Professionally, Lou Reed was known as a genius maverick in the world of music and performance; in his personal life, if Notes from the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed, the newest biography of the late musician by Howard Sounes, is anything to go by, he was a bit of a bastard.
Abusive towards women, seemingly a racist – Bob Dylan was a ‘pretentious kike’, while I can’t even type what Reed said about Donna Summer – Lou Reed was also the writer of some of the most subversive, and groundbreaking music from the mid- 60s and onwards.
Notes from the Velvet Underground is an interesting biography, albeit an unauthorised one. This biography is searingly honest and does not venerate the late musician, or make him out to be some kind of godly figure, as I have found biographies of admired persons often do. I am a fan of Lou Reed’s work, and to read about his waspish, mean and ruthless manner left me somewhat disappointed. Sure, I had read that Reed was difficult to work with, but what creative person isn’t, right? I wasn’t expecting to be quite so shocked though.
However, this biography is full of contrast – for every story of Lou Reed being awkward, difficult and cruel, there is one of him being charming, witty and clever, which I suppose just demonstrates what we all know about human nature; that people are generally not entirely good, nor are they entirely bad, they are usually a complex composite of contradiction.
Reed’s early life is covered in great detail (perhaps too much), his slow ascent to fame is all in there too, as well as his personal struggle and seeming vendetta towards his parents, particularly his father. The book struggles a bit for momentum in the middle years of Reed’s life, and does tend to read like a catalogue of events, rather than a flowing narrative of an interesting life. Things do pick up towards the final chapters, as we learn about Reed’s failing health and his still complex relationships with family, friends and colleagues alike.
All in all, this is a sound biography, written by a solid writer. If you’re a real Lou Reed fanatic, then I’m sure this will make for interesting Christmas holiday reading.