NEW YORK • While no one ever confused Lou Reed for an Osmond, Howard Sounes' controversial new biography of the rocker pushes the standard Reed narrative of the substance-addled avatar of cool into Mommie Dearest territory.
Notes From The Velvet Underground: The Life Of Lou Reed, released in Britain last week, paints a less-than-flattering portrait of him as a "monster" of a man, who used racial slurs, slapped women and pulled knives on bandmates.
"He was constantly at war with people - with family, friends, lovers, band members, managers and record companies," Sounes said in an interview last week. "It was the worst-kept secret in show business."
His book, part of a coming wave of Reed biographies, has stirred headlines on both sides of the Atlantic since its publication on Oct 22 and provoked a spirited Reed defence among fans and intimates.
The singer died from liver disease in 2013 at the age of 71.
His longtime wife and manager, Sylvia Reed (now Ramos), broke what she said was an 18-year media silence to dispute Sounes' portrait for this article.
"That's not a person I recognise," she said of the Reed portrayed in the book. Many damning anecdotes, she added, seem to come from people Reed knew in the hazy, drug-fuelled 1970s "that I know for a fact were not capable of remembering anything they did in any given six-month period during that time, much less come back all these years later and say, 'Oh, yes, I was there, this is what was going on'."
Readers will have to decide whether the musician was simply a rock-and-roller taking a walk on the wild side or the disturbed individual Sounes portrays.
Through more than 140 interviews, Sounes, who has written biographies on Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, portrays a troubled genius whose antisocial tendencies were evident even from his early years in Freeport, New York.
Mental illness, Sounes says, was always a factor in Reed's erratic behaviour. The book reports that Reed suffered his first nervous breakdown in his freshman year in college, which was quickly followed by his much-chronicled experience with electroshock therapy.
The treatment decimated his short-term memory and inspired "incredible rage" towards his parents, particularly his father, Sid, according to Reed's sister, Merrill Reed Weiner. (Weiner, however, disputed her brother's claim that the therapy was forced on him "to discourage homosexual feelings". "My parents were many things - anxious, controlling - but they were blazing liberals," she is quoted as saying.)
If Reed harboured deep-seated anger after this trauma, it was likely aggravated by his early experiences in his seminal 1960s band, the Velvet Underground.
The brooding art rockers' albums are now considered among the most influential in rock history. But at the height of the hippie era, they were ignored by many critics and the public, which was more interested in flower power.
The failure to break through left him bitter, Sounes said in the interview: "He spent five years creating some of the most inventive and original music of the 1960s and nobody cared. The week of the Woodstock festival, the Velvet Underground were playing at a roadhouse in Massachusetts."
Reed binged on speed and, as his bandmate John Cale has said, acted like a "queen b****" and spitted out "the sharpest rebukes around".
Even more damning are the book's allegations of abusive behaviour towards women. Guitarist Chuck Hammer recalled a 1979 concert in Germany, in which a woman climbed onstage during a tense standoff between Reed and a heckler.
"Lou proceeds to drag her off the stage by her hair and pushes her off the stage," Hammer is quoted as saying.
Reed's first wife, Bettye Kronstad, recalled him starting to binge on scotch every day around 3pm on tour. Sometimes, those binges turned violent.
Once, he gave her a black eye, so she swung back at him, she is quoted as saying.
But Reed intimates found the idea that Reed was a "monster" unconvincing.
Aidan Levy, a New York music writer who wrote Dirty Blvd.: The Life And Music Of Lou Reed, also published last month, said that Reed "could be abrasive, difficult and abusive", but also that he "softened up over the course of his career, so Lou Reed in 1974 was not the same as Lou Reed in 2004".
Indeed, Ramos said that Reed resolved to free himself from his addictions starting around 1979. The gruelling process took years and often involved separating himself from people from his old drug milieu and holing up in his country house in New Jersey, where he explored taiji and Eastern philosophy.
"He did this on his own," she said. "He was one of the strongest, bravest people I've ever known."
NEW YORK TIMES
• Notes From The Velvet Underground can be ordered through Books Kinokuniya for $51.63.