“I created Lou Reed.  I have nothing even faintly in common with that guy, but I can play him well.  Really well.”

Anthony DeCurtis’s ‘Lou Reed – A Life’, the first significant biography of the rock star, does a remarkably good job of working out where Lou Reed ends and his creation, ‘Lou Reed’, begins.  ‘Lou Reed’ was a cultural phenomenon, whose charisma inspired revolution in social and political life. Lou Reed was someone more complex.

The biographer, in contrast with the novelist or the poet, opens up a window onto a world in which individuals shape real events through the force of charismatic personality.  Before the twentieth century, the list of figures worthy of biography might include great leaders, statesmen, kings, warriors and poets, but only those written in the twentieth might include the rock star.

And Reed, first with his band The Velvet Underground, and then in his solo career, helped create our image of the rock star, perhaps even more so than Dylan or Lennon – an image inspired by a playful attitude towards gender identity, liberal experimentation with drugs, and the adoption of a ‘cool’, ironical attitude.  In DeCurtis’s words, Reed became “an avatar of personal freedom”.  He quotes Bowie: “Lou Reed supplied us with the street and the landscape, and we peopled it.”

Lou Reed even took his place in world-historical events.  DeCurtis shows how ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ LP played a major role in the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia in the final years of Soviet rule.  The late President Václav Havel wrote: “Underground music, in particular one record by a band called Velvet Underground, played a rather significant role in the development of our country.”

‘Lou Reed’ was a symbol of the relative freedom afforded to those who grew up and lived west of the Iron Curtain in the final years of the twentieth century, and writing that story seems comparatively easy.  DeCurtis writes it elegantly enough.

Reed’s spirit was the spirit of emancipation that animated that time.  He explored fluid gender identities:  ‘Candy Says’ is a song about growing up estranged between genders (“Candy says I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires in this world”).  ‘Walk on the Wild side’ is about the drag artists who populated the Warhol Factory scene (“Holly came from Miami F-L-A /… Shaved her legs and then he was a she”; “Candy came from out on the Island”; “Jackie is just speeding away / Thought she was James Dean for a day”).  Holly, Candy, Jackie – these were real people, and Reed gave them new life.  Here is Holly Woodlawn: “When Lou wrote ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, he made me immortal.  For now, every time you drop a quarter in the juke box, there’s Holly.”

Lou Reed imbued ‘deviant’ sexualities with mystery, romance and complexity.  For three years, he had a live-in girlfriend, Rachel, who was transsexual.  He transformed the pain of their break-up into the beautiful ballad ‘Street Hassle’: “Love has gone away and there’s no one here now and / There’s nothing left to say but, oh how I miss him, baby.”  His voice breaks over ‘him’ – a moment of exquisite fragility.  This is homosexual desire without stereotype or affectation: “My gay people don’t lisp … they just are.”

I think anyone could write this story: Reed’s role in freeing up attitudes towards sex and gender is well known and well documented.  But DeCurtis’s delving into the murkier side of Lou Reed’s personal life is what this biography will be remembered for.

For Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian and one of the first exponents of the art of biography, the discipline was an exercise in moral teaching.  Each of his ‘Parallel Lives’ holds a lesson to be absorbed by the reader: if you want to be good, be like Cicero; if you want to know evil, read up about Mark Anthony and Caesar.  Biography carries its own imprint and vision of history – written by the power of the virtuosic, individual charisma – but trails in its shadow this moral bias that compels the biographer to make some moral judgement.

So was Lou good or bad? Perhaps he wasn’t truly evil, but he could be brutal, callous and just plain cruel.

DeCurtis gets a wonderfully sweet story from Reed’s girlfriend at university, Shelley Albin:  “It wasn’t the same Lou as people think of as Lou Reed.  It was a sweeter Lou … he was awkward … an incredible romantic.”  Here was the Lou who would talk about poetry for hours on end; the Lou who gave Albin “a heart-shaped box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day”.

Then there was the Lou who would humiliate Albin, treating her like some errant house wife: “I’m going out for drinks with the guys.  You stay home.  Don’t you let me catch you out.”  Another university friend, Allan Hyman, recalls: “He had always had this rebellious side to him … It was fun.”  But he also had “a nasty edge to him”; for him, “Everything was fucked up … This person was ridiculous.  That person was full of shit.”

DeCurtis writes: “Reed would always regard himself as among the damned – the addicted, the deviant, the impulsively cruel, the mad.”  And sometimes he really was.  His behaviour went far beyond the epic levels of pettiness and self-destruction affected by most rock stars.  He fell out with almost all the musicians he worked with.  In a calculated and humiliating gesture, he threw John Cale out of the Velvet Underground – a peerless musician and his best friend in his early years in New York.  Reed’s 1973 album, ‘Berlin’, cannibalises his first wife Bettye Kronstad’s experience of domestic abuse at his hand.  It is the story of an abusive pair of speed addicts, veering around themes like psychosis, mania and suicide.  Kronstad says: “Lou had become abusive … He gave me a black eye the second time he hit me.”

This is what makes Anthony DeCurtis’s ‘Lou Reed – A Life’ a singular contribution to our understanding of one of the most complex (and frustrating) rock icons of the last century.  The author seems mainly to be interested in teasing out the strange relationship between the Lou Reed’s persona and the real Lou Reed.  And while the extremes of Lou’s personal life make for interesting reading, I would have welcomed more discussion of Reed’s standing in music and literature.  Although Reed was influenced early on by the beat poets, particularly Ginsberg, for me he surpasses their achievements, both in the quality of his lyric poetry, and the maturity of his more politically engaged later works, like his 1989 album ‘New York’, with songs like ‘Halloween Parade’, an achingly sad evocation of the effect of the AIDS crisis, and ‘Last Great American Whale’, an appeal to a more gentle picture of American identity.

Patti Smith, in her various eulogies to Reed, comes back again and again to Reed’s standing as a poet.  One night she met him in a hotel they were both staying in by chance: “He recited the great poets – Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara. He spoke of the poets’ loneliness and of the poets’ dedication to the highest muses.”  On the day of his death, “Lou had chosen the perfect day to set sail – the day of poets, on Sunday morning, the world behind him.”

And this is how I would prefer to remember him.  Not the Lou that changed the world, or the cruel, erratic Lou, but the Lou that transformed his anxieties and pain into great poetry.  Take ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’: “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are / In case you don’t know / I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset / The light on your door / To show that you’re home”, or ‘Perfect Day’: “Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself / I thought I was someone else, someone good.”

Reed craved the world of romantic innocence embodied in simple love songs.  His roaring ‘Sweet Jane’ is a paean to a world of love at first sight, and a world of inhuman villains who get what they deserve: “And there’s even some evil mothers / Well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt / You know that women never really faint / And that villains always blink their eyes / That children are the only ones who blush / And that life is just to die.”

Reed’s lyric poetry elevates him alongside the great poets.  He takes his place in a lineage that stretches back through Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Robert Burns, to Petrarch, to Catullus and Sappho.  But when he died, he did not join the finest poets in that portion of the sky that is their own.   In his own words (written in memory of Warhol): “there are no stars in the New York sky / They’re all on the ground.”

And you can find him there still, if you look hard enough, standing on the corner, suitcase in his hand.  DeCurtis accompanies his book with a wonderful front cover.  Reed looks straight into the camera, with his hands closed inwards.  A little confrontational, a little reserved, a little strange even.  Now, I thought, that’s my Lou.

“Lou Reed: A life” by Anthony DeCurtis was published on 5th October 2017 and is available in shops now