Who Was the Real Lou Reed?
By ALEX WILLIAMSOCT. 31, 2015
After Lou Reed died of liver disease on Oct. 27, 2013, Rolling Stone wrote that he “fused street-level urgency with elements of European avant-garde music, marrying beauty and noise, while bringing a whole new lyrical honesty to rock & roll poetry.”
His old friend Patti Smith, writing in The New Yorker, called him “our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.”
Laurie Anderson, his wife since 2008, described Reed in The East Hampton Star as “a tai chi master” who spent his last days on the South Fork “being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature.”
“Lou was a prince and a fighter,” she wrote.
On the latter point, at least, Ms. Anderson may overlap with Howard Sounes, the author of the controversial new Lou Reed biography, “Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed,” released in England last week, which paints a less-than-flattering portrait of Reed as a “monster” of a man, who used racial slurs, abused women and fought with fellow artists.
“He was constantly at war with people — with family, friends, lovers, band members, managers and record companies,” Mr. Sounes said in an interview last week. “He was a suspicious, cantankerous, bitter, angry man.”
“It was the worst-kept secret in show business,” he added.
While no one ever confused Lou Reed for an Osmond, the Sounes book, part of a coming wave of Reed biographies, pushes the standard Reed narrative of the substance-addled, gender-confused avatar of cool into “Mommie Dearest” territory, portraying him as given to emotional and physical brutality, paranoid tantrums and acid-tongued invective.
Mr. Sounes’s portrait of an artist who slapped women, yanked fans by the hair and pulled knives on bandmates has stirred headlines on both sides of the Atlantic since its
publication on Oct. 22, and provoked a spirited Reed defense among fans and intimates.
His longtime wife and manager, Sylvia Reed (now Ramos), broke what she said was an 18-year media silence to dispute Mr. Sounes’s portrait for this article.
“That’s not a person I recognize,” Ms. Ramos said of the Lou Reed portrayed in the book. Many damning anecdotes, she added, seem to come from people Reed knew in the hazy drug-fueled 1970s “that I know for a fact were not capable of remembering anything they did in any given six-month period during that time, much less come back all these years later and say, ‘Oh, yes, I was there, this is what was going on.’ ”
Readers will have to decide whether the musician was simply a rock-and-roller taking a walk on the wild side or the disturbed individual Mr. Sounes portrays.
Through more than 140 interviews, Mr. Sounes, who has previously written biographies on Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, portrays a troubled genius whose antisocial tendencies were evident even from his early years in Freeport, N.Y.
The book quotes one friend from that time about a double-date on prom night, in which Reed made a move on his date in the back seat while the other couple squirmed in front. As the encounter turned X-rated, the girl in front protested that such behavior was disgusting.
Reed answered with a vulgar rejoinder, adding, “Don’t look if you don’t like it.”
Mental illness, Mr. Sounes says, was always a factor in Reed’s erratic behavior. The book reports that Reed suffered his first nervous breakdown in his freshman year in college, which was quickly followed by his much-chronicled experience with electroshock therapy.
The treatment decimated his short-term memory and inspired “incredible rage” toward his parents, particularly his father, Sid, according to Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner. (Ms. Weiner, however, disputed her brother’s claim that the therapy was forced on him “to discourage homosexual feelings.” “My parents were many things — anxious, controlling — but they were blazing liberals,” she is quoted as saying.)
If Reed harbored deep-seated anger after this trauma, it was likely aggravated by his early experiences with fame — if such a word applies to his tenure in his seminal ’60s band, the Velvet Underground.
The band’s albums are now considered among the most influential in rock history. But at the height of the hippie era, they were ignored by many critics and the public, which was more interested in flower power than the Velvets’ brooding art rock.
The failure to break through left him bitter, Mr. Sounes said in the interview: “He spent five years creating some of the most inventive and original music of the 1960s, and nobody cared. The week of the Woodstock festival, the Velvet Underground were playing at a roadhouse in Massachusetts.”
