Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Lifeless Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis' Lou Reed: A Life is perhaps the worst nonfiction rock-and-roll book I've read, and I've read Marianne Faithfull's (though much more likely, David Dalton's) Faithfull: An Autobiography. Despite being a longtime reader and subscriber in high school and college, I've never really been much of a fan of the Rolling Stone school of rock journalism. Lou Reed disappoints in all the familiar ways.

Instead of ever getting close enough or real enough with its subject, DeCurtis frustratingly sticks to Lou Reed the image. So much of the writing deals only with the image that the person, the artist, comes across as one dimensional, lifeless, and not very interesting at all. Not so much “a life,” as the subtitle boasts, after all.

One chapter on childhood, which is never a good sign, that is little more than listing the schools he attended and the friends he spent time with. Another chapter on college. Then the predictable and boring organization of one chapter per album, per project. And in these chapters, so much of the writing concerns the laziest deployment of hermeneutics and the least interesting literature reviews, in which he cites other (mostly Rolling Stone) critics.

One would imagine that someone with a PhD in literature could do more than conflate every reference to a father in Reed’s lyrics to Reed’s specific father as if Reed would or could ever simply transcribe his family history in order to make an album. After making such uncritical claims, DeCurtis then goes on to assert that “Reed’s poetic license” affords him the ability to use and define words as he sees fit. This weird, naive back and forth when it comes to interpreting song lyrics drove me fucking crazy, particularly since so little of it offered any real insight into Reed's actual writing process.

Another of DeCurtis' hermeneutic hangups is his spending so much space on surface analysis of album covers. None of this ever gets at anything behind the surly attitude and ambivalent image of  Lou Reed.

And these criticisms aren't even about the book's greatest flaw, which is the chapter titled "This Gender Business"—the most transphobic, and by extension, homophobic and transmisogynistic writing in what purports to be serious journalism by a serious press I've ever read. I get that language and acceptance of transgenderism has dramatically changed since the 1970s, and that the horrible quotes from the press (including Rolling Stone, of course) might be necessary in order to properly contextualize Reed and Rachel's relationship, but DeCurtis was still referring to that relationship as “the sexual underworld” in 2017. (He refers to Reed's subsequent relationship with a cisgender woman as a “new heteronormative love.") Interviewing others (Erin Clermont, who comes across as a total cunt, for example) to speculate about the details of Reed and Rachel's sex life is tacky at best. Though I suspect that I'll be pissed off about this book for years to come, I haven't yet mentioned its most damning failing: Rachel is referred to as a "transsexual [sic] male [sic]." It seems that the publisher Little Brown does not employ editors or basic fact checkers even though several were specifically named in the Acknowledgments. For fuck's sake!

The best biographies get close to the people they're about, so much so that you can begin to see the world through their eyes. This book never goes beyond how the image of Lou Reed appeared to the writer himself. Fans of Lou Reed the person: don't waste your time. It reads as if written by a narc.

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You can read my Eulogy for Lou Reed here.