In an extract from his new biography of Lou Reed, rock writer Anthony DeCurtis reflects on the icon he knew personally

People always say to me, Why dont you get along with critics? Lou Reed told me one night in 2012. I tell them, I get along fine with Anthony DeCurtis. Shuts them right up. We were sitting in the dining room of the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach creative writing. Id brought Lou down to do an interview with me in front of 50 or so invited guests and to have dinner with a dozen students, faculty members, musicians, and local media luminaries. As with so many things with Lou, it was touch and go until the very end.

I always felt that one of the reasons Lou and I got along well was that we met socially before we ever met as artist and critic. In June of 1995, I got stuck at the airport in Cleveland, where I had gone to cover the concert celebrating the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My flight back to New York was delayed for hours, and I was settling in for the wait when I ran into a record company friend, who introduced me to Lou and Laurie [Anderson, musician and Reeds partner]. Theres nothing like an interminable flight delay to grease the gears of socialisation.

You reviewed New York for Rolling Stone, right? Reed asked, referring to his classic 1989 album.

Right.

How many stars did you give it?

Four.

Shoulda been five, he said. But he was smiling. The ice had been broken.

So we sat and chatted in the airport lounge. The subject of the Hall of Fames list of the 500 songs that shaped rocknroll came up, and Lou asked if Walk on the Wild Side was on it. It was, and he seemed pleased to be represented. Then, in a sweet gesture, he asked if Lauries O Superman had been included. It had not, but at that moment I got a sense of how important she was to him. He didnt want to make the moment all about him.

On
On tour with his wife, artist and musician Laurie Anderson, in Girona, Spain, 2009. Photograph: Robin Towsend/EPA

Though I subsequently interviewed Lou a half dozen times or so, I remember those more casual moments with the most affection.

I recall talking with him at length about Brian Wilson, whom he greatly admired, at a party for Amnesty International. Another time, I ran into him outside Trattoria DellArte on 7th Avenue when he and Laurie were heading to Carnegie Hall to see the Cuban musicians who had been part of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. Encountering him around the city that way always made me proud to be a New York native. An artist of incalculable significance, Lou was also, as one of his song titles put it, the ultimate NYC Man as inextricable a part of the city as, say, the Twin Towers.

Now he and they are gone and the city still stands, however much diminished.

*****

That was the bad move, Lou Reed said jokingly, decades later, about following Transformer with Berlin. Thats one of those career-ending moments. They said, You want to do what?

Lou and [producer] Bob Ezrin decided that Reed should write a suite of musically and thematically connected songs based on the disintegrating marriage of the two characters in Berlin. That Reeds own marriage to Bettye Kronstad was falling apart would only lend the project additional force. It would be something like a film in song form, a film for the ear, as RCAs movie-style promotional posters for the album described it, or a movie without pictures, in Ezrins terms. Those literary and cinematic strategies also served to distance Reed from the visceral power of the material he was drawing on. Berlin was real close to home, he would say later.

People would say, Lou, is that autobiographical? Jesus. Autobiographical?

If only they knew!

The working notion was for Berlin to be a double album, complete with an elaborate booklet filled with lyrics, accompanying text, and photographs illustrating the records grim story. Setting aside the darkness of Berlins narrative, record companies shiver whenever the notions of double albums and elaborate booklets are mentioned. They are expensive to produce, and therefore the album needs to be priced higher, which tends to diminish sales. Reed had only just established himself as a commercial artist, so this expansive concept for Berlin was by no means an easy sell to his label.

Besides that, according to Kronstad, conceiving what the album should be turned out to be much easier than writing it.

Lou had become abusive on our last US tour, when I got him on to the stage as clean as I could He gave me a black eye the second time he hit me, Kronstad wrote. Then I gave him a black eye, too, and that stopped him from using his fists. Everybody knew he was abusive abusive with his drinking, his drugs, his emotions with me. He was incredibly self-destructive then.

The problem Reed had finishing the songs for the album, she sarcastically explained, might have had something to do with all the fucking drugs and drinking he was doing. With Lou, people that he love become part of him, so I got to be part of that incredible self-destructiveness.

Things had gotten so bad that Kronstad flew to Santo Domingo to get a 24-hour divorce from Reed. The legal standing of such a divorce is complicated, but Kronstads action is more significant as an indication of how desperate she had become in her marriage.

