Biographer Sought To Write The Kind Of Book Lou Reed 'Deserved'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Anthony DeCurtis, is the author of a biography of Lou Reed, which just came out in paperback. DeCurtis is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, where he's written for more than 35 years. DeCurtis knew Reed and considered him a friend, although not a close one. As part of his research, DeCurtis interviewed many people Reed knew, including his first two wives.
Lou Reed co-founded The Velvet Underground, which he played with from 1964 to 1970. The band was initially managed by Andy Warhol and was part of Warhol's scene. While many bands of the time were singing about peace, love and hallucinogenics, Lou Reed was writing songs about heroin, street hustlers and transgressive sexuality. He continued in that direction as a solo artist. But he also wrote songs that had a spiritual quality.
DeCurtis says other than Bob Dylan, the Beatles and James Brown, no one has exerted as great an influence on popular music as Reed has. Reed died of liver disease five years ago at the age of 71. DeCurtis says he wouldn't have written this book while Reed was alive. Quote, "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 are discussed here in detail, as are his generosity and his kindness, his talent, his vision and his genius," unquote. We recorded the interview last November when the book was first published and started with the song "Heroin" from The Velvet Underground's first album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) I don't know just where I'm going, but I'm going to try for the kingdom if I can 'cause it makes me feel like I'm a man when I put a spike into my vein. And I tell you things aren't quite the same when I'm rushing on my run. And I feel just like Jesus' son. And I guess that I just don't know. And I guess that I just don't know.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: That's Lou Reed.
And Anthony DeCurtis, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your new biography of Lou Reed.
ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: So let's start with that song, which sums up so much about what made Lou Reed different from other music being made at that time. Give us your take on "Heroin" and how it fits into not only Lou Reed's career but into the larger music of that time.
DECURTIS: It's such a daring statement. You know, essentially, it was recorded in 1965. It came out in 1967. And you know, it was the height of the Summer of Love. There was a sense in which this was just a very different sense about what popular music could contain. I mean, Lou Reed's stated desire - I mean, he had studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz in college.
And he really had this idea. It came out of the fact that Delmore hated rock lyrics. Lou loved rock 'n' roll, and he loved poetry. And he thought to himself, you know, suppose we could make an album that someone like Delmore Schwartz would like the lyrics. And, you know, we can draw on people like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
And that's what "Heroin" is. And it's also such a depiction of an addict, really, and a kind of mindset. It's not necessarily the way an addict would articulate the experience, but it's a - I think a distillation of an almost unconscious or unexpressed experience that the drug heroin might have on a user. And it was - you know, I think the kind of issue that his music would always raise, which is, you know, can you descend into this underground, describe it and not glamorize it? That...
GROSS: But he kind of lived part-time in that underground.
DECURTIS: He certainly did.
GROSS: He used heroin, too.
DECURTIS: He did use it.
GROSS: Yeah. And he was the first person to inject John Cale, his band mate in The Velvets, with heroin.
DECURTIS: That is true. Yeah. (Laughter) I mean, all of that is true. They - I mean, it never really was his particular drug of choice. I mean, he always preferred amphetamine. He liked speedy drugs, but he did use heroin. And the song does come out of his own experience, which is, you know, I think another element of Lou's work. You know, it was grounded in his own life. He would make the point - and it's a point worth making - that, you know, he's not all the characters in these songs but, you know, close enough.
GROSS: You know, one of the things that's so fascinating about Lou Reed is that - OK, so this is one of the really early songs that he writes, "Heroin." And at the time, he's working for Pickwick, writing songs to order. He's writing, like, knock-offs of, like, surf songs...
GROSS: ...And songs about Detroit and California. And a song called "The Ostrich," which was supposed to be, like, a novelty dance song to start a novelty craze that never got started (laughter).
GROSS: And before that, he was discovered at, like, a high school dance that he was playing with, like, an early high school band. And he was brought to Bob Shad, a record producer who is also Judd Apatow's grandfather - (laughter) late grandfather.
DECURTIS: Oh, I did not realize that.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And Bob Shad has him, like, record a few things - like, write and record a few things. And one of the songs - I really want to play this (laughter). One of the songs is called "Merry Go Round." And so how old was Lou Reed when he records this?
