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Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed Kindle Edition
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However, that does not mean that it does not have flaws. Actually, there are plenty of them. First, it is not always an easy read because the author's style is really verbose, verging on self-indulgence at times. Levy can use three or four cultural references simultaneously without adding much to our understanding of the situation. For instance, writing on White Light White Heat (p. 141), he asserts: "in the postlapsarian world of the song, we only experience interconnectedness through the profond dislocation of the body and the mind. Yet despite the apparent futility of raging against the machine, Lou would keep trying to sing the body electric" and I have no idea what it is that he meant there. In addition, the author wants to look smart by inserting some of Reed's songs or lyrics into his narrative but most of the time, this literary process falls short of any insight. This is especially jarring in the first part of the book, which documents Lou's life before the Velvet. While it is very informative, the author tries too much to relate some of Lou's mundane activities in his early life to his future output as a songwriter. For instance, Lou's first job consists in working for a machine parts manufacturer and Levy concludes "it was his first experience with a metal machine", referencing Lou's infamous 1975 noisy double LP. Far-fetched relations like this are found everywhere in this first section, while I would have liked to find more information about Lou's shock therapy, a crucial moment in Reed's early life that is depicted but not really given much sense. Was Lou treated with this therapy because of his homosexuality? Levy quotes Lou's sister asserting that Lou's parents were not homophobic, but then we're left wondering why Reed was submitted to something so awful, was it because of depression or suicide attempts?
The second part of the book is about the Velvet Underground. So much has been written on the band that the author can be forgiven for not bringing much that is new. Yet, I found that the author spent too much time talking about the Factory and not enough about the albums, especially the Velvet Underground (1969) and Loaded which are treated too quickly, in my opinion.
When it comes to Reed's early solo career, Levy does a much better job by adding a lot of details on the musicians who worked with him. While Reed's fans will not learn much on Transformer or Berlin, there are very interesting accounts of his late 1970s records such as Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle, as well as of his tours with the Everyman Band - whose members Levy has interviewed. Lou Reed's excellent albums of the early 1980s - Growing Up in Public, Blue Mask and New Sensations, for instance - are equally well treated and as Levy was able to get in touch with Sylvia Morales, this is where accounts of his life and of his music blend in with each other most satisfactorily - admittedly, at that time, Reed's songs became more introspective as well.
Unfortunately, as we move to the 1990s, the book loses its focus. The last twenty years of Lou's life are treated much too quickly. There's nothing about Lou's relation with Antony Hegarty, even though this led to some of Lou's most beautiful music in those years. Lou's collaboration with Metallica is devoted only a couple of pages and his latest days with Laurie Anderson are barely outlined. Lou's relation with John Cale throughout the years is not addressed sufficiently. We know that they worked together, then that they split, then that they resumed working together, then that they split again, but we never know why. Also Lou's disease, leading to his death in 2013, arrives out of nowhere at the penultimate page but is not explained.
More generally, while the attempt by the author to provide a non-judgmental depiction of Reed is what makes this book better than previous biographies, at times, it seems that the author treats him, not like the subject of the story, but as an object, whose behavior is only explained by context. This is especially true of the early 70s, where it seems that Reed is no longer responsible for what he is doing. He seems to do things - touring, recording, etc. - just because other people or events have made him do it and not because of some conscious decision. There might be some truth to this - after all, Reed himself said that he had no memory of recording Berlin - but the fact that the author relies on the testimonies of some session musicians, who do not seem to have been so close to Reed, reinforces that impression. We have some anecdotes that help complete the picture but the man's inner turmoils are hardly accessible to us. Admittedly, the author fares better when he relies on interviews with the people who loved him most, especially the partners who shared is life. That he was not able to interview Laurie Anderson probably explains why the latest part of the book is also the weakest.
Because the book appears as mostly factual, some factual mistakes can be a bit unnerving. One significant detail: while Lou is finishing recording his first album in England, he decides to join Nico and John Cale in Paris for a concert at the Bataclan. The author then asserts that Lou was "a train ride away" from his former VU partners. Yet in 1972, there was no such thing as a train ride from London to Paris - the Channel tunnel was only finished in 1994. This is not a big deal but it is an instance of how the author's taste for useless circumlocutions gets in the way of his narrative. Another tiny mistake: evoking Farm Aid, Levy says that this was created by Bob Dylan, but the event was curated by Neil Young, John MellenCamp and Willie Nelson.
In the end, even though it was nice to have at least a book on Reed that avoids overemphasizing the salacious anecdotes over the music, I found it too dull at times, especially when the author tries to mask some of the holes in the story by using too many metaphors and other stylistic devices. If you can disregard these petty annoyances, then Dirty Blvd. will provide a nice journey into Reed's life and music, and an occasion to revisit the albums.
*I received my copy through NetGalley.com in exchange for an honest review.