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LOU REED: LOOKING FOR THE MAN

I was shocked to find some images of Lou Reed as a blond. Not that Lou Reed isn’t the kind of man to colour his hair, but until I found the images, I didn’t know there had been a blond period. You know how it is. Only certain images of stars are in circulation. Sometimes, other pictures are buried.

But between 1973 and roughly 1975 and 1976, Reed cropped and dyed his hair. “It’s fabulous being blond,” he said, “especially when the dark roots begin to show. It’s so trashy.”

There are several reasons why blond Reed looks good. He is (at times) a stylish man. So, picture him, peroxide crop, thick black shades, black sleeveless T-shirt, tight black jeans. And there is something amazing about anyone who can step outside of time. Blond Reed is very punk and post-punk for 1973. He is years ahead of his time. He looks beautiful as a blond. And mean. He also, once or twice, shaved Iron Crosses into the side of his head.

There are some uncool images of Reed. There are pictures that simply didn’t enter the flow. As if we are only allowed to look at The Velvet Underground when they looked cool. Pictures (taken by Adam Ritchie in 1965) of Reed and John Cale, topless, backstage wearing both face and body paint.

The face and body paint aligns them with the “flowery” 1960s the Velvets are said to have opposed. This is what makes them seem extra important now. Everyone in the 1960s was flowery; the Velvets were into black. So, in the mid-1970s, when Reed discussed his drug use: “I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I take amphetamines. Any sane person would every chance they get… Let ’em smoke their fucking marijuana… I don’t make records for fucking flower children.”

The singer Jackson Browne went to a Central Park “Be In” with Reed. “All that beauty and sweetness and freedom,” said Browne, “Lou liked it.” But he had an image to maintain. As Reed told Fusion magazine in 1972: “Can you imagine the pressure that was on us to be evil back then?”

At the beginning of Reed’s career with The Velvet Underground the band were managed by Andy Warhol. Reed’s biographers (and there are many) note that, in his early twenties, Reed had a college-boy look. But his style changed when he worked with Warhol. The biographer Michael Wrenn says: ”Lou very quickly began to dress in the work-place uniform of black leather and shades.” Or as Reed’s record producer Steve Katz noted, watching Reed and friends from a distance in the late 1960s: “The Warhol gang was East Village, very arty, very into heavy drugs and sex. We were scared shitless of those people.”

Another uncool image. On his first British tour in 1972 Reed does “glam”: high-heeled silver boots, white face make-up, glitter on his eyelids. It is a passing phase. “I did three or four shows like that,” he said, “then it was back to leather. We were just kidding around. I’m not into make-up.”

There are some great Reed images from 1974: peroxide crop, big shades, often Aviators, black leather jacket, black shirt (with white buttons), fingernails painted Biba black, tight black jeans, black boots. Reed was not unaware of the effect he could or should have. Again, Katz (quoted by Lou’s biographer Diana Clapton): “One night we were at Max’s and he ordered a Singapore Sling. He sat there behind his sunglasses and for one hour he did not take a sip. Finally I said, ‘Uh… Lou… ’, and he said, ‘That’s just the point. People are watching me. It’s very hip to order a drink and never touch it.’”

Reed read a lot of newspapers and magazines, said Katz – “He knew Lou Reed had to be Lou Reed. If Lou Reed is supposed to take drugs and have a weird sex life… well then… it had to be.” Reed discussed his use of methedrine (speed, amphetamine) in interviews. Katz saw him inject speed. He used heroin in the very early 1960s (as far back as 1960 and 1961) – he wrote the song Heroin way back, like 1963 or 1964.

It was interesting PR (or just interesting real life) that his transvestite lover/partner Rachel was present for several interviews in the period between 1974 and 1976. Music writers such as Lester Bangs and Nick Kent were made to see and report on Rachel – it added something to the myth of Lou Reed.

