The Literature Behind Lou Reed

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Lou Reed has always been something of a fascination and an enigma. It would appear that the basis of Lou’s often chaotic musical career was rooted in literature, which The Indiependent‘s Kristen was keen to investigate.


Legend has it that Lou Reed and John Cale found a copy of journalist Michael Leigh’s 1963 paperback Velvet Underground on the streets of New York and liked its title so much they decided to name their band after it. It was, however, the book’s title that caught their attention, not so much its paraphilic content. Venus in Furs, a track that makes for an eerie, almost unsettling listen, is my favourite track on The Velvet Underground’s debut and was inspired by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 sadomasochistic novella of the same name. A Walk on the Wild Side, a novel by Nelson Algren published in 1956, is the namesake of Lou’s 1972 solo hit and only Top 10 single.

I think it’s safe to say that Velvet Underground, the book, would be out of print if it weren’t for its affiliations with the seminal New York band from which it derived its name. Michael Leigh wrote Velvet Underground as a kind of exposé detailing the seemingly deviant sexual revolution taking place amongst 1960s America’s white middle class. The majority of sexual activities (between consenting adults) in the book – from wife swapping, sex parties, orgies, amateur pornography and homosexuality to sado-masochism – are explained through correspondence of letters, club bulletins in magazines and often the exchange of Polaroids. Reading this nowadays, nothing’s shocking. Some of it might even be classed as normal, or certainly not unusual to anyone who has a sex life in any way interesting.

Leigh contacts many of the couples and singles engaging in these practices, many which he deems “respectable” people, and attempts to liberally document society’s shift in attitudes towards “unusual” sexual behaviour and the sale of sex toys and pornography, and how it is largely considered well and ordinary. Leigh may also have been in competition with himself to see how often he could mention the world ‘cunnilingus’ in one book.

Velvet Underground is supposed to be written in such a way that the author is neutral, but more often than not Leigh slips into the use of reproachful language concerning “the tragic effects of this lowering of moral standards among the adult population”. Strangely, he seems more concerned with these sex groups’ “gross violation” of the law as opposed to taking a moral high ground. Leigh allows his underlying conservatism spiral out of control in the final three chapters and his impartiality goes out the window completely.

For Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground fans, Velvet Underground is worth reading out of curiosity. The book isn’t as the tagline suggests: “Here is an incredible book. It will shock and amaze you. But as a documentary on the sexual corruption of our age, it is a must for every thinking adult” – it is one rather ‘traditional’ journalist’s views on a sexual underground scene which, although may have been shocking at the time, is certainly nothing new nowadays. Lou Reed and Stirling Morrison, upon finding a copy of Velvet Underground on the street, liked its name as it was evocative of underground cinema and contained references to female domination, explored through Venus in Furs (a song which Reed had already written). Leigh’s investigation has become somewhat of a cult item and, although a bit repetitive, gives the reader a snapshot of a time and place through his eyes.

Being the slight cheapskate that I am, I read von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella as a free download from iBooks on my iPod. Venus in Furs is the best known of its author’s works and one of the only ones translated from German. The main themes in the novella, which make it so controversial, are its strong focus on female dominance and sadomasochism. The term ‘masochism’ – meaning to obtain sexual gratification from one’s own pain or humiliation – is derived from von Sacher-Masoch’s name as he was one of the first to describe the practice.

The protagonist of the novella, a man called Severin von Kusiemski, fantasises about the Greek goddess Venus in her furs, whom he talks to about love. Armed with a whip, Venus mistreats Severin to his degradation and pleasure. Severin soon becomes infatuated with a widow who lives above him, Wanda von Dunajew, whom he asks to become her slave:“To be the slave of a woman, a beautiful woman, whom I love, whom I worship – !”“And who mistreats you for it,” Wanda broke in, laughing. “Yes, who ties me up and whips me, who kicks me when she belong to another man.”

Wanda is initially hesitant about Severin’s suggestion, despite how much the pair love one another and how much Severin claims his becoming Wanda’s slave would make him adore her even more. Donning her ermine furs at Severin’s request, Wanda treats Severin in progressively more demeaning ways she does not understand at first, but soon comes to realise how she can exploit Severin’s “supersensuality” to her advantage.

