Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed

by Aidan Levy

(Chicago Review Press, $28.95, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Aidan Levy grew up in West Hartford and is a graduate of Hall High School and the son of former Courant writer Patti Weiss and former WVIT-TV reporter and current consumer columnist/staff writer at Journal Inquirer, Harlan Levy. Aidan Levy has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, JazzTimes, and the Daily Forward. He plays baritone saxophone in the Stan Rubin Orchestra and recently earned a Ph.D from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His biography of Lou Reed is his debut book.

What is this book about?

James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, but Lou Reed was the Godfather of Punk. He was a poet of rock whose legacy includes “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Street Hassle,” among other songs.

Reed, a curmudgeonly sort in his music and his life, died in 2013, but his legend lives on. He made “noise rock” in the 1960s with the Velvet Underground and went on to work with Metallica. A nice middle-class Jewish boy, the son of an accountant and a former beauty queen, he grew up on Long Island and went on to write songs before joining those two seminal groups and becoming a pivotal figure in the punk music avant-garde. Levy’s book explores his early doo-wop recordings, the influence of his Jewish faith on his work and his connection to the LGBT movement, drawing on deep research that includes recent interviews with Reed’s friends, lovers and artistic collaborators, who included Andy Warhol, Nico, John Cale, critic Lester Bangs and others.  And it also demonstrates the tender side of this often harsh purveyor of punk music.

Why you’ll like it:

Levy spared no effort in exploring Reed’s world, relationships and lasting influence on music, and his thorough research grounds the conclusions he reaches about this often difficult but important figure in contemporary music. He produces not only a measured look at the punk phenomenon, but also an intimate portrait of one of its most famous avatars —  addictions, sexual explorations and all.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says:  “In his biography of the protopunk icon Lou Reed (1942–2013), Levy does a splendid job debunking the myths surrounding the musician. He describes Reed’s middle-class Jewish upbringing on Long Island as stifling and discusses how bouts of nonconformity, depression, and bi-curious sexual attractions drove his parents to subject him to electroconvulsive therapy. Levy covers Reed’s years at Syracuse University, where he meets his first girlfriend, Shelly Albin, a muse for some of his notable early songs, and his troubled mentor, the writer Delmore Schwartz. Levy’s history of the Velvet Underground, Reed’s influential late 1960s band, covers familiar territory, as the author discusses his fractious relationships with Andy Warhol, Nico, and collaborator John Cale. Levy is at his most engaging describing Reed’s first decade as a solo artist, shedding light on his attempts to self-sabotage his career, his then-shocking relationship with transwoman Rachel Humphreys, his playfully combative friendship with rock critic Lester Bangs, and his addictions to alcohol and amphetamine. The book’s one weakness is that it offers far less detail about Reed’s career after 1980 than about his work prior to that decade. VERDICT Though a little dry, this study is about as close to a must-read book on Reed as one can get.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A biography of legendary rocker Lou Reed (1942-2013). There is no shortage of biographies testifying to Reed’s importance as the godfather of punk and progenitor of art rock. Even before his death, his place in the rock-’n'-roll pantheon was uncontested as a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and his life had become the subject of mythic archetype for his transgressive lyrics, blend of pop stylings with avant-garde aesthetics, and hard-living lifestyle. Journalist Levy’s narrative of Reed’s life and work—touted as the first since his death—confirms these honors. But the most useful aspect of Levy’s study is his ability to separate Reed the rocker from Reed the person. Reed’s reputation and legacy as one of the pioneers and innovators of rock are unquestioned, but the author also showcases his irascible, confrontational, and often cruel personality, which complicated his cult of personality. Driven by the emergence of bohemian and Beat cultures in the 1950s, Reed devoted himself to a contrarian, anti-bourgeois lifestyle that alienated friends and lovers, sabotaged professional relationships, and fueled a self-destructive lifestyle. Guided by his literary mentor Delmore Schwartz, Reed began his musical career as a songwriter at Pickwick Records, where he began writing one of his early masterpieces, “Heroin.” He also made connections with like-minded musician John Cale and artist Andy Warhol, who formed the artistic core of the Velvet Underground. As frontman, Reed ushered in a new style of cacophonous, uninhibited, and gritty urban realism in songwriting. The details of Reed’s ascendance, fall, and comeback as a solo artist are so vital and culturally significant they read like a Hollywood script, and Levy ably captures it. Few artists, let alone musicians, have had a more fruitful yet tempestuous creative life, the results of which forever changed perceptions of popular music and art. A valuable study of Reed, further cementing his totemic influence as the high priest of art rock.”

When is it available?

“Dirty Boulevard” is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour branch.

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