Thursday, January 18, 2024

A Review of "Lou Reed: The King of New York" by Will Hermes


Will Hermes admits he’s on a fool’s errand with the opening quote of the preface to his 529 page biography of Lou Reed. The mercurial genius most famous as the leader of the Velvet Underground once told journalist Jonathan Cott, “There’s no reason to get into autobiographical things with me, because I’m a writer and a musician.” But Hermes, a diligent researcher (he makes clear he’s even read the archive of Reed’s sometimes terrifying “fan” mail), perceptive critic, canny social historian, and flat out elegant writer, is more than up to the task for what he himself calls “myth parsing.” As he puts it, “One gets the sense that memories might be clouded by subsequent myth, every double scotch or methamphetamine injection magnified into more smoking-gun evidence of the ‘Lou Reed’ character he blurred into by the mid-’70s.” 

 Then again, Reed went through a lot. Born in 1942 on suburban Long Island to a respectable middle class Jewish family—Hermes does wonderful work connecting Reed to that heritage—Lewis Allan Reed knew he was queer at age 12 almost two decades before Stonewall. Drawn to music and literature, New York City beckoned as it did to every artsy person in the northeast in the late 20th century. Alas Reed’s first and only year at NYU ended with him back at home and getting electroshock therapy (Hermes puts this seemingly barbaric practice into scary historic context: “In lieu of commitment to a mental hospital, an option that may have also been on the table, outpatient ECT probably seemed the lesser evil.”) Eventually Reed attends Syracuse, only to get his first case of hepatitis—and liver failure would be what led to his death in 2013—the first time he shoots heroin. It’s as if he was creating a life that could only be rock ‘n’ roll mythic.

Want to read the rest then do so at California Review of Books.

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