Lou Reed and the End Times

By Corley MillerNovember 2, 2015

Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris
Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed by Aidan Levy

IN 2015, work continues apace on the phenomenology of doom. The circumstances for art are that adjuncts are applying for food stamps, student debts continue to accrue, political and financial systems are broken, and metropolitan property is priced for the breakers. The literary novel and the serious feature film exist by the grace of Twilight and Transformers, and it does not seem that the police are going to stop shooting black people, and maybe it will never rain again in California, and that’s even without getting into the question of how long before half the world melts and the other half drowns. As far as we can tell, the tendency in most of these appalling situations is for things to be getting worse rather than better, for the currently distressing details to seem like the sort of thing we’ll look back on in a decade or two as quaint comforts: The Time When There Was Any Work At All For Classicists. The Time When There Was Electricity.

Early autumn 2015 is not a great environment, in short, in which to read biographies of middle-distance art heroes. Even the work of many late-20th-century luminaries can feel frustratingly distant, antediluvian even, as though, how can these people be thinking so goddamn carefully about television and not noticing all the rich people stealing the world? Where’s the politics? The lives can be even worse: reading a biography of Lou Reed, like Victor Bockris’s Transformer or Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd., a modern reader might find reactions of rent-jealousy (two dudes who sometimes play guitar, here, manage to afford an apartment below 14th street in addition to several drug habits) more available than serious reflection on this life and its art.

And really: Who cares about Lou? Who cares about biographies? Lou Reed was an asshole, and he had a number of dogs, one of which was named Seymour and others of which were not, and when he was doing amphetamines for days at a time the only food he’d keep around was coffee ice cream, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “I Can’t Stand It” and “I Found A Reason” were all written for a college girlfriend named Shelley, and he thought being in a Honda ad was pretty neat, and he was really into Edgar Allan Poe, and when he had a trans girlfriend he could never decide whether he wanted or did not want her to have the reassignment surgery, and he was an early adopter of video games, and when he got a fax machine late in life he’d send incessant faxes to anyone he thought was reading and, well, what are we doing here? In a biography? In a review of a biography? The salient facts about Lou Reed, Heidegger might’ve said, are that he was born, he made music, and he died. Do the names of the dogs matter? What mainline are we looking for? In 2015, does this music even matter in anything beyond a Spotify-decade-playlist kind of way? Does the life? Does it have anything to do with doom?


The thing that makes these questions feel worth examining is that something about Lou’s music itself still feels present. One would feel no obligation to seriously investigate biographies of Donovan. But for something like “Sweet Jane” or “Heroin” to still feel so immediate, and for so much of modern pop to be practicing what feels like an identifiably Reedian idiom of unheroic self-criticism (Kendrick, Kanye, Grimes,[1] for starters, but aren’t Knausgaard and Lerner basically guessing that they just don’t know?), makes it feel like there are at least decent odds of there being some something here worth hanging on to, some reason to keep reading.

Another point is: This is some of the best lyric music we’ve got. One paradigmatic song, of course, is “Heroin” — a song that’s impressive not because it’s about doing heroin but because it lacks even the faintest moralizing impulse. What it has instead is a stenographer’s honesty about the reasons the protagonist might want to do heroin at all — and it’s notable that you can barely make it three sentences into a discussion of Lou’s work without words like “protagonist” and “honesty” popping up. These aren’t pop-music terms, and they especially weren’t in 1967. The usual protagonists here are jinni of desire and amnesia, and the usual honesty is an Instagrammable confession of urges that challenges its listeners only to feel their own original feelings more intensely, more urgently, more openly.[2] John and Paul would in fact like to hold your hand. Jim will be truly pleased if you should succeed at lighting his fire. Kesha is yelling timber in the most trivially apparent of senses. Will.i.am really does feel that tonight will be a good (good!) night. But Lou’s willing to sing about difficulty, about queerness and death and the disappointing alternatives to opiates, without either a flight to then-trendy figurativity or any moralizing on behalf of either the mono- or the counterculture. Maybe the biggest compliment we can pay him is to say that he’s one of the few rock writers ever to grasp that listeners may need to be distressed in the course of their listening.

