Electricity In, Electricity Out: A Conversation with Will Hermes
By Andrew HolterDecember 3, 2023
Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes
So, when the piano player that October night at Slavia resolved his cocktail meanderings into the opening chords of Reed’s “Perfect Day,” only those patrons with long memories recognized a stately mitteleuropäisch salute to a hero of national liberation. A minor hero, to be sure, who wore a dog collar and did a lot of meth, but a heroic exemplar of individual expression nonetheless. Lou Reed was not just another imported rock star. He was the Bohemians’ bohemian.
Reed’s significance to the political history of Central Europe aside, Will Hermes’s new biography, Lou Reed: The King of New York, renews the case for him as one of the most adventurous and influential figures in 20th-century American music. Reed has never needed help from any of his biographers to stand out on the page: he was a puckish, mercurial wit, a wiseacre from Long Island who consecrated the trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll in his own person as few in his trade had before or since.
The biographer’s burden here, rather, was the Lou Reed papers at the New York Public Library, a trove of unreleased recordings, correspondence, legal files, and other items made public in 2019. But readers familiar with Hermes’s panoramic study of New York music in the mid-1970s, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (2011), might guess that he is comfortable with an overabundance of material. For being so intimately researched, this account of Reed’s life is lively and inviting to nonspecialists, with a depth of analysis beyond what is allowed by the rock biographer’s standard archive of twice-told tales and roadies’ hearsay.
Hermes is especially good with coincidences of cultural history. It is his attention to the background of Reed’s tortuous journey that proves that the statement “I’ll be your mirror” was truer than Reed meant it to be. In his desires and insecurities, Reed was a lot like the rest of us, it turns out—but not so alike to be taken entirely at his word that he was, as he confessed in a later song, “really just your average guy / Trying to stand on his own two feet.”
Will Hermes spoke to me from his home in the Hudson Valley.
ANDREW HOLTER: At the outset of this book, you note that music writers have been drawn to Reed for a long time—and not because he was nice to them. Someone needed to go through his papers, of course, but I wonder, at the time you started the project, what you felt was missing from our sense of him.
WILL HERMES: I just wanted to write the Lou Reed book that I wanted to read. When I discovered Reed, it was through other musicians, so I wanted to write about what connected him to all the musicians and other artists he inspired and influenced—the context of why he matters as a creative figure and continues to matter. And also his creative relationship to queerness, which I don’t think a lot of other writers either fully got or at least didn’t center. I felt it was key to who he was and how he wrote.
The thing that really triggered the book was the overwhelming outpouring of love and personal accounts of how his music affected people upon his death. Social media was not exactly in its infancy in 2013, but it certainly wasn’t what it is now, and it was the first public mourning for a musician that I really took note of. People loved him. People were obsessed with him. They were obsessed with his persona. I wanted to get to the bottom of that. I mean, I knew why I liked him and was obsessed with him, but why he touched so many people—that’s the question I set out to answer.
Like Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, this book has a big cast. You illuminate all these points of connection between Reed and other New York artists.
You understand why certain creative choices get made if you put the art in the context of the time that it was made, and because he spent his whole life, pretty much, in New York—it was a great excuse to write New York history.
As for the cast of characters, obviously I like writing about artistic communities, and I’ve never particularly been a profile writer by trade, let alone a biographer. What attracted me to Reed’s story was how it was part of this postwar arts explosion in New York, in film and poetry and visual arts. Reed was there at every point—working with Andy Warhol, working with Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin, working with Delmore Schwartz in college—so I was able to tell a widescreen story. It also diffuses the “great man” narrative, which I wanted to avoid because I think those narratives are just generally false. There are always other people involved.
Right. Despite being so obstinate and headstrong, Reed worked brilliantly in collaboration—when he chose to—from the beginning of his career to the end. I wondered if he sabotaged himself by too often trying to go it alone. Did he need another high-level talent in the room to reach his best, do you think?
Not necessarily. He did great work on his own, or relatively on his own, but when he was working with another great artist, he rose to the occasion. I don’t think Doug Yule, on the third Velvet Underground record, gets a lot of credit; he sang one of Reed’s most beautiful songs. Don Cherry played on The Bells (1979)—that was really great. John Zorn played with him a few times—those bootlegs are really worth hearing. Cale’s presence—“Heroin,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties”—the more you heard him, the better the song was, generally. I could go down the list: Robert Quine, David Bowie, Anohni, Jimmy Scott—they all helped him up his game. Maybe he tried harder.