At a time when the rock world was entranced with kaleidoscope LSD visions, Reed was bingeing on speed and, as his bandmate John Cale has said, acting like a “queen bitch” and spitting out “the sharpest rebukes around.”
“Meth made him feel like Superman,” Mr. Sounes writes; he reportedly told one friend that “he was going to take meth every day for the rest of his life. For years, he did.”
Reed’s demons, which came to include alcohol in copious amounts, were allowed to run amok during his solo career in the free-for-all ’70s.
On a 1975 tour of Italy, Reed splattered an unsatisfactory plate of pasta against a wall during a lunch in the luxurious Ambasciatori Palace Hotel in Rome, according to the book; he later pulled a switchblade on his violin player at a party at an estate belonging the Agnelli family, the founders of Fiat.
But Reed was also capable of outrage that went well beyond the typical Keith Moon trash-the-hotel-room high jinks. At a news conference, the book recounts, Reed shocked reporters by saying, in vulgar terms, he came to Rome to have sex with the Pope.
Even more damning are the book’s allegations of abusive behavior toward women.
The guitarist Chuck Hammer recalled a 1979 concert in Germany, in which a woman climbed onstage during a tense standoff between Reed and a heckler. “Lou proceeds to drag her off the stage by her hair, and pushes her off the stage,” Mr. Hammer is quoted as saying. “She fell 15 feet — at least, at which stage a full-blown riot breaks out.”
Reed’s first wife, Bettye Kronstad, recalled him starting to binge on Scotch every day around 3 p.m. on tour. Sometimes, those binges turned violent.
“‘We were on the road, and he was really drunk, and he would, like, pin you up against a wall and tussle you, like rough you up a little,” Ms. Kronstad is quoted as saying.
Once, he gave her a black eye, so she swung back at him: “It was pretty clear to me that the only way he would ever stop doing that was if I did it to him, so he’d have to walk on stage with a black eye.”
While Mr. Sounes’s book offers a detailed analysis of Reed’s music, as well as some flattering anecdotes, it is the dirt on Reed that has gained news media attention.
A recent article about it in The Daily Beast cited Reed’s derogatory reference to the fact that Bob Dylan is Jewish, and mentioned one anecdote in which Reed, in an interview with a journalist, referred to Donna Summer with a racial slur.
Coverage like that, Ms. Ramos said, describes a very different man from the one she was with for 18 years. “I was with him all those years,” she said. “I saw him through not only the intense cycle of drinking and drugs, but through nine lawsuits, which were extremely stressful, and his financial condition when I met him was terrible.”
“No matter how hard it got, I never had that behavior from him,” Ms. Ramos said. She added that “he was never physically aggressive with me.”
Ms. Ramos said that Reed, while not religious, was deeply proud of his Jewish heritage, and highly sensitive to anti-Semitic slurs. As for racist language, Reed was a student of jazz and soul who campaigned against apartheid. “He never used that word in front of me and he would have been ferociously angry if anyone used it in front of him,” she said.
Ms. Ramos also disputed the idea that Reed was mentally ill. “He saw things differently,” she said. “He was a creative genius.” While Reed and she had discussed his undergoing shock therapy as a youth because of depression, Ms. Ramos added: “In the years that I lived and worked with him, he had no diagnosis of severe mental illness, no hospitalizations, no admissions to clinics, no depressive states, no interventions, no withdrawals into apathy. He was constantly productive and working.”
Without question, Reed was capable of highly self-contradictory behavior. In the 1970s, he publicly identified as gay, yet he went on to marry three women (“Notes” recounts Mr. Reed’s faux-wedding, complete with three-tiered cake, to his transgender partner, Rachel, in 1977). But Reed intimates found the idea that Reed was a “monster” unconvincing.
“Most talented people are horrible and wonderful simultaneously,” said Danny Fields, the writer and rock-scene fixture who briefly managed Reed.
When he received an advance copy of the book, Mr. Fields said, “I looked up my name in the index, read my quotes, sighed and put it on the shelf.”
His conclusion: “Poor Lou, his act worked too well.”
