Music book review: Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes

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Music book review: Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes

This is not a new book, and as a writer I know I would love it if everyone wrote about my book right when it came out. But also, there is so much content to consume these days and it takes time to get through it in a thoughtful way and honestly if someone read something I wrote and reviewed it three months or a year later, I’d still be thrilled. (This is not a hint, this is just me explaining why writing about a book 4 1/2 months after it was published.)

There will be more Lou-related writing in the coming weeks. It may or may not be more timely.

Lou Reed: The King of New York, by Will Hermes

Anyone sufficiently interested in Lou Reed to pick up a 500 page biography is not going to have any quibble with the title’s honorific. My tribute essay in Billboard after Lou passed called him “New York’s honorary mayor.” Hermes’ pulled his title from something better than his brain: David Bowie’s introduction of his former sparring partner at the Bowie 50th birthday celebration in 1997, where Lou joined David at the end of the evening to bash out four songs, more than anyone else in the extremely illustrious roster of personally invited participants had ranked. It’s an example of the kind of small, diligent detail that makes this book the expansive, personable, overwhelming journey that it is.

“Overwhelming” might be considered to be a negative descriptor but it’s not meant as one. Lou Reed’s life was an immense and overwhelming journey. It felt like that as a fan watching him work at the kind of distance that fandom dictates; it’s absolutely confirmed in the work and the research and the writing here. Lou Reed lived the hell out of the one life he was given, for good and for bad. If you’d ever wondered why Lou was still alive at any point during his 71 years on the planet, this book will not change that opinion and will make you say a prayer for every year we did have him.

Only an idiot would try to put Lou into one of those ridiculous “he was no angel” kinds of narratives and there isn’t any effort to diminish the degree to which Lou Reed was messy or terrible or even just making bad professional decisions. The equanimity with which Hermes balances the sheer magnitude of Lou Reed’s bad acts feels like an moment of zen. He’s not overemphasizing it but he’s also not underplaying it. He’s just relaying the information. There are a lot of people who want to claim to be the One True Understand-er of The Gospel Of Lou. The diligence with which Hermes walks through the enormity of this man’s life and methodically lays everything out is laudable -- which it shouldn’t be, you know, it is literally the job you sign up for in a case like this. But there are not any other books about Lou Reed like this, because it is hard to do, and mostly thankless. People do not want to read fair and balanced. They want to read a narrative that supports the image of the artist they already have in their mind.

Another element that makes this work stand out is in its carefully guarded distance. It’s been 10 years since we lost Lou; most biographies of someone of this stature come out not long after they’ve passed on. This book was intended to come out sooner than it did, but if it had, it would be a different book. The distance helps stories sort themselves out and come to a natural conclusion. It lets people have time to process their feelings about the person and/or about their art (the latter especially important if you were not personally acquainted with the subject). Also, we now have the Lou Reed Archive at the New York Public Library, but that didn’t open up for research until 2019.

There’s a detachment present here that is almost old-fashioned in its deference; but on the other hand, this isn’t a book being written by a hired hand that some editor chose to write a Lou Reed biography because they thought there should be one. It is the story of Lou Reed’s life and work but it is those things viewed through the lens of someone who already has a relationship with the work, who wants to be in this space digging the pieces up and figuring out how to put them together. It is personal in a way that is interesting, and adds to the book. Most books that are written by someone who is a friend of the subject use it as a justification that qualifies them to be the author. This book is the complete opposite of “don’t make friends with the rock stars.” Yes, Lou was gone before Hermes started working on the book, but I get the sense that he would have kept a certain distance in order to do this work well and also because Lou was one scary motherfucker. He never lost his street smarts; he never really left the streets of New York City; he always came back, and he never left it mentally. The work displays that in every note.

It will take you a long time to get through this book -- it took me a very long time to get through it -- because there is so much to digest. This book could have been Power Broker length (which is 1,344 pages, I just checked) and there’s part of me that wishes Hermes had been able to go that long. I imagine that convincing your publisher to let you get to 500 pages was a struggle. But there would not have been any point in writing this if you had to cut corners every time you turned a page. I wanted more on Lou and Laurie Anderson’s love story; I felt like there was more than sufficient insight into his nuclear family, previous relationships, time with the Velvets and with Warhol. There aren’t dozens of loose ends that never get resolved, you never feel like he’s left something important open that he doesn’t get back to later. This is prominent in the way he tells us about Reed’s relationship with Rachel Humphries. We can give previous writers some grace in the fact that we have all been learning more about trans people and as a society working to present their lives without sensationalism or prurience. It’s another aspect of the book where Hermes’ ability to present information without it leaning to one side or the other is invaluable. You never feel what must have been considerable effort in working this way; he just does it. It’s an example all writers can learn from.

