The Lou Reed masterpiece ‘Street Hassle’ has more depth, near-tangible imagery and character than most novels can achieve in half a tree’s worth of pages. In many ways, the song was the realisation of a goal he always held in his songwriting: “To bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music.”
The sensitivities of a novel were never far from his thoughts whenever he picked up his guitar. The Velvet Underground in many ways slid out from the grimy shadow of William S. Burroughs, whose prominent impact on music came from the extreme daring of his prose. When Junkie was released in 1953 it served as an incendiary attack on decency and controversially challenged American ideals of what can be spoken about in art, much in the same way that fellow New York denizens The Velvet Underground would do over a decade later.
Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie would later fanboy over Burroughs and take up his mantle. As Bowie once said, “I have always been drawn to the Bill Burroughs of this world, who produce a vocabulary that is not necessarily a personal one, but something that is made up of cyphers and signifiers which are regurgitated, reformed and re-accumulated.”
Lou Reed’s fractured narratives of New York or Berlin and beyond would paint a similar kaleidoscopic picture. His literary ways defined him as a truly original songwriter, and as the cliché goes, one who was perhaps too far ahead of his time. Despite his love for the written word, he once told Elvis Costello that a slight bit of dyslexia meant he always struggled with long chunks of text, thus the madcap machinegun bursts of the poet Delmore Schwartz were a huge early influence.
Schwartz became a mentor of Lou Reed’s during his days at Syracuse University, turning him on to other seminal authors and nurturing his own malicious creative intent. When this spark of inspiration burst into flame and launched his rock ‘n’ roll career, Lou Reed eventually met his other idol, Burroughs, in 1979. At that fateful meeting, he asked, “Can a pupil ever do better work than his teacher?” To which Burroughs humbly replied, “In this case, I believe so,” according to Transformer: The Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris.
In short, the written word not only inspired Lou Reed throughout his career, but it was essentially what he strived for in his work – to couple prose with the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll. This unique relationship with literature meant that when The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts opened its Lou Reed archive, it became a huge attraction.
The archive housed papers, photographs, recordings and 225 of his favourite books among which were 12 selected favourites, along with novels that he contributed to with forewords and postscripts. You can check out the list selected by Radical Reads below. (And please avoid all Lou Reed / Loo Read puns).
Lou Reed’s 12 favourite reads:
- The Place of Dead Roads by William S. Burroughs
- The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol by John Wilcock
- Feed-Back: The Velvet Underground by Ignacio Julià
- Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties by Steven Watson
- Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story by Ray Charles and David Ritz
- Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism by Steven Watson
- Max’s Kansas City: Art Glamour, Rock and Roll by Steven Kasher
- High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max’s Kansas City by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin
- A Photographic Record 1969-1980 by Mick Rock
- In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Delmore Schwartz
- The Velvet Underground: New York Art edited by Johan Kugelberg
- Taijiquan Hand & Sword by Ren Guangyi & Stephan Berwick