Since it’s this honesty that’s most obviously persistent in (at least my personal genealogy of) modern highbrow pop, and since it’s generally these Lou songs[3] that burn the brightest in one’s headphones,[4] it’s pretty easy to essentialize Lou in retrospect as a kind of junky Lorax: he spoke for the marginalized, for the marginalized had no voices. And — to be clear — this is a totally adequate affirmative answer to the whole “does Lou Reed matter” question: this kind of honesty is one of the evergreen art-prescriptives, and the particular content of Lou’s honesty feels like it lies somewhere in the stream of the #[marginalized][experiences]matter progressivism that’s one of the most important and (hopefully) least-doomed-seeming modern political projects.

All of which by way of saying that even if all Lou had ever done was the junky-Lorax stuff, we could all go home pretty satisfied that Lou matters. But an argument that Lou matters isn’t the same as an argument for Lou’s biography mattering.


The only problem is that this honesty reading is based on what’s probably by weight only something like a quarter of Lou’s work. There’s an entire other body of work here, much of which sounds more like the song two tracks after “Heroin” — “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is just over two minutes long and consists entirely of neat rhymes and major chords promising an infinitely fulfilling (if worryingly codependent) love. It even has some nice harmonic background vocals. On The Velvet Underground & Nico, this sweet/faithful Lou is involved in something like a third of the songs, and the proportion only rises[5] as his career goes on. It’s these songs, the YA-protagonist songs, that feel least retrievable to us as modern listeners, that feel like they have the least to do with doom — but that also give us the biggest incentive to go into the biographies, if only so that we might be able to figure out what this music meant to Lou, and whether it ought to mean anything to us. What does depressing-even-by-opera-standards Berlin have to do with The Velvet Underground’s tuneful redemption trip? Why does the Lorax show a faith in romantic love that we’d usually associate with a suicidal German protagonist from the 1800s? What’s with all the ba-ba-bas?


There are answers to these questions, sort of, in his life. Lou Reed is born in East New York, 1942, son of an accountant and the actual prettiest stenographer[6] in Brooklyn. He grows up in Brooklyn before moving with his parents to Freeport, one of the Long Island suburbs that people still thought was going to be idyllic. Through early adolescence he’s precociously but secretly sexual,[7] plays lead guitar in a few high school bands (one of which achieves a brief, unremunerated, strip-mall-parking-lot fame), and eventually gets so depressed and alienated that the family[8] talks to a psychiatrist. Said psychiatrist then seems to railroad the entire Reed family into committing Lou for something like 24 electroshock treatments at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens.

After these electroshock treatments, Lou goes to college at (naturally) Syracuse, where he has a schizophrenic “novelist” roommate, an amazing and totally patient girlfriend Shelley Albin[9] who he sometimes treats very badly, another band, more conflict with authority, and a few formative intellectual and narcotic experiences with (and in the narcotic case, also without) the husk of Delmore Schwartz,[10] then teaching English. He graduates, moves home to Long Island, goes into the city on weekends, and eventually gets a job writing literally cheap imitations of popular songs for an outfit called Pickwick Records.[11] He writes them a Weird Al–style sendup of the then-fad narrated dance tracks, called “The Ostrich,” which gets enough airplay that the label deems it worth assembling an actual touring band. And then — the big moment — someone meets John Cale at a party, thinks he’d be a good fit for this sham “band,” and introduces him to Lou,[12] and then there’s the Velvet Underground, whose first couple albums are probably best represented as a collaboration between Lou’s lyric honesty and Pickwickish sense of pop structure and Cale’s sonic experimentation.[13] With the band, Lou moves to Manhattan, does a bunch of drugs (speed and heroin, mostly[14]) and eventually plays a show for Andy Warhol, who brings the Velvets on as a kind of Factory house band. The Velvets make four completely inimitable albums, none of which sell very well, and Lou gradually/systematically alienates the label, Warhol, Cale, and pretty much everybody else involved. Eventually, he leaves the band, heads back to Long Island, marries Bettye Kronstad, (also nice, also beautiful, also patient, also treated more and more badly with time), and goes off the grid for a while working on his next album.

After this, it’s the same scale in different keys for something like the next 30 years: regular album releases; triumphant early collaborations with disappointing sales figures; angry fallings-out with the collaborators; relationships that really matter but that can’t be kept.[15] Finally, in 1992, he meets Laurie Anderson, a musician and artist, and they fall into a love as unexpected and significantly more delightful than most codas in his songs. He seems for the first time to be happy, and Laurie and Lou make a few albums in conversation with each other, and then he dies.