Legs McNeil, the writer who helped found Punk magazine in the ’70s, said that Reed’s unhinged behavior hardly stood out in a circle that included berserkers like Iggy Pop. “Everyone was on so many different drugs that their brains got scrambled,” he said.
Some of Reed’s lingering image problems may boil down to a career-long failure in public relations.
In contrast to rock-god contemporaries like Pete Townshend and John Lennon, who used news media interviews as a form of public confessional (Lennon made a shame-soaked admission in a 1980 interview for Playboy to apologize that he had been “a hitter” in past relationships with women), Mr. Reed often seemed to see interviews as a bare-knuckle boxing match.
His face-offs with journalists are the stuff of legends among fans. In a much-circulated interview from 2000, the prickly star stops just short of slow-roasting a young Swedish television reporter on a spit, deriding his lack of experience, dearth of interesting questions and ultimately his profession, calling journalists “disgusting,” “pigs,” the “lowest form of life.”
Reed thought that many journalists were “lying in wait for him,” said Anthony DeCurtis, a longtime Rolling Stone contributor who is writing a comparatively sympathetic Reed biography to be published by Little, Brown next year.
An interview might start off with benign questions about songwriting, but as Reed once jokingly said to Mr. DeCurtis, they were eventually going to ask, “‘Did you have sex with a goat in Central Park with David Bowie in 1975?’ ”
(In addition to Mr. DeCurtis’s book, Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes is scheduled to publish “Lou: A New York Life”; Luc Sante, the chronicler of New York street life and culture, also said he recently started a Reed biography that he intends to be “proportionate.”)
In the latter years of Reed’s life, there was not much tawdry material to keep journalists titillated.
Aidan Levy, a New York music writer who wrote “Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed,” also published last month, said that Reed “could be abrasive, difficult and abusive,” but also that he “softened up over the course of his career, so Lou Reed in 1974 was not the same as Lou Reed in 2004.”
Indeed, Ms. Ramos said that Reed resolved to free himself from his addictions starting around 1979. The grueling process took years, and often involved separating himself from people from his old drug milieu and holing up in his country house in New Jersey, where he explored tai chi and Eastern philosophy.
“He did this on his own,” she said. “He was one of the strongest, bravest people I’ve ever known.”
Howie Klein, the former president of Reprise Records, recently posted a retort to Mr. Sounes’s book called “A Very Different Lou Reed From the Guy I Knew” on his blog, DownWithTyranny! In the post, Mr. Klein recalled talking philosophy with Reed and the former Czech president Vaclav Havel after a state dinner at the Clinton White House.
Michael Dorf, a founder of the experimental music venue the Knitting Factory, recalled genteel dinners with Reed in which they discussed art, music and their shared appreciation of Willamette Valley pinot noirs. After a long struggle with addiction, Reed was able to sip wine “in minimal amounts, for the flavor,” he said.
“People always said, ‘He hasn’t lashed out at you?’ ” Mr. Dorf said. “No, he never did.” Rather, he recalled Reed having “a grandfatherly kind of quality to him, that made him very warm and almost very huggable.”
(Ms. Anderson did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, although her new film, “Heart of a Dog,” a rumination on memory and loss, is laced with images of Reed).
Indeed, the Lou Reed who sat with Mr. DeCurtis for an expansive hour-plus interview at the 92nd Street Y in 2006 bore little resemblance to the bleach-blond nihilist of the ’70s who squirmed through interviews murmuring Warholian nonanswers.
Reed, looking Malibu breezy in a ribbed T-shirt and cocoa-colored sports jacket, sprawled loose-limbed on a chair, smiling and joking as the conversation bounced from Fats Domino to William Burroughs to “Hudson River Wind Meditations,” Reed’s foray into ambient meditation music.
At one point, Mr. DeCurtis asked if he ever felt burdened by the iconic Lou Reed persona, as the public understood it.
“It’s a creation,” Reed said. “The most important thing is that people believe it’s true.”
“If they don’t believe it’s true,” he added, “they won’t listen to the song.”