A key “part of Reed’s mythology,” as you write, is the electroconvulsive therapy his parents forced him into as a teenager to “correct” his deviant behavior, which included his attraction to men. It traumatized him, but he also made it into a “source of strength.” How so?
In interviews, he alluded to it pretty directly, and in the song “Kill Your Sons.” He wore it at certain points as a kind of battle scar. I think that, to an extent, he felt betrayed by his parents, who, from my understanding, really came to regret it. It might have given him something to avenge, and it might have inspired him to challenge a culture that would consign him to that kind of treatment.
It also struck me that it’s a tidy metaphor for his personal artistic narrative: electricity in, electricity out. This is a writer who appreciated a good metaphor, and he definitely worked on the creation of a personal narrative, or the narrative of the Lou Reed character that he often talked about having created. He said once about that character that “sometimes he’s 20, sometimes 80 percent me, but never 100.” It’s a super telling comment.
Along these lines, you write lucidly and deliberately about gender in this book. You’ve been a music journalist for a while now, and I’m curious how your thinking about gender and music together has taken shape over the years.
Great question. That’s a big one. I think all of us—writers or not, straight or not, cis female, cis male, nonbinary, nonconforming—have had our thinking about gender changed radically in the past decade, if we’re even halfway paying attention to our culture. It’s a revolutionary time in the fight for gender equity and trans and queer civil rights—a super exciting time, but also a scary time, because of all the pushback. So, issues of gender and sexuality in Reed’s work and personal life felt really important, and I tried to center them more in the narrative than perhaps some previous biographers have, and maybe with the benefit of greater understanding, in part because of how far we’ve come. I think we’re all learning as we go with this stuff, as people take ownership of their identity and refuse to have other people define them. It infuriates me when people still resist using people’s preferred pronouns, because everybody deserves the dignity of self-definition. Look, I’m a writer, an editor, and a grammar nerd, and for a while I was one of those people who’d arch an eyebrow at they/their. But you talk to people and you learn, and if you care about your fellow humans, you reorient your head and change the way you speak and write. I mean, come the fuck on—it’s not that much to ask.
With regard to Reed’s sexuality, it’s no news flash that he was fluid at a time when the language of sexuality and gender was limited. He had a very significant, years-long relationship with a trans person, and I believe he wrote with tremendous sensitivity about trans characters. He’s a queer icon—though to my knowledge he rarely, if ever, used the word “queer” in relation to his own identity, though he did identify himself as “gay” on occasion. I tried to root the entire book in his own words whenever possible, and occasionally the words of his partners. And the book opens with a scene that raises the question of what defines a “man” and masculinity, toxic and otherwise—which is another thing I wanted to explore in the book.
Growing up, I was always drawn to performers with queer sensibilities. Representation matters, absolutely, but what you get from art doesn’t necessarily hinge on knowing the artist’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Sometimes you don’t know, and often it doesn’t matter. And not every queer icon is queer. Artists act out possibilities for us, which is one reason why we respond to and cherish them and their work. And Reed could be elusive—in part, I think, because he was of his time, as much as he was ahead of it, but also, and more importantly, because I think he didn’t want to be pigeonholed. He didn’t seem to like limitations.
This is tangential, but I should point out how thrilling it is to see women and nonbinary musicians taking and owning center stage at this moment, across the board—in rap and rock, Latin pop, country music, you name it. And for me, the most exciting music journalism is, and for quite some time has been, coming from women and nonbinary writers. The list is ridiculously long: Isabelia Herrera, Amanda Petrusich, Lindsay Zoladz, Sasha Geffen, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Mankaprr Conteh, Brittany Spanos, Laura Snapes, Jenn Pelly, Liz Pelly, Ann Powers, Jewly Hight. A special shout-out to Marissa R. Moss, one of many writers doing important work around the gender and racial equity fights in the Nashville music establishment, country radio in particular. She wrote a great book, Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be (2022), which I’d highly recommend. And I’m overlooking dozens here.
It’s unusual for rock musicians to have an archive at a repository like the NYPL. Reed’s papers are an incredible resource, obviously, but did they make the process difficult in any way?
