Reed’s biographer thinks the writer of “Vicious” was more complicated than that.
An Interview With Howard Sounes, Author of Notes From the Velvet Underground
In Notes from The Velvet Underground, a candid Lou Reed bio by Howard Sounes, the immortal symbol of counter cultural edge emerges as a genuinely unlikable person whose embittered aggression is informed by insecurity.
The meticulously reported book uses 140 interviews with the figures of Reed’s past—family, bandmates, lovers, friends—to outline the familiar dichotomy of being talented and also being a jerk.
Violent misogyny, two mental breakdowns, referring to Bob Dylan as “that pretentious kike.” Drunkenly slapping David Bowie, who produced Reed’s seminal album Transformer and can be held largely accountable for his later success, because Bowie suggested Reed cool it on the meth. There’s even an excavation into the labyrinth of Reed’s sexuality, which included three marriages and a long-term relationship with a trans woman known as Rachel.
An objective reader might see Reed as a selfish, sensitive soul living out an internal war in the fringes of the spotlight. Paul Morrissey, friend/manager of the Velvet Underground, puts it more bluntly: “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch or The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says this isn’t a biography of a great human being, because he was not… He was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.”
The Skeeve spoke to author Howard Sounes about the world of this complicated icon.
The Skeeve: Lou Reed has long been a known asshole, but your book takes him from arrogant (a trait common in his strata) to something worse. Did you ever experience any hesitation in depicting him for “the hateful bitch” he was?
Howard Sounes: You need to make a distinction between what you read about the book, online and elsewhere, and the book itself. Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed is 407 pages long. It is as complex as its subject. It is the fruit of two years of work, five days a week, every week, thousands of miles of travel, hundreds of hours of interviews. The idea is to create a vivid and honest portrait of a talented but complex artist, based on original research. Some of the evidence is of a man who behaves extremely badly. That all becomes part of the story. It is not me saying Lou Reed was “a hateful bitch,” for example. That is a quote from Paul Morrissey, who worked with him. I am impartial. I report what I am told.
The Skeeve: There’s a sense that, with periods living back with his parents in Long Island and a marked lack of hits throughout his career, Reed’s life didn’t sparkle as brightly as one would imagine. He seemed to fluctuate between a life in the limelight and a struggle to get by. Can you talk a little about this?
Howard Sounes: Reed spent five years as the leader of one of the most innovative and artistically accomplished bands of the 1960s, the Velvet Underground. But hardly anybody listened at the time. He then launched a solo career that started badly. It achieved liftoff with his second album, Transformer, partly thanks to the fact that David Bowie was his producer, and he had a fluky pop hit in “Walk on the Wild Side.” As I say in my book, this song was entirely untypical of Reed’s work. His subsequent solo career was extremely erratic. He had some chart success in the 1970s, but declining sales thereafter. Nonetheless, he was always an original, intelligent songwriter. His specialist subject was the underbelly of urban life. He reported back from the underground, as it were. He was one of the most accomplished writers in rock, with a spare, almost journalistic style. He could also be very funny. He had a wonderful, sardonic view of the world. For those of us who appreciated that tone, he was always interesting. But aside from “Walk on the Wild Side,” he was never mainstream.
This created some tension. And sometimes physical fights.
The Skeeve: Discuss his two mental breaks.
Howard Sounes: As is well known, Reed had a mental breakdown in his teens. As I reveal in the book, he had a second mental breakdown after he left the Velvet Underground. What is more interesting, perhaps, is that he struggled with mental health issues throughout his life. I explain that in the book, with the help of his family and friends. This sheds a good deal of light on his behavior.
The Skeeve: What would you say was the happiest time in Lou Reed’s life?
Howard Sounes: He was probably always happiest on stage, especially in later years, when most of his work was live. He was a gear head, who loved his guitars and was endlessly fascinated by the sound he created in concert.
The Skeeve: The book touches on the multiple physical altercations between Reed and Bowie. What was their dynamic?
Howard Sounes: David Bowie was five years younger than Reed. He was a fan of the Velvet Underground when he was an unknown artist. He then met Reed just as Reed was launching his solo career with RCA, and Bowie’s own career was taking off. He helped Reed create his most famous album, Transformer, then he eclipsed his American friend in terms of success. This created some tension. And sometimes physical fights.
The Skeeve: Why was Reed so pointedly jealous of Bob Dylan?
Howard Sounes: Reed was jealous of artists who were more successful than him. Like many artists of the 1960s, Reed copied Dylan initially. But then he resented Dylan’s much greater success. You have to read the book to understand the arc of Reed’s career, and the fact that he spent years working in the Velvet Underground to almost no recognition. That embittered the man. Then he had to start all over again as a solo artist in his thirties. Meanwhile, Dylan was acclaimed as the great genius of popular music. Reed would say, absurdly, “What has Dylan done that I haven’t done?”
The Skeeve: How much heroin was Reed really doing? Prior books like Uptight and Please Kill Me have suggested he was more of a voyeur than other participants.
Howard Sounes: He used heroin in his youth. It wasn’t his preferred drug. Methamphetamine became that. He was also, above all, a lifelong alcoholic. Being a drunkard affected his personality profoundly.
As a man of ambivalent and mutable sexuality who was often under the influence of drink and drugs, he lashed out at times.
The Skeeve: Describe Reed’s relationship with Rachel, his long-term transsexual partner.
Howard Sounes: The story of his relationship with the transvestite Rachel is extraordinary—moving and ultimately very sad. She was really Reed’s fourth wife. The photo of them with their faux wedding cake in the book is remarkable.
The Skeeve: Why do you think he was so violent, especially with women?
Howard Sounes: I don’t think he was particularly violent. On the contrary, one friend describes him in the book as a physical coward. As a man of ambivalent and mutable sexuality who was often under the influence of drink and drugs, he lashed out at times. He could behave very badly. There was some violence toward women. And men. When people are high, they lose their inhibitions, and are more likely to lash out.
The Skeeve: Why did Laurie Anderson decline to participate in the book?
Howard Sounes: You would have to ask her that. The widows of famous men have a difficult path to tread. They are often very protective, and they can be controlling. I am an independent biographer. I work alone, the benefit of which is that my work is not controlled or censored by interested parties.
The Skeeve: How do you think Reed would have responded to your biography?
Howard Sounes: If he read it, he would know it all to be true. Like a lot of artists he would probably feel frustrated that he couldn’t control what was written about him, and that I had made money from his life story. That is generally typical of celebrities.