Lou Reed faltered and fell several times in his 71 years, losing his way personally or creatively before yet another confrontational comeback. But at the start of the 1970s he spent some of the most mysterious and important months of his life in a manner wholly at odds with his reputation as a chronicler and denizen of New York’s seamy side.
Quitting the Velvet Underground suddenly, after a gig on 23 August 1970, he waited at the top of the venue’s stairs like an unhappy child until his parents picked him up. They drove him back to his childhood home at 35 Oakfield Avenue in Freeport, Long Island, away from the ruins of his rock ‘n’ roll career. He spent the first 48 hours asleep, plagued by nightmares, as if in post-traumatic stress. That autumn, Lou Reed became a typist in his father’s accountancy firm.
Almost immediately, the writer of “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” met a nice middle-class girl, Bettye Kronstad, and they married. He had quit drugs and was seeing a psychiatrist. It was as if all his transgressions at Andy Warhol’s androgynous court in the 1960s had been renounced. His bisexuality had been among the reasons his feared – but by their own lights loving – parents had had his brain burned with electro-convulsive therapy as a teenager. Now he was back, trapped in the suburban American dream, with no obvious way out. It was in this depressed, uncertain period that the chrysalis formed for the solo star Lou Reed who was mourned around the world this week.
At least one old sparring partner thought that home was, anyway, the best place for him; that its sunny suburban repression, not Manhattan darkness, was the source of his art. “I think he might start writing good songs again, were he to go back and live with his parents,” his Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale told Nick Kent in 1974. “That’s where all his best work comes from. His mother was some sort of wealthy ex-beauty queen and his father was a wealthy accountant.”
There was little sign of such inspiration as 1970 became 1971, and Reed kept typing in the office, dependent not on heroin but on his father’s largesse. When word got out about his new career, the response from old friends and fans was as witheringly merciless as Lou had once been himself. “Lou Reed, sitting at home on Long Island, probably watching Hollywood Squares,” the rock critic Lester Bangs mused of his one-time hero. Initial trips back into Manhattan were bashful and embarrassing. “It was like his life was over,” said Glenn O’Brien, a writer at Warhol’s Interview magazine, of the numb, beaten Reed he saw. When O’Brien took pity and offered Reed a writing gig, the result was unprintable, seemingly the product of a man whose character had been erased by prescription drugs: just another suburban zombie, zonked on mother’s little helpers.
According to Victor Bockris’s biography of Reed – the only reliable account of these lost months – Reed was briefly energised by the chance to read his lyrics in front of the likes of Allen Ginsberg at the St Marks Poetry Project. He giddily announced from the stage that he was a poet and would never play rock ‘n’ roll again, on pain of being haunted by “the ghost of Delmore Schwartz”, his old writing guru.
The retirement couldn’t last. The Velvet Underground’s final album with Reed, Loaded, had been unusually commercial, making potential collaborators including David Bowie beat a path to his door. He was encouraged to sign a solo deal with Bowie’s label RCA, and moved to London to record his debut solo album, Lou Reed. Slick British session men and Yes prog-rockers Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe replaced the brutal Velvet Underground in an album which in some ways merely confirmed his malaise. “There’s a song about being in love, which I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s called ‘I Love You’,” he simpered to NME. The combative, journalist-devouring monster of his present reputation was nowhere to be found. This Lou Reed was eager to please, distant and – as more than one writer noted – “sad”.
But inside the chrysalis, a roaring, righteous monster which only his busted liver could finally stop was almost ready to emerge. Lou Reed was released in June 1972. In December came Transformer, “Walk On the Wild Side”, “Perfect Day”, and an infamous future in which Lou Reed could never disappear again.
Even Bettye Kronstad, reportedly beaten by Reed several times in their far-from-idyllic marriage, gave fuel to his greatest, bleakest album, Berlin (1973), a funeral pyre for their love.
Lou Reed ended up back in rural Long Island, where he lived with his wife Laurie Anderson. “Lou spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature,” Anderson wrote in her obituary for a local paper, the East Hampton Star. “He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of Tai Chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.”
Anderson, whose marriage with Reed was far more harmonious, ended: “Lou was a prince and a fighter, and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and on to all of us.”
That description of Reed’s life and work lacks much of the blood, bile and spunk that characterised it right up his misunderstood, fitting final work, Lulu (2011), a bruising hard rock album with Metallica which characteristically begins: “I would cut my legs and tits off/ When I think of Boris Karloff”. But after returning home once for a strange mental death and rebirth, it is a happy thought that on his last trip back to Long Island he found peace.