LOU REED: The King of New York
by Will Hermes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
529 pages, $35.
AS A WRITER and commentator for Rolling Stone and NPR, Will Hermes has zestfully illuminated the zeitgeist of various musical movements, placing them within their historical and cultural settings. His latest book is an examination of the complicated genius of Lou Reed, the drug-taking, gender-bending avatar of the leather, goth, glam, and punk music scenes. Many books have been written about the legend, but Lou Reed: The King of New York may well be the definitive biography.
Hermes provides a detailed catalogue raisonné of Reed’s early Velvet Underground albums and examines his later recordings, including the David Bowie-produced Transformer, which featured “Walk on the Wild Side” as well as recordings that were ignored at first (but now venerated): the operatic “Berlin,” the nihilistic “Metal Machine Music,” and the politically charged “New York.”
Reed’s early life was undistinguished. Growing up on Long Island, he played doo-wop in a high school band. In his first year at NYU, he had an emotional breakdown and underwent electroconvulsive therapy. It’s not clear whether he was treated for depression or for being gay. He was an unreliable source about his own history. Researching the biography, Hermes found the musician often changed stories about his past depending upon the audience. In 1960, he transferred to Syracuse University, where he met guitarist Sterling Morrison and contracted hepatitis from dirty heroin needles. After graduation, he quickly thrived in New York’s avant-garde scene, performing at happenings with Morrison, along with John Cale droning on his viola and Moe Tucker playing drums. The group called themselves the Velvet Underground.
John R. Killacky is the author of Because Art: Commentary, Critique, & Conversation.