Review of “Lou Reed: The King of New York” by Will Hermes – A Tale of Contrasting Beauty and Brutality in the Big Apple.
On the evening of January 13, 1966, the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry hosted their annual dinner at a hotel on Park Avenue. The menu featured string beans, roast beef, and baby potatoes. The entertainment for the evening was unconventional – a local artist named Andy Warhol had been invited to speak, but instead performed a multimedia show with the band he managed. The Velvet Underground and Nico played loud songs such as “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” while 300 medical professionals and their spouses watched in formal attire. One doctor described the event as a “spontaneous eruption of the id,” while another compared it to a prison break.
This was not entirely inaccurate; Edie Sedgwick, the famous figure in Andy Warhol’s circle who performed on stage, had previously been admitted to a mental health facility by her affluent parents (where she became acquainted with Barbara Rubin, another socialite who recorded part of the event). Additionally, the main member and composer of the band, Lou Reed, had received electroconvulsive therapy as a teenager for suspected schizophrenia (although he later stated it was to suppress his homosexual feelings).
Although the event itself was attention-seeking in a bratty manner, following Warhol’s style, it served a larger purpose. Not simply a “happening” designed for shock, the Velvet Underground provided Reed with a true platform to showcase his skills as both a musician and lyricist. Just three months later, the band would record one of the most iconic love songs of the 1960s, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. This marked the start of a career that would see Reed become a globally recognized figure representing the darker aspects of human nature such as addiction, desperation, and excess.
David Bowie, a devoted fan of the Velvet Underground, came up with the nickname “King of New York” for Lou Reed. Bowie helped revive Reed’s solo career by producing the album Transformer, which featured his biggest hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. Will Hermes has written a detailed and captivating biography titled “King of New York”, drawing from the archive donated by Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson to the New York Public Library. Similar to his previous book “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” which explored the music scene of mid-70s New York, Hermes skillfully paints a picture of Reed’s life and the various communities he was a part of, including a diverse group of collaborators, friends, and lovers.
It is believed that he is modernizing Reed’s work for a newer audience, specifically as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and challenging traditional gender norms. This is evident in his song Candy Says from 1969, which beautifully portrays the struggles of gender dysphoria. In 1972’s Make Up, three years after the Stonewall riots, he boldly declared “Now we are revealing ourselves, out of hiding / Out in the open”. During the years 1974 to 1977, he was in a relationship with Rachel Humphreys, a transgender woman, and their love was not hidden. However, at times it seems like Hermes is trying too hard to gain recognition as a progressive rock icon. Can his infamously unlistenable album Metal Machine Music truly be considered a “radical queer art statement, using noise to shut down homophobic scrutiny”? If you say so.
As Hermes follows Reed’s journey from the suburbs of Long Island to the downtown avant garde scene, with stops at Syracuse University and under the mentorship of poet Delmore Schwartz, it becomes clear that Reed is a complex and awkward figure. While his progress is being tracked, it is also evident that his psychological wounds and flaws are not being healed, but rather exacerbated. John Cale, the other musical genius of the Velvet Underground, believed that Reed’s often appalling behavior was a result of his fears about his own sanity, causing him to intentionally try to provoke others. This gave him a sense of control, rather than living in a state of uncertainty or paranoia. He was constantly seeking an advantage for himself by bringing out the worst in people.
The author of this passage discusses the impact of the subject’s insecurities on his personal and professional relationships. His drive to prove himself as a great poet and to prove his worth to his peers and family also led to selfish and violent behavior. His first wife, Bettye Kronstad, describes how he treated his partners with both respect and abuse, similar to how he treated himself. One of his most famous songs, “Perfect Day,” was inspired by a date with Kronstad and was described by Hermes as a portrayal of a bittersweet moment filled with self-hatred. Reed’s bandmates also experienced the negative effects of his insecurities, resulting in short-lived collaborations. The Onion later satirized Reed’s difficult reputation in a headline about a liver transplant due to hepatitis, highlighting the challenges of working with him.
In this particular situation, it was almost certain that individuals would turn to self-medicating. Hermes recounts disturbing accounts of drug usage. Despite his reputation for the song Heroin, Reed primarily relied on amphetamines due to their accessibility from doctors and weight loss clinics, and also because it increased his productivity – until it didn’t. Nevertheless, the resulting paranoia and decline heavily influenced his writing. His main goal, as he stated, was to take the pop music format and cater it towards an adult audience with adult themes. This is evident in songs like Waves of Fear, which painfully depicts withdrawal, and Street Hassle, which uses a captivating string ostinato to tell the story of a drug overdose – as well as in Heroin itself. Eventually, Reed sought help and attended Narcotics Anonymous. During one meeting in New York, he was confronted by another addict who yelled: “How dare you be here – you’re the reason I started using heroin!”
Although Reed may not have achieved significant commercial or critical success initially, he did manage to make an impact on others. The story of the Velvet Underground is largely centered around their influence after their breakup, as Hermes illustrates by listing artists who were inspired by them, such as Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and Blondie. Reed was idolized by these artists as he frequented CBGBs just a few years later. This rapid mythologizing of disbanded bands and faded scenes is a common occurrence in the music world, and Reed and the Velvets were among its top beneficiaries. (Even the act of mythologizing itself is subject to myth: for instance, it is often attributed to Brian Eno that “The first Velvet Underground album didn’t sell many copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” However, this may not be entirely accurate.)
Reed did not simply observe as his reputation flourished, but rather it grew gradually as he achieved success, much like a frog slowly cooked in a pot. Hermes meticulously chronicles the production of albums from the 1980s onward, even as revenue from the use of his older songs in samples and advertisements poured in, making him a wealthy individual. His most notable release in his later years, New York, boldly portrayed his hometown with an unapologetic perspective, speaking out against poverty and discrimination and satirizing a hopeful poem about the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll urinate on them.”
However, if he established himself as the poet of the darker aspects of rock music, whether it be his own personal struggles or society’s, it was all in the pursuit of a more authentic and genuine form of beauty. In the concluding chapter and epilogue, Hermes recounts Reed’s last days in 2013 when his body began to reject his transplanted liver and he was aware of his impending death. He expressed, “I am extremely sensitive to beauty at this moment,” as his friends played music by the Shangri-Las, Nina Simone, Frank Ocean, and Radiohead while he relaxed in his heated pool. In reality, he had always been drawn to beauty.