OMNIA Q&A: The Life and Work of Music Legend Lou Reed

Distinguished Lecturer Anthony DeCurtis reflects on what his friend Lou Reed deserves in a biography.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

By Sacha Adorno

Anthony DeCurtis (L) and Lou Reed participate in a hosted conversation at Kelly Writers House.

In Lou Reed: A Life, Anthony DeCurtis, a distinguished lecturer in creative writing at Penn and a Rolling Stone contributing editor, delves into the life and work of an iconic, famously irascible music legend. A friend of Reed, DeCurtis holds the unusual distinction of being a journalist and critic Reed liked and respected.  

You’ve said the book may not present Reed the way he wanted to see himself, but it is the book Reed deserves. How did he want to see himself and what kind of book does he deserve?

I think Lou was very interested in control, and once he got clean and sober this desire for control intensified. He would have liked a book that focused exclusively on his music but didn’t go near the parts of his past that he looked back on with a certain degree of embarrassment—the drugs and violence, some aspects of his sexual life. Later in his life, Lou never talked about that stuff in public or private, and I think he associated the behavior with being out of control.

I believe the book he deserves establishes Lou’s significance as an artist and takes seriously the degree to which his work drew upon his life. Lou ultimately thought of himself as a writer. Biographies of great writers like Lord Byron or Edgar Allan Poe or Lou’s professor and mentor Delmore Schwartz don’t shy away from the messier aspects of their subject’s lives. Instead, they explore how their lives informed their work.   

Reed notoriously disliked the media, yet you and he were friends. Why do you think you were able to connect? And how were you able to balance being a friend and journalist while writing the book?

I’m a New Yorker, and Lou and I shared the patois of people from New York. I wasn’t learning about “outsiders” from Lou; I knew the worlds he was interested in. For example, if Lou wrote about hustlers on the docks, I lived five blocks from the docks. I got it. I saw it. This made it easy for us to get along. I also think he was impressed that I have a Ph.D. in literature—we could talk about William Burroughs or Delmore Schwartz or Allen Ginsberg. He would never have admitted it, but I do think he respected my degree.

As I approached the book, maintaining distance was part of writing a biography Lou deserved. He deserved to be seen as he was. And I feel that knowing Lou as I did gave me a unique insight. I was able to measure what people said about him against my own experiences, which brought a depth to the work.

While writing, I also considered the book’s readers. Anyone picking up a Lou Reed biography already cares about him and his music. They too deserve the book that he deserves.

In many ways, Lou was a model for me. He treated his characters with distance and empathy. He didn’t judge them but left readers to draw their own conclusions. I applied that ethic to the book.

A lot has been written about Reed. And you knew him for a long time. What surprised you?

There were a lot of surprises. Two of the biggest involve Lou’s father, Sidney or Sid, and Rachel, Lou’s transgender lover.

Lou always spoke about his father as a kind of monster. Sid was a very conventional guy. He would have been happiest if he had a son who took over his accounting business, but he was nothing like the tyrant Lou portrayed him to be.

While a teenager, Lou underwent electroshock therapy for mood swings and sexually acting out—he used drugs and was actively bisexual as a high school student in the 1950s. His parents didn’t know what to do with this behavior, and they consented when doctors recommended the treatment. Lou never forgave his parents, especially his father. But when Lou quit the Velvet Underground, he went to live with his parents on Long Island. He slept in his old room and spent time in his parents’ yacht club.

What I learned about Sid wasn’t consistent with how Lou talked about him, even well after Sid’s death. And to many of the people I spoke with, including Lou’s sister and college girlfriend, some of the stories he told friends about Sid were unimaginable. In a sense, I believe Lou created an Oedipal battle in his head, inventing the character of a father who he could rebel against to become “Lou Reed.” 

I was also surprised by the depth of Lou’s relationship with Rachel. Clearly, I knew about Rachel from Lou’s music but didn’t realize the seriousness of their relationship until researching the book. They lived together for three or four years in the seventies and were very public in their relationship. He really cared about her, and she cared about him.   

These two elements of Lou’s life were central to his work. The book outlines the issues and explores the resonances they had for him. But in a lot of ways they, like so many aspects of Lou, remain mysterious. You would have to be Lou—to live inside his head—to really get to the bottom of how and why he acted as he did.