LOU REED: A Life, by Anthony DeCurtis. Little, Brown and Co., 519 pp., $32.
The late Lou Reed was almost as famous for his provocative, yet private, personality as he was for his influential work with the Velvet Underground and solo hits like “Walk on the Wild Side.”
That raises the stakes for any biography of the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, especially one like “Lou Reed: A Life,” from Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, who talks in the introduction about knowing Reed and moving in the same social circles. It also creates a daunting task for anyone seeking to write seriously about Reed, who grew up in Freeport and spent his final years in East Hampton with his wife, performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson.
Reed, who died in 2013 at 71 from complications related to liver failure, was a complex bundle of contradictions — sometimes tossing out one inflammatory quote after another in interviews, sometimes so circumspect that he would decline to answer any questions.
DeCurtis shows examples of both sides, trotting out Reed’s infamous quote about his Long Island roots in the first chapter. “Hempstead’s like the crotch of Long Island,” Reed told the SoHo Weekly News in 1978. “If you run into a diseased criminal mind, it’s from Great Neck.”
Did Reed say that to shock, or did he believe it? Was his anger about Long Island caused by resentment of his parents’ decision to have him undergo electroshock therapy to “cure” him of his bisexuality? Or was it all a big joke? DeCurtis dutifully rolls all those scenarios out, but there isn’t a definitive answer because Reed never really offered one in public, and those in his inner circle aren’t interested in speaking for him now.
“Lou Reed: A Life” is engaging at the beginning, as DeCurtis is able to tell the story by interviewing high school bandmates and former girlfriends. However, as he moves into Reed’s time in the Velvet Underground, DeCurtis is rarely able to talk to those directly involved. Soon the book’s structure of using Reed’s albums and their critical reception as a lens on his life begins to feel predictable.
This ends up making “Lou Reed: A Life” feel more like “Lou Reed: The Work” — a worthwhile endeavor, but not one that lives up to the well-reported early and late chapters. At times, you can almost feel the elusive Reed slipping out of DeCurtis’ grasp.
Rob Bowman, who wrote the liner notes for Reed’s box set “Between Thought and Expression,” tells DeCurtis about an encounter where the artist who long championed New York City’s fringe elements had a homeless man removed from an ATM vestibule so he could make a withdrawal. The action shocked Bowman, but DeCurtis tries to spin it by making a point that he’s not quite sure of: “It’s certainly possible to speculate that his outsize response to the sight — and smell — of the homeless man was generated by the specter of a fate that he had become too close to suffering and that he needed to have immediately removed from his presence.”
The firsthand accounts are far more enlightening. Bill Bentley, Reed’s publicist at Sire Records, comes close to summing up his career best. “He’s written things that inspire you, give you hope, fuel your dreams,” he said. “He’s one of a handful of rockers who did that over and over, forever, as long as they created.”
But in the end, it is Reed’s own evaluation that should carry the most weight.
“I believe to the bottom of my heart, the last cell, that rock and roll can change everything,” Reed said at British GQ’s Man of the Year awards in London in 2013, the month before his death. “I believe in the power of punk. To this day, I want to blow it up. Thank you.”