Two years ago today, the death of Lou Reed prompted an outpouring of remembrances, musical tributes, and, yes, regrettable Halloween costumes. Among other things, we looked back on Reed’s Ludlow Street salad days by cracking open White Light/White Heat, one of several books that have plumbed the life of Lou Reed. Now comes Dirty Blvd., the first biography since his passing.
It comes as no surprise that much of what’s covered in this new tome, by music writer Aidan Levy, was previously revealed by Victor Bockris in Transformer: The Complete Story of Lou Reed, first published in 1994 and updated after Reed’s death. Sure, this new bio has prompted headlines about how Reed’s parents subjected their 17-year-old to electroshock therapy in order to cure him of depression and bisexuality. But that had already been covered by Bockris, a Warhol and Burroughs associate who was actually there during the Velvet Underground’s heyday.
While much of Dirty Blvd. is based on existing source material, Levy did personally interview some of Reed’s contemporaries, including his first New York girlfriend, Barbara Hodes. Reed met the budding fashion designer in the mid-’60s, at a time when he was doing a lot of speed and raving “in polymorphous, polyamorous glory” at places like Stonewall Inn and Warhol’s Factory. There were two sides to Reed, according to Hodes: “the needy, clingy, romantic” and “the side that was a complete jerk.”
Levy also interviewed Bettye Kronstad, Reed’s first wife. Kronstad met Reed in 1970, when the Velvet Underground was nearing its demise and she was a 19-year-old student at Columbia University. (Reed had actually thought about applying to Columbia’s School of Journalism; later, during a 1979 performance there, he’d go on a “take-no-prisoners intoxicated binge” that involved smashing several guitars.) Their first date was at Morningside Heights beatnik hangout the West End, where Reed ordered his favorite, cheap scotch. “He drank a lot and complained a lot, but he didn’t ask a lot about me,” Kronstad tells Levy.
Most of Reed’s complaints were about John Cale, the Velvet Underground member he had abruptly dismissed from the band after conflicts over creative control (Levy says Reed was pushing for a “less avant-garde approach” that focused more on his lyrics).
By the time he took up with Kronstad in earnest, Reed had left the Velvets and was living with his parents in Freeport, Long Island, making “an under-the-radar transition to adulthood.” He was trying to hack it as a poet; during his debut at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, he recited the lyrics to “Heroin” and managed to get a standing ovation from Allen Ginsberg.
But if Kronstad met Lou during a retreat from budding rock stardom, she ended up being a muse during his return to music. Her church choir experience came in handy when Reed asked her to sing to him early versions of songs like “Walk on the Wild Side.” (Fun fact: the “colored girls” who ultimately sang on the recorded version were actually an all-white trio, the Thunderthighs, hired by producer David Bowie.)
It was Kronstad who inspired the song “Perfect Day,” about one of their early dates together. “We met in Central Park, and I had actually gone for a horseback ride earlier,” she tells Levy. “Everyone has sangria in the park in the summer, and that’s what we were doing.” After, they went to a movie and then went home.
Even if the song isn’t about heroin, as is widely assumed, Levy notes that it has ominous undertones, and Kronstad concedes that it “might have been a little bit of a warning” that their happy days couldn’t last forever.
Kronstad continued to offer Reed moral support as he wrote his rock opera, Berlin, and she was also his lighting designer on tour – but she “lost it” when she caught him shooting up with another woman. The final straw came when he first played her Berlin and she realized that the lyrics borrowed from her troubled childhood and the impending dissolution of their marriage.
In the mid-’70s, Reed took up with Rachel Humphreys (born Richard Humphreys), a transgender performer at Club 82 in the East Village. They ended up living together, first at the Gramercy Park Hotel and then in an “upscale apartment” on East 52nd Street. Ultimately, however, Reed would drive Humphreys to near-suicidal despair, in part because of ambiguous feelings about gender reassignment surgery. “There would be a discussion about sex change operations,” a friend of Rachel’s tells Levy, “and every time Rachel would be scheduled to do that – that’s what Lou wanted, as far as Rachel would say – then Lou would back off and say, ‘Well why are you doing that? I love you because of the way you are.’”