DECURTIS: Well, you know, he began recording, really, while he was in high school. You know, and he, you know, kind of continued to make records after that. But, you know, you could really see the kind of influences that he was working with at this point. I mean, in a certain sense, his work at Pickwick helped him 'cause it was like working in a songwriting emergency room.
You know, they would, you know, just kind of - OK, you know, surf music is happening. Like, you know, write 10 surf songs or - Lou loved doo-wop. You know, write a bunch of doo-wop songs, or write a bunch of songs about cars or songs about teenage love tragedy. And so "Merry Go Round" is kind of an expression of that period of his writing where it's identifiable as Lou Reed. But also, you could hear him working through, you know, the various kinds of genres that he was kind of tasked to work with.
GROSS: Yeah. So the guy who writes, like, "Heroin" and writing for - "Waiting For The Man" writes this lyric for "Merry Go Round." I walk you home everyday from school, but still you treat me like a fool. (Laughter) And so...
DECURTIS: Absolutely. You see...
DECURTIS: This is a very interesting thing about Lou. I mean, I think there were those - both those parts. I mean, people would ask me - you know, I knew him. And, you know, people would ask, you know, like, so, you know, if you run into Lou Reed, what does Lou Reed talk about? You know, we'd talk about, like, Lesley Gore...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
DECURTIS: ...Or we'd talk about "Love Rollercoaster." You know, he loved pop music. And that was true at the same time as he also wasn't always doing that by any means. But he was taking pop elements even, you know, on that first Velvet Underground record. If you listen to a track like, you know, "There She Goes Again," you know, he lifts, you know, Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike" for the riff.
There's an element of loving what pop music is and all of those teenage emotions. In a certain way, you know, this is a kind of overstatement. It's a little sentimental. But in many ways, it's kind of true. I mean, Lou's deep, passionate love of doo-wop and that kind of adolescent swept away on the wings of love and - it was a very essential emotion for him. And it remained that way.
GROSS: So let's hear "Merry Go Round" 'cause you really hear Lou Reed's voice. But he hasn't quite become the Lou Reed that we know yet. And it's very, very pop. So let's hear him singing about walking her home from school. Here's Lou Reed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY GO ROUND")
LOU REED: (Singing) I walk you home, yeah, every day from school, but still you treat me like I was a fool. Merry go round, whoa, you got me going upside down. You said you'd never date another boy, but still you treat me like I was a toy. Merry go round, whoa, you got me going upside down. You said that we would never part. But, babe, you went and broke my heart. You wound me up, and then you put me down. They're laughing at me all over town. Merry go round.
GROSS: So that was Lou Reed before The Velvet Underground when - is he still in high school when he records that?
DECURTIS: I think so, yeah. I think so.
GROSS: All right. OK. And my guest is Anthony DeCurtis, who has a new biography of Lou Reed called "Lou Reed: A Life." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND'S "SISTER RAY (FILM EDIT)")
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and now the author of a new biography of Lou Reed.
I want to ask you about a period of Lou Reed's life that a lot of people have spoken about. I think he chose not to speak about it publicly. And I'm talking about the period where he had electroshock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy.
GROSS: This was when he was in college. And I had always heard that this was because his parents were afraid that he was gay. What did you learn about the electroshock therapy and why he had it?
DECURTIS: Well, I think that Lou was acting out in a variety of ways. While he was in high school, you know, he was certainly using drugs, wild mood swings. You know, he definitely enjoyed getting under, particularly, his father's skin. And he also was acting out like, you know - people would see his kind of gay life almost in performative terms. You know, he'd walk around and - you know, limp-wristed and, you know, shaking his hips and all this stuff in front of his father as a way to, essentially, aggravate him.
But there were more serious problems with him, you know, I think that - you know, certainly, the drug use and the rebelliousness. The family was very conventional. And you know, as a kind of, you know, middle- or upper-middle-class Jewish family in the suburbs, you know, they went and consulted doctors about the kind of problems that they saw. And the doctors advised this, you know, electroconvulsive therapy, which Reed saw as a kind of torture.
He wrote about it. He wrote a song called "Kill Your Sons" about it, which is kind of an Anne Sexton poem set to music. And to him, it was a - you know, it was a very decisive, dividing line in terms of his relationship with his parents. But one thing I learned from talking to his sister and other people who knew him well back then, you know, his parents really loved him. And his father - I mean, his mother felt guilty about the shock treatments for the rest of her life until she died. I think his father thought that he did the best he could. He was - you know, Lou was creating a lot of problems, and he needed to address them somehow.
