Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Very Different Lou Reed From The Guy I Knew


A couple of days ago a book came in the mail. Before I retired from Warner Bros, books used to come in the mail all the time. They don't any longer. I opened it and it was The Life Of Lou Reed-- Notes From The Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes. Never heard of him. Never heard of the book. But before I put it aside I noticed there was a note. Oh, I had heard of him. It was a note scrawled on a memo sheet thanking me for the interview. Ah... yes, the British author who had done the biography of Charles Bukowski and then one I never read by had heard all about, Down the Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan. When Sounes called from London about coming to L.A. to interview me, I had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was still reeling and... well, more fatalistic than scared. I had misgivings but I had the (mistaken as it turns out) impression that Laurie was OK with Lou's friends doing interviews for the book. I said ok, but knew that the kind of stuff a muckraking author would want most was stuff I had promised myself I'd be taking to my grave. Sounes wanted to come talk to me anyway, since-- I gather-- few others, or actually no one, who had worked with Lou at Warner Brothers was willing to talk with him. I haven't read the book yet but I have it in a small "to be read" pile. My cancer treatments are over now but I still have a touch of "chemo-brain" and reading doesn't come as easily to me as it once did.

Then this morning someone sent me the Nico Hines piece, Monster, in the Daily Beast. That I read. Oy vey! It made me run to the little books to be read pile and grab it and look in the index for my name. It listed 10 pages where Sounes used quotes. What had I said? I sat down and read each page. Whew! Nothing bad and nothing that would piss off Lou's ghost road to what Hines called the accusations in the book of "racial slurs and abusing women." (His piece's sub-title is Lou Reed Described Bob Dylan as a 'Pretentious Kike'.)

I first met Lou in 1966. I was a college freshman. Six years older than me, he seemed much more worldly and experienced. He was 24 and I went to see his band play on St. Marks Place off Second Avenue in the East Village. I tried to go to every show they played. I had never seen anything like it. Andy Warhol was their "manager" and the Velvet Underground was part of his presentation. I originally went for Warhol, went back from the band. I didn't get to know him 'til 22 years later when Seymour Stein signed him to Sire Records, where I was working at the time. Maybe he had mellowed but I had never heard him express any of the sentiments Sounes' book attributes to him-- and I'd say I spent a great deal of time with him between 1988 and his death 25 years later. "Lou Reed, begins Hines after reading Sounes' book, "was a monster." That sure isn't how I remember him.
"I loved his music, but you have to go where the story goes," Sounes told the Daily Beast. "The obituaries were a bit too kind, he was really a very unpleasant man. A monster really; I think truly the word monster is applicable."

The genius behind one of the greatest albums of the 1960s, was unstable, egotistical, misogynistic, violent, and selfish, according to some of those who knew him best.

Reed was well-known for his outrageous public statements—he once told a journalist: “I don’t like n----rs like Donna Summer.” In private he was just as offensive, one old friend told Sounes that he jealously described Bob Dylan as a “pretentious kike.”

Nasty, racist slurs are far from the most shocking revelation in Notes From The Velvet Underground. Reed always claimed that his lyrics depicting violence against women were fictional, but the experience of his first wife would suggest otherwise.

Bettye Kronstad, who married Reed in 1973, described life on tour with the tempestuous rock star. “He would, like, pin you up against a wall,” she said. “Tussle you. Hit you… shake you… And then one time he actually gave me a black eye.”

Allan Hyman, an old school friend, said Reed had even been happy to strike a girlfriend while having dinner with him and his wife. “She would say something. He’d get pissed off at what she said and smash her around the back of the head. [My wife said,] ‘Lou, if you continue to hit her, you have to leave.’ And then he smacks her in the back of the head. So she said, ‘Get out!’”

Sounes said there was a clear pattern of this sort of behavior. “It’s quite clear that he was a misogynist and he did hit women. They weren’t all knocked about but he knocked his first wife about and he wrote repeatedly about violence towards women--he seemed absolutely obsessed with the subject.”

On his third solo album, for example, Reed sang: “Caroline says, as she gets up from the floor / ‘You can hit me all that you want to / But I don’t love you anymore.’”

