That Mystic Shit: On Lou Reed’s “The Art of the Straight Line” and Will Hermes’s “The King of New York”

Michael Scott Moore writes on the life, death, and possible religion of Lou Reed, via Lou Reed’s “The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi” and Will Hermes’s “Lou Reed: The King of New York.”

That Mystic Shit: On Lou Reed’s “The Art of the Straight Line” and Will Hermes’s “The King of New York”

Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 560 pages.The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi by Lou Reed. Harper One. 309 pages.

LAURIE ANDERSON gives a tender but frightening account of Lou Reed while he died of liver failure, at 71, in 2013. He was practicing tai chi. “I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died,” she wrote in a eulogy for Rolling Stone. “His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid.”


It was a strange way to go for a singer who wrote with so much grim and hard-bitten humor about New York City. More than one lyric seemed to disparage “that mystic shit,” and his most memorable songs showed more interest in sex, needles, and trash-strewn streets than fascination with the hereafter. But there was always a glimmer of doubt, a moment when the rock-star pose fell apart. And one thing you’ll learn from any given biography is that Reed practiced tai chi. Martial arts helped him abandon hard drugs, in a long and cyclical struggle, starting around 1980.


Reed tried to write his own memoir about tai chi but never finished. There was a failure of confidence: the topic was ancient and vast, and he was just a rock star. So Laurie Anderson has joined three other editors to build a sort of Beat-era scrapbook, a collection of photos, texts, and interview excerpts, like something Allen Ginsberg or Patti Smith might put together to chronicle a phase of their lives. I miss Reed’s intended book powerfully, now that I know about it, but The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi (2023) is wonderful and illuminating, a chorus of voices about Reed. It may also be the closest thing fans will know to a spiritual biography of their man.


I learned about Reed’s death while lying on a mattress in Somalia, as a hostage of pirates. I was listening to the BBC through a beat-up shortwave. I knew just enough about him to be unsurprised that his liver had given out, but the news came as a startling reminder that the outside world—wherever it was—continued to roll along while I was in stasis, or what felt like stasis, growing weak in a filthy concrete room over the course of 32 months.


There’s no such thing as stasis, though. Not really. “Things change,” Reed wrote to a friend, who told him about an imminent and painful divorce. His coldness, and his obsession with sexual underworlds, led some detractors in Europe to pronounce his name in French, as “

luride

.” But he was never just one kind of singer. In fact, the number of transformations he lived through, like a character in Ovid, is astonishing.


He took up kung fu as a Bruce Lee fan during the 1970s. Around 1980, his second wife and collaborator, Sylvia Reed (née Morales), encouraged him to deepen his martial arts practice as an alternative to drugs. “I met Lou at a time when he was deeply impacted by years of heavy drug and alcohol abuse that were detrimental to his health and work,” she says in the book. “He was struggling to find his way out of an intense cycle of self-destruction.”


Tai chi kept him strong for the road. It also engaged a lifelong fascination with power. The Chinese notion of “chi” as an essential force made sense to him as a musician. Chi is described in the book as “a sensation of tingling,” an awareness of body and mind or emotion itself. “Lou was interested in electric music,” says Julian Schnabel, the artist and film director, “and he was interested in electricity and the transferal of energy from one person to the next and what could be achieved with that.”


Schnabel sees a relationship between Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007), Reed’s relatively mellow, under-known experiment with music for tai chi practice, and his late, lambasted hard-rock album Lulu (2011). The latter record is a retelling of Frank Wedekind’s femme fatale plays, two German dramas about a young woman’s destructive libido and death in London that morphed into the silent film Pandora’s Box (1929). To develop his song cycle, Reed hired Metallica. So the album features gore, sex, and a relentless arc torch of electric guitars. None of it, somehow, pleased fans of the New York poet or of his heavy metal collaborators. “This would be a decent Metallica album if it weren’t for Mr. Talky,” read one iTunes review. But Schnabel noticed a religious dimension. “I think [Lulu] is a great psychedelic,” he says in The Art of the Straight Line, “a masterwork, really. I don’t know how many people do this, but I always like to think leaning towards a divine light is the way to go.”


Where did Reed find this light? In adjustments from his tai chi master, in streams of physical force. Near the end of his life, he was a student of Master Ren GuangYi, who became a close friend. From Ren, he learned sword combat as well as

fajin

, or “explosive internal power,” concentrated typically, but not exclusively, in the fist. While cancer overtook his liver, he devoted more and more time to these disciplines and even toured with Ren, who performed tai chi onstage as a sort of interpretive dance. Reed also toured with a collection of dangerous blades. “Once hotel security was put on alert because someone reported this weird guy in the courtyard swinging a sword,” his onetime tour manager Bill Berger reports. “It was Lou doing Tai Chi.”


His relationship with Ren emerged as one of the most vital friendships in the last part of his life, second only to his relationship with Anderson. But Reed was always on the hunt for people who could show him something new. The 1966 analogue to Master Ren, in fact, may have been Andy Warhol. “[His] most consequential love affair that year, though nonsexual by all accounts, was with Warhol, thirteen years his senior,” writes Will Hermes in his new and exhaustive biography, Lou Reed: The King of New York (2023):


[B]oth men had industrious immigrant roots in Eastern Europe; both grew up with doting mothers and fathers with whom, at best, they had trouble connecting […] Both were set on pursuing high-art ideals in a pop arena, compensated for limited technical skills with potent ideas, and played with primitive, faux-naïve creative styles […] Both cultivated a journalistic remove in their image-making and storytelling. Both would be skewered by critics and snubbed by institutions. And both made queer-themed art at a time when that was considered beyond the pale, if not illegal.