GROSS: But you also write that once when Lou Reed came home from college, that he was basically, like, nonfunctional. And his parents were concerned that he was in a terribly deep depression. The doctor said, you know, he might have schizophrenia. Am I getting this right?
GROSS: And that that also figured into the shock treatments. And his sister told you, oh, our parents were very liberal. And they weren't homophobic, so it wasn't about their fear of him being gay. But I was thinking that, like, everybody was homophobic then.
DECURTIS: Well, that's right. And that's the thing. I don't think they were more homophobic than that. You know, they were just kind of a conventional, suburban couple. Lou was bringing into their life everything that they were supposed to not have to deal with anymore after having left the city.
There was a vision of the suburbs when they moved in the 1950s as this kind of Eden of peace. And you know, Lou's various outrages under which they would certainly have filed, you know, his going to gay bars and acting out as a gay person, you know, were elements of that. But it wasn't like, we're going to make him straight. You know, I just don't think that was part of it. But it was...
GROSS: You're mentioning gay bars and him being gay. But he's also with a lot of girls at the time, right?
DECURTIS: Well, yeah. That's true. And there are people - I mean, this was a really - I mean, it's a very - it's an issue very much of the moment, interestingly, because I've kind of gone around the block.
GROSS: You think he was kind of, like, fluid in his sexuality.
DECURTIS: Yeah. I mean, one of his girlfriends describes him as inter. And that's a kind of interesting usage, I think. You know, there was part of Lou, I think, that was up for anything. And - but I've had gay friends - gay male friends, like, write to me and say, you know, you describe, you know, this element of Lou. But he was really gay.
And you know, the day I got one of those - and it was - you know, it was a pretty stern email that, you know, made me think about what I had written. I had lunch with one of his former girlfriends. She was saying, look. There's no way Lou was gay. His sexuality was something, I think - you know, as you gazed at it, you saw what you wanted to see, you know? And I think Lou was kind of open to going wherever that was.
GROSS: And I don't think everybody had the language for it then.
DECURTIS: Well, that's right. They didn't. That language didn't exist. I did want...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
DECURTIS: I did just want to say one thing about his parents because, you know, there really was this sense, you know, after the shock treatments, of Lou's never forgiving them for that. But when Lou left The Velvet Underground, he went back and lived with his family. You know, he'd bring his girlfriends.
GROSS: I know. I was so surprised when I read that.
DECURTIS: Oh, exactly, you know?
DECURTIS: And I once said - you know, his first wife was talking about Lou being cheap. And she was saying oh, God, you know, he never wanted to spend money. We were living in all these small places. He would never ask his father for money. And at that point in my research, I took Lou's story as, you know, the truth. And I just said, well, would his father ever have given him money? And she said, of course he would have given him money. You know, it's anything for Lou.
You know, he was the oldest son in this Jewish family. And, you know, his father was a very conventional man who would have loved to have a son that wanted to take over his accounting business. You know, he didn't get that. He couldn't get around, you know, a lot of what Lou's life and, you know, even his art was like.
But, you know, on the other hand, whenever Lou needed anything, he was there. And, you know, that was one of the complexities. Lou dedicated his book of lyrics to his parents and his sister. You know, it was - you know, it wasn't as simple as, you know, as it might initially seem.
GROSS: Another thing that really just, like, amazed me reading about this in your book is that after The Velvet Underground split up and he went on his own, he didn't have any money. So he got a job working for his father, typing...
GROSS: ...In his father's accounting office.
DECURTIS: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: I mean, how transgressive is that? (Laughter).
DECURTIS: No, no, totally. You know, and he always - he would say - he goes, you know, well, my mother always said, you know, like, you know, you should have something to fall back on, and kind of typing was that for me. You know, I think it was just a way to buy time and make a little...
DECURTIS: ...Money. And his father would accommodate him.
GROSS: But they were there for him.
DECURTIS: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
DECURTIS: Somebody told me a story. I wasn't able to confirm this. But that the night Lou quit The Velvet Underground, you know, after his show at Max's Kansas City, that his parents were waiting for him in the car to drive him back to Long Island. I mean, I could never get that confirmed. But it's certainly possible. And he certainly did move back there immediately.