It’s a peculiar life for a biographer. “Biography” is a genre we’re just going to crudely gloss here as usually involving a linear telling of the subject’s life, some set of claims about the subject’s uniqueness, and the hope that these elements add up to some worthwhile expansion of our understanding of an artistic body of work, or a society, or ourselves. Lou’s life manages interesting and certainly unique, but the “linear telling” piece is almost impossible here — narratologically, Lou’s life is a mess. First of all, it peaks too early — biography as genre prefers a presidential life, a slow continuous rise to prominence followed by retirement, but Lou does most of his best work before 35, wanders in variously well-reviewed deserts for around a quarter-century, and then finishes things off with the shockingly happy Laurie Anderson marriage — something that, in fiction, would feel about as earned as a diamond ring in a Cracker Jack box.

Of course it’s okay for an artist’s life to not be a particularly great story — that’s the entire point of art, isn’t it? To make an object inside time that turns out to be more durable than the time we used making it? But if we’re writing biographies, we’re going to want at least some source of narrative interest. Something that keeps us turning the pages. And in the absence of a good macro story, we’d ordinarily want to look for some kind of Big Dramatic Event — the single metamorphosis that led to Lou being Lou. We want to find something like Dostoevsky’s mock execution, or Dylan’s motorcycle accident — some moment when things changed, when a boy on Long Island who liked guitars turned into something recognizable as Lou Reed.

Here again, there’re issues. It’s not that Lou’s life doesn’t have BDEs — in fact the nexus of electroshock, Schwartz, heroin, and factory, all of which happen to him within a decade or so, seems like an unusually rich symbolic set. You could mad-lib most of the story of postwar art with something like these terms. The only problem is that all those moments are almost irretrievably illegible, because they happened too early in Lou’s life. Electroshock, for example, is exactly the kind of catastrophe that would change an artist’s outlook. But with Dostoevsky or Dylan, we have some idea of the preceding trajectory, of what kind of work this person was making without the Big Dramatic Event. With Lou, we have two songs by the Shades/Jades, both from the adolescent-craft-mimicry stage of artistic development, neither particularly scrutable. Sometimes a high school band is just a high school band.

This is a special shame because electroshock ought to be such a good BDE. Electroshock itself is prime 1950s dark-side material, and the associated family tension has a rich, revealing horror. If we’re to believe Lou’s sister, this was sort of a Kafka job: Lou and his family agreed eventually that something should be done about Lou’s depression and sexual confusion, went looking for a nice calm therapeutic cure, and ran into a psychiatrist who convinced them electroshock was the only option. The group decision to commit Lou to this treatment, apparently driven mostly by the parents’ desire to comply with the doctor, does not seem to ever have stopped agonizing anyone in the family.

There’s a lot to work with here, and both Levy and Bockris know it: when I say “antediluvian” above, I mean that everything that happened in Lou’s formative years happened at a unique and now-distant time in American society. Relative to the rest of the world, and to our Western peers especially, the United States’s always been a little less exposed to historical misfortune, and therefore a little more ignorant about how much of what happens between nations and humans is just accidental and undeserved, and that’s made us particularly susceptible to the kind of just-so story that conflates moral with worldly success. These days, that mostly comes up as an irritatingly persistent cognitive bias toward seeing the already-successful as necessarily deserving, but in the ’40s and ’50s these associations had a different way of tormenting us. Those were decades when the United States had finally been elected, if sort of by default, to lead the world. But did we feel good enough about ourselves to lead the world? We Protestant ethicists? If the city was on a hilltop, shouldn’t people spend a little more time tidying up?

This, actually, is the first big payoff from reading biographies of Lou Reed: a significantly richer sense of what was really going on in American society after the war. It’s easy for the modern Lou Reed listener to romanticize these as the decades of strong unions and inquiry about what could be done for the country, but it mostly seems in retrospect like a decade-and-a-half of experimentation in what happened if everybody tried to do everything “right” all the time, with predictable consequences. Maybe the correct term for the ’50s isn’t “antediluvian” but “diluvian-deontic,” relating to the responsibilities one feels oneself to have during or with respect to a flood, which, of course this doesn’t excuse anybody’s behavior, but, Western Europe was in ruins, Russia Soviet, Japan still tagged as evil, most Americans probably weren’t ready to consider the rest of the world to be civilized, and try to imagine how the rest of the Ark would have treated the gay giraffe.[16] This was a time when it was more important for even good liberal parents like the Reeds to do anything that anyone told them would make them a good family than it was for them to not electrocute their son.

