Fatal Attractions: Lou Reed & Jerry Garcia
Yet as Victor Bockrist biography Transformer: The Lou Reed Story and one-time road manager Rock Scully's Living With the Dead show so clearly, Garcia and Reed had quite a lot in common for a pair of polar opposites.How many people know, for example, that each named the band that would become his best-known the Warlocks? (In Garcia's case, of course, that band turned out to be the Grateful Dead; in Reed's, it was the Velvet Underground.) All too few rock and roll writers take into account the love each man had for early folk music and '50s doo-wop, and even fewer take into account the power of each man's music to transport the listener to previously unexplored dimensions. Reed's frightening venues populated by an ever-shifting cast of hustlers and freaks, or Garcia's places painted with the comforting colors of a sunshine daydream. And though the names of the bands belie their vibes -- the Velvet Underground was harsh and nasty, while the Dead was actually life-affirming, viewing Reed as villain and Garcia as saint only serves to simplify each man's complex tale, and finally, to cheapen their accomplishments.Lou Reed, no doubt, is the more challenging of these two subjects, if only because the guy is very possibly the biggest asshole currently supported by two legs, as any amateur historian of American rock music knows. To say that Lou Reed can be difficult is to be guilty of vast understatement; Reed takes a perverse pleasure in being hated.As Bockris documents, Reed has made it virtually impossible for anyone to love him -- certainly not his parents or lovers. Even his boosters in the national rock press took a lot of crap from Reed -- the late, great Lester Bangs was forced to endure withering verbal attacks from his erstwhile rock god. So did the cash-spending fans who supported the willfully nihilistic Metal Machine Music, four sides of aggressively ugly guitar feedback. Reed clearly believes that his work is so important that we should all be happy to wade through an ocean of unrepentant bullshit in order to get to the good stuff; Bockris, it seems, buys into that premise. When he quotes Reed's contemporaries as saying that Reed is just about as unpleasant as people get, Bockris finds some lame way to excuse his subject. By attempting to excuse Reed's often inexcusable behavior (which Reed would never do this whole career says, "If they don't like it, fuck them"), the author exposes himself as an egregious toady.Rock Scully's Living With the Dead largely concerns itself with one of the most beloved figures in the history of rock and roll. Jerry Garcia was revered by all manner of freaks throughout his entire adult life, even when, as Scully suggests, that adoration may not have been entirely justified. While Bockrist book is essentially a compilation of clips with (very few) personal remembrances stuck in for spice, Scully, who worked as the Grateful Dead's road manager for years, has the real deal to tell. Unlike Bockris, he has no need for secondhand stories. He writes of the times that he and Garcia got higher than high on a members-only opiate synthesis called "Persian." He recalls how Garcia -- perceived by fans and journalists as a benevolent Father Christmas of LSD culture -- became such a slave to his favorite drug that he wouldn't even take meetings with the rest of the Grateful Dead unless Scully ensured he'd be high as a kite. He also relates that this "great man" finally couldn't even function well enough to pick up a pint of his favorite ice cream at the corner store.In the end, neither of these books is any great shakes. The Bockrist work is basically a clip job, while Scully's falls into the "as told to" category. But in reading them, one learns that nice guys like Garcia aren't necessarily so nice all the time (especially when someone inadvertently got between Garcia and his drugs), and that even self-professed assholes like Lou Reed can actually have some tender spots. He was quite a softy when it came to his longtime transvestite mate Rachel -- she was remote, and she roasted him emotionally over and over -- but still Reed kept coming back.Ultimately, things are never what they seem, and if Jerry Garcia and Lou Reed ever meet up in the afterworld, they'll probably find more things in common than not. During the '60s they remained opposites, but in heaven, artistry is all that matters.