And, you know, they had that kind of relationship. It was, you know, along with, you know, this kind of, you know, festering anger that Lou felt. I mean, he would never meet with them without his sister being there. He always referred to them by their first names. It was never, like, mom and dad. And, you know, he certainly would characterize them in song, you know, in ways that, you know, must have made their skin crawl. But yeah - but in real life he - you know, he got along with them fairly well.
GROSS: So early in The Velvet Underground period, they team up with Andy Warhol. Like, Andy Warhol...
GROSS: ...Brings them under his wing. He wants to have a band to...
DECURTIS: Yeah, precisely.
GROSS: ...Kind of - yeah, to kind of expand his reach. And what worked and what didn't work about that connection with Warhol? What didn't work for Lou Reed?
DECURTIS: Well, you know, that's a very interesting question because, you know - yeah. Andy wanted a band in the same way - you know, it was just like, oh, you know, movies are getting popular. You know, I'm just going to make some movies now, you know, and says like, we should have a band. You know, rock 'n' roll's getting to be a thing.
And so they found The Velvet Underground, you know, through some, you know, artists who had gone to see them and thought they might work for Andy. You know, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, his kind of, like, right-hand man at The Factory, their studio, decided that The Velvet Underground were kind of too boring looking. So they got Nico, who was, you know, a German model and actress and soon to be singer, to, you know, to be their lead singer. You know, Lou was not crazy about that.
But I think he felt like Warhol was going to bring them a degree of visibility that was going to - was important and that he would just go along with it. He limited Nico's participation as much as he could. You know, she only sang, you know, a few songs. The band was pointedly called The Velvet Underground & Nico. You know, like, that is - she's not a member of the band. And as soon as he could, he got - you know, he kicked Nico out of the band as well.
GROSS: After having an affair with her.
DECURTIS: Well, that's very true, (laughter) exactly. It was, you know, part of those times. And that was - you know, so that was one of the issues with Warhol. Warhol was great because, you know, back then - you know, I was a kid in New York around that time.
Warhol was in the newspapers all the time - you know, not art critics writing about him - although, that, too - but just, like, oh, this crazy guy, you know? He thinks that Campbell soup cans are art. And he went to this party the other day. I mean, every day, he was in the newspaper. So whatever he did got attention. And you know, Lou took advantage of that.
But that also hurt The Velvet Underground in that, you know, rock 'n' roll, certainly back then, was a pretty earnest thing. And Warhol seemed like a put-on, like a joke. Oh, this is like an Andy Warhol version of a band, you know, for people who, you know, hadn't heard them yet, you know, and heard how amazing they are.
So you know, I think eventually, like, once they made, you know, certainly the first album and were in the process of making the second one, I think Lou felt, all right. We've kind of established a baseline here. Now Andy's got to go. You know, this needs to be a more professional operation. And, you know, there's no way Andy Warhol was, you know, a rock 'n' roll manager of, you know, any note.
GROSS: My guest is Anthony DeCurtis, the author of the new book "Lou Reed: A Life." It's just been published in paperback. After a break, we'll talk about Reed's relationship with women, including his wives and his trans partner Rachel. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND SONG, "VENUS IN FURS")
REED: (Singing) Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather, whiplash girl child in the dark, clubs and bells. Your servant, don’t forsake him. Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart. Downy sins...
(SOUNDBITE OF LOU REED SONG, "SWEET JANE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and author of the book "Lou Reed: A Life." We recorded our interview last November when the book was first published. It's just come out in paperback.
You write about the women in Lou Reed's life, including his first serious girlfriend, Shelley Albin, his three wives, Bettye Kronstad, Sylvia Morales, Laurie Anderson, his trans girlfriend Rachel. Let's start with his first girlfriend and his first two wives. Did you interview all of them, all three of them?
GROSS: What were some of the themes that you got from them - like, common themes from all three of those relationships - about how they were treated by Lou Reed?
DECURTIS: I think one thing that ran through those relationships - you know, Lou's early relationships with women - was his desire to subsume them, you know, to make them part of his world. You know, needy is a word that came up a lot in talking about Lou's relationship with lovers. And, you know, part of that was, you know, he - I mean, Lou hated being alone at any time. And so, you know, that obviously put demands on the relationship.
