Lou’s Wild Side

Steve Schapiro/Corbis/Getty Images
Lou Reed and Nico at Scepter Studios during the recording of the Velvet Underground’s first album, New York City, 1966

“Just a perfect day/You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else/Someone good.” These lines—sung indifferently over swelling, glam rock strings—are from “Perfect Day,” an achingly gorgeous and brutally honest song by Lou Reed, who died of liver disease four years ago at the age of seventy-one. Some people thought the song was about addiction—how a junkie escaping from reality also feeds on the escape of romance. But the song could also be about how pleasurable, yet impossible, it is to escape from your true self, and about how easy it is to deceive yourself when you’ve disappointed your own expectations.

The songs of Lou Reed are a manual of sorts for how to keep living after you have let yourself and everyone else down, or after the world has done that for you. Reed doesn’t judge anyone for shooting heroin or defying societal norms, or for making sweet, gentle love to someone right before they OD. His songs are not sentimental about death, and they never, ever try to make you like the person who is singing them. He was more lacking in guile than most in rock and roll and he was notoriously cantankerous. When he had a liver transplant a few months before his death, The Onion ran a satirical piece:

“It’s really hard to get along with Lou—one minute he’s your best friend and the next he’s outright abusive,” said the vital organ, describing its ongoing collaboration with the former Velvet Underground frontman as “strained at best.” “He just has this way of making you feel completely inadequate. I can tell he doesn’t respect me at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s already thinking about replacing me.”

The joke worked because it was so true: anyone who got close to Lou—bandmates, lovers, archivists—invariably had such an experience after a while.

It is a recurring theme in Anthony DeCurtis’s new book, Lou Reed: A Life. Lou goes to Syracuse, falls under the spell of a completely ruined Delmore Schwartz, writes “Heroin,” gets busted for pot, makes enemies. He moves to New York City, falls under the spell of Andy Warhol, ditches him, collaborates with the classically trained John Cale—who adds viola and avant-garde credibility to Lou Reed’s limited musicianship—forms the Velvet Underground, the most influential small-time band in the history of rock and roll, balks at sharing credit, and ditches Cale. He meets the captivating German model and barely tonal chanteuse Nico, who sleeps with him despite insisting, “I cannot make love to Jews anymore.” (Nico upheld this policy with Leonard Cohen, who never forgave Lou for his tryst.) The relationship did not end well.

And so it goes: David Bowie produces Reed’s only mainstream hit, “Walk on…

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