photo & text by nacrowe
i only saw LOU REED perform once. it was at IRVING PLAZA and he was a guest of CAMP FREDDY, which was essentially a PERRY FARRELL-less JANE'S ADDICTION that did cover songs with the actual musicians that wrote them. he performed "VENUS IN FURS" and "THE BLUE MASK." what i remember most was his lack of interaction with the small audience, deadpan cadence and quirky syllabic stresses that seemed to avoid the original melody. it was as if he wasn't prisoner to his own song.
and to me that is the essence of the guy, he was an original that wasn't concerned with anyone's judgement or expectations except his own. and it is that intransigent temperament that is displayed throughout the narrative of his life and career in ANTHONY DECURTIS' excellent biography LOU REED: A LIFE (LITTLE BROWN & CO, 2017).
REED is portrayed as a hyper-literate contrarian and cultural iconoclast. it is this proclivity for both knowledge and rebellion that leads him to innovate and expand, first with THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and later his solo career, the breadth and tone of the lyrical content we now take for granted within modern music. his work has influence every major movement afterwards, including PUNK, INDIE ROCK, HIP HOP, INDUSTRIAL MUSIC, GLAM ROCK, ALTERNATIVE ROCK and beyond. it is also this stubborn, crusty, misanthropic worldview that limited the success of his career in purely financial-terms, unable to take advantage of waves, fearing being pigeon-holed. his life was completely on his terms for better or worse.
this idea of his erudite yet exceedingly aggressive personality DECURTIS presents an interesting frame by which to refocus our understanding of the LOU REED the artist and his relationship to LOU REED the man. on one hand it enabled him to be a distant observer, as many of his songs are presentations of extreme events and people (with some poetic license) presented plainly without resorting to any sense of bias or sentimentality. he is seen as VIRGIL giving us a tour of hell to our collective DANTE. he isn't passing judgement, just making us aware of the true nature of our surroundings. in doing such he expanded the landscape and lexicon of the medium of modern music. his contribution is largely literary in nature, presenting his audience with a world filled with drugs, sex and quote unquote deviant behavior of all stripes sans judgement.
reading this book you really got a sense of the toll the man took spiritually, physically, emotionally and psychically throughout his life. there is an unsettling thread of violence and abusive behavior throughout his life, both physical and emotional in nature especially with regard to past partners. in many ways he was a bit of a vampire in how he used and discarded people he found no use for anymore, despite their previous intimacy. this is especially true of his more virulent behavior in the 1970s when he was at his drugged-out peak. you get the sense that his later years were more about coming to terms with such baggage.
it is hard summing up REED because he is very much still with us in the attitudes and approaches of uncompromising artists. he is an archetype at this point. i think where DECURTIS really triumphs in this book is the detail from which brought out how fragile, insecure and bitterly human LOU REED actually was. and how such vulnerability and openness to the true span of human experience (consciousness, sexuality, identity, etc.) was the source of his strength.
great book i would recommend to anyone interested in art, music or literature.
note: this book is also a great source to learn about REED's relationships to past inspirations, mentors and collaborators such as DELMORE SCHWARTZ, ANDY WARHOL, HUBERT SELBY JR, JOHN RECHY, JOHN CALE, DAVID BOWIE, MICK RONSON, BOB EZRIN, ROBERT QUINE, JOHN ZORN, ROBERT WILSON and VACLEV HAVEL among many others.