According to biographers, Lou Reed was a great artist, but he was kind of a jerk
That’s how Lou Reed’s career went. He was never happy; there was always something to attack. Humanity brought out the worst in him, and he returned the favor. His peremptory demands, imperious and selfish nature, abruptly withdrawn support or mentorship, inconsistent vision, and overall inability to play well with others made his life a checkered history of failed alliances and artistic misfires. Few personalities — particularly as one as protean and occasionally as brilliant as Reed’s — can be summed up in two syllables. But if you were to do a word cloud of memories of Reed in the various volumes that have been published on his life, the word asshole would turn up in surprisingly large type.
Yet it was still wrenching to hear of his death, of liver cancer, three years ago this October. He’d found some peace in his long, late-in-life relationship with Laurie Anderson, a welcome note of resolution and union to a decidedly discordant career. Since then, we’ve seen two biographies, with two more expected in 2017. And besides that, what must have been a heroic bit of corporate rightsmanship has produced a comprehensive remastered box-set collection of his seminal work, everything from his groundbreaking RCA early solo years (Berlin, Transformer, etc.) to his slightly more audience-friendly Arista releases that stretched into the mid-’80s (ending with Mistrial, in 1986).
For all the gems in his work, his biographers, delving through the tumultuous events in his life, can’t cover up their subject’s flaws. One is by Howard Sounes; titled Notes From the Velvet Underground, it displays the benefits of no-nonsense shoe-leather reporting, as did Down the Highway, his clear-eyed exposition of Bob Dylan’s life and career. (Sounes was the first to get the names of Dylan’s children correct.) Surprisingly, though, the keeper is Dirty Blvd., by Aidan Levy, a writer with a forceful, poetic bent and cultural antennae that quiver ecstatically at the signifiers in Reed’s aesthetics and those of the complex culture around him. As you read it you notice, again and again, a modest reportorial zeal that uncovers key mysteries of Reed’s life. It loses its momentum (as Reed’s career did) in the last 20 years of his life, but all in all it’s a virtuoso rock biography.
Both books hide in plain sight a cautionary tale for all readers, and also the authors of two other in-progress biographies on Reed due out next year. How to balance the antics, often cruel, senseless, and self-destructive, of their subject, against the work? Some people have no problem with this dichotomy; it’s easy, they say, to separate the person from the art.
Did Reed know that he was being a jerk? It’s hard to self-diagnose
So how to tell if you’re actually a jerk? “Isn’t that one of those questions where if you have to ask, the answer is yes?” one of my colleagues wrote in Slack this morning. But as it turns out, the opposite is true — if you’re concerned about being terrible toward other people, it means you’re probably self-aware enough to avoid any truly egregious missteps.
But introspection, Schwitzgebel wrote, will only get you so far. A jerk, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; jerkiness asserts itself in relation to other people, meaning it may be more informative to your gaze outward:
Are you surrounded by fools and non-entities, by people with bad taste and silly desires, by boring people undeserving of your attention, by people who can be understood quickly by applying a broad and negative brush?
If this is how the world regularly looks to you, then I have bad news. Likely, you are the jerk. This is not how the world looks to most people, and it is not how the world actually is … You are not seeing the individuality and potential of the people around you.
When everyone looks like a jerk, in other words, chances are it’s because you’re seeing them through jerk-tinted glasses.
That’s why it’s good to separate the person from the art – their art makes the world a better place, and the number of people who have to interact with the artist’s bad side is relatively small when compared to the number whose lives are enriched by their work.