Review: Notes From The Velvet Underground -The Life of Lou Reed (Author: Howard Sounes)


Howard Sounes is a biographer of some repute. His previous tomes have included Down The Highway (a useful crack at Dylan), Fab (McCartney), Locked In The Arms Of A Crazy Life (Bukowski) and, talking of crazy lives, Fred & Rose (…yes, that Fred & Rose!) His Lou Reed biog contends for our attention with the expected swarm of funeral crashers (Mick Wall was predictably quick to tart up his clippings collection, to predictably vulgar effect) not to mention the latest incarnation of Victor Bockris’s venerable Transformer, often cited as the standard text on this subject. While the latter is unquestionably a work of great merit, Bockris is too much of a Factory flunkey for his take on the whole Warhol circus and everybody involved in it to be consumed without judicious pinches of salt. Sounes’s relentless pursuit of interviewees casts much doubt, for instance on the oft-repeated assertion (swallowed with alacrity by Bockris) that Lou’s tyrannical old man obliged him to undergo ECT in an ill-advised attempt to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Many of those interviewed express puzzlement at Lou’s undoubted loathing for the much-maligned Sid, who they remember as a liberal, loving father. It’s also strongly suggested that the shock treatment was a well-intended attempt to control Lou’s strong bipolar tendencies rather than his sexual preferences.

Thereafter Sounes fretells the familiar litany of Lou’s rise from the nut house to the Factory floor to Warhol’s brand of ‘superstardom’ to a solo career that redefined the term variable (the man who perpetrated that most cynical of vinyl turds Metal Machine Music in 1975 was still capable of the devastating Dirty Boulevard in 1989.) The author is not immune from swallowing and regurgitating received wisdom himself, including the old adage about virtually nobody buying the Velvet Underground’s debut, but everybody who did buy it going on to form a band (considering that The Jesus And Mary Chain are often invoked as evidence to support this particular chestnut, it might be advisable to lay it to rest.) Sounes also takes the party line on Transformer, i.e. that it proved its contemporary critics wrong and emerged as an enduring… (‘blah, blah, blah’) Go back and listen to Transformer, Howard, it’s pretty limp wristed stuff and the best moments on it are attributable to Bowie, Ronson (and even Herbie Flowers) anyway. Reed was never nearly as good as doing Bowie as Bowie was at doing Reed (e.g. on Hunky Dory’s Queen Bitch). But Sounes isn’t afraid to take his subject to task over all the good needs that didn’t go unpunished (in his relationship with Andy Warhol it’s a moot point as to who was predominantly using whom… who was the real ‘Drella’.) He’s clear that Reed’s relentless, self destructive drug and alcohol consumption (it was the liver, ultimately, that gave out) was at best pathetic rather than in anyway way cool or glamorous. Nor will he wear Reed’s regular defence of some pretty hideous lyrics, namely that he was a journalist rather than a diarist. The misogyny, if not the racism, frequently bled from his lyrics into his life and Sounes faithfully documents Reed’s more oafish behaviour in this respect. Scores of interviewees gave Souness the benefit of their views on Lou and the one word that keeps cropping up, over and over, even (especially) from his Factory peers, is… ‘prick’! “Do you think people want to read about the life of Lou Reed?” Paul Morrissey asked Souness: “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch or The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says ‘this isn’t the biography of a great human being’ because he was not… he was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.”


Yet reminiscences of casual cruelty alternate with testimonials to Reed’s generosity… he was eternally solicitous for the welfare of Velvets drummer Moe Tucker, for instance. He unquestionably mellowed in his final years and it’s generally agreed (who’da thunk it?) that this was down to the proverbial love of a good woman. After the decades of sturm und drang, Reed finally attained a kind of stability and even a measure of serenity in his marriage to Laurie Anderson, “She made his life beautiful”, in the words of fellow Warhol acolyte Billy Name. Anderson’s description of Reed’s passing (“His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved most in the world and talking to him as he died. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world”) might well bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical reader… which, considering the catalogue of appalling behaviour that has preceded it, makes you realise why Howard Sounes is a biographer of such repute.

Oz Mandias