She was frightened and she wanted out. Kronstad remained in their apartment, on which she held the lease, and Reed moved out.

I dont know where, she said. Then, one night, Reed called her from a local restaurant that had been one of their favourites, the Duck Joint, on First Avenue between 73rd and 74th Streets. He was, like, Can you meet me here? Kronstad said. I was in a pretty good mood because Id basically gotten my name back and I was no longer legally attached to him. So I went. He was there with two other people; I dont remember who they were. They were having a wonderful time, and he was so positive He said, Ive stopped. Ive quit it. I wont do that stuff. Ill play it straight. We can do this. I need you. Can I just come over and talk about it? Kronstad let herself believe him. I had invested a great deal of my life in him, so I guess there was a part of me that wanted to be convinced.

But even when Reed finally did complete writing the albums 10 songs, things didnt get easier. I remember the morning I woke up and found him in the living room next to a mostly consumed bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, she wrote. It was 8.30 in the morning and I became upset. His drinking didnt usually begin until at least the afternoon. Reed explained that he had completed writing the album. He handed her his notebook with the lyrics in it, picked up a guitar, and sang the songs he had written.

The songs on Berlin trace the disintegration of a couple, Caroline and Jim, through infidelity, violence, and suicide. Caroline is portrayed as unfaithful and promiscuous; Jim swings from yearning for her to icy contempt and malevolence. He beats her and, in the song The Bed, describes her cutting her wrists and her subsequent death with a truly eerie detachment. The album is tough going for even the most aesthetically objective listener. For Kronstad, listening to it was a devastating experience. Scenes from her marriage and other details of her personal life are woven into the songs. Even when treated as composites or fictionalised in other ways, they were clearly identifiable to her and hit with intense force. Its hard to imagine why Reed would have chosen to play her those songs without any explanation, and even harder to fathom how he expected her to respond.

Kronstads mother, who had been living in Queens, had recently died. At five years old, Kronstad had been taken from the woman, who had left Kronstads father when the girl was three. Reed adapted that story and wildly elaborated on it for his Berlin song The Kids. Kronstad had attempted to reconcile with her mother at various points over the years, never completely successfully, so hearing a character based on her mother essentially described as a bisexual whore and drug addict in a song written by her husband was quite a blow.

Stay
Stay away if you have no moral compass: Lou Reed performing live in the early 70s. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

The other thing, she added, is that he was actually writing a lot about what was happening in our relationship. Thats what writers do. But who wants their marriage, as its falling apart, to be put on an album for the entire world to hear? Or who wants the couple of times that he fucking socked me who wants that? But there it was.

Kronstad understood, of course, that Berlin was not exclusively about her marriage. Talking about the character of Caroline, she noted, I think Nico is in there. Lou did know her and she was German someone once said that the woman in Berlin is a combination of all the women in Lous life, and I think to a certain extent thats true.

Despite being hurt, Kronstad remained determined to see her husband through the recording of the album, which was primarily done at Morgan Studios in London.

At the time that he wrote the title song and even when he started work on the album, Reed had never been to Berlin. I love the idea of a divided city, he later explained, joking that the album could just as easily have been titled Brooklyn, tellingly the place of his birth. It was purely metaphorical.

Berlin was released in July of 1973, just eight months after Transformer. A week before the final version of the album was due to be turned in (Reed was on vacation in Portugal at the time), RCA told Ezrin that it would not accept a double album. The album was nearly an hour long, and at the time, artists were encouraged to keep each side of a vinyl LP at 18-20 minutes in order to ensure sound quality. To preserve the conceptual integrity of Berlin, Ezrin did not want to remove any of the albums songs.

Consequently, he explained, I dropped 14 minutes of endings, solos, interstitial material, digressions inside songs. Still, the album was nearly 50 minutes long, but Ezrin was not available to oversee the final mastering of Berlin. He was in the hospital. It was a heroin rebound, he admitted. I would rather have had a nervous breakdown. I didnt know what heroin was till I went to England on this gig we were all seriously ill. It took me a long time to get on my feet. I paid a heavy price. It put me out of commission for quite a while.

Berlin took its toll on Reed as well. Lou doesnt want to talk about it much, Ezrin said about the album not long after it came out. He didnt even want to listen to the album. Every time he listens to the album it gets to him. I mean, I can see tears coming into his eyes and everything. Reed himself said, I think Ive gone as deep as I want to go for my own mental health. If I got any deeper Id wind up disappearing.

