Lou Reed Described Bob Dylan as a ‘Pretentious Kike’
Lou Reed was a monster.
That’s the reluctant conclusion of the rock icon’s unofficial biographer, in his new book, Notes From The Velvet Underground. Following Reed’s death in 2013, Howard Sounes interviewed more than 140 of his school friends, bandmates, girlfriends, and family members.
“I loved his music, but you have to go where the story goes,” Sounes told The Daily Beast. “The obituaries were a bit too kind, he was really a very unpleasant man. A monster really; I think truly the word monster is applicable.”
The genius behind one of the greatest albums of the 1960s, was unstable, egotistical, misogynistic, violent, and selfish, according to some of those who knew him best.
Reed was well-known for his outrageous public statements—he once told a journalist: “I don’t like n----rs like Donna Summer.” In private he was just as offensive, one old friend told Sounes that he jealously described Bob Dylan as a “pretentious kike.”
Nasty, racist slurs are far from the most shocking revelation in Notes From The Velvet Underground. Reed always claimed that his lyrics depicting violence against women were fictional, but the experience of his first wife would suggest otherwise.
Bettye Kronstad, who married Reed in 1973, described life on tour with the tempestuous rock star. “He would, like, pin you up against a wall,” she said. “Tussle you. Hit you… shake you… And then one time he actually gave me a black eye.”
Allan Hyman, an old school friend, said Reed had even been happy to strike a girlfriend while having dinner with him and his wife. “She would say something. He’d get pissed off at what she said and smash her around the back of the head. [My wife said,] ‘Lou, if you continue to hit her, you have to leave.’ And then he smacks her in the back of the head. So she said, ‘Get out!’”
Sounes said there was a clear pattern of this sort of behavior. “It’s quite clear that he was a misogynist and he did hit women. They weren’t all knocked about but he knocked his first wife about and he wrote repeatedly about violence towards women—he seemed absolutely obsessed with the subject.”
On his third solo album, for example, Reed sang: “Caroline says, as she gets up from the floor / ‘You can hit me all that you want to / But I don’t love you anymore.’”
In a notorious public spat, Reed also slapped David Bowie when the Thin White Duke suggested he cut down on the drink and drugs. In another confrontation with Bowie, the two men spilled out of a car wrestling and fighting each other. “Lou Reed obviously had a very ambivalent relationship with David Bowie, David Bowie really rescued his career, Transformer is what it is because of David Bowie,” explained Sounes. “He obviously resented the part that Bowie had played in his career. And that he was a much bigger star, and I think perhaps, Lou Reed fancying him a little bit at the start.”
The book is filled with examples of Reed developing a strong relationship with someone and then suddenly dropping them or turning against them. Even his loyal sister, Bunny, was screwed over when it suited Reed.
Bunny recalled one particular phone call from her brother:
Lou called his sister, who was living on Long Island with her husband, Harold, to warn her about the [new] album. “Bunny, I have to tell you something.”
“What did you do now?”
“This song’s coming out.” Lou recited the lyrics of “Kill Your Sons,” which described a sister who’d married a fat guy on Long Island who took the train to work and didn’t have a brain.
“Are you serious?” asked Bunny. “You wipe out my lifestyle and my husband in four phrases?”
“Ah, I needed something to rhyme with train. So I had to take poetic license.”
When Paul Morrissey, one of the Andy Warhol collaborators who knew Reed during the Velvet Underground years, was asked to take part in interviews for the book he suggested no one would want to learn more about Reed. “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch [or] The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says this isn’t a biography of a great human being, because he was not… He was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.”
Some of Reed’s erratic behavior may have been related to the major mental health issues he endured. After suffering a breakdown at college, he was treated with a barbaric course of electric shock therapy. When the Velvet Underground split, Reed suffered a second less well-known breakdown and was forced to return to his family home to live with his parents.
He was diagnosed as bipolar and certainly suffered manic depressive episodes.
“The way that he tried to protect himself as a vulnerable, sensitive person who, for instance, was very hurt by reviews when they were bad was to be aggressive and say: fuck you!” said Sounes.
The Velvet Underground didn’t receive the commercial success their song-writing deserved until decades after their demise but at least there had been some critical praise. As Reed’s solo-career continued that also fell away.
It didn’t help his mood.
Godfrey Diamond, Reed’s producer on Coney Island Baby, remembers an exchange late in his career. “Lou, all I want you to do is give me another ‘Sweet Jane’. You’re the master of writing songs about people,” Diamond remembered. “He looks at me and goes, ‘Godfrey, I try to write ‘Sweet Jane’ every day,’ in this deep, awful, mean, aggravated, upset voice. Clearly, that wasn’t the thing to say.”
The foul behavior started long before the bad reviews, however. No matter what era Sounes turned to, he heard the same thing: “The word that kept coming up was prick,” he said. “Girlfriends called him a prick, people he was at school with called him a prick; people in his band called him a prick.”
It was a constant. “Lou was an easy person to despise,” said Ritchie Fliegler, who worked with Reed on Street Hassle. “He was the biggest prick I ever met, or ever worked for, but he sure wrote some great songs.”