Electroshock is rich for Lou’s work, too — if we squint a little, we can maybe narrate the Heroin/Mirror tension as having to do with Lou’s forcible passage through the attitude-control systems of postwar United States, related to his first-person experience of what kinds of violence a society has to do in order to pretend it’s happy with its suburbs. What’s remarkable in Lou is that he seems to keep believing in the things (marriage, love) his parents want him to believe in even after they’ve tried to fry him into line. And of course the main side effect of electroshock is memory loss — so, if Lou is maybe the best present-tense songwriter of all time,[17] is the radical presence of his best songs possibly in fact a kind of mental limp, a compensation for the difficulty a shocked mind might have had connecting moments with each other? Can we imagine a story in which Lou’s damage is indirectly responsible for some of the most striking features of his talent?

Of course we can — in an essay. But a biography is obliged to be true, and usually verifiable, in addition to being interesting. And, while both Bockris and Levy admirably report on the verifiables involved, and both intuit that the electroshock incident is somehow crucial, they’re both fundamentally limited by their sources. These things happened before Lou was famous, before he was ever interviewed, and before he’d recorded very much music at all. There’re similarly rich inquiries to be made into Schwartz, into Warhol, Cale, Pickwick, drugs themselves — but if the point of an art biography is to meaningfully connect the art with the life, then the lack of published work pre-1967[18] is almost entirely crippling to any attempt to tell a formational personal story about Lou’s art.

This means that Lou Reed’s biographers might deserve to be graded on a pretty sharp curve. Neither of these books is quite a match for Lou, but hopefully the above’s made at least a plausible case for why a biography of Lou Reed might be difficult to carry out successfully — not only do Levy and Bockris have to somehow assemble the first 25 mostly unpublished years of Lou’s life into something like a believable basis for the 1967–1976 creative thunderstorm, they’ve then got to keep us interested afterward in what can sometimes seem an awful lot like a quarter-century of excellently documented puttering. The kind of judgment this essay is making — that the earliest work is best, and most important — is convenient for purposes of narrative momentum, but not really available to a biographer. They just have to keep writing down what happened.

And of course they have to find some way to make it interesting. Victor Bockris’s Transformer does this primarily through appeal to the personal — Bockris was a Factory affiliate, and the whole project is festooned/enriched with so many direct quotes (and presumably even more on background) from Gerard Malanga et al., that it seems reasonable to gloss the entire thing as the Factory gestalt’s recitation of the Lou story. In general, this works well. Bockris is a tight, clean writer, and Transformer’s actual proximity to Lou’s life, to his favorite flavors of ice cream and dog-ownership experiences, does in fact succeed at limning out some believable and even somewhat satisfying vision of Lou Reed, human being. The Lou of Transformer, basically, is a sort of damaged empathy machine — a cracked mirror, almost impossibly sensitive to how other people saw the world, and inconceivably wounded by electroshock and certain cases of rejection, and therefore capable of extraordinary emotional violence to those around him.

That, mounted on a person with power, sounds like it could be unbearable — and Victor Bockris agrees. The problem with Transformer, and maybe the problem with this kind of personal biography, is that it seems to be difficult to write objectively about a human being you know. Bockris’s personal experiences with Lou seem mostly to have made him really angry with Lou, and Bockris does not manage to keep the anger out of the recollection. The epigraph of this book reads, in part: “… he had to destroy you in order to survive. He couldn’t help himself,” and within a few pages, in describing Lou’s relationship with his mother, Transformer is approvingly quoting some semi-gruesome Albert Goldman lines about “Jewish Love”[19] cadged from a biography of a totally different human being but which Bockris just feels to be relevant. Bockris’s conviction is that, in general, it’s Lou’s viciousness that needs to be reported — and, Lou seems to have been sometimes vicious. But scorn is one of the less interesting emotions, and Bockris often harms the project — it leads him to underrepresent both the possibly causative viciousness of the society Lou lived in and the real tenderness in his work.[20]

