Friday, March 4, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: DIRTY BLVD


ROCK 'n' ROLL ANIMAL
Why does writing about our heroes turn us into lousy writers?
by Don Stradley


photo by Mick Rock
Delmore Schwartz, who taught creative writing at Syracuse University when Lou Reed was a sexually confused, drug-dealing undergrad, used to hold court at a local pub and drink himself into a stupor while Reed lapped up his every word like an acolyte. A poet of some renown, though by the time Reed knew him he was better at hallucinations than poetry, Schwartz once gave Reed a stern warning. “I’m gonna be leaving for a world far better than this soon,” Schwartz said, “but I want you to know that if you ever sell out and go work for Madison Avenue or write junk, I will haunt you.” 

Schwartz died just as Reed’s music career was beginning. No one knows what Schwartz would think of a Reed lyric like “I’m sticking with you/ because I’m made out of glue.” But Schwartz, in between paranoid delusions, seemed to be a good sport; he and Reed once sat in a bar harmonizing to The Beatles’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ Regardless of Schwartz’ threat to harass him from the grave, Reed wasn’t likely to end up writing commercial jingles. He was a prickly, stubborn fellow, whether he was challenging the conventions of rock music as a young man with The Velvet Underground, or as an old geezer with big enough balls to enlist Metallica as his backup group. Reed was, by definition, as radical and unaccommodating as a recording artist can be.

But the Lou Reed mythos, like Iggy’s, is so sinewy, with pile-driving riffs and grooves, shock treatments, Andy Warhol, transgendered mystery girls, smack and Johnny Walker, hepatitis C, poor sales, and arguments with David Bowie,  there's hardly room for a drunken ghost from Syracuse. A late career interest in Edgar Allan Poe aside, there’s very little in Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, an uneven and surprisingly dry biography, to suggest Reed thought about ghosts at all, except, of course, for the half-dead zombies showing up at his concerts in the early ‘70s, some dumb enough to start shooting heroin because he’d sung about it, or the ghostly denizens of Times Square that Reed often documented in his songs. Reed, though he playfully mentioned a Ouija board scene in 'My House', was basically earthbound – he liked motorcycles, pinball, and guitars, electronic gadgets and Scorsese movies – his otherworldly concerns were probably no more pronounced than Jackson Browne’s. 

Reed, during his heyday with the Velvets, was too consumed by the wars within his body to worry about Schwartz’ ghost. There wasn’t a drug he wouldn’t consume, or a sexual misadventure he wasn’t at least curious about. But he was mercurial; he’d have you thinking he was the most twisted fuck in history, then he’d say he only wanted a cuddle. He took pride in his uniqueness, but he jumped on his share of bandwagons, including disco, and there are enough clips of him performing to convince me he was just a clumsy Jewish kid from Long Island who thought he could strut like Mick Jagger. At times Reed seemed spat out by society, left to try endless guises until he found one that fit. The costume that suited him best turned out to be that of the withered rock philosopher; by the time he was in his fifties he was breaking bread with presidents and foreign leaders, Bono was kissing his rear, and he was deemed a worthy subject for PBS’ American Masters. Go figure. 

Levy’s book is unremarkable. He writes from behind a shroud of jive, describing his subject “perched atop a black onyx throne, the demonic ruler of an edgy underworld of glitter and smut with no taboos or conventions, a malevolent smirk on his face.” A section about Reed’s breakup with a college sweetheart includes this howler: “Lou was a rock Orpheus willing to descend to Hades for his Eurydice, but he now found himself up the river Styx without a paddle.” When Levy describes Creem editor Lester Bangs as “probably the best writer in America,” we know we’re in the hands of an overzealous hero worshipper, not a biographer. Levy’s a hyperventilating egghead who will use “heteronormative” and “epistemology” in the same sentence, will go on ad nauseam about the "transformative power of rock and roll," and is given to such hyperbole as “with only six songs, the Velvets destroyed the world.” Worst of all is Levy’s coy use of Reed’s song titles, such as “Lou was ready for a new sensation,”  or “Lou had a foggy notion that something was about to happen.” Oi vey. No wonder Reed hated journalists.

Levy’s better when he calms down and focuses. To his credit, he tracked down some of Reed's childhood friends, plus two ex-wives who are more than willing to talk. The young Reed they describe was a man of monstrous insecurity, known for dishing out mental and physical abuse, though deep down he was, you know, a teddy bear. Best are the stories from the musicians who toured with Reed. The tale of a fan who jumped onstage and bit Reed on the ass is priceless, and Reed’s method of auditioning sidemen was fascinating: he’d wait in another room while they played; if Reed didn’t come out within 20 minutes, that meant they didn’t get the job. Strangely, there are long sections of the book where Reed scarcely makes an appearance. Reed seems absent during much of the Warhol years, except for a weird scene where he sat on Billy Name’s face and jerked off. And if the first half of the book feels turgid and overcooked, the second half feels hurried and flat, as if Levy wore himself out in the early rounds. Levy gives more coverage to Reed’s 1985 Honda commercial than, say, Reed’s courtship of third wife Laurie Anderson. 

You might be better off with Lou Reed: The Last Interview, part of an ongoing series put out by Melville House Publishing. It’s a slim volume that collects a handful of interviews with Reed, including a 1975 Bangs interview, and one where Reed loses patience with a poor sucker from Spin, whose only crime was being unimaginative. The dialogs aren’t especially deep, but at least Reed is present in these pieces, and his voice is still preferable to that of most reporters. Reed’s voice, more than anything, is what’s missing from Levy’s book. How do you not load a biography of Reed without quotes from him? After all, he’s the guy who once said “The British shouldn’t play rock and roll. Maybe they should learn how to cook.”


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