Lou Reed: The King of New York (In Conversation With Will Hermes)

Right at the start of his phenomenal new biography, Lou Reed: The King of New York, Will Hermes makes a confession: “If you’re looking for some neat totalizing statement or psychological profile to explain Reed, to fix him like a butterfly specimen, you won’t find it here.”

Ironically, this is exactly the right attitude for anyone attempting to write Reed’s story. Lou refused to be pinned down as any one thing. Instead, he embraced his multitudes, for better and/or for worse, leaving behind a beautifully flawed legacy of puzzle pieces that never quite fit the way we want them to. Reed’s life and work were messy, chaotic — but aren’t most lives in the end? “I don’t know just where I’m going,” he sang at the beginning of his career. The next several decades proved him right — and would we want it any other way?

Hermes’ acceptance of this kaleidoscopic nature has resulted in the very best Reed bio. It tells well-worn tales with style and grace and uncovers plenty of fascinating new ones that deepen our understanding of what made the man tick (even if untold mysteries remain unsolved). As with his previous book, the classic Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, Hermes is an expert at finding remarkable intersections, connecting heretofore unknown dots, spotlighting voices that haven’t been heard previously. The King of New York is, at long last, a book worthy of its subject.

Recently, Aquarium Drunkard hopped on Zoom to chat with Hermes about all things Lou. | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been working on this book for a long time now — almost a decade?

Will Hermes: Almost a decade, yeah. There were some hiccups in there. I knew going into this that I sure wasn’t going to be first, because it takes me a long time to write books, judging from the last one. It took a little longer than I thought [laughs].

AD: Well, it was worth the wait. As you say, it’s not the first Lou Reed book — but what did you think you could bring to the subject?

Will Hermes: There are a lot of Lou books out there. And really, every one of them does some things well. And then there are all the reference books — the deep-dive, superfan works that have come out in limited edition by people like Ignacio Julia and Richie Unterberger. I thought wouldn’t it be great to write a book that put all of this into a narrative arc that was readable by people who were lay fans but would still be chock full of all this super interesting detail that the superfans would appreciate. Ultimately, I wanted to write the book I wanted to read.

AD: Did you have any models in mind going into it? Not necessarily rock bios …

Will Hermes: I always have my touchstones, people like Lucy Sante, certainly Robert Caro’s books. You don’t really want to hold Caro up as a model, though, because you might never finish anything [laughs]. Also, James Atlas, who wrote the Delmore Schwartz biography — that was a model. He’s a great biographer and even wrote a book about the art of biography that was helpful. The great writers who have been inspired by the Velvets and Lou over the years were an inspiration to me.

AD: What do you think a good biography achieves? There’s this idea that there might be a “Rosebud” moment that explains everything … but Lou’s life seems to resist that entirely.

Will Hermes: The idea of a “Rosebud” moment wasn’t really top of mind. I knew I might find moments that felt like that, that would resonate in a certain way. But the thing that made Lou fascinating was that he was a whole lot of different things. I’d never written a biography before. I never really aspired to be a biographer. But you start thinking about how every person has light and dark in them to various degrees. just wanted to show that without it becoming a hagiography or a hatchet job. I wanted to be fair to him as a human. As I went on, I became more and more empathetic. He was so famously a curmudgeon. And he could be nasty to people. I thought, well, that’s a given, but maybe we could get into the whys behind that — without getting too much into armchair psychology. I wanted to get facts that I could lay out and the reader could connect the dots.

AD: Give me your Lou Reed origin story – did he loom large for you as someone experiencing the music scene of the 1970s in NYC?

Will Hermes: It developed over the years. I encountered his music as a kid on classic rock radio — though it was just rock radio at the time. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal got radio play; the Velvets didn’t get that much radio play. I discovered the Velvets in college and then I’d always dip in to see what Lou was up to. I went to see The Feelies open for him when he did some shows on Broadway, touring the New York album. That was fantastic. Certainly, when he connected with Laurie Anderson, my interest bloomed again. She’s an artist I’ve had such great admiration for. I think she’s one of the greatest artists of the last half-century. Laurie was certainly his equal. Seeing the two of them together was pretty interesting. I’d go to events in New York and see them there together on occasion. When he passed, the idea to try to pull all this together became inescapable.