Aidan Levy’s new Dirty Blvd., written from a safe remove of several decades and therefore insulated from whatever Lou was like in person, has the opposite of Bockris’s problem. As a modern writer (without proximity, but with a sometimes-too-affectionate perspective) his answer to the narrative difficulties of Lou’s life is to historicize Lou to whatever degree is possible — if Lou is the villain of his own life in Bockris, he’s almost permanently a victim in Levy, a talented boy trying to survive in a painful world. There’s some dog-naming here, and some pretty rich close readings of Lou songs (something Bockris doesn’t care too much about) but mostly what we’re watching is an energetic modern writer trying to figure out what on Earth was happening in postwar American culture/music, with Lou as a cipher or picaresque protagonist.

When this works — in portions of his early life, and often when writing about his music — it’s a sharp, valuable document. But it sometimes struggles to cohere, usually for technical reasons. Stylistically, Dirty Blvd. seems heavily influenced by Levy’s work writing capsule reviews of shows and albums for The New York Times and Village Voice — these 120-word evangelisms have pushed him toward an over-allusive paragraph fauvism that’s never met a metaphor it doesn’t want to belabor.[21] It can feel sometimes like Levy is trying to convince you why each Lou Reed album and show, in chronological order, is worth five stars and 10 dollars. But the bigger issue is structural — Levy has lots of interesting ideas about Lou’s music and time, but he doesn’t always manage to assemble them into the kind of thematic ligature that could hold a messy life like this together. It’s all admirably effortful, impressively curious, but lacking a clear, consistently articulated vision of Lou’s life and work.


Spend enough time with the biographies and it’s possible to emerge with something like a coherent vision of Lou Reed, human being. The key is to listen to “Heroin” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” again, and realize that they express pretty much the same pain. They’re marked to much different cosmological postcodes, but the return address for each is the same raw feeling of brokenness — of just not knowing, of feeling twisted and unkind. Lou doesn’t know, writing these at twentysomething, whether the answer to these problems is going to be intravenous or romantic, but he knows he needs an answer — and on an even closer listen we can tell already that he much prefers the romantic option. It’s not really such a surprise that he keeps trying so hard to fall in love, even long after he gets clean, or that he eventually finds such peace in monogamy.

This, probably, is as close to a single “right telling” of Lou Reed’s life as we’re going to come: something halfway between Bockris’s manipulative asshole and Levy’s heroic victim. Lou Reed lived for about 70 years, and he spent almost all of them recovering in public from a set of very private traumas. And what was left at the bottom, contra much of Bockris, was a being of unimaginable sweetness. Here’s Laurie, at his memorial:

I was with Lou the morning he died and he knew exactly what was happening. He had described this feeling the week before of slipping down through the body through the inside and out. And that Sunday morning he said it’s happening again now. And then he had an expression on his face that I had only seen once before when my mother died and it looked like this.[22] That’s what it looked like. Inexpressible wonder and incredible joy […] [Lou] knew how to get inside other people to jump inside them and see the world through their eyes and jump out again and write about it tLright through the mirror — I’ll be your mirror was not only a song it was his alchemy, his magic, his compassion for other people which he knew how to feel and how to express.

That’s the joy. And it’s joyous! But the horror (understandably omitted by Laurie, and sort of missed by both biographers) is that the healthier Lou got, the sweeter and more hopeful his stuff became, the less the rest of us were interested.[23]

Which, actually, takes us back to doom. Because it’s easy to imagine a number of cases when “doom” might have felt like a part of Lou’s life — a number of cases when no one would have blamed him for giving up. After getting electroshock therapy is one, or after graduating from college with health problems, no great job, and a sexuality for which his world wanted to break him. A lot of people still die because of how hard this is, and as we know things were worse in the past. Even of those kids who made it as far as the Factory, way too many died way too young. In a way, Lou’s prevenient achievement, the achievement that’s so essential we forget it exists, is just to have survived for as long as he did. And that survival has to do inextricably with the parts of his work that feel to us, now, so mushy and irrelevant. Ba-ba-ba isn’t the sound of Lou’s weakness — it’s the sound of someone who believes things can get better.