But also, he wanted, you know, these women, you know, in certain instances, to come and work for him, you know, as lighting designer or a manager or just be with him all the time. You know, record companies would call them and just say, you know, look. Lou's, you know, feeling this or doing that. Is it possible for you to come and, you know, calm him down? So there was that.
But there was also - you know, they also talked about a kind of sweetness. I mean, Shelley Albin, his college girlfriend - who's just a delightful person - I've gotten to know her a bit - talked about, you know, just the difficult - I mean, Lou would hide drugs in her dorm room. You know, she could've gotten kicked out of school. She could've gotten arrested. You know, it was - you know, it was not a nice thing to do to somebody that you cared about.
But, you know, when she was talking about the difficulties of him and - you know, he's having affairs with boys and with girls and using drugs. And then, she just said, you know, but still, like, Lou is the only boyfriend I ever had who, on Valentine's Day, gave me, you know, this gigantic, red, heart-shaped box of chocolates, you know. He loved - I mean, there was a kind of conventionality to him, you know? He would - a gesture like that would - it would seem really meaningful to him.
He married his second wife on Valentine's Day. And, you know, those kinds of aspects of who he was, you know, ran through this kind of doubleness, you know, this kind of burying these women in himself at the same time as, you know, a kind of sweetness that you wouldn't necessarily anticipate.
GROSS: But Bettye Kronstad, his first wife, told you that he physically abused her which is...
DECURTIS: He did.
GROSS: ...Which is why she finally left him.
GROSS: Did you hear that from any of the other women he was with?
DECURTIS: No, I did not. And - although, you know, there were other instances of other women who were less casually involved with him. You know, it was, you know, a part of who he was. I mean, that kind of anger and desire for control manifested itself in that, you know, obviously, despicable way. And, you know, Bettye certainly felt it. You know, there was a - you know, I don't - this is not to justify this. There's a song called "Caroline Says II" on "Berlin." And the lyrics go, Caroline says as she gets up off the floor, you could hit me all you want to, but I don't love you anymore.
And first of all, I mean, in four lines, that's like a little movie. And it gets at the kind of desperation in the hitter, you know? I think that there was an incredible level of fear of abandonment and terror. And that's what motivated his violence, you know? It was, you know, in no way - I mean, it doesn't matter what the motivations were to a certain extent, unless you're trying to understand this person. You know, it's a heinous act. But it's coming out of a kind of desperation. I mean, it's less about hostility than it is about a kind of self-hatred and fear.
GROSS: And he's also, like, you know, drinking and using drugs and who knows how that's affecting him, too.
DECURTIS: Certainly out of, you know...
GROSS: I mean, that...
DECURTIS: ...Very much out of control.
GROSS: ...That's not helpful if you have a bad temper and if you have a tendency to be out of control (laughter).
DECURTIS: Certainly not. Yeah.
DECURTIS: Certainly not. And it was - you know, that was very much part of his life, you know, in those days.
GROSS: One of his partners for about three years was trans. She was - was she a hustler?
DECURTIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yep, she was.
GROSS: And so they were together for three years. And he dedicated his album "Coney Island Baby" to her. Her name was Rachel. What can you tell us about Rachel and her relationship with Lou Reed?
DECURTIS: Well, that's a, you know - that, you know...
GROSS: It's a complicated story, right? (Laughter).
DECURTIS: It is an extremely complicated subject. And I'll try to distill it.
DECURTIS: You know, it - you know, he met Rachel in an after-hours bar and just really fell in love with her. And this was one of the revelations of the book to me, you know. I knew about Rachel. I mean, he wrote about her. So, you know, I was aware that she existed. But, you know, in my mind, you know, in a casual way, I just filed it - oh, Lou. He's wild. He'll do anything.
But in fact, you know, there was a real depth to that relationship. And, you know, they had - you know, they lived together. They entertained together. They went out together. It was bold. I mean, if a, you know, if a rock star of Lou's stature did that now, it would be, you know, regarded as shocking. And, you know, certainly in the '70s, you know, it was, you know, just kind of unheard of. But, you know, there was genuine affection there. And also, Rachel was kind of also a kind of road manager for Lou.
