers—attempted to create a balanced account of the underground icon's life. I talked to Sounes over email about how and why Reed earned such posthumous epithets as "prick" and "monster," despite being regarded by friends, family, colleagues, and lovers as a genius.
BROADLY: Reed was fairly explicit about being what you refer to in an interview with the Daily Beast as a "monster"—he was openly racist, misogynistic, etc., in his lyrics and in his public statements. Do you think the fact that he was working with his morally repugnant impulses in his art—or using them to be politically radical in some way, say—absolves him at all?
Howard Sounes: I'm not so sure that Reed's lyrics were racist. [Some people argue that they are.] He made some racist comments in conversation, as people of his generation often did. The word nigger was more widely used 30 years ago than it is now, though the way in which he used it was particularly offensive, and I'm sure he made remarks in interviews like, "I don't like niggers like Donna Summer" to project a bad boy image. If an artist said such things now, they'd lose their record deal. Somehow he got away with it in the 1970s.
The theme of misogyny in his songwriting is much more interesting. I highlight it in my book partly because nobody else seems to have noticed.
From the first Velvet Underground album (the line "You better hit her" in "There She Goes Again"), through songs on the albums Transformer, Berlin, Sally Can't Dance, and Street Hassle, right up to "Mistress Dread" on Lulu at the end of his career ("I'm a woman who likes men... I beg you to degrade me... Please spit in my mouth"), Reed wrote repeatedly about women being abused, including women being beaten, raped, and murdered.
He argued that he was simply writing in character, from the point of view of a violent person, as a novelist would. Fair enough. But as I show in the book, Lou was also misogynistic in real life. So the art seems to express an aspect of his personality.
The Daily Beast used the headline "Lou Reed Described Bob Dylan as a 'Pretentious Kike'." When I mentioned this to some coworkers, they basically responded, "Lou Reed was Jewish, too! So it's fine"—or at least more excusable than if he were not. (There's also the argument that he did it to be shocking; at the time it would have been more shocking than now, when it just seems gross.) How do you respond to that?
The Daily Beast journalist picked out one or two stories from the book, and presented them in a way that catches the public's attention. That's journalism. I'm an author. My book is 407 pages long. It is as subtle and nuanced as its subject. If you read the book, not the articles, you will see that a friend of Lou's tells the story about Lou calling Bob Dylan a "pretentious kike." The friend goes on to say, "He's Jewish himself. It was a typical Lou thing to say." Now, whether or not Lou being Jewish makes it OK to call a fellow Jew a "kike," I can't say. But the context is in the book.
To my mind, what is more interesting is the fact that Reed showed himself in this comment, and in other passages in my book, to be jealous of Bob Dylan. Reed was generally jealous of fellow artists, and bitter about his relative lack of commercial success.
He allowed himself to become a self-parody, a punk-like provocateur, to sell records.
Do you get a lot of hate mail?
Sometimes music fans get offended if you write anything critical about their idol. In many cases, these fans started listening to this music when they were adolescents, when pop music makes a strong and lasting impression. The songs became part of their life, and their identity. Middle-aged men (and it is mostly men) love their early rock star idols like they love old cars, model trains, and football teams. It's pure nostalgia. The songs they listened to when they were 14-19 become part of a cozy idea they have of their lost youth. They are not always willing to stand back and take an impartial, critical view of their idols, which is what I do as a biographer. They don't always understand that the author is following the story, and reporting the evidence. It is not me saying Lou Reed is a prick. I wouldn't say such a thing. But if people who knew Reed intimately tell me that he was a prick—and many used that exact word, independently of each other—I will report it.
Read More: Grover Cleveland, a Rapist President
Unfortunately, the modern world is awash with celebrity memoirs and ghostwritten "authorized" biographies that are intrinsically dishonest. These books corrupt readers' understanding of biography as a literary genre; they are written to enhance and protect the public image of a celebrity. It is all about image manipulation and control. They are often not even written by the people they claim to be written by, by which I mean stars pose as authors, whereas they did not write a word. This is fundamentally dishonest. In contrast, a professional biographer works independently, investigating the subject from the outside in, doing a huge amount of work to find out the truth about the person or persons. Anybody who is well read, and understands the nature of biography, will appreciate what I do.
Did many of the people who called him a "prick" also say they loved him and forgave him for it?
It is certainly true that Reed had some negative personality traits. He habitually fell out with people. He made enemies. He messed people about. He was often rude. He was a drunkard and a drug addict, which doesn't enhance anybody's personality. Numerous people had harsh things to say about him as a result. But in many instances they also had good things to say about him, especially about his capacity for creating original and powerful work. The fact that he could be an unpleasant person doesn't take away from the fact that he could be a great artist. It is also true to say that he could also be a disappointing, lazy, hack songwriter. There is a gulf between his best work in the Velvets and his worst work in his solo career.
Middle-aged men (and it is mostly men) love their early rock star idols like they love old cars, model trains, and football teams.
Did you find that he mellowed out or "got better" later in life? Or was he consistently a prick throughout? Did people ever report him showing remorse or regret about his behavior?
There was some mellowing, some evidence that he was easier to deal with at the end of life. His widow, Laurie Anderson, remarked on this at his memorial. But he could still behave rudely.
As far as his work was concerned, the lyrics he wrote for Lulu, his final project, were among the most outrageous of his career. Songs like "Mistress Dread" border on the obscene, and seem to me to scream misogyny. He of course would say he was writing in character. That may be seen like Reed having his cake and eating it, too.
Can you talk more about the misogyny? I know he hit women—was there any evidence that he respected them at all?
His attitude to women was complicated. He was fundamentally bisexual. He had an uncertain, mutable sexuality, which he tried to hide at various times in his life. Don't forget that he grew up in the 1940s and 50s, in a middle-class suburban community, when such things were much more difficult. He was attracted to men sexually, but he liked to have women friends. And he liked to be married. He was married three times. As I show in the book, he also had a de facto fourth marriage to a gay male transvestite in the late 1970s. They celebrated with a wedding cake—there is a great picture of this occasion in the book.
Why did Reed keep getting married? His first wife explains in the book how wives were useful to him: They looked after him, they cared for him, they did things for him. His second wife ended up actually working for him, as his manager.
But as a bisexual [person], who was also attracted to men, he [seems to have] had deeply ambivalent feelings towards women—emotionally and sexually. This didn't result in stable relationships, until he met his third wife, who was a big enough character to stand up to him, perhaps.
Wives were useful to him: They looked after him, they cared for him, they did things for him.
What were some of the most surprising things you discovered while researching this book? Did you ever stumble upon instances of Lou Reed being kind or "good"?
I was frankly surprised at how unpleasant he could be, and at how many people he upset over the years. He fell out with people all the time. I also began to understand that his mental health was a lifelong issue, as was addiction. He appeared to be a tough guy, but that was the facade of a mixed-up, often frightened man.
There are stories in the book of Lou behaving well. He loved his sister, Bunny, and she loved him. He had a good relationship with a girlfriend named Erin Clermont. There are some examples of him being generous, even charitable, with friends and with family. All of that is in the book, along with the outrageous stuff that makes headlines. One includes everything that seems interesting, true, and relevant. As the author, I am as impartial as I can be. It's not for me to judge Lou Reed. I wrote the book because I enjoyed his music, from the age of 14 to now, and because he was an interesting subject for a biography. I still admire and enjoy his music, no less for knowing as much as I now do about his life.