Remember when being Bono was uncool? Perhaps you don’t. But there was a time when Bono banging on about his activism or his latest charity concerns, or Sting going on about saving the rainforest, felt like an importation of social work into a genre – rock – that was sociopathic at best. In those days we pooh-poohed them and called them squares, while reaching for our copies of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, with its emphatic line on the LP sleeve ‘no synthesizers, no Arp, no instruments, no panning, no phasing, no’ and Reed’s insistence in the liner notes that his week ‘beats your year’. So how do you repackage Reed – the violently aggressive, drug-huffing, race-baiting, fag-branding, friend-betraying, sexually unhinged ‘death dwarf’ – to appeal to a Bono-ised world, to a generation of young musicians and music fans who invariably see themselves as activists and as forces for the ever-nebulous ‘good’?
Will Hermes, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, doesn’t shy away from Reed’s awful behaviour – indeed he goes into it in some depth – but he sinks it in a narrative that sees the arc of Reed’s life as the gradual becoming of ‘someone good’, to quote from one of his best-loved songs, ‘Perfect Day’. Beyond Reed getting himself clean and recording the 1989 album New York, which helped revive his dwindling reputation, the evidence at hand points to nothing like such a zeitgeist-friendly conclusion. Reed raged against the dying of the light right up until the end, wishing ‘for the crazy times one more time’, claiming in his final, reassuringly testy interview that his father didn’t give him shit, that he never went to school and that he slept with his amp – every bit the sociopathic Lou Reed of 1974, with his notorious press conferences. The last portrait of Reed, by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, shows him partly obscured by his own clenched street-fighter fist.
Hermes launches a rearguard action from the off, in the preface and in an introductory section titled ‘Notes on Process, Myth Parsing and Pronouns’, where he refers to Reed in the language of every vaguely contemporary shibboleth. He ‘wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power’, he and his circle were ‘nonbinary’, he had (and you almost feel Hermes’s heart sink at his duty to inform the reader) a ‘cis-female’ wife (here he’s referring to Reed’s second wife, Sylvia Morales). It reads like a pre-emptive strike to cover Hermes’s ass and ensure personal indemnity for what comes next.
Much of that is structured around what feels like a gimmick. Chapters are titled according to Reed’s geographical location at the time of his life that each one covers. Most of the them are taken from places around New York, to fit with the conceit of the book title, but they also take in London and San Francisco. Each chapter begins with a pseudo-gonzo list of the many topics it covers. This works for the early chapters, where it gives a sense of the incredible velocity of late-1960s counter-culture, but soon becomes yet another pointless pre-emption.
This is the first book about Reed published since the opening of his archive and it shows: it feels more like a coolly researched biography than one written by a passionate fan. Indeed, Hermes’s taste for Reed’s music is comparatively square: he cites the third Velvet Underground LP as the band’s best and skims over genuinely innovative deep-fan favourites, such as Lulu, Reed’s final album, a collaboration with Metallica (though he discusses a single track from it, ‘Junior Dad’, which allows him to spin some thin Freudian psychology). ‘Can you see beauty in ugliness,’ sang Reed in 1990, in a song for his early mentor Andy Warhol, ‘or is it playing in the dirt’. Reed’s music often blurred the line, nowhere more so than on Lulu, which combines body horror, despair and elation while displaying the kind of monolithic riffing and emotional bluntness that defined all of his greatest work, from ‘Sister Ray’ to ‘Like a Possum’.
What Hermes does best is sift the archive for the telling detail, for the most Lou Reed-esque moments: Reed eating ‘ice cream with a bent, blackened spoon’ or, after being asked at an academic event in Texas whether we should try to preserve nature, grabbing the mic, banging his hand on it several times and announcing, ‘this is my nature’. We get a description of Reed’s coffee table, arrayed with ‘a bottle of prescription pills, a circular silver dish with 12 disposable hypodermic needles neatly arranged along its edges in a sort of speed-freakishly compulsive sunbeam pattern, and a row of test tubes filled with water, little white pills dissolving in milky bubbles within each one.’ Hermes also has a good feel for Reed’s ingenious rhyming couplets, dropping his favourites throughout the book. The first few chapters are the most successful, and parallel Todd Haynes’s brilliant 2021 Velvet Underground documentary by diving deep into the creative tumult of the times, bringing in fascinating characters like the poet-occultist and original Velvets drummer, Angus MacLise, who famously quit the band when told he would have to turn up at a certain time and, even more outrageously, accept money for doing so; avant-garde filmmaker Barbara Rubin, whose film Christmas on Earth (aka Cocks and Cunts), consisting of daring close-ups of gay and straight sex, was begun when she was just eighteen years old in 1963; Reed’s long-term nemesis, the pioneering rock critic Lester Bangs, dead at thirty-three; and Cleveland guitarist Peter Laughner, co-founder of Pere Ubu, himself dead at twenty-four after burning up the years in emulation of Reed, whose picture he had pinned above his stereo, fixed there by a switchblade. But the rhythm of the book feels a little odd, with sections segregated from one another rather than flowing together. I kept waiting for uber-fan Jonathan Richman to chime in with some commentary about the Velvet Underground’s legendary Boston shows, but he doesn’t show up until later in a ‘famous fans’ aside, along with guitarist Robert Quine. As such, the book feels too compartmentalised.
Plus, there’s nothing new from Reed’s bandmate John Cale. Virtually all of Cale’s contributions here are lifted from his autobiography, What’s Welsh for Zen. What Hermes does better is to focus more than any other biographer has done on Reed’s partners, from Shelley Albin through Bettye Kronstad, Rachel Humphreys and Sylvia Morales to Laurie Anderson, and there are insights into all the kindsa love that Reed required: gay, straight, abusive, tender. At the end of his life he described the sound of love ‘by pursing his lips and softly blowing, as if to dislodge the fluff of dandelion seeds’. Yet some of the key moments in his life seem as inexplicable as ever, like why he fired Cale or why he split the Velvet Underground. At one point the band’s drummer Moe Tucker starts to speculate but then stops herself, admitting that, truly, she has no idea. You’re left feeling that perhaps Reed himself had just as little insight into why he did things, or who this Lou Reed character was at all.
Reed worked out in public what most of us wouldn’t give ourselves permission to work out, even in private. He took all that was difficult and dark and destructive in what it is to be human, and he said yes to it. His life wasn’t some kind of flip calvary towards becoming ‘someone good’; it was the life of a flawed human being struggling to alchemise all of it – ‘not some of it’, as he sang on 1992’s Magic and Loss – into something beautiful. And he did. An awkward love letter to the 20th century with added apologia, The King of New York is the perfect biography of Lou Reed for 2023, and will likely remain that way.