Review: Lou Reed bio by Anthony DeCurtis

“While [DeCurtis is] skillful at assembling the biographical building blocks that reward interest at a casual level, his book isn’t just short on dirt. It’s short on resonance, advocacy, identification, deep-dive cultural spelunking, provocative arguments, nuance, fervor, and everything else that sums up the difference between perspective and an actual point of view, particularly when the subject is an artist as gnarly and passion-provoking as Lou Reed.”
Tom Carson reviews Anthony DeCurtis’s Lou Reed: A Life. (With additional compelling thoughts about Bangs, Laurie Anderson, Robert Quine, et al.)


9 thoughts on “Review: Lou Reed bio by Anthony DeCurtis

  1. Lots of interesting observations, plenty of sideswipes. Pretty inside baseball, which can be fun.

    Tom Carson and Robert Christgau should edit one another, since they refuse to edit themselves. They are both so addicted to producing sentences stuffed with parenthetical digressions and sub-references that they sound alike now.

    A good quiz for people like me who read way too much of this stuff would be to assemble 20 convoluted sentences from their articles and ask Which One Of These Guys Wrote This Sentence?

  2. Hey Vic – I don’t know, I think in many ways parenthetical asides and “sub-references” are just part and parcel of this racket to begin with, and most of the rock critics who’ve shaped my thinking use such devices frequently. I mean, I don’t know why, but sparseness of thought for some reason does not seem to be embedded in the rock-critical gene (but is it embedded in the movie-critical or any-other-critical gene? hmm, maybe not—might just be how critical minds in general tend to think?). But I don’t think Carson and Christgau are interchangeable at all. Christgau has had such a palpable influence on rock writing (certainly on male rock writing) that other critics can’t help but sometimes write through his voice, if not under his shadow. Is that so surprising? (Carson, for what it’s worth, has been writing some brilliant political pieces in the last year or so for Playboy; strongly recommend checking them out.)

  3. Glad I checked in to see a reply, and happy to see further activity on this site. Hi Scott! I think you’re right about this style being widespread among critics. The constant positioning & sub-positioning style was a big influence on me so I have often written this way myself. It didn’t use to bug me; now it does. It really really does. I developed some kind of allergy to it.

    If I had all day, and I don’t, I would attempt to prove that Christgau used to be a better stylist. I’m not sure I would be above cherry picking to prove a point though.

    With the Carson piece, I object to a sentence like:

    “Often cynically, but sometimes wrenchingly, he spent much of the decade treating his genius, which the Velvets’ largely posthumous legend had enshrined beyond his solo career’s ability to measure up, as just another monkey on his back.”

    (that one isn’t just a problem stylistically; it’s a bunch of mystification whenever one’s “genius” is given a starring role as a portable object)

    or a paragraph consisting of just two sentences:

    “Nonetheless, the world might have stayed unsuspecting if, to Reed’s annoyance, Warhol and Morrissey — “visual artists, after all, not musical ones,” DeCurtis notes — hadn’t insisted on adding tall, glacial German fashion model Nico to the lineup as the group’s somnambulist chanteuse. That guaranteed photographers would have something more glamorous to shoot than a quartet of Lower East Side oddballs: Reed, classically trained Welsh expat Cale, Reed’s Syracuse buddy Sterling Morrison, and Maureen “Moe” Tucker, an unlikely — but who wouldn’t have been? — candidate to become the first important woman drummer in rock history.”

    Clean-up in aisle 5. This contains one of those bits that makes me sneeze. I cringe now when somebody advances and immediately retracts a gambit after having already gone on too long: “Tucker, an unlikely – but who wouldn’t have been? – candidate…” Christgau pulls this move all the time too. I don’t like it anymore.

    I’m not against fun: here’s a good version of the packed sentence style, still allowing Carson plenty of indulgence:

    “A writer who’s prone to donning surgical gloves when he’s confronted with sleaze, DeCurtis isn’t wowed by the echt-’60s flash and filigree of the band’s Warhol period.”

  4. One further thing: surveying my little library of rock crit tonight, I don’t see the stuff I object to showing up in Meltzer or Bangs or Simon Reynolds or Gina Arnold or Ed Ward or, uh, Scott and Phil’s amazingly fluid, jointly produced prose style that propels the reader through Sedated. And I just re-read Phil’s terrific survey of his album collection a couple of months ago, and again, it didn’t rub me the wrong way as prose, ever.

    All these writers do digressions; I don’t object to digressions. But outlining my aesthetic objections gets hard in the trenches of text: only way is to quote stuff and go “I don’t like it, here’s why!”

    Perhaps it is enough to say Carson and Christgau write a certain way that is different than the previously mentioned writers. I invite readers to do the comparisons themselves.

  5. Appreciate the elucidation here, Vic–though I’m not sure I’m anymore clear on it! Let me read through these some more, but yeah, I welcome others to chime in.

    Is “who wouldn’t have been” a retraction? I think it’s a necessary additive to the point raised.

    I might share your wince on the word “genius,” but more on the fact that I didn’t pick up on it myself–which goes to show just how offhand it can be. This has nothing to do with whether or not I or anyone considers Lou Reed a genius; the point is, what does that even mean and why does it even matter (and what’s YOUR problem, dear reader, for not being one of whatever that is)! It’s one commonplace I’m certain I haven’t overused myself, which doesn’t forgive the many other commonplaces and cliches that have littered my writing forever.

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