It's a very interesting thing. There was a contemporary piece where a writer named Caroline Coon, a British writer, was writing about being with Lou and Rachel. And they were kind of arguing. Like, Lou was saying, what's going on here? Like, you're supposed to take care of me. Like, why am I taking care of you? And it was sort of playful. And it was a fight. And there was also a reality to it, you know? Like, you're supposed to be arranging the cars to the venue. And you're supposed to be talking about what I need like. You know, why am I looking after, you know, you and your problems?
But Rachel had a secret life, you know. Rachel was out on the street and would - you know, she pulled a knife on a girl who was looking at Lou backstage at The Bottom Line, you know, and just warned her off. You know, people recall seeing Rachel, you know, beaten up, not as a result of her relationship with Lou, seemingly, but, you know, just out of the other kind of situations that she would get involved in.
And it was, you know - that kind of thing, I think, really had an appeal for Lou. The idea that - I think anybody who didn't fully submit to him, who didn't fully become part of his world, who kept something to themselves, I think that only kind of enticed his interest. And, you know, Rachel's life as a hustler was something I think that had a real appeal for Lou.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony DeCurtis, the author of "Lou Reed: A Life." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOU REED SONG, "STREET HASSLE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony DeCurtis, who's written a new book about Lou Reed. It's a new biography called "Lou Reed: A Life."
Lou Reed's second solo album after the Velvet Underground broke up, "Transformer," was produced by David Bowie. And, you know, Bowie's, of course, famous for all of his, you know, personas and for his sexual fluidity. What impact did working with David Bowie have on Lou Reed in terms of his self-image and his persona?
DECURTIS: Well, you know, Lou had complicated feelings about that. You know, at the time, it was a big opportunity. I mean, David Bowie was kind of the, you know, the coming thing. And, you know, Bowie, you know, as with Lou, like, there was a very conventional aspect of Bowie. I mean, much as he was a boundary breaker, he always, you know, kind of respected his elders, you know, and the people who had an important influence on him. And Lou Reed was right at the top of that list.
And so he - you know, Bowie offered to produce "Transformer" and restored, you know, Lou's standing after The Velvet Underground and created a solo career for him and gave him his only hit. You know, "Walk On The Wild Side," was on that record. You know, so Lou, of course, you know, once he got the hit that he desperately wanted, you know, kind of came to resent it and, you know, thought of it as, you know, just a kind of pop song. And, you know, why do people sort of reduce me to that?
But at the time that he needed it, he really needed it. And he really wanted it. And Bowie and Bowie's guitar player, Mick Ronson, who co-produced that album with David, they created that song and also, you know, other beautiful songs like, you know, "Perfect Day" and "Satellite Of Love" that are, you know, that are on that record and, you know, made it such a, you know, such a significant album for Lou.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Walk On The Wild Side" from that album? And this was his only real, like, radio hit. And it was a big hit. And the song - the lyrics are inspired by some of the trans women he knew from Andy Warhol's Factory. So let's hear it and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON THE WILD SIDE")
REED: (Singing) Holly came from Miami, F-L-A, hitchhiked away across the USA, plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she. She says, hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side. Said, hey, honey, take a walk on the wild side. Candy came from out on the island.
GROSS: That's Lou Reed, "Walk On The Wild Side," from his album "Transformer," which was produced with David Bowie. So that was actually a hit for Lou Reed. But it sounds...
GROSS: ...It sounds from your book like he was - he wanted a hit so badly. Finally, he has one.
GROSS: And he sounds like he was actually kind of ambivalent about it.
DECURTIS: Well, that, you know, there were, you know, he was pulled back and forth by, you know, his desire. You know, look. Lou Reed grew up in an era where, you know, there was no - I mean, The Velvet Underground sort of created this - you know, where it was possible to be a rock band and have credibility and not have hits. Before that, you either had hits or you went home. You know, that's....
GROSS: (Laughter) I know, exactly right.
DECURTIS: You know, that...
GROSS: You didn't exist.
DECURTIS: (Laughter) It wasn't more complicated than that.
DECURTIS: Yeah, precisely. And even if you did have hits, you know, you got a year or two and then you went home. But, you know, for Lou - so Lou, I mean, learned that ethic kind of in his DNA. But at the same time, you know, he saw himself as an artist. And he saw himself as wanting to do serious things and take left turns and, you know, go in new directions. And so the degree to which, you know, the record company is like, oh, OK, great. We've got a hit. Like, now, let's do "Take Another Walk On The Wild Side" or "Walk On The Wild Side Again." And, you know, that kind of irritated him.