And we need that, because today the dooms look particularly doomy, and the responses particularly unsatisfying. For artists, the first thing that we can do about doom is ignore it. This is the conventionally published response: looking too hard at what a 12-year-old girl is going to have to deal with in the next 80 years might freak us out, so let’s just have Inside Out. We don’t know what to do about inequality, so let’s just put it down in 50 Shades as something that might get us off. Doom tends to creep in, in the background of these objects, but it can’t be talked about directly — doom, in cultural production, looks something like a distortion or elision of our honesty.

The reason doom makes honesty hard is that a direct look at most dooms creates psychologically difficult circumstances in which to take any action at all, let alone make art. Doom is the suggestion that the imminent arrival of death, dystopia, or other crap-ness will make any present labor not just irrelevant but foolish. And art can feel like a particularly poor response to doom — our key idiomatic expression of fecklessness, “to fiddle while Rome burns” basically encodes the sentiment that under circumstances of doom, art-making is the least forgivable activity. If the oceans are going to rise, isn’t “getting rich” sort of the only procreatively responsible action to take? Shouldn’t we, on behalf of our unborn children and the possibly disastrous world they’ll inhabit, be doing something a little more lucrative than playing the guitar, or painting, or (for that matter) writing about biographies?

Lou, and more particularly Lou’s life, can help us with this in two ways: first, in the historiography surrounding the work of Lou’s early career is a reminder that while our current doom may feel totally unprecedented, there have been other dooms before. Rome has always been burning, in roughly the same way that the novel or publishing or whatever has always been dying.[24] And at least one of those previous cases of burning — that there were kids in New York doing drugs, without jobs, who were just playing the guitar all day — now looks like one of the better things to have happened in the United States recently.

The other thing that Lou can do for us is model some of the miraculous combination of honesty and energy that’s going to be required for any acts of making under our present circumstance of doom. If doom pushes us away from ourselves in two ways — first by discouraging us from being honest at all, and second by making honesty such a bleak place that it’s hard to bring much out of it as art — then a lot of the tensions in Lou that at first seem ridiculous start to look something more like necessary. The person who could only write “I’ll Be Your Mirror” might not have been important, and the person who could only write “Heroin” might not have survived for long enough to write too many songs. We need both halves of Lou to fight what’s eating us — both the honesty and the faith, the naïveté, which, in the end, isn’t an incrimination, isn’t an indulgence, but just a way of surviving the things you see when you’re honest.


[1] Xref ‘u’s middle verse with Lou’s ‘I Believe,’ even down to the visits, ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ with most of the ‘Somebody Says’ work, ‘Oblivion’ with ‘Candy Says,’ and Kanye with kind of everything. This isn’t to suggest that anyone’s biting Lou’s lines, or that what we’ve currently got is derivative or inferior, just that

[2] Music orders time, in a way that some other art doesn’t, and it’s able to order time as opposed to replacing it (as films or novels sometime do) because hearing is a relatively eluctable modality — the optic nerve mainlines right into the thalamus, while the auditory nerve is routed through the brainstem into something called the inferior colliculus and only then reaches the thalamus. The inferior colliculus, as far as we can tell, is in charge of integrating audible and other somatosensory inputs into a set of things we care about and set of things we don't. It's the part of your brain, in other words, responsible for (on the one hand) liberating you from your ears’ constant urgent bulletins re: WE JUST INHALED and WE JUST EXHALED, IT WAS LOUD, but also (on the other hand) making sure certain snapping sounds heard at night in the woods elicit the STOP RIGHT NOW PAY ATTENTION response without having to run a whole rational cerebrum-inquiry into whether there might plausibly be a bear/lion/zombie over there. And Proust points out that we aren’t quite sure the visual is real if it isn’t making any noise. Eventually you get the idea that sound is the somatic blockchain against which we’re checking whatever hash our eyes come up with—usually it’s background-confirmatory, sometimes lends a mood, but when it doesn’t match there’s something wrong. This pre-consciousness gives sound a unique artistic power-- it can affect, or appeal to, our interiority without having to fully occupy it in the way more visual mediums require. But you don't have to take this footnote’s word for it—just, next time you're on your local mass transit, try to imagine all of the people wearing headphones were wearing virtual reality goggles instead. The difference between the 6 train and obvious dystopia, maybe, is just which sense we're choosing to drug.

