Transformer – The Lou Reed Story – Review

Transformer: The Lou Reed Story

By Victor Bockris (Da Capo Press)
by William Ham

Unquestionably, Lou Reed is one of the half-dozen most important figures in the history of rock. He is the underground rock-‘n’-roll icon, an eight-way funhouse reflection of the American demimonde, not to mention one of those perpetual American institutions (like Norman Mailer, Oliver Stone and Saturday Night Live) which shook up the landscape with seismic force, is infinitely detracted and defended, and continues to fascinate as much for its flaws, failed promises, and unending critical/public revisionism as for the work they’ve done. His persona looms large over practically every sea change in this most popular of pop cultures, affecting even world-altering events from the liberation of Czechoslovakia to a marked upsurge in the sale of Honda scooters.

And yet understanding the real Lou Reed, puzzling out just how this Jewish kid from Long Island with a one-note range and a limited guitar vocabulary has come to be the standard-bearer for three generations (and counting) of decadent, romantic self-destructors with rock ‘n’ roll hearts the world ’round, is a tricky proposition. There are more conflicting accounts and views of Lou than there are in the classic Japanese film Rashomon, and the oddest thing is that most of these contradictory tales have come from the mouth of Reed himself. In the early seventies, his record company marketed Reed as “The Phantom of Rock,” an appellation that fits this contrary character more than the promo hacks at RCA surely realized. Somewhere over the glitzy, grimy, trash-strewn arena of rock lurks a sad, damaged monster, hiding in a ragged black-leather cloak and shades to block out the light, a poet/assassin with the capacity to anoint or destroy, a ragged deity both exalted and damned, the abusive father, the prodigal son, and the hoary ghost. Who is Lou Reed and why has he done such terrible, wonderful things to us?

Victor Bockris, who is something of a Boswell to the underground (his books include bios of Keith Richards, Andy Warhol, and William Burroughs, as well as the book that rekindled interest in Reed’s band, The Velvet Underground, in the 1980s, Up-Tight), has made the best attempt to date at explaining this elusive artist with Transformer: The Lou Reed Story (now available in paperback from Da Capo Press). The story as Bockris tells it fits snugly in the space reserved for biographies of other driven, creative men – brilliant in art, an ungodly pain to be around. Reed’s moodiness and contentious nature is part of rock legend by now, turning this personification of downtown cool into Frankenstein in Silva-Thins, stomping roughshod through the lives of lovers, sycophants and collaborators and leaving a trail of broken spirits in his wake.

Lest there be any question, Bockris goes out of his way to prove the things the new, clean Lou has spent the last fifteen years or so denying – yes, he’s gay (though women will do in a pinch), and yes, he shot heroin (though meth and booze quickly became his drugs of choice). Other, telling pieces of the legend are examined in detail as well. The shock treatments he sustained as a troubled teen (later immortalized in “Kill Your Sons,” the highlight of the otherwise laughable Sally Can’t Dance LP), with which Bockris opens Transformer, were pivotal for Lou – when he emerged, the defiance and ambisexuality his nervous parents had sought to erase were still there, enflamed even, but at the cost of a large segment of his personality. “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” one of his greatest love songs, thus gains a dark new dimension – through his life and career, Reed draws himself to the most vibrant, interesting people, takes on favored aspects of their personae, sucks them dry and moves on. Note that most of his peaks as an artist – the Warhol/Cale-era Velvets, the Bowie-influenced Transformer, and the collaborations with guitarist Robert Quine in the early ’80s – all followed the same pattern: he bolsters himself with their brilliance, reaps mighty gains, then shuts them out when they get bothersome or dare to assert their prerogatives, hoarding the lion’s share of the credit for himself. And yet it’s something of a disservice to lay too much blame at Lou’s feet, since the fire in these classic platters derives from the best kind of creative tension, a chafing that results in precious pearls. Imagine what Cale or even Warhol would have been were it not for Lou’s ferocious talent. The Velvets (or whatever they would have been called) would have remained strictly an art-ghetto attraction without the rock ‘n’ roll simplicity Reed brought to give it form. And although Warhol had made quite a name for himself before his discovery, it’s his association with the Velvets that provides a large amount of his mystique and was arguably the heartbeat that kept his name alive and hip following the attempt on his life in 1968. Sure, Brillo boxes and soup cans made a nice statement, but depersonalization and ironic consumerism are terribly chilly things to base a life on – the real humanity in Warhol sure as hell didn’t come from the vacuous hangers-on at the Factory but from the pulse, the ache, the sheer romantic longing that leaked out of the deadpan scenarios drawn up by Reed in “Sunday Morning,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” et al. In fact, it may be said that the whole of downtown cool owes what sustaining warmth it has to Lou Reed. Without it, it would ring of the hollow clank of robotic identikits colliding against one another. The tragedy of Lou Reed is that, for all his monotonous mumblings, he never lost that sentimental side, and the multiple twists and turns of his music were his attempts to shake it, to numb the pain that comes with feeling, the knowledge that to feel is to love, and to love is to hurt. It may be only that bullheaded, vindictive streak, the same one that leaves such bitterness in the hearts of (if this book is to be believed) everyone he’s ever known and keeps them at a safe distance, that has kept him from pulling a Cobain and taking his self-negating tendencies to their final extension.

Bockris understands this. The less charitable among us might throw this book in with the rock star character assassinations Albert Goldman carried out on the dead bodies of Elvis and Lennon, but in fact it falls much closer to Goldman’s far superior Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (Bockris even quotes a perceptive passage from it on the thorny subject of Jewish love). The difference is simple – Goldman not-so-secretly hated rock ‘n’ roll and had no sympathy for its practitioners, but loved the raw artistry of Bruce and therefore understood the pain he inflicted on himself and others to get it. Bockris does the same for Reed (who is probably the most Bruce-like figure in rock history – check out his Take No Prisoners live album for proof), filling the book with first-, second- and third-hand evidence of his acidic wit, childish petulance, and distructive tendencies, but always coming down on the side of the work, the only thing that will be left behind after we are all long gone. Sure, I’ll never want to hang out with the man after reading Transformer, but I was inspired to go back and listen to the old records, even ones I had previously written off, and rediscover the gifts this old misanthrope has left behind for humanity to savor. I believe that’s justification enough.