The relationship ended in 1977 after Reed met Sylvia Morales, who would become his second wife. Once again, the courtship unfolded in the East Village: Reed failed to show up for an early date at Phebe’s on the Bowery (“the guys came over and we had to jam,” he explained to her) and ended up standing outside of her buzzerless building on East 12th Street (also Richard Hell’s building), waiting for a couple of hours to be noticed. When he was finally let in, he invited her to join him at a concert in Montreal — an offer she couldn’t refuse. (That concert yielded the title of his next live album when someone in the audience called out, “Take no prisoners, Lou!”)
The couple ended up making a home together in Blairstown, New Jersey, where Reed kept an Atari, a snowmobile, a pool table, and a jukebox loaded with 45s — not to mention a gun that he once accidentally discharged into the floor. (Despite Reed’s reputation as a die-hard Villager, he and Kronstad had lived on the Upper East Side.) But it all fell apart, Levy writes, because “Sylvia wanted children, but for Lou, dachshunds were enough.”
Rest assured, ex-girflriends aren’t the only ones who spoke to Levy. Among his other sources are musicians who offer up great stories about auditioning for Reed, and touring with him. Aram Bajakian recalls the time Reed’s manager unexpectedly called him at 8 a.m. and gave him an hour to get from Queens to the West Village. Once he got there, Reed interrogated him: “You’re not going to play jazz, are you? Because this is a rock band.” Bajakian got the gig, but Reed later admonished him for playing a cliché guitar lick. (Members of the Velvet Underground had to pay a $10 fine every time they stopped to a stock blues lick.)
Guitarist Chuck Hammer also got a chance to audition after he decided, on a whim, to leave his number with Reed’s manager. Over the phone, Reed asked Hammer a few questions (“Do you take drugs?”, “How far back do you go with my music?”, “What kind of music are you playing now?”) and then invited him to come over: “The ground rules were that I come to his apartment at the specified time on Christopher Street,” Hammer recalls to Levy. “He’d let me in and he would show me where to set up, and I’d set up and I’d play for twenty minutes. After twenty minutes, if he didn’t come into the room, I had to pack up and leave, because he didn’t want to be in a position to reject me.”
Reed liked Hammer’s playing enough that he auditioned him a second time in New Jersey, but not before hitting a local bar, placing what Hammer said was “a typical order, four Scotches and a beer,” and then driving back to the farmhouse on the wrong side of the road.
According to Hammer, Reed went through two bottles of scotch “every few days” while touring behind his ninth album, The Bells, in 1979. During one of his many rowdy, sometimes downright riotous shows, Reed made swift work of a woman who lunged at him on stage. “He proceeded to drag her across a twenty-foot stage by her hair,” Hammer recalls. “You don’t go on Lou Reed’s stage.”
During that same tour, Reed also came to drunken blows with David Bowie; after a show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, Reed asked Bowie, an early fan of Reed’s who had paid tribute to him with the song “Queen Bitch,” to produce his next album. Bowie responded with: “If you clean up your act.” That did not go well.
Eventually, Reed did clean up his act, and joined Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, where an attendee famously told him, “How dare you be here—you’re the reason I took heroin!”
Given that Dirty Blvd. is the first biography to be written after Lou’s death, the last years of his life get surprisingly short shrift. We hear a bit about his newfound political and humanitarian awareness, but not much, for instance, about the love of dogs that he and Laurie Anderson shared.
It seems Levy didn’t manage to interview Anderson, but he did speak to Nick Forster, the musician who married them when, 16 years into their relationship, Reed proposed and insisted they tie the knot the next day. “I showed up sort of prepared with some prefab ideas printed out, and Laurie spotted me instantly as a novice,” Foster recalls to Levy. “‘You’ve never done this before, have you?’ she said with no malice or judgment.”
According to Levy, they agreed to play it by ear, since “Lou wouldn’t have it any other way.”