There is a scene in David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway in which the story’s femme fatale (Patricia Arquette) emerges from a Cadillac in slow motion to the not-so-dulcet tones of Lou Reed performing “This Magic Moment.” Although the song was written by Doc Pomus, the Reed trademarks are all on display: a dry, punchy guitar line skittering along with a hint of menace; a halting voice somewhere in the tonal twilight zone between Christopher Walken and James Earl Jones; waves of ominous drone; and a disconcertingly jaunty bass line — the whole package a paradoxical mix of overwrought emotion and wry detachment. In placing the track at this key point, Lynch banked on the audience’s prior knowledge of Reed as a sort of back-alley Johnny Cash — just the guy who could drive home the film’s themes of obsession, danger, and paranoia. He banked, in other words, on Lou Reed’s iconic status having become self-evident.
In the half-dozen years since Reed’s death, a number of biographers have attempted to come to grips with that status. Fans of the songwriter rate him as one of the best lyricists in the pop-rock milieu: if not quite at the level of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, then at least not ashamed to stand in their company. Despite a lack of commercial success at the time, Reed and his band, the Velvet Underground, provided a needed counterweight to the hippie ethos of the 1960s, exploring darker and arguably more substantive themes than what was typically on offer in the Summer of Love. “Let’s just say we were a little bit sarcastic about the love thing,” Reed later said. “Which we were right about, because look what happened.” (Presumably he was referring to the Altamont debacle and the Manson murders.) But Lou’s detractors have some ammunition: The awful-to-good ratio of his recorded output is higher than it ought to be; his lyrics are preoccupied with drugs, violence, and extreme sex to a degree that seems to go beyond journalistic curiosity; and that singing voice, particularly in the later years, is not for everyone.
Howard Sounes’s The Life of Lou Reed: Notes from the Velvet Underground, recently published in the U.S., ought to command respect from both camps. It is the clearest-eyed assessment of Reed to date. Taking the measure of a life marked by perpetual conflict and bridge-burning, Sounes leaves final judgments of Reed’s character to the reader. Was he a monster or a troubled man with a good heart? It depends on how you weigh the various incidents described in the book, and whether you buy into the narrative that Reed became more settled in later years. On these questions Sounes remains on the fence. Describing his subject’s twin inclinations toward generosity and cruelty, Sounes observes, with characteristic understatement, “So we see two sides to the man, apparently contradictory, but nonetheless part of his character.”
Sounes is equally restrained in his assessment of the music. It is precisely because he takes Reed seriously as a songwriter and musician that he finds so much of the discography lacking. During the five-year period in the 1960s when Lou was an active member of the Velvet Underground, he was, in Sounes’s estimation, “a serious artist,” penning an impressive array of material that included such affecting ballads as “Femme Fatale,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Pale Blue Eyes”; the effervescent rock anthems “What Goes On,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock ’n’ Roll”; and nods to transgressive sex (“Venus in Furs” and “Some Kinda Love”). But his reputation and notoriety rest primarily on two tracks: “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man,” both of which describe the highs and lows of hard-drug use in explicit detail. To those who felt that this material glorified drug abuse, Reed responded that he was merely bringing a level of realism to rock songwriting that had been present in literary fiction for decades. A Syracuse alumnus (B.A. in English with philosophy minor) and onetime protégé of poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, Lou knew something of which he spoke.
Academic credentials notwithstanding, the argument of authorly impartiality became less convincing as Reed’s solo career got under way and he took to miming the experience of shooting drugs onstage with a real syringe and tourniquet. By this point, Sounes opines, Reed had become a “self-parody,” a man adrift who routinely substituted shock value for artistry.
That solo career was distinguished by two strong albums early on — Transformer (which featured the hit “Walk on the Wild Side”) and Berlin — followed by a long stretch of wildly uneven material that was not truly broken until 1989’s critically lauded album, New York. Even then, Sounes maintains, Reed was not quite hitting his Velvet Underground heights. The songwriter had by then incorporated politics into his work, with mixed results. Songs for Drella, a 1990 collaboration with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale that eulogized the Velvets’ onetime friend and benefactor Andy Warhol, comes in for fuller praise, as does Reed’s 1992 solo album Magic and Loss. Sounes is generally warm toward Reed’s later work because it seems to have been animated by a creative restlessness and an admirable desire to bring rock music out of its perpetual adolescence. Thus, a head-scratching project such as Lulu, Reed’s 2009 collaboration with Metallica, earns a measure of respect. “It was reassuring, in a way, that his last record turned out to be a wild one,” Sounes writes.
Sounes has a reputation for dogged research, and The Life of Lou Reed excels when it ventures off the beaten path and digs deep. The Syracuse years get thorough treatment, and this material goes a long way in explaining the zigzag life that followed. We learn, for instance, that Lou was hung up on his college girlfriend Shelley Albin, the muse who inspired “Pale Blue Eyes.” “If Shelley would just come back, it’d be all right,” Reed sang on an early version of his song “I Can’t Stand It.” And, indeed, Reed apparently pined for a reconciliation with Albin well into middle age. But of course it would not have been all right if Shelley had just come back. “I was crazy about him,” Albin tells Sounes. But “I had an innate sense, This is not someone you want to have kids with.” It’s not hyperbole to say that Lou’s demons had demons, each of which the book covers in detail. There was a deeply conflicted sexuality (“bisexual” is too serene a term for it); a voracious appetite for drugs and alcohol; the two dozen electro-shock treatments he endured in his late teens for antisocial behavior; a propensity for physical and verbal abuse; an alleged bipolar diagnosis at midlife; and, perhaps most troubling, a lifelong rage he harbored for his father that virtually all of his biographers, friends and exes, and his sister believe to have been largely groundless. Two marriages were sacrificed to this maelstrom (a third, to musician Laurie Anderson, proved more enduring), as were countless friendships and professional relationships. But it also produced some extraordinary music.
It could be argued that this is the sort of story that writes itself. Even so, Sounes proves the most reliable and entertaining of Reed’s biographers. He is not above expressing exasperation at his subject; and, indeed, his writing catches extra fire at such moments. But in the main he is the unflappable center at the heart of a hurricane. For adventurous souls wishing to delve into the turbulent life of a difficult but hugely influential artist, The Life of Lou Reed: Notes from the Velvet Underground is the definitive account. It explains why we all should care.
This article appears as “The Turbulent Lou Reed” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.