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The many sides of Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis' biography of the rock hero goes beyond the myth.



Lou Reed famously held journalists in low esteem. But the renowned singer/songwriter, founder of The Velvet Underground and godfather of glam and punk, liked Anthony DeCurtis, longtime contributing editor to Rolling Stone. The two had friendly interactions for decades. After Reed died in 2013, DeCurtis went to work on the biography that would become "Lou Reed: A Life" with the goal of writing a "three-dimensional" portrait of the self-mythologizing artist. The result is a sympathetic bio of a complicated man — a genius who wildly experimented with drugs and sex and had a history of domestic abuse; an outre song stylist who loved pop music and longed to make hit records; a provocateur who alienated most of the people who cared about him; a visionary who had more influence on the course of rock music than just about anyone in the last half century. There's no question Reed would have hated the book, DeCurtis says.

We talked to DeCurtis in advance of his Arkansas Literary Festival appearance, 11:30 a.m. April 28 in the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

I knew the broad strokes of the Lou Reed myth before reading the book. In particular, that he'd had a middle class upbringing, but was forced into electro-shock treatments by his parents, which he saw as abusive and pivotal in his life. But you paint a more sympathetic and nuanced picture of his relationship with his parents.

That was one of the early revelations of the book. That first came by way of Bettye [Kronstad], his first wife. My conception of Lou's father was something that came by way of Lou, particularly in interviews he did back in the 1970s, when he would talk about personal things like that. He painted a pretty monstrous picture of who his father was. It was sort of amazing to hear over and over again that that wasn't the case. His father was a very conventional guy, who would have liked nothing more than for his son to take over his accounting business. He didn't get that. As it happened, he was very much like Lou: He was very smart; he was stubborn.

He was acting on the best advice he could get it, in a situation that was difficult for any parent: Lou, as a teenager, was using drugs and having wild mood swings, was sneaking out to gay bars, which certainly back then was wildly transgressive. There was nothing malevolent in the decision to give Lou the electroshock treatments. That was a pretty common prescription back in those days.

The impact on Lou was horrendous, there's no doubt about that, although Lou used it emotionally to kind of carve out a persona for himself in opposition to that. But Lou would swing back and forth. When he quit The Velvet Underground in 1970, he went right back out to Long Island and moved into his old room [in his parents' house]. ... Like so many things regarding him, it was a much more complicated emotional relationship than it might have initially appeared.

One consistent theme throughout your book is how often Reed changed his mind about whether a song or an album or a collaborator of his was good.

Lou was really fond of Edgar Allan Poe and there's this idea of The Imp of the Perverse: that you long for things that are not good for you and you reject things that are good for you. There were plenty of things in Lou's life that he wanted until he got them. Lou wanted to be a star; there's no doubt about it.

With The Velvet Underground, he invented a kind of underground rock where it was possible to be a "successful band" and not sell records. He didn't go for that. He wanted to sell records. But once he did, he didn't want to be a hit maker. He didn't want to be perceived as Mr. "Walk on the Wild Side." Then he would take some left turn. But once it seemed that his audience truly was going to be alienated, then he would move back to the center. It was a real dynamic in him. There was a restlessness, you could say. He wasn't comfortable staying in one spot, whether that was the idol of the underground or the godfather of punk or someone who sold a lot of records, which he did on several occasions. He wanted all of it.

One of the things that was fascinating about that part of his personality was talking to Clive Davis. Clive's whole career has rested on the ability to identify what it takes to make something a hit. When Lou signed with Arista in the late '70s, he was kind of in desperate straits. He needed something. So when Clive sits there and listens to "I Believe in Love" or "Rock and Roll Heart," and says to Lou, "I think I could get this on the radio, but we just need to sweeten it up in spots. It's a little spare the way it is." And Lou says, "Absolutely not." Talking to Clive, Clive said, "I get it. It's like you're the gallery owner and you're talking to the painter, and you say, 'If you put a little more blue in it, I could probably do better with it.' But the guy says, 'No, this is the painting.' But the rest of the time the guy, he's in your office telling you about how he wants to sell records."

That little anecdote tells a lot about Lou. He wanted it completely on his own terms. But there's a reality to selling records. Certainly in those days, you had to get on the radio, and there were only certain things that were gonna do that. If you didn't want to do those things, it wasn't going to happen.

Speaking of alienating his audience, how many times did you listen to "Metal Machine Music," Reed's album of nothing but guitar noise?

I listened to it straight through one time. In life, maybe like three times. I value that experience. You earn your stripes to a degree. I think one of the things Lou took great pleasure in was that among avant-garde classical composers and fans, it's regarded as an important document. Like so many things in his life, he spoke about it in so many different ways that it's really hard to know what his intention was when he made it, if he thought he was making an art object or if it just was a big "fuck you," or both somehow. It turned out to be both. Nothing made Lou happier than something that came out and got vilified, but was glorified later. He loved that.

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