There’s no question it was a blessing and a curse! I should say that, before going into the archive, the Lou Reed fan community around the world had sussed out so much stuff. There was so much information from people who are not professional academics, as far as I know, but have devoted a huge amount of their time to collecting data and maintaining archives about Reed and about the Velvets. That said, the archive definitely had things that I hadn’t heard. There are still things that you can only hear there, which is kind of amazing to me. We assume that everything winds up on the internet, but it doesn’t. You have to go to the Special Collections room at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, go up to the third floor, and sit down at one of their computer terminals and listen. There are some beautiful things there.
There are over 200 boxes, each one packed with file folders and other stuff. It isn’t a full chronicle of his life—much of it is from the late 1970s to the present. Some of the Velvets-era and early-’70s material is there, but his life was so hectic in those years. He wasn’t working with anybody to maintain his archives! Sylvia Reed [née Morales, Reed’s manager and second wife] helped pull together a more structured kind of storage system, when he could afford a staff.
God help me, I’m thinking about Robert Caro too much, but I had that maxim “turn every page” in my ear. I spent more than the whole summer of 2019 in that room for multiple days a week just turning every page. Of course, there are moments when you find something and you just want to jump up and shout, but you’re in a library, so you’ve got to be cool.
You’ve uncovered a lot of revealing details about Reed’s personal relationships, and to my mind you’re pretty tactful in what you include. Reed was such an indiscreet person himself—were you concerned about being too lurid?
Lurid gets boring! And I think a little goes a long way. There were certain things that I felt didn’t really add anything to the story, and sometimes it’s more provocative if you hold back a little bit. Certainly, in terms of writing about the ’70s and his relationship with needle drugs, there are a couple of really visceral images of him shooting up—one that John Cale shared, and one that was shared on background from a drug buddy of his. After describing someone shooting up into an abscess, you really don’t need anything else. Like, “Okay, we get it,” you know? In some ways, it was the same thing with sexual matters, which he was never very up-front about. I think people understood that he was fluid and that was enough.
You began this book after Reed died, but am I right that you never had occasion to interview him earlier in your career? I want to know what you would ask him if you could. After all that the archive reveals, where does the mystery still linger?
This is the first biography I’ve ever written, and it may be the last biography I ever write; I have no idea. It certainly was a heavy lift, and it was intense, spiritually, to spend that much time thinking about somebody else’s life. You realize you can’t know any other person! I don’t want to say that I just scratched the surface with Reed, but you can’t know a person just because you study all these documents or listen to their interviews. There’s always a mystery there.
You know what I would ask him? I would ask the man who wrote the New York album about the state of American politics right now. The man who played in the White House for Václav Havel and Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Henry Kissinger? Like yeah, I would definitely ask him what his take on American politics is now and for sure on the LGBTQIA+ civil rights struggle, and the totally obscene culture war that’s being waged against trans folks now.
Finally, I want to ask you about Reed’s struggle with the idea that he either was a writer or should have been a writer. There was even a brief period after he left the Velvet Underground when it looked like he might abandon music. Do you have strong feelings about whether musicians ought to be taken seriously as literary figures, as the Nobel Committee seemed to think in 2016 at least?
I feel two ways about that. I mean, rap is the poetry of the world. Song lyrics are the poetry of the world. It’s incontestable. By any metric of cultural import, aesthetic power, beauty—these musical expressions equal literature. That said, with the music and literary economies being what they are, music and literature are often compensated quite differently. If the Bob Dylans get the Nobel Prize for literature, then the Annie Ernauxs or Louise Glücks or Abdulrazak Gurnahs or other great writers won’t get it, right? Prose and poetry do things on the page that music doesn’t, and can’t.
One of the most inspiring things about Reed as a writer was his ability to tell a story, with vivid detail, in a song. He was an absolute master of that. But I do wish he wrote more for the page, because he was really good at that too. There’s his poetry, but he wrote lots of things. The essay “Fallen Knights and Fallen Ladies,” which was a sort of freestyle meditation on musicians and death he wrote in the early ’70s. The tour diary he published in The New Yorker, which showed how funny he could be, and his preface in that 2012 reprint of Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, which was quite moving. He was a really good writer.
Will Hermes is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, a longtime contributor to The New York Times and NPR’s All Things Considered, and the author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (2011). He also writes for Pitchfork and other publications, and was co-editor of SPIN: 20 Years of Alternative Music (2005).
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