AD: I wanted to ask about the title — Lou Reed: King Of New York — which I didn’t know was a David Bowie coinage. What is it that made him the King of New York? Obviously, he was everywhere in the city’s culture.

Will Hermes: Maybe the title is a tiny bit tongue in cheek [laughs]. To call him a Zelig is a little imprecise because he was creating and actively participating, not just observing. He was a major part of the post-WWII arts explosion in New York. To have him coming up with the experimental film scene in New York — with Jonas Mekas, Barbara Rubin and Ken Jacobs, making music to accompany those films. And then going on to connect with Warhol and the visual arts world. And even going back before that, studying with Delmore Schwartz. That was in Syracuse, but Delmore was quintessentially a New York poet. So, Lou had a connection with this proto-New York School of Poetry scene.

And that’s not even mentioning the music. He loved Ornette Coleman. That was amazing, finding out that during his year at NYU, Lou literally went to see Ornette during his famous residency at the Five Spot. He had a big connection to free jazz — he had a radio show at Syracuse that he named after a Cecil Taylor tune, “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail.” What came across was that Lou was really attentive and hungry for arts and intellectual stimulation. It kind of allowed me to do the same thing as I had with my first book but viewing New York through the lens of a single person’s life. Which made it easier in some ways … and in some ways made it harder!

AD: It does seem like he did have an extraordinary open-ness to new things — not everyone who grew up at that time on Long Island would be into this stuff, whether it’s the free jazz or the minimalist stuff or Andy Warhol.

Will Hermes: I grew up in eastern Queens, and that’s pretty close to the Long Island / Queens border. And you know, folks from Queens and Long Island, we were always supposed to be rubes [laughs]! People in Manhattan were hip, they knew what was going on! Brooklyn, at least, had some rep for muscle. Queens and Long Island, we were just supposed to be the ‘burbs. But it just goes to show you …

AD: In the intro, you talk about Lou’s empathy being one of his greatest strengths.

Will Hermes: He struggled a lot. As a kid, by his own description, had a reading disability. He was somewhat dyslexic, so that was definitely hard from the start. He even had a nervous breakdown in his first year of college. He was suffering from anxiety and depression and went through various psychiatric treatments for it, including ECT (electro-convulsive therapy), which was kind of a touchstone in his life. And even though he never used this word, he grew up queer, and that was not easy. But that was an aspect of his being that wasn’t addressed or centered in the other biographies. I thought that was an important part of who he was and how he wrote. I think all of these things made him particularly empathetic because he’d struggled a lot himself. Going forward, he wrote about characters in a way that I thought was super-empathetic.

AD: I loved that you included so much detail about the various collaborators and muses that had such an impact on Lou.

Will Hermes: Yeah, there were so many fascinating people. People like Lincoln Swados, Lou’s college roommate. His sister wrote a wonderful book about him and their family. There really are so many writers and documentarians who have done great work that I was able to tap into. Certainly, Jonas Mekas’s relationship with Barbara Rubin and his writing about her was super helpful in telling her story. Chuck Smith’s documentary on Rubin, as well, I urge people to see. He’s working on a documentary on The Fugs now, too.

Lou crossed paths with so many interesting artists: Robert Wilson, a fascinating guy. I didn’t know a lot about him, and Lou did three collaborations with him. Robert Quine, one of the greatest rock guitarists ever — it was great to dive into his work and life through the few interviews he did, some of which people can find on Perfect Sound Forever, a long-running site.

AD: And then there’s Laurie Anderson, who you mentioned before — talk a bit about what you discovered about their relationship, which feels pretty unique.