In one famous interview/article, Bangs starts referring to Rachel as an “it”. Reed is doing the interview, Rachel is flicking through some magazines and Bangs notes that, “If the album Berlin was melted down and reshaped in human form, it would be this creature.” Another Reed biographer, Jeremy Reed, says that the presence of Rachel “allowed him to project a powerful bisexual image”.

The blond crop dates from the Berlin tour. The LP was probably his most notorious: a syrup of pain and suicide and dark drama. It is revealing that Reed had never been to Berlin. He just felt it.

At the beginning of the Berlin tour he had one of his uncool looks. There are pictures of him with long hair and heavy eye-make up – a wolverine Alice Cooper. But within a few weeks, he is transformed. He becomes the blond pre-punk that pre-figures DAF, Numan and everything that would be chic and beautiful for decades afterwards – he is way ahead. Untouchable.

Bangs christens the new look “death dwarf”. For some gigs Reed wraps chains and buckles around his chest and body. Bangs says Reed bought them from “bondage boutiques” in Greenwich Village.

There is a consensus, among his biographers, that Reed was ill in this period. He was injecting a lot of speed and his health and behaviour were erratic. Kent relishes the way Reed looks: “The body was skinny and emaciated beyond reasonable belief. The face…possessed not only the most uniquely grey deceased fleshy pallor I’ve yet to witness on any human visage, coupled with disturbingly prominent cheekbones, but also a fixed, glazed look of pure zombie collapse.”

Anyway, they liked him when he did this romantic, nearly dead thing. And also they liked him because he was sort of gay. At times. The music writers use the word “faggot” to describe Reed, but this is praise. In 1974 this was a rebel posture. “He was high on the stage image of being a butch-faggot, a leather samurai intent on theatrical self-immolation,” writes Kent in the NME, 1974. And, when considering Reed, Nick Tosches wrote in Rolling Stone: “God knows rock’n’roll could use, along with a few other things, some good faggot energy.”

Sometimes you worry these people were misreading gay as “deviant”, but there is a kind of  “gay” Reed. I can find textual references to transparent outer sleeves floating over zip shoulder tops, a beret – from the Rachel years. And images from the Berlin dates of Reed in a very short black leather jacket worn over what could be a transparent cropped top. People say his song Crazy Feeling is a NY gay-bar song.

For a long time Reed lived on Christopher Street, but as Jeremy Reed notes, he doesn’t quite settle – he kept having heterosexual marriages. “The conflict in his sexuality was to form the basis of his creative impulse through the Sixties and Seventies, and by the time Transformer was released in November 1972 it had won him a loyal gay following,” he wrote.

It is all so long ago. The signs are hard to read. Was the peroxide blond and the black nail varnish stolen from the bars on Christopher Street or did he come from inside Reed, from his life, his drugs, his times? And however he lived, Reed talked a good talk in the years between 1966 and 1976: “I met Rachel in a nightclub in Greenwich Village. I’d been up for days as usual, and everything was at that super-real glowing stage… ”

To finish, then. Lou Reed in The Velvet Underground: very easy to “get”. Tight black and wraparound shades. The look coming from Warhol and Malanga. That figures. But he is more perverse in the early to mid-1970s. The blond hair, the nail varnish, occasional blouse, the lustrous leather – he vibrates on his own frequency.

This early- to mid-1970s Reed has fallen off the culture radar. The images were not all that familiar to me. But they are fabulous. And I would bring this Lou Reed back to the surface of things and have him seen once more.

Further reading: Lou Reed: Between the Lines by Michael Wrenn (Plexus 1993); Lou Reed: The Biography by Victor Bockris (Vintage 1995); Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground by Diana Clapton (Proteus 1982); Waiting for the Man: Biography and Critical Study of Lou Reed by Jeremy Reed (Picador 1994). If you want to see evil sexy blond Reed, then YouTube “Lou Reed Vicious live in Paris, 1974” – that is a good place to start

Image courtesy: Neal Preston / Corbis

by Tony Marcus