And, you know, of course he made "Berlin," which at the time was vilified, you know, later to be, you know, resurrected and lionized. But, you know, at the time it came out, it was regarded as, you know, just an outrage and a crazy move because it was, you know, such a harsh and depressing record.
So, you know, he would turn on himself. You know, he would do whatever he needed to do to restore his standing once he had destroyed his standing, you know, because the next thing was "Rock 'N' Roll Animal," which was, you know, a big FM radio record and a big success and a big seller. It was a live album and a good one. Yeah, but then after Lou made that, you know, a record or two later, he made "Metal Machine Music," which nearly destroyed his career. It was just an hour of just, you know, deafening guitar feedback. You know, it was, again, a gesture that was unthinkable before Lou did it. And, you know, but then...
GROSS: So it sounds like he wanted to have his music reach people and be loved and be popular. But at the same time, he distrusted that and wanted to be, like, outside the mainstream and outside of that kind of acceptance.
DECURTIS: Exactly. And it's almost as if he wanted to punish people for liking him.
DECURTIS: Honestly, I mean, I think that was an element of it.
GROSS: So his album, "Street Hassle," you say that that album basically ended the period of his life where he described himself as gay. What changed?
DECURTIS: Well, one thing was the end of his relationship with Rachel, which is documented quite movingly in the song "Street Hassle," a part called "Slip Away" where, you know, he says, you know, she took the rings right off my fingers. And, you know, he - in an interview, you know, at that time, you know, said, you know, that was real. She did that. I mean, essentially, you know, saying like, Rachel, you know, stole whatever jewelry was around and took off. And I think they had been falling apart. There's some - lots of theorizing about why that is. And there's some sense of Rachel wanting to make a transition, that she was taking hormones, whether Lou did or did not approve of that.
But one thing that happened was Lou met Sylvia Morales, who became his second wife and, you know, began moving more into that relationship and getting serious. And that was - you know, over the course of two or three years, Lou got clean, got straight. And his gay life became something that, I mean, he still honored in certain ways - a song like "Halloween Parade" or - you know, there would be references to it.
But he would never speak of himself as gay after that. You know, I think he had very complicated feelings about his homosexual life. And even as he was as out there as anybody could be, he also turned on it and often not with that, you know, that much bitterness but still would never discuss it.
GROSS: No. So I want to play a different excerpt of "Street Hassle," not the "Slipaway" part that you referred to...
GROSS: ...But the part that's about somebody overdosing. And the person narrating the story is, like, so cold, just so indifferent about it. It's almost upsetting to listen to.
GROSS: But it's great music. And it's great writing. So this is the middle part (laughter) of "Street Hassle." Do you want to say anything about this part?
DECURTIS: Yeah. Lou was drawing on the story of a guy who used to be around the Factory. He was found dead in the street as - and thought to be kind of - that he was hit by a car. I mean, that was the official story. The unofficial story that - was that he had died of a heroin overdose in somebody's apartment. And they had dragged him out onto the street and just left him by the docks as if he had, you know, had an accident of some kind. Lou turns that male character into a female character and then, you know, describes the guy who is the host of the party urging his guests to get this girl's body out of his apartment.
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is Lou Reed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET HASSLE")
REED: (Singing) You know, I'm glad that we met, man. It really was nice talking. And I really wish that there was a little more time to speak. But you know it could be a hassle trying to explain myself to a police officer about how it was your old lady got herself stiffed. And it's not like we could help her. There was nothing no one could do. And if there was, man, you know I would have been the first.
But when someone turns that blue, it is a universal truth. And you just know that [expletive] will never [expletive] again. By the way, that's really some bad [expletive] that you came to our place with. But you ought to be more careful around the little girls. It's either the best or it's the worst. And since I don't have to choose, I guess I won't.
And I know this ain't no way to treat a guest. But why don't you grab your old lady by the feet and just lay her out in the darkest street? And by morning, she's just another hit and run. You know, some people got no choice. And they could never find a voice to talk with that they could even call their own. So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why, they follow it. You know, it's called bad luck.
GROSS: That's Lou Reed from "Street Hassle." And my guest Anthony DeCurtis has written a new biography of Lou Reed. We're going to take a short break. And then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOU REED SONG, "SWEET JANE")
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and now the author of a new biography of Lou Reed.