Will Hermes: I think — I know — they greatly admired one another. I did a piece on Laurie Anderson for the New York Times years ago and interviewed Reed and he said that he thought a statue should be built to her. And I was like, well fair enough! You, too! I think they learned a lot from each other and were equals. And they maintained their separate creative practices. They kept doing what they did. There were some collaborations, but less than you would have thought.

Lou’s interest in multimedia art — which had always been there, obviously — blossomed when he was with Laurie, whether it was photography, film writing, everything. He was at a point in his life, after having some very tough financial situations where he made some unfortunate moves, he was financially in a good place. He was able to follow his muse in a way that might not have been about getting pop songs on the radio. He was getting more ambitious. Not everything worked certainly, but it was cool to see him doing experimental theater with Robert Wilson and abstract photography books.

AD: When it comes to his latter days, I’ve never quite cracked The Raven.

Will Hermes: Like all of them, there’s some great songs on there. David Bowie’s performance of “Hop Frog” is surprisingly great. He maybe draws on his experience in The Elephant Man to play that character. But even Hudson River Wind Meditations, his ambient album that he composed to backdrop his tai-chi practice, is a pretty great record. It’s being reissued in the coming months by Light In The Attic. That whole part of his life was pretty interesting. There was a book published earlier this year called My Tai-Chi, which Lou had started near the end of his life and never finished. His tai-chi team and Laurie Anderson made a great book that’s about his interest in kung fu and tai-chi, but it really goes beyond that.

AD: In the last few years, the New York Public Library opened up its Lou Reed Archives, which must have been an amazing resource.

Will Hermes: Yeah, the entire summer of 2019 was spent going through those hundreds and hundreds of boxes of stuff. And then all the digital files. There are hundreds of hours of recordings that somehow haven’t leaked to the internet. You can only hear them by going to the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center and sitting down at one of the terminals there with a set of headphones. There was a letter from his dad in there that was an amazing discovery. It’s that old Robert Caro maxim: “Turn every page.” I had that guy in my ear, and I was like “Oh my god, do I really have to go through all these pages of accounting documentation from the 1984 tour?” But you never know what you’re going to find. You find something like the letter from Lou’s dad and you just want to jump up and down … but the librarian will give you the stink-eye, so you have to settle down [laughs].

There were a lot of gems. It took a lot of sifting. Some of the early recordings are interesting. There’s not a huge quantity of surprising stuff — the demos that Light in the Attic just released, that Lou made in the mid-60s and sent to himself, those are incredible. Folk-revival style performances of his early material. There’s a recording of Lou and his first wife, Bettye Kronstad, performing a very early version of “Perfect Day” when it was called “Just A Summer’s Day.” Bettye is singing it and Lou is playing an upright piano in their apartment. It’s priceless.

There’s also a series of faxes. Lou was an early adopter. He might have gotten that from Warhol, and it was just part of his constitution, he was always embracing new technologies. He was a very active faxer when that became a thing. When the Velvet Underground reunited in the 1990s, there were a lot of faxes back and forth, just trying to make it work after the European dates. Ultimately, it didn’t. There’s a document of how it all fell apart which is kind of sad. It gets kind of nasty.

AD: In the book, when he starts sending nasty faxes to Moe Tucker, I thought “Come on, dude.”

Will Hermes: I know, I know [laughs]. They got past it, but it’s like family. If our worst moments of family were ever transcribed, I’m sure a lot of us would be embarrassed. Lou made the mistake of faxing them. That’s what you run into when you’re writing a biography, though. And you’re grateful for it. Otherwise, it would be all hearsay. I really tried to ground this book as much as humanly possible in his actual words, because there’s so much misinformation about him. As I write in the introduction, a lot of that misinformation was circulated by Lou, which doesn’t make things easier [laughs]. But I really tried to root things in interviews that I thought were reliably printed.

AD: It really is amazing how much people projected onto Lou over the decades, people seeing what they wanted to see., so many axes to grind. He asked for it in some respect, but there is so much fantasy about Lou Reed that you had to cut through, I imagine.