In later years, after the album was acknowledged as a classic, Reed loved to revel in the negative reviews it had received and, admittedly, some of them were not only harsh but gratuitously personal. Even some of the positive assessments of Berlin seemed indistinguishable from attacks. Writing in the New Musical Express, inveterate Reed watcher Nick Kent declared, Just when you think your ex-idol has slumped into a pitiful display of gross terminal self-parody, Lou Reed comes back and hits you with something like Berlin. Its a creation which leaves you so aesthetically bamboozled you just have to step down and allow him a brand-new artistic credibility for pulling off such a coup in the first place. Perhaps the most scathing negative review appeared in Rolling Stone, written by Stephen Davis.

Lou Reeds Berlin, Daviss review began, is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence, and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. He concluded that Berlin was Reeds last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.

Speaking about Berlin, Reed would articulate a rationale for his brand of songwriting, and, indeed, for all art that defies accepted pieties. In fact, his argument goes well beyond that. It constitutes a lesson in how to engage art and how not to. I dont think anybody is anybody elses moral compass, he said. Maybe listening to my music is not the best idea if you live a very constricted life.

Or maybe it is. Im writing about real things. Real people. Real characters. You have to believe what I write about is true or you wouldnt pay any attention at all but a guide to doing things that are wrong and right? I mean, Othello murders Desdemona. Is that a guide to what you can do? The guy in Berlin beats up his girlfriend. Is that a guide to what you can do? Is that what you walk away with? I dont think so. Maybe they should sticker my albums and say, Stay away if you have no moral compass.

Listen to The Bed from Lou Reeds Berlin.

Its hard to imagine a more cogent justification not just of Berlin, but of Reeds songwriting as a whole.

Rolling Stone would eventually list Berlin among the 500 greatest albums of all time.

*****

In the mid- to late 80s, vast political changes swept across the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in eastern Europe, behind what had been termed the iron curtain in the west. Uprisings by workers and students in Czechoslovakia toppled the communist government there in 1989, and by the end of that year, playwright and activist Vclav Havel had been installed as the countrys president. In 1990, he was elected president in Czechoslovakias first open elections since the end of the second world war. Havel was an internationally acclaimed literary figure, and his activism, for which he was jailed many times, included support for the psychedelic rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, which was inspired by the Velvet Underground and whose long hair, bohemian lifestyle, and outspokenness incurred the wrath of communist leaders. Havel himself was a fan of the Velvet Underground, whose music he had first heard when he visited the United States for six weeks in 1968. While exploring Greenwich Village and the East Village with his friend the film-maker Milo Forman, Havel bought one of the first two Velvet Underground albums.

The Velvets music and Reeds solo work remained inspirational to dissidents in Czechoslovakia throughout the grey decades of communist rule there. The movement that brought Havel to power had come to be called the Velvet Revolution because of its aspirations to nonviolence, but the pun would not have been lost on anyone as sensitive to language as he.

After Havel won election to the presidency, Rolling Stone approached Reed about going to Czechoslovakia to interview Havel. It seemed like a perfect story for the magazine, which had always combined its coverage of the music scene with progressive political stories. Reed had just appeared on the cover of the magazine for the first time, and Havels interest in the Velvet Underground and rock music in general had already become part of his myth. That Reeds music could somehow have played a significant role in history surpassed even the artists most grandiose notions about himself. He was understandably flattered and accepted the assignment. Havel was delighted that Reed, one of his musical heroes, would be interviewing him.

When publications make an assignment like this, its essentially an act of faith faith that if you get two people of such significance in one room, whatever they talk about, whatever happens between them, will be more interesting than if a seasoned reporter had been sent to do the job. A complication is that, because both people involved in doing the story are notable in their own right, its not easy to provide direction or even make suggestions about what topics their conversation should take on especially true in this case, given Reeds prickliness, insecurities, and desire for control.

So off he went to interview Havel in Prague.

Reed flew to Prague after participating in Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa, a concert at Wembley Stadium in London on 16 April, 1990, to celebrate Mandelas release from the South African prison in which he had been held for 27 years because of his efforts to bring down that countrys apartheid regime. Despite the fact that he was about to interview a political and cultural figure of enormous significance, Reed treated all the preliminary steps as if he were going to do a concert date in a region with which he wasnt familiar. He did not relax his desire for control a whit. He displayed no comprehension that he was dealing with a newly liberated country, some of whose citizens, however shockingly, might not even have been aware of who Lou Reed was. All requests that diverged from his ordinary travel routine would he consider performing at a small club? were flatly denied.