Severin and Wanda then move to a villa in Florence, where Severin signs a contract to officially become Wanda’s slave. It is at this point I feel interest in the novella’s plot wanes. Wanda becomes increasingly cruel and merciless towards Severin, making him at times question his desire to submit to beautiful woman draped in furs. The finale is somewhat unexpected, with Wanda’s desertion of Severin demonstrating that the novelty of having an adoring man at her disposal quickly wears off. Severin is severely whipped by Wanda’s new lover and is apparently cured of his atypical desires. To quote Reed’s Venus in Furs, “…strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”.

Venus in Furs is not a bad book, but it’s not a great one either. Its story line is extremely repetitive; von Sacher-Masoch uses the words “enrapture”, “dilettante” and “supersensuality” a lot in a hundred pages. The novella is something of a cult classic as it details one man’s quest for sexual submission and control: his own Venus. Although Venus in Furs is far from the most gripping book in the world, it’s hard to dislike a book so melodramatic and kinky. Somewhat outrageous and sexually deviant to its readers at the time, Venus in Furs is still relevant, particularly to BDSM imagery and even feminism. You can see why Lou Reed wrote a song with the same title, as the oddly poetic sexual sadism of Venus in Furs mirrors the seedy S&M and audacious sex of Reed’s New York in the late sixties.

The book that inspired Lou Reed’s 1972 solo song is Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side. Admittedly, the first time I read it I got so bored about a quarter of the way through I actually gave up on reading it. It is essentially a novel about the American dream turned on its head and it is by no means an easy read.

The plot follows naïve, illiterate young Texan Dove Linkhorn moving to Depression-era New Orleans in an attempt to better himself but instead finds himself living amongst prostitutes, pimps, conmen, thieves, freaks and barflies. Trying to get by, Dove has a string of unsuccessful jobs, from being a painter on a steamship, fraudulently selling coffeepots and “beauty certificates,” to, perhaps most interestingly, working at a condom factory. Algren says of his novel: “The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives.

The strangest thing about A Walk on the Wild Side is that it doesn’t actually have a plot. The scene shifts awkwardly, making any kind of storyline beginning to develop hard to follow. Characters come and go and personally and I didn’t connect to Dove as a protagonist. Written in the foreword (by Russell Banks) of the Rebel Inc. Classics edition of the novel, is a description of how much of a lost American classic A Walk on the Wild Side is, and of how Algren is so little read because he exposes the dark underbelly of America, displayed by Dove’s life on the skid row of 1930s New Orleans. The prose in the book, although dark, is very poetic, almost overbearingly at times, obscuring meaning. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, “Mr. Hemingway, boy, you are good,” and I guess you have to appreciate Algren’s talent, even though it certainly wasn’t for me.

Lou Reed was approached in 1970 about working on a project about writing songs for a musical adaption of the novel, however the project never materialised. Algren’s story inspired Lou’s 1972 hit Walk on the Wild Side which details the underworld of New York at the time, with the drug dealers and transvestites of Andy Warhol’s The Factory.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. It was a struggle to pick up the book once I’d put it down and it was a relief to finish it; maybe the monotony and ugly scenes in the book were meant to reflect onto the reader the feeling of Dove’s experiences in New Orleans. I’m glad that I did finish the book, as it is also the source of Algren’s ‘three rules of life’: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own”. My personal favourite quotation from the book, although not that notable is: “Did you know that a prize fighter is more gentle than other men, outside the ring? That’s because she knows what a man’s fists can do.” I’d initially decided to read this book because of its connection to Lou Reed and, honestly, I thought it would have been better. A Walk on the Wild Side is often cited as a forgotten classic but I think it’s a book I’d rather forget.

It seems that a lot of the literature behind Lou Reed is a bit shit really. The themes of kinky sex and downright depressing circumstances are prominent throughout, and it feels weirdly appropriate considering the same could arguably be said of Lou Reed’s life. So, give Venus in Furs a read simply because it’s like the original Fifty Shades of Grey (although a bit classier and set in nineteenth century Austria); A Walk on the Wild Side just avoid altogether unless you’re a masochist (albeit in a totally non-sexual way); and as for Velvet Underground, it’s not a bad way to waste a Sunday morning.

Words by Kristen Sinclair

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