Book Review: “Lou Reed: The King of New York” — The First Monarch of Indie/Alt Rock

By John R. Killacky

Will Hermes reveres Lou Reed’s music, and he expounds on his love in this voluminous, well-researched biography.

Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pages, $35

As a writer and commentator for Rolling Stone and NPR, Will Hermes has zestfully illuminated the zeitgeist of various musical movements, contextualizing them within historical and cultural frameworks. His latest book is a sumptuous examination of the complicated genius of Lou Reed, the drug-addled, gender queer musical avatar of leather, goth, glam, and punk scenes. Many books have been written about the legend, but Lou Reed: The King of New York may well be the definitive biography.

Hermes provides a detailed catalogue raisonné of Reed’s early Velvet Underground albums and examines his also later recordings, including the David Bowie-produced Transformer, which featured “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as recordings that were ignored at first (but now venerated): the operatic Berlin, the nihilistic Metal Machine Music, and the politically charged New York.

Reed’s early life was undistinguished. Growing up on Long Island, he played doo-wop in a high school band. In his first year at New York University, the musician had an emotional breakdown and underwent electroconvulsive therapy — it is unclear whether he was treated for depression or for being gay. Reed was an unreliable source about history. Researching the biography, Hermes found the musician often changed stories about his past depending upon the audience.

Reed transferred to Syracuse University. There he met guitarist Sterling Morrison and contracted hepatitis from dirty needles due to injecting heroin. After graduation he quickly thrived in New York’s avant-garde scene, performing in happenings with Morrison, John Cale droning on his viola, and Moe Tucker on drums — the musicians called themselves The Velvet Underground.

The quartet fell into Andy Warhol’s demimonde, with its drag queens, starlets, sex, drugs, and all forms of art-making. Warhol offered to produce the band’s album, but insisted Nico join the group as their chanteuse. Warhol got top billing on the front cover via his now infamous silk-screened photograph of a banana. The Velvet Underground & Nico only received billing on the backside of the album.

Because of its vitriolic sound and transgressive lyrics, the record garnered little radio play. Within a year, Nico was out and Reed fired Warhol. After the group’s second release, the jazz-inflected White Light/White Heat, went nowhere, Reed kicked Cale out of the band. The remaining members soldiered on for two more studio albums before Reed finally left in 1970.

Over time, these early records have achieved cult status, their songs covered by David Bowie, Patti Smith, REM, and Cowboy Junkies, among others. Reed once joked with Brian Eno that, although sales for these albums were meager, “everyone who bought a copy started a band.”

During the ’70s and ’80s Reed’s perpetually shapeshifting musical output (and provocative personas) made him the godfather of indie/alt rock. While the musician’s street cred grew, Hermes reminds the reader that much of Reed’s output at the time was also initially maligned. In addition to music, the restless Reed continues to pursue writing at a high level: pieces of his appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. He also published three photo books.

In 1989, Reed and Cale reunited to present Songs for ‘Drella – A Fiction, a stark, elegiac homage to their estranged mentor Warhol, who had died two years before. (Their nickname for him was “Drella,” a contraction of Cinderella and Dracula; Reed was called “Lulu,” according to Cale.) Performances premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.

Amphetamines, heroin, cannabis, and alcohol fueled Reed’s prodigious output, but this appetite wreaked havoc on bandmates, road crew, colleagues, friends, and family. Hermes delves into the musician’s destructive behavior, particularly toward Cale, the ethereal violist whose monotonal surround sound provided such an effective contrast to Reed’s four-chord beats and primal lyrics. Another target of Reed’s misbehavior — in this case domestic violence — was Rachel Humphreys, his trans partner during the ’70s.

Reed and Humphreys separated, and the musician married Sylvia Morales in 1980. She helped Reed get clean, and successfully licensed his work for use in films and commercials. In the ’90s, Reed blissfully settled down with multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson. They became the quintessential New York hipster elders before Reed died — after a failed liver transplant — in 2013 at the age of 71. Even as he was beset with failing health, Reed was planning new projects.

Anderson described his death to Hermes: “His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open.… He wasn’t afraid.” Lou Reed’s final words: “Take me into the light.”

In eulogies, poet and musician Patti Smith called him, “our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.” Michael Stipe praised him as a “queer icon” who, in the late ’60s “proclaimed with beautifully confusing candidness a much more 21st-century understanding of a fluid, moving sexuality.”

Will Hermes reveres Lou Reed’s music, and he expounds on his love in this voluminous, well-researched biography. Every album of Reed’s is accompanied by discussions filled with riveting backstories as well as sympathetic analysis of various interpretations of the musician’s songs. So, on the one hand, Lou Reed: The King of New York is a delightfully deep dive into what looks to be a canonical legacy. On the other hand, Hermes should also be credited for not shying away from looking at the harsher realities of Reed’s life, the abusive behavior driven by his personal demons. He was a brilliant, but flawed, monarch.

John R. Killacky is the author of because art: commentary, critique, & conversation.

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