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BOOK REVIEW LOU REED THE LIFE by MICK WALL

 

LOU REED - THE LIFE

by Mick Wall

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THE MAN IN THE SHADES AND BLACK LEATHER

 

 

This was quickly written and that is half of the story. Some artists you feel need far more than Mick Wall manages here, and a life like Reed’s surely amounts to more than just over 200 pages when One Direction can muster over 120+ in their latest ‘bio’. What saves it though is Wall’s enthusiasm for a subject obviously dear to his heart and as he says in the preface it is his “sincere speed-written, blood-spattered tribute” so if you can forgive Mr Wall that brevity (without the obvious Christmas cash-in bells ringing) you’re sure to enjoy this, even if all it really gives is an oversight of the career of a fine artist…  


Like I’m sure many will say and have said, Lou Reed’s passing in October felt like a death of a friend, not in the sense that you knew the man intimately, as I’m sure very few did, but in the sense that for some of us his music had always been around.  It’s that insight into the man that I’m really missing here but then of course that was always the problem with Reed and his relationship with the press, who he pretty much disliked across the board. The fact his stories changed over the years also made him a hard man to fathom. And that along with the iconic ‘look’ and that New York drawl was what made Lou Reed one of a kind. And that pretty much leaves you with the music which I’m sure is that way he would have wanted it.


Reed’s music meant so much to so many people – for me personally it was ‘Transformer’, like I’m sure it did for many, which came along for me in my early teens with bands like The New York Dolls, and a lot of Seventies Glam – but it was always so much more, maybe even musically as close to perfection as an album could be. It wasn’t a bad effort after the mind-blowing experimentation of the Velvet Underground who I myself discovered in reverse stumbling on the solo Lou Reed before than other madness.


Wall’s biography very much paints Reed as the man of legend rather than attempting to peel back the skins of the onion, which is perhaps all that could be done in such a relatively short book. It tends to focus on the darker side of Reed – the drug taking, the put-downs, the smart-ass replete in leather and shades, trusting no one and resenting many. It’s bleak as the Velvet’s music. It feels at some points like caricature but at others serves to fuel expectation and the legend.


Where the book does well is taking the choicest stories and anecdotes and weaving them into a compelling narrative. It also tells a tale of a different time – where even latent homosexuality was ‘treated’ with electro-shock therapy; but where Warhol’s rampant avant-garde Factory world of speed-freaks and drag-queens was revered – it’s a time of contrasts where a burgeoning underworld exists despite a rather draconian ‘system’. So we get Reed’s dabbling with drugs, with guys, with Nico, with art high and low, and the pivotal and bit-part players flow through.


Warhol of course set it all up and indeed it’s hard to think of Reed making it or coming to Bowie’s attention without that patronage, but the power of Reed’s story is that he takes that chance and runs with it even if there are some ugly casualties along the way most prominently Cale, who Reed always seemed to resent for his talent (which he often seems to equate with threat). You could argue from the point he got rid of Cale he lost his rudder, before being saved by Bowie (who got a punch on his nose years later as thanks). And after that it was a further descent into sheer rock and roll craziness with only a brief respite to beat his first wife in a short stint of small town normality that failed.  Then there were the years with ‘Rachel’ the bearded transvestite he found fleeting happiness with. Throughout it all though you feel that every person no matter how close they might seem really meant so little.  It all really paints a fairly bleak outline. I’m sure many others will view or remember Lou very differently.

 

Wall’s biography of Reed like I said isn’t exactly bad, like most of Wall’s biographies it is eminently readable, it’s just that this time it feels a little ‘light’. Hastily put together it also feels like a book with a deadline hanging over it – and at times you wonder if some of the more interesting periods of Reeds life are glossed over purely because they are so interesting and therefore would have required substantial research. What pulls it through though is that Wall is obviously a fan and that actually aides the narrative immensely without stepping into the trap of gushing too much. Much as I loved Reed though and certainly contrary to Wall’s opinion ‘Lulu’ his last work with Metallica was pretty average as best, and toe-curlingly bad in places; but that I guess was always part of Reeds charm – no one was ever going to tell him what to do or how to do it. And that is the way you feel he lived his life. 


If you are looking for just a peek at what made Reed great this might satisfy: but glossing over so many of Reed’s more ‘interesting’ periods it might not be the choice for committed fans or aficionados. That book I’m sure is on the way and I’m sure Mick will enjoy it as much as we will.

 

By Mark Diggins