Another week, another famous dead person having his grave danced on with gay abandon. This time it’s the late, great Lou Reed’s turn to have his reputation trashed by scandal-sniffing vultures. Less than two years after he died — at least they waited for him to rot, which is something I guess — a new book has been published claiming he was a ‘monster’. It is testament to the 21st century’s feverish obsession with hounding dead heroes and exposing their wicked streak that my first response upon hearing this was: ‘Of course he was a monster. Everyone is, right?’
According to the book — Notes from the Velvet Undergound, by Howard Sounes — Reed was ‘a very unpleasant man’. In fact he was ‘unstable, egotistical, misogynistic, violent and selfish’. He called Donna Summer a ‘nigger’. He said Bob Dylan was a ‘pretentious kike’. Worse, his first wife, Bettye Kronstad, says he once gave her a black eye. The book suggests Reed fancied David Bowie — didn’t everyone in the Seventies? — and slapped him when he suggested Reed cut back on the booze and drugs.
The media and Twittersphere are lapping it up. ‘Lou Reed was a monster’, says the opening line to a Daily Beast article. Across Twitter Reed is being rebranded a wife-beating, racist, violent jerk. In the historical blink of an eye, Reed has gone from being the celebrated maker of one of the best albums of the Sixties — ‘The Velvet Undergound and Nico’ — and the vulnerable, grizzled rock-poet of late 20th-century New York to being a slimeball, whom feminists will no doubt add to their ever-expanding Thugs’ Gallery, their hate-list of bad blokes we must never be nice about again. As Sounes’ book does the rounds, I can hear future conversations. Me: ‘I love Lou Reed.’ Other person: ‘He was a racist who battered his wife, you know.’
There are two things to say about the revelation that Reed was unpleasant. The first is: you’re actually surprised by this? Anyone who’s familiar with Reed’s music and sometimes bitter media interviews will surely have had an inkling that he was far from a chirpy hippy. Whether he was singing about heroin or about hitting women (yep, he actually sang about that, notably on ‘Caroline Says II’), or was rubbing shoulders with the freaks and rentboys of Sixties NYC, or was getting royally pissed off with his interviewers, Reed was know for his edges, for being brusque, unsmiling. If his biog had unveiled him as a happy-clappy lover of humanity, I, for one, would have been gutted. That’s not the Reed we knew and loved.
And the second thing to say is: can we please, please stop this global sport of hunt-the-hero, of sticking history’s great achievers on a metaphorical stake, like a modern-day version of when Pope Formosus’s cadaver was put on trial in 897? The Reed revelations, and the glee with which they’re being devoured, speak to one of the ugliest strains in 21st-century public life: herophobia, our seeming inability to allow any heroic man or woman to be celebrated for what they achieved, and our urge, our insatiable desire, to expose their flaws and reveal them as MONSTERS.
No one can escape this moral excavation of the past in search of people’s secret wickedness. The release of the movie Suffragette has been bogged down in a discussion about whether the Suffragettes were racist. A new book says John Lennon was a ‘cruel, greedy, selfish monster’. ‘Was Picasso a misogynist?’ asked a headline earlier this year. (Answer: Yes, of course, aren’t all dead great men? He was a pig who treated women either as ‘goddesses or doormats’.) Martin Luther King is now remembered as much for his womanising as for the small fact that he led the liberation of hundreds of thousands of black people.
Even truly great historical figures are falling victim to the lust for hero destruction. Yesterday was Columbus Day, meant to celebrate one of humanity’s most inspiring achievements: the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Yet as the BBC reported, Twitter was aflame with ugly denunciations of Columbus, who has now become a ‘hate figure’, viewed by the right-on as a ‘savage’ and a ‘genocidaire’ rather than a world-expanding explorer.
Enough. All this herophobia speaks to the dark cynicism of our times, where our desire to uncover and pore over people’s nasty traits overrides the older, more humanistic instinct to champion individuals for their public achievements and breakthroughs. Reed once said ‘kike’ and slapped a woman? I’m sorry, but so what? That should in no way detract from what he left us, from his heroic achievements in music. He turned the clatter and buzz and humanity of the greatest city on Earth, New York, into music that sounds as beautiful now as it did nearly half-a-century ago. That’s far more than the idiots dancing on his grave will ever achieve.