After a morning run I digested a recent Fresh Air interview with Anthony DeCurtis on his new biography of Lou Reed, the iconoclastic New Yorker who passed away five years ago. Their conversation is a fascinating look at the late musician and his predilection for challenging the status quo.
I was struck by Reed’s contradictions. His obsession with not selling out while privately celebrating the conventional. He was a man who never enjoyed mainstream success and yet made little secret of his obsession and love of pop music. A young man who would treat his girlfriend to an enormous heart-shaped box of chocolates on Valentines Day.
A curious marriage of these contradictions collide in Reed’s solo album Transformer, a powerfully whimsical production that was spearheaded by David Bowie and Mick Ronson. The fawning British wunderkind was an enormous fan of The Velvet Underground and helped Reed to achieve his first hit Walk on the Wild Side, cultivating a sound that resonated with the moment.
DeCurtis speaks of Reed’s bisexuality, of openly engaging in male and female relationships from an early age. Born into middle-class comfort on Long Island, his Jewish parents abhorred his homosexual tendencies and forced him to undergo electro-shock therapy. The experience was transformative and immensely harrowing, cementing a rift that never quite healed.
I read an amazing biography on Reed last year, gifted to me by my friend Angel Olsen. I remember soaking it up while on a family trip to the Greek Islands, absorbing the crescendos and pitfalls of Reed’s indomitable life. He channeled gender fluidity at a time when it was a faux pas to be openly gay and made it a mission to never grow stale.
With this context in mind, Reed was openly in a romantic relationship with a transperson named Rachel for a few years during the mid-seventies, dedicating the album Coney Island Baby (one of my all time favourites) to her. As DeCurtis makes plain, for a contemporary rockstar to follow in his footsteps with such a romantic relationship would be career suicide.
Like many ‘misunderstood’ teenagers The VU were my saints, my confessors. They knew what it meant to be a social outcast and helped to channel the inner rage and pain we all feel by infusing it into their work. I was initially drawn to the darkness of their first albums, spellbound by their West coast adventures, of the band touring California during the summer of love dressed in black leather and shades singing about scoring smack and S&M fantasies.
In the years since I’ve come to embrace their later period, in particular their penultimate album Loaded. It’s my musical version of comfort food. According to the biographer Reed was the brainchild behind the album, a direct reaction to the darkness championed by John Cale (who had since been replaced by Doug Yule on their self-titled third album).
I love DeCurtis’ final statement after selecting Loaded’s Rock & Roll (a great choice) to close out the interview. “I feel like that is Lou’s statement about the ability of this music to help you transcend the circumstances that you’re in and show you a larger world and save your life."
I’ll drink to that.