In the last years of his life, a fairly big chapter of the end of his life, Lou Reed became involved in Tibetan Buddhism, meditation, a form of tai chi. Did this coincide with him giving up drugs and alcohol?
DECURTIS: Well, you know, there was - those were elements. And these kind of - this spiritual quest on Lou's part was something that really went back to The Velvet Underground. You know, Lou told, you know, one person I interviewed that the song "White Light, White Heat," which to the naked eye is about speed - he told this person that the white light part was about a certain type of vision or - you know, he always was trying different diets and, you know, different forms of - different types of disciplines to get him, you know, kind of out of himself and maybe in connection to - you know, connect with something higher. You know, like, redemption maybe was one of the things he sought. So that was the latest manifestation of it.
And I think it took on - you know, once he gave up drugs - you know, I mean, I think even heroin or something like heroin expresses that kind of spiritual yearning for transcendence. But, you know, once he did give up drugs, I think those - you know, the tai chi and the Buddhism and all that stuff became meditation, became much more significant for him because he needed it more.
GROSS: You know, for all of us who love the work of artists who aren't necessarily, like, the nicest people in the world...
GROSS: ...There's always some reconciliation you have to do between your feelings about how the person has behaved in the real world and the importance of their art and the value of their art. So is that something you've had to come to some kind of reconciliation of with Lou Reed as a person and as an artist?
DECURTIS: Of course. You know, I think that - you know, I think this is something - you know, I think this is an issue very much in the culture right now, you know?
GROSS: You're talking about the sexual harassment of women.
DECURTIS: Yeah, totally. Like, you know, so...
GROSS: Absolutely, yeah.
DECURTIS: You know, you're reading about some director who's, you know, doing just completely abominable things to these, you know, young girls who are just trying to be actresses. And you think, all right. So, like - so is it OK to go like the movie, you know? And I think that kind of thing comes up more and more now. You know, there's - you know, Lou Reed's, you know, physical abuse of women. You know, that's not, you know, anything that you want to hear about or, you know - but does that poison everything that he does?
You know, I sort of struggle with this, you know, in my own life. You know, being raised Catholic, there's this idea of the near occasion of sin that not only are you supposed to avoid doing bad things, but you're supposed to avoid situations in which you might do them. And, you know, you - I do feel, you know, engaging certain characters in certain types of behavior, you know - I don't know what I would've done if my life was that way, if I was a drug addict or I was out of control or I did those things.
Again, that's not to excuse them, but it short circuits my ability to feel morally superior to it. I just - I found that the best strategy was simply to just describe it as honestly as I could. And then, you know, people could go where they want to go with it.
GROSS: Well, I've been choosing all the music. Is there a song you'd like to end with?
DECURTIS: Wow (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. That's an impossible choice (laughter).
DECURTIS: There are so many. You know, I mean, let's - you know, it's a pretty intense interview. Let's end with "Rock & Roll." You know, I mean, I feel like that is Lou's statement about the ability of this music to kind of help you transcend the circumstances that you're in and show you a larger world and save your life. And, you know, in certain ways, I feel my own life was saved by rock 'n' roll. And Lou certainly felt that about himself. So I think that song might do.
GROSS: Anthony DeCurtis, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
DECURTIS: Oh, my God, the pleasure was entirely mine. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK & ROLL")
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Jenny said when she was just 5 years old, there was nothing happening at all. Every time she puts on the radio, there was nothing going down at all, not at all. Then one fine morning, she puts on a New York station. You know, she couldn't believe what heard at all. She started shaking to that fine, fine music. You know, her life was saved by rock 'n' roll. Despite all the amputations, you know you could just go out and dance to a rock 'n' roll station. It was all right. Hey, baby, you know, it was all right.
GROSS: Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of the book "Lou Reed: A Life," which just came out in paperback. Our interview was recorded last November when the book was first published.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID")
GROSS: Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jonah Hill, who first became known for his roles in films directed and/or produced by Judd Apatow, like "Superbad" and "Knocked Up." He co-starred in "Moneyball" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" and is in the new Netflix series "Maniac." He wrote and directed the new movie "Mid90s" about a group of skateboarders in the mid-1990s. That's the period when a young Jonah Hill was part of a group of skateboarders. I hope you'll join us.
Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.