[3] ‘Heroin,’ and White Light White Heat as an album, and ‘Candy Says’ and Walk On the Wild Side and etc.

[4] Part of the historical distance between us and Lou is the increasingly solipsistic use case for rock music. When Lou was writing songs, “song” was a thing with basically a social or ritual use — something that happened in a place, around instruments or record players. But “song” is an object that now can be an armor, a mode of self-medication. Probably the earlier reflection on music as a pre-conscious mood-determiner is very obviously the reflection of someone who’s spent most of his life listening to private/solipsistic music, and Lou himself might not recognize this basic conception of what music is at all.

[5] With some pretty notable exceptions, i.e. Berlin.

[6] I’m unclear whether got-it-from-their-momma-criticism in biographies is hip these days, but it seems really disappointing that neither Bockris nor Levy make anything of his mother’s profession and its possible later influence on Lou’s idiom — isn’t a Lorax just a stenographer of the unvoiced?

[7] No, I don’t know exactly what that means, and neither seemingly do Bockris or Levy — Lou’s friends from high school remember him being unusually sexually confident with girls from the surrounding suburbs. He also worked at a gay bar briefly, and was pretty open about for example showing his friends his genitals, but there’s not exactly a detailed concordance of who he may or may not have slept with in the late 1950s. Lou was a practicing -sexual at pretty much all stages of his life, and that en-dash can be swapped out for bi-, homo- or pan- depending on the reader’s preference. Writing about sexuality in this taxonomical way feels, here in 2015, sort of grubby and (again) antediluvian, but it needs to be done: those were different times, and the tension between Lou’s queerness and his world’s awkwardness is in both a what-happened and a why-does-it-matter sense one of the big headlines from these biographies, and from the work itself.

[8] Who talks to the psychiatrist? In Bockris, it’s Lou’s parents, sick of Lou ‘tyrannically presiding’ over everyday life with threats of emotional violence. In Levy, it’s Lou himself who, ‘grappling with clinical depression…under the supervision of his parents, [seeks] psychiatric help.’ This difference, between Bockris’s criminal and Levy’s sweet seeker, is half-paradigmatic of the differences between the two texts’ treatment of Lou’s personality — but only half, because generally it’s Bockris who is eager to give Lou agency for everything bad that happens around him, and Levy who’s constantly exonerating.

[9] Shelley’s one of the big winners of these biographies — while dating Lou she seems both tenderly-in-love-with and pretty clearly too decent for him, and in the quotes she offers about Lou she comes off as highly sane and surprisingly un-vindictive, a few really wise zingers notwithstanding.

[10] Schwartz was one of the most talented, least with-it members of the prewar literary generation, and was at Syracuse as sort of a last-chance sinecure before everyone gave up on him. A careful reading of Schwartz is beyond the scope here, but it does seem like Lou always thought of his songs as literary works — “I’ve always thought…you take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel,” — and like Schwartz’s influence here is undeniable. What influence particularly is anyone’s guess.

[11] Lou writes more than he sings for Pickwick, but Levy in particular does a great job showing us that here’s the first time his characteristic darkness begins to emerge. It’s also an interesting craft education: throughout his career, Lou knows exactly what a pop song ought to sound like. What a nice song ought to sound like. A meaningful portion of the Lou-genius is in the juxtaposition of pop and doo-wop tropes with the darkest possible subject matter, either on the same or adjacent tracks.

[12] The big irony here is that by all accounts it was way more important to Pickwick that the touring band look like musicians than that they be musicians, so whoever originally introduced Reed and Cale was operating entirely on the basis of Cale’s preposterous physical charisma, and apparently had no idea that Cale was a rigorously trained classical musician and protégé of drone-futurist La Monte Young. If you’re convinced — and there’s a strong case — that the success and durability of the early Velvet work has a lot to do with its wholly unique sound, and that Cale had a lot to do with that sound, then this is the kind of completely accidental moment that might make you wonder what kind of sense any worldly success might have.

[13] This isn’t to undersell Reed’s musicianship — he’s a genuinely unique guitar player, just listen to the complete sarcasm of the first few bars of “I’m Waiting for the Man” — but just to say that after Cale leaves the group the songs start sounding cleaner, prettier, more conventional.

