The Beauty of the Beast

loureed

Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris

A Review by Tobe Damit
A Review by Tobe Damit

Updated after Reed’s death in October 2013, Transformer, The Complete Lou Reed Story definitely offers a lot more than one can possibly expect from a biography. Saying that Transformer encompasses everything you can possibly want to know about the life and times of the rock icon/artist/persona would still be a huge understatement. Going way beyond the usual narration of dates, love stories, anecdotes, arguments, relationships, records and tours reviews, Victor Bockris takes us much deeper, into the artist’s mystifying mind without a single dull moment, unexpectedly delving into the psyche as well as various traumas thus making Transformer a masterpiece that may seem at times closer to an essay written with a truly contagious passion. As I was reading various passages about Lou’s most intimate, meaningful moments, I suddenly became a voyeur, travelling through space and time, only making halts to land, embedded in Lou’s cerebral cortex, at very specific, revealing  moments,  a caterpillar enthralled in a mind-blowing, heart wrenching, enlightening spiritual journey to redemption and self-completion.

Reed©Francesco Scavullo 1974
Reed©Francesco Scavullo 1974

Caterpillar….As I was sifting through other reviews, I paused as I read the word ”butterfly” and pondered. As the biography evolves you really get the sense of a colorful and vivacious punk caterpillar struggling with an acute egoistic hedonism. Reed was constantly and desperately looking for a way to become a magnificent butterfly that proudly spreads its wonderful, astoundingly colorful wings with a rare dignified wisdom that is rarely reached by those who have such a big ego as Reed. Reading the book, you just know that in the end he had reached this point since with an ego, you cannot bend, and with an ego how can one be really dignified? How can an ego give you grace? It would be just a superficial posture, empty, impotent posture. Nothing inside, just an empty shell without any content. Reading Transformer, it is very obvious that Reed tremendously suffered from his ego all through his life. At times he may have had the posture but he was obviously too clever and sensitive to not come to the realisation that something was missing. ”A man should be able to be undignified too. If you are always dignified you cannot laugh, you cannot joke, you lose all humanity and become inhuman.”

Punk Magazine 1976 First Issue with Lou Reed very ''insect'' look drawn by John Holmstrom. Consacrating Lou Reed as the ultimate Punk Rock Godfather.
Punk Magazine 1976 First Issue with Lou Reed very ”insect” look drawn by John Holmström. Consecrating Lou Reed as the ultimate Punk Rock Godfather. Click image for more.

The book bluntly starts, and very rightly so, with the shock therapy treatment Lou received starting in the spring of 1959 after Lou’s conservative parents, Sidney and Toby Reed, sent their son to a psychiatrist, requesting that he cures Lou of homosexual feelings and alarming mood swings. According to Lou, the shock treatment helped eradicate any feelings of compassion he might have and handed him that fragmented approach that took over most of his life. Lou could be so loveable that you wanted to invite him to supper and meet your family but then behaving in such a way that you wanted to kick him out the door the next minute.

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”I’m an artist and that means I can be as egotistical as I want to be”

Bockris really takes his time detailing with an almost scientific manner how screwed up his relationships became from then on, not only because of the treatment itself but also how it put his relationship with his parents in a twisted love-hate trauma because he simply could not fathom how his parents could have agreed to the torture that the shock treatment therapy represented to him, and yet, he simply couldn’t remove his parents from his life, even if he really felt the urge to do so. So there you are, Bockris gets you a privileged seat in the house, an overview of Lou’s entourage through his own mind. Of course it doesn’t explain everything but it sure explains a lot of his writings and the poetry of many of the songs that songs he has written. You get an even more seizing pregnant image of Lou’s relationship with his father towards the end of the book when Bockris hands us a very important of the puzzle when he writes ”One day, as a child, Lou’s hand strayed into close proximity to where his father was standing. He received a sharp smack for this action, recounts Reed’s close friend Julian Schnabel, who adds, “He never got over the cruelty of that.”

Lou Reed performing in UK at Scala Cinema,King's Cross,London on 15th of July 1972.
Lou Reed performing in UK at Scala Cinema, King’s Cross,London on 15th of July 1972. Bowie co-produced Reed’s first solo album Transformer very shortly after. 

Those who see Lou Reed as a punk icon are right, he is and will hopefully remain one  but as you get further down the line reading this biography you get the urge to spread the word that he is way more than that. To me White Light/White Heat was the first punk song ever to be recorded. Far from fast forwarding on that era, Bockris still goes through that era with all the required details even if the book Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga and is based on interviews with Nico, Cale, Reed, Morrison and Tucker, as well as others who became part of Andy Warhol’s circle of artistic collaborators. It remains widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest rock books ever published and is an utterly interesting, if not vital complement if you want to know the complete story because in this biography Bockris does not talk about that part of Lou’s life in details. You also get to see how Lou Reed desperately needs to be the center of attention as the original formation rapidly disintegrated. After the release of each album they loose one of the original member. First Nico, followed by Cale and then finally, Reed himself. You get a really good sense of his ”behavioral pattern” in one of Reed’s favorite movies called The Ruling Class featuring Peter O’Toole.