Warhol, with his work ethic and amphetamines, created an atmosphere at the Factory that made sense to Reed, who learned from the older artist how to move in the world with no shame about his desires. Warhol wanted people to know he was queer before it was cool. “I was watching this like a hawk,” Reed said.


Hermes points out that Warhol’s “happenings” with the Velvet Underground in the mid-1960s prefigured the disco movement a few years later. They were speed-fueled events featuring Warholian film, live music, and Factory superstars of an unspecified gender. Psychedelic light effects were created by “someone manipulating a clear plate of colored liquid atop an overhead projector.” New York had never seen this stuff before. For Hermes, their monthlong stint at the urine-smelling Polski Dom Narodowy ballroom on St. Marks Place counts as a parallel to the Beatles’ apprenticeship at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.


People turned up in “boots, bell bottoms, metallic polyester miniskirts, plastic chain-mail dresses, colored fishnets, pencil heels, ostrich feathers.” This famous nightly event—Warhol called it the Exploding Plastic Inevitable—was more far out than Reed himself, who’d grown up on Long Island as a fairly confused, leather-jacketed punk.


“The residency blueprinted disco culture in New York some years before pioneers such as David Mancuso and Nicky Siano would refine it,” Hermes argues. The term “discotheque,” imported from France, was already in circulation by the mid-1960s, and disco as a musical style would come together in other corners of the culture; but before Warhol’s nocturnal bacchanals, there were not many places to go in New York for queer aesthetics and “celebrity fabulousness” and uninhibited dancing. “All you could do was go to a cocktail bar that had a little piece of floor for the mambo or the twist,” said Mary Woronov, an actress and early Warhol superstar.


Hermes pays special attention to queer history and Reed’s role in it. The Godfather of Punk was also a butch, bisexual figure before Stonewall, a strong voice despite his total failure to become a famous rock singer in the ’60s. Hermes reports that the Velvets played in Philadelphia the weekend of the actual Stonewall riots, thrashing the audience with a 45-minute version of “Sister Ray” while bottles and billy clubs flew in the West Village. “Whether it was in tribute or in synchronicity with the Stonewall incident is unknown,” he writes, “but the image of Reed careening through his anthem of cocksucking and violence while queers battled police in the New York streets a hundred miles away is a powerful one.”


Much of this long book, however, feels oddly rushed. Hermes, a writer and contributing editor for Rolling Stone, takes over 500 pages to tell Reed’s life but somehow gives a conventional gloss for each album, without providing insights of any terrifying depth. The number of clichés is conspicuous, and some sentences are as intelligible as a feedback whine. Hermes writes, for example, that Reed in New York was “a mirror of post-World War II New York City arts writ large.” And his rudeness “became cemented into myth as a literal and spiritual resting bitch face.” I still don’t know what either line means.


But one great virtue of the book is the attention Hermes lavishes on other people in Reed’s life, especially partners and wives. During the most squalid phase of his addictions—more to booze and injected speed than to heroin—Reed beat up his first wife, Bettye Kronstad. “[F]ollowing a particularly serious postshow bender,” he swung around and hit her in a hotel room. She slugged back; they both wound up with black eyes. (Other wives report no violence.) But you have to learn from a different biographer that Reed was a “needy” lover.


That single adjective begins to make sense of his outbursts of rage as well as the heartbreaking vulnerability in his most profound songs, especially “Some Kinda Love” and “Street Hassle.” It doesn’t excuse or redeem Reed’s behavior. But it’s information—because how much suffering, to put it in Buddhist terms, radiates from attachment, and how many violent partners believe they are victims? (Answer: A lot.) What’s remarkable about Reed’s agonizing climb out of drug abuse in the ’80s—out of the whole filthy rock-star image of “Lou Reed”—is that he arrived at the need for redemption on his own. Not everyone does. But Reed the skeptic decided not to look for it in his native Judaism or in anything like the Christian church. He found meditation and tai chi instead.


Laurie Anderson introduced him to the Tibetan writer Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and Buddhist meditation blended well with tai chi. “[Mingyur Rinpoche] teaches Buddhist philosophy,” Reed told an interviewer, “so I’m a student of Buddhist philosophy. If he was teaching table tennis I would learn that.” His hard-bitten humor was undiminished in old age, but his interest in “that mystic shit” became very sharp. Reed was curious about the meaning of God for most of his decadent life, but he was also stubborn; he wanted to know things firsthand––which is one definition of a mystic. The 19th-century philosopher Josiah Royce called the religious mystic “a thoroughgoing empiricist,” and Lou Reed was nothing else. His last words before he died were “Take me into the light” (meaning “Bring me out to the balcony,” according to Anderson, but still)––and these two books build a surprising portrait of an artist who cheated death, for decades, until he found a way into it on his own, ever-questioning terms.

LARB Contributor

Michael Scott Moore’s most recent book is The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast (2018). He is a contributor to The New Yorker and New Lines Magazine.

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