This is a world where eulogies pour forth instantly in 140 characters, speed is of the essence; but speed does not lend itself to reflection, and that is what biography demands. A self-avowedly “speed-written” tribute dashed off since Lou Reed’s demise, this book is hobbled by haste, littered with errors grammatical and factual that an editor ought to have amended.
At one point Phil Spector’s name is spelt as if he is a ghost; at another, it’s claimed that Reed and John Cale took the title of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs as the name for their new group, when obviously it was taken from Michael Leigh’s The Velvet Underground. Not that the discography even acknowledges the existence of the group’s first four seminal albums, for some reason only beginning in 1970, by which time Reed had left the band. These are simple oversights which should have been picked up, but equally frustrating is the way that the narrative dashes swiftly past segments over which you’d prefer the lens to linger longer, notably the Warhol Factory era, the split with Cale, and the late marriage to performance artist Laurie Anderson.
Which is a shame, as Mick Wall otherwise does a decent job of conveying Reed’s contrarian, misanthropic spirit and his self-sabotaging tendencies (most spectacularly when following his biggest US solo success, Sally Can’t Dance, with the all-but unlistenable musique concrete double-album Metal Machine Music). Always out of step with, if not deliberately antagonistic to, contemporary trends, Reed and The Velvet Underground were dark, seedy, monochrome and ugly when pop became a dayglo paisley love-in; and as Altamont and the Manson Family soured the hippie dream, they turned perversely sweet and light: small wonder all their records were resounding commercial flops, a trend Reed struggled to reverse in his subsequent career. Though hugely influential, he has possibly the poorest ratio of hits to reputation of any rock musician, a measure perhaps of the aesthetic intensity of his vision.
The third child of a middle-class Jewish family, Reed was always an outsider – so much so that in hopes of “curing” his teenage homosexual tendencies, his father committed him to a mental hospital. There he underwent the electro-shock therapy that left him with short-term memory loss, and the shakes that – to the consternation of contract lawyers – rendered each signature different. His first artistic mentor was the poet Delmore Schwartz, who taught Reed’s creative writing class at Syracuse University; but his first musical endeavour was cranking out hack pop-songs for supermarket albums.
It was whilst churning out this dross that Reed came up with the bogus dance-craze spoof “Do the Ostrich”, for which he tuned all his guitar strings to the same note – a technique later employed to create the characteristic Velvet Underground drone. He and John Cale first joined forces for a promotional TV performance for the record, the line-up completed by avant-garde musician Tony Conrad and sculptor Walter de Maria. This eventually mutated into the Velvets, whose cachet was confirmed when Warhol took them under his wing, as the centrepiece of his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happenings.
The Warhol Factory crowd provided Reed with the cast of low-life demi-monde characters that would people his songs, most notably his breakthrough solo hit “A Walk on the Wild Side”, the fruit of an alliance with yet another mentor, David Bowie. Typically at odds with what Wall calls the “joss stick and hessian ambience” of the era’s prevailing singer-songwriter trend, the resulting Transformer album was poorly received on its initial release, until the single launched Reed on a wobbly career path pitted with drug addiction, polymorphous sexuality and self-sabotage. It was only years later, when Warhol’s death spurred the songwriter to deeper reflection upon those former friends and colourful characters in the albums New York and Magic and Loss, that Reed’s critical reputation would finally be secured.
It seems entirely apt that his final recorded testament should be another bad-taste blast, the Wedekind-influenced collaboration with heavy rockers Metallica detailing the grisly abasements suffered by Lulu. Always seeking the art in dirt, he remained true to his vision to the end.
"Lou reed: The life" By Mick Wall (Orion, £14.99) Order at the discounted price of£11.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030