But the aspect of this book that makes it stand head and shoulders above any book on Lou Reed and in fact, most books about musicians, is the unique quality of the prose. Music books can be voice-y but they’re usually not, or if they are it overwhelms the information being presented. This book is so beautifully written. It is a device that makes it easier to get through the sheer quantity of information presented, it also lightens the process of reading the passages that might be harder to deal with were they presented with a more utilitarian text. There is movement in the paragraphs, there is style and personality, but none of it overshadows the facts. Because we are reading this book to learn about Lewis Allen Reed, and Hermes makes sure nothing is getting in the way of that.

The one element I struggle with in the book is those moments where Hermes is extrapolating possible intent or motive or feelings without backing it up with justification. A good example is late in the book, when he relates a project Lou worked on where he was persuaded to add backing vocals to a euro-disco cover of “Sunday Morning.” Hermes notes that Lou agreed to appear in the video, where he surveyed a dance floor, “maybe thinking about a similar scene at the Dom three decades earlier.” I don’t argue that an expert has standing to offer informed interpretation or analysis or even side comments, but these kind of notes are not that. They aren’t frequent, but they happen often enough to take me out of the book and cause me to put it down for a bit. (This one, for example, I wrote ‘NO’ in all caps in the margins.)

I am a fan of this writer’s work and am happy to accommodate their what-ifs and interpretations, but the reason they stood out is that they felt disconnected to the rest of the work. On the flip side, when writing about the death of Reed’s father, he notes “The death of Reed’s dad triggered, or at least coincided with, a burst of creative activity.” The first statement is a reasonable stretch, but it feels more balanced with the qualifier that follows it. The dramatic statements are the kinds of things that Victor Bockris does, and it’s probably why his books sell as well as they do, but it’s also probably why most of his subjects don’t participate in his books.

I loved this book. It was worth the wait. I can’t wait to read it again for fun and not because I want to write about it. But it is not the definitive Lou Reed book because I don’t think that is possible. The man was too complex. I wouldn’t want to give this to someone who asked me what they should read to learn about Lou Reed. I would only recommend it to someone who was already immersed in some of the music and some of the myth and wanted more. It would be too overwhelming to someone edging their way into the shallow end, but then again Lou was overwhelming for good and for bad. But it is a critical, necessary and beautifully authored piece of scholarship and I’m so grateful it exists.

While poking around the internet doing research for future pieces, I stumbled across this aircheck from a DJ session Lou did on WPIX in 1979, when it was still good. There’s a VU message board where one of the denizens tried to correct the speed, but then they realized that the problem wasn’t that the recording was sped up, because the songs were all at the right tempo, the problem was that Lou was… extra-caffeinated.

What’s particularly beautiful about this recording (and the reason I am always a sucker for an aircheck) is that you get everything: the ads, live club listings for the Botton Line, Hurrah! and the Other End, the DJ trying to put up some guardrails, Lou just talking about the music he loved, which was doo-wop. This is what makes this particular artifact a nice companion to the Will Hermes bio because he spends the right amount of time talking about Lou’s early years and the music that inspired him. Lou fucking LOVED doo-wop with the same intensity his most diehard fans loved him.

I’m not going to sit here and wax nostalgic for the 1950s under any circumstances, but if I had a time machine I’d like to go back and briefly live in a time where kids hung out under the streetlights and sang for fun. Doo-wop was magic. It inspired so many of the musicians I love. It’s the reason Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye met and became friends! Anyway, this is a time capsule straight into NYC in the late 70s. I’m putting it on my phone so I can listen to it while I drive this week. My god, I miss radio. I miss the serendipity and the randomness and that invisible tether that tied you to everyone else who was listening to the same thing you were at the same time, that pulse that reminded you you weren’t alone. You weren’t in dialogue (although you could always call the station, as people do on this episode), but the DJ’s were talking to you, not at you, at least the best ones were. This explains, a lot, why I hate podcasts.

The embed only shows one track at a time but it will play them in order. You can also go to the Soundcloud page if you want to skip around.

the kids are alright:

I’ve been asked to attribute the quote to “Ms. C.” 911, I’d like to report a murder