The original transcript Reed turned in to Rolling Stone reflected a similar myopia. While Havel would occasionally attempt to explore some larger issues, particularly how the counterculture in the United States had made a strong impact on him, Reed continually nudged the conversation toward his own preoccupations which is to say himself and his world. Pressed for time and eager to get to the substantive issues he wanted to discuss with Reed, Havel spoke affectingly about the history of the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, emphasising its musical and cultural aspects most notably, the rise of Charter 77, which emerged, in part, in opposition to the governments persecution of the Plastic People of the Universe. By this I mean to say, Havel said, the music, underground music, in particular one record by a band called Velvet Underground, played a rather significant role in the development of our country, and I dont think that many people in the United States have noticed this. Reeds response? Joan Baez says hello.

When Havel described at length his visit to the United States in 1968 and his participation in the historic student uprising that year at Columbia University, Reed responded, Did you go to CBGBs? which, of course, did not exist in 1968. Havels remarks on all these matters were nuanced and insightful, but Reed reduced them to a truism: You obviously feel and prove that music can change the world? Havels response was characteristically thoughtful: Not in itself, its not sufficient in itself. But it can contribute to that significantly in being a part of the awakening of the human spirit.

Vclav
Vclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, at a New York jazz club with Lou Reed in April 1999. Photograph: Timothy Fadek/AP

Reed, as it happens, intentionally set out not to do the type of interview a journalist would do. I dont like it when the interviews so cleaned up that the interviewer and subject sound like the same person, he said. I like to keep the real rhythm of the way the person talks. What journalists know and Reed didnt understand is that spoken words and words on a page are two different things. Some cleaning up is always necessary. Reed also spoke about how nervous he had been to interview Havel, which makes some of its awkwardness more understandable. Its not surprising that his seeming offhandedness and brusque attitude masked insecurities. With Hubert Selby, Reed said, referring to an interview hed done with one of his literary idols, I came in with typed questions, because I was sure Id be nerve-racked and I didnt want to forget anything. Same with Havel its just really hard work. Id much rather go out for a drink with them.

What Reed turned in to the magazine was not what Rolling Stone was looking for. The assignment had not been made by a music editor, but by Robert Vare, who handled much of the magazines political coverage. He was taken aback and asked me to have a look at the piece. I, too, was surprised by how one-dimensional it was. My suggestion was to see if Reed, whom I had not yet met at that time, might be willing to write something longer or perhaps something shorter in which the best material from the interview could play a part. Given that working with him up to that point had not exactly been a joyride, the feeling at the magazine was that he was unlikely to want to do that. Finally, it was decided to simply give the piece back to Reed and let him do what he wanted with it somewhere else. (The publication that had commissioned Reed to interview Hubert Selby also turned down the resulting interview.)

Reed was livid. In a smart move, he showed the piece to Rob Bowman, a critic and professor of musicology who was producing and writing liner notes for Between Thought and Expression, a three-CD anthology of Reeds solo work with RCA and Arista.

Wisely concealing his own estimation of the piece It was definitely terrible, Bowman said later; I could see why Rolling Stone rejected it he suggested that Reed contact Bill Flanagan at Musician. Flanagan had interviewed Reed a number of times and was one of his staunchest supporters. Musician was a smaller magazine than Rolling Stone, and while it was highly regarded in the music industry, it did not have anything like Rolling Stones reputation for political reporting to live up to. Having a Lou Reed interview with Vclav Havel would be a coup for Musician, regardless of its quality.

Flying a bit under the media radar ultimately freed Musician to turn the piece into something idiosyncratic and quite readable. Perhaps chastened by Rolling Stones rejection, Reed did write a longer piece of which the interview was just a part. A few moments remain cringeworthy, but at many other points, Reed seems genuinely stirred by Havel and wonderstruck by the role his songs had played in such a monumental historical moment.

Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis is published by Jonathan Murray (25). To order a copy for 21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Q&A with Anthony DeCurtis: He was a private guy; he would never have wanted this book to be written


You treat Reed as a writer of substance whose medium happened to be rock songs. Was that your starting point?
I had a lot of ideas about Lou. I knew him reasonably well [DeCurtis interviewed Reed extensively and knew him socially], I had listened to his work very assiduously over the years, so its not like I walked in with a blank slate. One of the things that became very clear to me throughout the course of writing the book is the extent to which he saw himself as a writer.

More so than previous biographers, you had access to Reed and you clearly have the blessing of the people around him. What materials did you have access to were there diaries?
I dont think Lou had that much stuff, I think the nature of his life was such that a lot of things got thrown away or disappeared. I think the people around Lou felt that I would be fair to him. Its not like this is an authorised book, but Laurie [Anderson, musician, and Reeds partner of 21 years], while she didnt do an interview for the book, I think anybody that came to her and said Can I talk to this guy?, she was perfectly happy to let them. I think Lou liked me, which was rare for journalists, and that counted for something.

But its still tricky. He was a very private guy; he would never have wanted this book to be written. He had a very complicated relationship with his own history and his own, often contradictory, desires. But he deserved a biography like this; he was a major artistic figure.

A Reed biography could easily fill up with sex, drugs and rocknroll, rather than his literary ambition. How much were you writing in relation to previous biographies (notably, Howard Souness book Notes from the Velvet Underground).
I felt from the beginning I wanted as honest a reading of Lou as I could produce. That idea of Lou as a monster, which became the theme of Howards book, that aspect to him was there, theres no doubt, and thats represented in the book but thats not all there is. Joyce Carol Oates has come up with this idea of pathography, that people only look at major [literary] figures when they come up with unpleasant revelations. Reeds drug use, anger and sexual adventurism just seem to me to be established facts, not only about Reeds life but his work. Deepening an understanding of Lou, that was the goal. And understanding how these high-minded ambitions could coexist with some pretty grisly stuff. Look, he treated people pretty badly. But he was also really nice to a lot of people. He was a great artist. Adding all that up, and establishing a kind of comprehensible throughline between the contradictions of his life, became the goal.

What was your favourite thing that you learned?
Bill Bentley, a publicist, told me a story from when the book of his lyrics, Between Thought and Expression, came out. After a book signing, Lou just began weeping. I found that very affecting, it just made so palpable what I had, in a fairly abstract way, taken as one of his great ambitions; how much it meant to him to see his work collected and to have people tell him how much that work meant to them. Part of the deal of writing the book was to demythify Lou; that story did that for me the humanness, rather than the cartoon.

You spoke to a lot of the women in his life, in particular, Bettye Kronstad, Reeds first wife, who left him after he was abusive. She hadnt spoken much before this.
She has since published a memoir, but she was one of the first people I managed to get in touch with. It was a powerful story and there were elements to it that I never would have thought about. [For example] Lou always spoke about his father as really this tyrannical figure. Kafka wrote Letter To His Father, a compendium of every conceivable grouse he ever felt about this overbearing figure. And thats how Lou described his dad. It was a complicated relationship. At one point [Bettye] was talking about Lou being cheap. I said Would his father have given him money? And she said, Oh, of course he would have, anything for Lou! [Reed Sr] wasnt somebody who was going to appreciate the outrageousness of who Reed became but, as a dad, he seemed to care. I think he would have been happy with a son who would have gladly taken over his accounting business. And then there is the issue of the electroconvulsive therapy that his parents subjected him to [during his first year at university]. It sounds like a terrible thing, but I think his father felt: Look, this is what the doctors recommended, I tried my best.

A scene that jumps out of the book is Arista executive Clive Davis in a suit, tie and pocket handkerchief being taken for a walk on the wild side after hours in the Meatpacking District of New York in the 70s.
Mick Rock the photographer told me about this too there were a number of people who Lou would invite along on his rambles. There was an element of shock, obviously, that was meant to be there, but I think there was a voyeuristic element; I think he wanted to watch people respond to his world. There was an element of trust, that he would take you along. With Lou, there was this leatherclad invulnerability that I think he tried to convey, [but] there was a lot of insecurity underneath that. I think in showing these people, this is the world I move in, there was a kind of, what do you think of me now? a kind of bravado to that, and a kind of vulnerability.

Interview by Kitty Empire

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/oct/01/my-brilliant-troubled-friend-lou-reed-a-life-anthony-decurtis-berlin