Will Hermes: As an artist, he was a “transformer,” and everybody has their own version of who he was. What they want him to be, what aspect of his character they wanted to take in. I tried to show them all. I don’t know if they all morph into a single, intelligible human being. But maybe that is part of what was endlessly fascinating about him. He was all of these things simultaneously and they didn’t all necessarily add up.

AD: Right, he’s so complex. And he’s “problematic” in today’s parlance. I was wondering how you navigated the parts of Lou’s life that don’t really jibe with today’s values — the stuff that might get him “canceled” in 2023.

Will Hermes: I tried not to sugarcoat it, because what happened happened, right? But I tried to dig as much as I could into the facts of his life to help people — and help myself — understand what fueled those things. I feel like we’re in a period now when people are so tightly wound and so stressed out, and people tend to snap over nothing in all sorts of situations, whether it’s online or at the supermarket. This was all an exercise of trying to be mindful about the fact that everyone is going through something. That’s not to exonerate people who do bad things, but as a biographer, I’m not here to judge, I’m here to try to get facts straight. I’ll leave it to the reader to parse it all. To do justice to him as a person and as an artist, I wanted to get beyond that.

There’s also the fact that Lou was beloved by so many people to whom he was close to. To them, he was so kind, so generous, so loyal, that I really wanted to try to figure out how these elements co-existed in one person. “Are a whole lot of people lying?!” But it’s not that. It’s that all of it was simultaneously true.

AD: As you were writing the book, who was the person you wished you could talk to but couldn’t? Who was the missing voice from the story?

Will Hermes: Hmm, Sterling Morrison would be one. He gave some interviews, but not a lot. I would’ve loved to talk to Barbara Rubin — maybe not even about the Velvet Underground [laughs]! Just to talk to Barbara Rubin, she seemed like a truly magical figure.

And of course, Rachel Humphreys, who Lou had a relationship with in the 1970s and was such an important figure, even though she was not in his life for very long. She was, in modern day terms, non-binary. I used the female pronoun, because best that I could ascertain, she was comfortable with that, even though it seemed to be used somewhat interchangeably. She was a trans person who lived a rough life. I was lucky enough to speak with a couple of members of her family to learn about her background growing up. She was present for a lot of Lou’s interviews. There were a lot of people he was friends with and band members who knew her. So, I felt like I was able to draw a pretty good picture of her.

But I would’ve loved to talk with Rachel. Trans stories have been erased for generations, and right now there seems to be a moment where people are trying to bring those stories to the fore. If this helps in some small way to help increase representation of trans people in the history of the world and the culture, that’s a good thing.

Rachel was Lou’s muse. Coney Island Baby is one of his greatest works and she’s a central figure in that. He continued writing about her but was a little more oblique about it. Magic and Loss and “Halloween Parade,” maybe. Michael Fonfara, who was his bandleader for a while in the 1970s spent a bunch of time with Lou and Rachel. He told me: “Those two? They were in love.”

AD: In writing this book, did your perception of Lou Reed change? What were the biggest surprises? And at the end of it all, are you tired of Lou Reed?

Will Hermes: [Laughs] Well, no, honestly. I mean, talk to me in a week! But seriously, this was a consistently satisfying project. His interests were so wide that it really gave me license to digress, so to speak. But to answer the question about what was most surprising, one of the things I found at the NYPL archive were the folders and folders of fan mail. I’m sure they represent a small fraction of the fan mail he actually got. But he and his team saved all of it. Some of them were just so moving. It must have been so satisfying for Lou to have people say, “Your music saved my life,” to paraphrase one of his songs.

And then there were also pieces of fan mail that were pretty scary and stalker-ish. Reading those, I could see how Lou’s hair-trigger nastiness with strangers — sometimes, not all the time — might be informed by super weird fans. It gave me a different kind of empathy for anyone who is in the public eye like that. Anyone who is particularly beloved. That kind of attention from people who don’t know you personally but feel like they do. That gave me an appreciation for how difficult it could be to be Lou Reed.

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