[14] This may come as a surprise to exactly no one who’s done drugs in their life, but for me one of the most fascinating parts of both books was the apparent disdain devotees of particular drugs felt for one another in the 1960s — the Velvets in California, all speed freaks, could barely repress their disdain for the soft, unserious LSD kids in San Francisco.

[15] Notably with Richard/Rachel, who today we’d call transgender, apparently stunning, whose sex-reassignment surgery Lou could never decide whether to support, and then later with Sylvia Morales, much younger and willing to marry the Statue of Lou Reed as much as she was marrying the man.

[16] Here’s doom again, by the way — funnily enough, the idea of doom, of a figurative or literal flood either right around the corner or just fading in the rearview mirror, has been a constant American heuristic since at least sometime in the ’50s, and probably way before that.

[17] The heroin is in his blood, he is at the Halloween parade, hopes your blue eyes will linger on, everyone says instead of said, etc.

[18] Given the inextricability of Cale on the first two Velvet Underground albums you could argue we don’t hear a whole just-Lou-Reed album until 1969’s The Velvet Underground and 1970’s Loaded.

[19] “ ‘It’s love, alright, but it’s mingled with such a big slug of pity, cut with so much condescension, embittered with so much tacit disapproval, disapprobation, even disgust, that when you are the object of this love, you might as well be an object of hate … the sons develop into twisted personalities…as men they have curiously ineffective characters.’ “

[20] There’re actually two editions of Transformer — one that pre-Laurie-romance and one post-, and the added chapters about Laurie are sort of heartbreaking. First of all, it’s apparent that whatever access-to-mutual-acquaintances powered the first edition has been totally shut off in the late life (for reasons that are pretty understandable on Lou and Laurie’s part, considering the first edition), which means that Bockris is working for the first time at roughly the same remove as Levy, and he really struggles. Most chapters are tediously procedural close readings of particular songs on the Lou-Laurie conversation albums, because that’s all he has to go on, and what’s more — this is where it’s touching — Bockris seems like he now feels bad for having been too mean in the earlier edition, either because Lou has died or else because Bockris has been authentically touched by the Lou/Laurie romance (which Bockris had probably thought Lou to be incapable of) and is now trying to fit an entire book’s worth of apology and belated praise into the last few added chapters, which actually ends up a bit embarrassing for Bockris, who can sometimes in these chapters sound like a sixth-grader tearfully defending his absent best friend, e.g. when he asserts stuff like that unlistenable late-period Metallica collaboration Lulu is “the greatest album Lou ever made.”

[21] “Turmoil roiled Wall Street in one of the worst economic downturns of the century due to the Nixon Shock, but nothing could prepare the public for the Lou Reed Shock,” is one example that just happens to be the fourth sentence of the book.

[22] Here, Laurie presumably makes a face, and the fact that at the memorial itself this is almost 100 percent likely to have been a comic moment tells you a lot of what you need to know about the actually-inspiring lightness and beauty of what Lou and Laurie seem to have shared.

[23] As Lou gets through stuff, we as listeners are introduced to a new genre of Lou-song: stuff probably best represented by “New York Telephone Conversation” or “Egg Cream,” in which his enormous honesty is aimed at a seemingly irrelevant topic. This fits into the “radical-presence-in-particular moments” stuff, this idea that Lou’s experience of emotional health was, basically, the ability to invest memories of childhood drinks or idle phone talk with urgency previously reserved for drugs or love. And actually that isn’t such a bad gloss on human emotional health: the ability to enjoy ordinary things in a way that feels as rich and overwhelming as our pretty consistently available capacity for terror/humiliation/need/etc., but the thing is, the kind of crappy thing that we both already know but don’t like talking about, is that good emotional health isn’t usually where good art comes from.

[24] This isn’t to minimize any of the current dooms, some of which feel to me personally not just serious and unprecedented but likely to be terminal, to the I-guess-implicit point that some of these dooms are a big enough deal to worm their way into what could otherwise have been an unrelated and much shorter look at a couple of books — it’s just to say that not all dooms are quite as dire as they may at first appear, and that it’s to some degree as a response to various past dooms that we as a species have scraped together the little wisdom we have. Still: nothing in this essay should be interpreted as somehow indicating that we should not be freaking the fuck out.


Corley Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Corley Miller is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New Republic, Artillery, and Brooklyn Quarterly, among others. He is an MFA candidate at CalArts.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!