In a notorious public spat, Reed also slapped David Bowie when the Thin White Duke suggested he cut down on the drink and drugs. In another confrontation with Bowie, the two men spilled out of a car wrestling and fighting each other. “Lou Reed obviously had a very ambivalent relationship with David Bowie, David Bowie really rescued his career, Transformer is what it is because of David Bowie,” explained Sounes. “He obviously resented the part that Bowie had played in his career. And that he was a much bigger star, and I think perhaps, Lou Reed fancying him a little bit at the start.”

...When Paul Morrissey, one of the Andy Warhol collaborators who knew Reed during the Velvet Underground years, was asked to take part in interviews for the book he suggested no one would want to learn more about Reed. “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch [or] The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says this isn’t a biography of a great human being, because he was not… He was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.”

Some of Reed’s erratic behavior may have been related to the major mental health issues he endured. After suffering a breakdown at college, he was treated with a barbaric course of electric shock therapy. When the Velvet Underground split, Reed suffered a second less well-known breakdown and was forced to return to his family home to live with his parents.

He was diagnosed as bipolar and certainly suffered manic depressive episodes.

“The way that he tried to protect himself as a vulnerable, sensitive person who, for instance, was very hurt by reviews when they were bad was to be aggressive and say: fuck you!” said Sounes.

The Velvet Underground didn’t receive the commercial success their song-writing deserved until decades after their demise but at least there had been some critical praise. As Reed’s solo-career continued that also fell away.

It didn’t help his mood.

Godfrey Diamond, Reed’s producer on Coney Island Baby, remembers an exchange late in his career. “Lou, all I want you to do is give me another ‘Sweet Jane.’ You’re the master of writing songs about people,” Diamond remembered. “He looks at me and goes, ‘Godfrey, I try to write ‘Sweet Jane’ every day,’ in this deep, awful, mean, aggravated, upset voice. Clearly, that wasn’t the thing to say.”

The foul behavior started long before the bad reviews, however. No matter what era Sounes turned to, he heard the same thing: “The word that kept coming up was prick,” he said. “Girlfriends called him a prick, people he was at school with called him a prick; people in his band called him a prick.”

It was a constant. “Lou was an easy person to despise,” said Ritchie Fliegler, who worked with Reed on Street Hassle. “He was the biggest prick I ever met, or ever worked for, but he sure wrote some great songs.”
I didn't know Lou when he was severely under the influence of drugs. He was completely sober by the time he came to Sire and the portrait Sounes and Hines paint is someone I sure didn't know, not the guy I stayed up all night with in the White House talking with Czech President Václav Havel, not the guy who several times over the years revealed his innermost fears and vulnerabilities, not the guy who contributed generously to non-profits fighting discrimination and the right-wing agenda he disagreed with so strongly... But one thing I learned over the years is that people form their own impressions and they're just as valid to them as mine are to me. Hopefully history will value value Laurie's more than... anyone else's.

Apparently Lou was an acquired taste and, like everything worth a second look, you had to make some effort to get the best of what he had to offer. Fortunately, what everyone seems to agree is that Lou wrote great songs and brought important music to the ears of tens of millions of people and influenced many of the most important musicians in the world-- not to mention the man who won freedom for his nation in what he called a "Velvet Revolution."

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At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Wow, really interesting Howie.

I don't have any experience knowing people that were completely
under the experience of drugs and alcohol and then knowing them
NOT under their old demons.

That sounds like a book. Glad you are well.

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear a defense of Mr Reed, as I would prefer to think well of him. In a way, this is a little ironic, because had he and I ever met, he would probably have thought I was some kind of fascist idiot, assuming he gave me any thought at all. The main reason that I no longer call myself "right wing" is that a better term for me would probably be "reactionary". Even so, I am capable of appreciating his artistry. I particularly I like "Coney Island Baby" and "New York" and "Magic and Loss". I saw him once in the mid-80's, and he was not at all obnoxious, and he did a good tight show with lots of good catchy pop and rock songs, most of which I was then unfamiliar with. His show made me feel good, which is all I ever asked for from a rock and roll show. So, RIP Mr. Reed, and thank you, sir, for sharing your thoughts. Good luck on your health.


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