David Bowie cites him as a “major influence,” Bruce Springsteen has recorded Street Hassle with him, and in England he’s sometimes called the Godfather of Punk. But Lou Reed’s music has long been an offer the mainstream finds easy to refuse, and Reed has consequently been consigned to relative obscurity. He hasn’t helped his career with stunts like barbering his hair into the shape of an iron cross, or performing in Frankenstein makeup and painting his fingernails black. In 1975 he issued a double LP called Metal Machine Music that consisted largely of ear-splitting feedback. His single Top 10 hit is a paean to sexual perversion and drug abuse called Walk on the Wild Side. “I sing what I want to hear,” he says. “The world had better watch out.” That attitude has got him exactly one gold LP, his germinal 1972 Transformer, in 14 prodigious years as a composer and performer.
Still, the Reed opus is portentously growing—and admirers of punk’s defiantly uncommercial founding father may be chagrined to learn that at 38 he is taking a stroll on the mild side. His 1980 retrospective LP, Rock and Roll Diary 1967-1980, though no chart-breaker, is a stunning tribute to his work in the avant-garde of urban rock. And, tellingly, Ralph Bakshi offers an animated vision of vintage Reed to depict the quintessential thug-rocker in his new American Pop movie. Reed is currently working up songs for a cartoon feature starring Blondie’s Debbie Harry and angling for a way to make a film of his 1973 concept album Berlin, which is about an embattled sexual relationship.
He now claims that his old lurid-maniac rocker persona is just a front. “Lou Reed is my protagonist,” he says. “Sometimes he’s 20, sometimes 80 percent me, but never 100. He’s a vehicle to go places I wouldn’t go or say things I don’t go along with.”
To be sure, some revisionism comes with the change. He invokes his alter ego, for example, to account for such lyrics as “Heroin/It’s my wife/And it’s my life,” insisting his only drug is marijuana. “You have to be as close as I’ve been to the drug scene to be as repelled as I am,” he says. His drummer, Michael Suchorsky, 31, explains: “Lou’s turned around and feels very strongly about not having drugs about.” Clarifies Reed: “They interfere with my writing.” And, after ending his much-flaunted relationship with a male transvestite named Rachel (following a quickie first marriage and divorce in 1972), he married his second wife, Sylvia, 24, on Valentine’s Day 1980. “If you meet the perfect woman,” he says, “you should pick her up in your arms and dash off with her.”
Happily, the residuals from his crazed youth have at least provided him, at mid-life, with a choice of thresholds. One is a cozy 1,500-square-foot loft in Greenwich Village, the other a comfortable cathedral-ceilinged retreat in rural New Jersey. Reed’s rustification recently inspired a nearly catastrophic attempt to chain-saw his backyard trees for firewood (“My hands cramped up like claws”) and some overenthusiastic repair work on his Suzuki motorcycle. “I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and took it apart,” he says, “and then I couldn’t get it back together. Now I’m proud just to take out and recharge the battery without killing myself.” While Reed is composing, puttering or trying his biofeedback therapy, British-born Sylvia studies writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Together they work on video projects and take kung fu classes. “Sylvia is 100 percent for Lou,” notes his manager-lawyer, Eric Kronfeld. “She’s supportive. He relies on her a lot. He’s certainly happy.”
Reed’s past ill prepared him for such a fate. The elder of two children, Lou was born in Brooklyn, where he played in various party bands while attending public school. He cut his first record, So Blue, with the Shades when he was 14, reaping royalties of 78 cents. His father, an accountant, discouraged a musical career. “He thought there were bad people involved, which there were,” recalls Lou. While in school he underwent electroshock therapy (described in his 1976 tune Kill Your Sons). “I was just a little depressed and it was a dumb doctor,” he says. As a Syracuse University English major, he studied under the poet Delmore Schwartz (“Knowing him was a thrill”); got kicked off the campus FM station, one version has it, for belching during a muscular dystrophy fund-raising spot; and was booted out of ROTC for pointing a gun (unloaded) at the commanding officer’s head.
After graduating in 1964, Reed drifted into the avant-garde art scene in New York and a year later formed an artsy atonal band produced by Andy Warhol called the Velvet Underground (after a porno novel). As urban punk pioneers, they were, not surprisingly, unpopular, and when the Underground collapsed in 1970, Lou says, “I went all the way back home and became a typist in my father’s office.”
Beginning in 1972, though, Reed decided to come back as a solo, a passage that led him into debt and ugly contract tangles. Increasingly bitter over critical triumphs that paid nothing, he finally blew up; from the stage of the Bottom Line one night in 1979 he snarled angrily, “Where’s the money?” at Arista Records chief Clive Davis, seated nearby. Reed soon split Arista for RCA. His manager says Lou has since made good on all his debts.
Reed realizes that his new, mellower lifestyle may not please old fans. He understands “those who say, ‘I wish Lou Reed would write some more drug songs,’ ” but giving in is no longer an option. “The fans would be far happier if I died,” he observes wryly. “That would have completed the Lou Reed myth perfectly. But I’m not about to kill him off just yet.”