The original formation on the Velvet Underground produced by Andy Warhol in Hollywood 1966 © Gerard Malanga
The original formation of the Velvet Underground and Nico produced by Andy Warhol in Hollywood 1966 ©Photo credit: Gerard Malanga

Fortunately you also get to know other aspects of Lou’s life, especially towards the end his life when he met the one and only person who managed to rekindle all those inner conflicts that were constantly harassing Reed’s mind; his magical, almost mystical, third and last wife, Laurie Anderson. The process had already been put in motion with Robert Quinn without ending well as always but Bockris is the only one who managed to take us to a place that enabled Reed to get closer to functioning as a normal human being with the updated version of the biography. It is through the character of Lulu, who originally came to life in two plays by the ground breaking German playwright Frank Wedekind, an author who came to prominence around the same time as Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. Two great extrapolations of the play are G.W Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box.

Lou with Rachel, his muse from Metal Machine Music through Take No Prisoners and the subject of Coney Island Baby,1975 (Photo by Gerard Malanga)
Lou with Rachel, his muse from Metal Machine Music through Take No Prisoners and the subject of Coney Island Baby,1975 (Photo by Gerard Malanga). Click on image for more about Lou’s ladies.

Just the fact that Reed finally managed to reach what is the closest thing to serenity through his art and music is revealing of how much of a thoroughly honest and sincere artist Lou Reed always was. Each and every record brought him a piece of the solution, even if he sometimes got lost in the way, he obviously always made sure that each and every single thing he did was meaningful to him  as an artist and as a human being. Lulu is a totally underestimated album, a collaboration between him and the band Metallica, the best band he could think of to help him forge this masterpiece that finally managed to set him free, reconciling this ongoing battle between male-female and female-male, the jealousy, the fear of being rejected, all those complex feelings he was constantly struggling with came to be irremediably exposed and somehow ”tamed”. That is why Bockris in another masterful stroke of genius explains in details everything that was implied in the making of Lulu. You may not like the album, but you must take the time to think about everything it represents. Think of it as Lou and Metallica having violent, bordering non-consensual but this twisted passion is honest and not without hope and can be seen as an exorcism with Laurie Anderson’s precious help. It was the final touch that allowed Lou Reed to spend his final years at peace with John Cale with whom he released Peel Slowly and See, the ultimate Velvet Underground re-edition as well as the Deluxe Edition of White Light/White Heat . During the last six month of his life he also worked on his final collection of photographs Rimes/Rhymes and he even went to England to publicize Mick Rock’s limited edition of Transformer, a great collection of Lou Reed’s photographs.

mick-rock-1975
Lou Reed and Nico ©Mick Rock 1975

Of course this isn’t the only collaboration described in Transformer. You get to witness Lou’s collaborations with some of the most influential artists of his times, from John Cale, Andy Warhol (Reed and Cale made an album called Songs for Drella in Warhol’s honor after his death), and Nico, through David Bowie, Bob Ezrin, Robert Quine, Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson and the ghost of Edgar Alan Poe on The Raven as well as many, many more. Reading Transformer you do really get the sense that there is a convergence leading to Lulu and get to understand why Lou Reed finally reached a point where he finally got some closure and could sit back and enjoy life, love, friendship and joking around. Maybe he just stopped trying to be perfect in the end, at last. Bockris states that he had learned to enjoy what he had, what he was and was proud of what he had done and was at peace with himself and for that, I think everyone can only be happy for him.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ - "Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson Coney Island, New York, 1995"
Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson Coney Island, New York, 1995©Photo by Annie Leibovitz

By the way, reading transformer never gives you the overall feeling that Lou Reed was a complete degenerate asshole. On the contrary, you simply learn to get to know him and appreciate him for what he is and respect all the attempt his made to find out what really lies down at the end of every path he could take. Thanks to this book, I know that those of us who dare to try, no matter how fucked up we are, will one day reach a place that can be called home; that perfection can only be found deep inside our heart if only I we have the courage to let it bleed for the things that deeply, truly matters. I now understand that there is no such thing as an end, or death, only constant renewal. Reed reinvented himself so many times and in so many different ways. One MUST take that into consideration despite the despair and the fear the fear of the unknown. There is no ugliness, there is only a beauty that has yet to revealed itself, hidden in our deepest fears. This book is a major statement and is for sure as close as you will ever get to Lou Reed’s Rock’n’Roll Heart. Make sure you give it your undivided attention because just like it’s subject, this book will slap you in the face if you don’t!

Badass
”When I’m talking, listen, goddamn it. When I’m talking to you, you look me in the eyes, goddamn it, or I’ll fucking smash you in the face, and I’m serious, I’m deadly serious’‘- Lou Reed to Robert Quine at CBGB’s, 1977 (extract from V. Bockris’ Transformer)

 

Interview with author Victor Bockris HERE!

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