BY GRACE MCQUADE
All those interested in rock and roll history are in for an absorbing read with this week’s release of “Lou Reed: A Life” (Little Brown) by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis.
Praised by Bono, Sting, Suzanne Vega, Iggy Pop and Clive Davis, the biography is being called one of the most important music books of the year.
“Other than Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and James Brown, no one has exerted as great an influence on popular music as (Reed) has,” DeCurtis writes in his book’s Introduction.
And no journalist had as much unparalleled access to the late rock icon as DeCurtis, who Reed said the following about back in 2012: “People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you get along with critics?’ I tell them, ‘I get along fine with Anthony DeCurtis.’ Shuts them right up.”
DeCurtis, whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone for more than 35 years, first met Reed in 1995 when he was covering the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
While waiting for his delayed flight to take off from the Cleveland airport, DeCurtis ran into a record company friend, who introduced him to Reed and Reed’s partner and future wife Laurie Anderson.
Reed remembered that DeCurtis had reviewed his classic 1989 album, New York, and proceeded to ask DeCurtis how many stars he gave it. When DeCurtis said four, Reed responded that it should have been five, but said so with a smile.
“The ice had been broken,” says DeCurtis, who went on to interview this brilliant, yet complicated artist over a half dozen times.
“I have been a Lou Reed fan for decades, since the Velvet Underground, and hold his work in the absolute highest regard,” DeCurtis writes. “But I was always aware of his innumerable contradictions, and fascinated by them.”
Given Reed’s widely-known, irascible nature, it was considered a badge of honor amongst music writers to be insulted by the prickly performer so it is a testament to DeCurtis that he stayed on “familiar terms” with Reed for more than 15 years, making him the perfect person to tell Reed’s whole story.
Drawing from his own archives, as well as interviews with family, friends and many others who knew Reed, DeCurtis presents an unvarnished account of Reed’s life, with an interesting look back at his early years growing up in Freeport, Long Island.
Born in Brooklyn on March 2, 1942, Reed moved with his parents and younger sister to Freeport in 1952 when his accountant father took a job with a Long Island-based plastic manufacturer.
Recounting how Reed described his elementary school in Brooklyn as a concentration camp and his subsequent years in Freeport at Caroline G. Atkinson Elementary School and Freeport High School like a jail, DeCurtis writes, “Taking his imagination to the extreme was a habit that began early with him.”
So was acting act out, but Reed began channeling his rebellious side into his pursuit of music, learning to play the guitar from the doo-wop, R&B and rock and roll on the radio in the 1950s, and starting several bands with fellow Freeport High classmates who are cited in the book.
“Even in high school, Reed led something of a double life,” DeCurtis writes.
While he got passing grades, played sports and loved to read, he was increasingly intrigued by New York City’s underground culture of sex, drugs and rock music; and though he liked girls, his writing at the time often depicted gay encounters while Reed himself began flirting his homosexual side. He liked to be shocking even at a young age, DeCurtis says.
Reed’s teenage years would set the stage for his burgeoning career as a musician once a Freeport neighbor put him in touch with a music industry executive and his band’s first song, “Leave Her for Me,” debuted on 1010 WINS-Radio’s “Swingin’ Soiree,” soon playing on jukeboxes across Long Island.
“In rock and roll, Reed discovered a yearning and lyricism that complemented the rawer truths he was encountering… ,” DeCurtis writes when describing the counterculture that emerged in the late ‘50s as seen through art, literature and music that seemed to tap into Reed’s artistic, yet dark tendencies.
Reed’s creative passion and pioneering music was often accompanied by his temperamental moods, bouts of anxiety and paranoia, and penchant for drugs, alcohol and outrageous — at times violent — behavior that continued through his years as the lead singer and songwriter of the Velvet Underground, the band forming in 1964, and his solo career from 1973 onward that DeCurtis chronicles in great depth in his book.
Over the course of his five-decade career, Reed’s intense lyrics and experimental sound drew the attention and support of people like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, inspired generations of musicians, as well as punk, new wave and alternative rock, and resulted in classic hits, such as “Sweet Jane” and the song that seems to epitomize Reed’s life, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
In May 2013, Reed underwent a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic, coincidentally in the city where DeCurtis first met the music prodigy. While Reed seemed to be recovering after the surgery, he died in October of that year at his home in the Hamptons.
“The young rebel who had despised Long Island and spoken about it with the bitterest contempt had come to love his life there, near the ocean, with Anderson,” DeCurtis writes in his closing chapter.
DeCurtis admits that Reed probably wouldn’t have wanted him to write his book that Kirkus Reviews has called “essential reading for Reed fans,” and Publishers Weekly says “explores the life of a troubled kid from Long Island who transformed American music.”
“No question: this book does not at all times see Lou the way he wanted to see himself. Aspects of his sex life, his drug use, and his cruelty that he came to be embarrassed about, and, in some sense, would have loved to erase, are discussed here in detail. As are his generosity and his kindness, his talent, his vision, and his genius.”
In the end, DeCurtis believes that Reed may now be best remembered as “a symbol of artistic freedom.”
Anthony DeCurtis will speak about and sign copies of “Lou Reed: A Life” at Turn of the Corkscrew Books and Wine located at 110 N. Park Ave. in Rockville Centre on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m.