You do not have to love Lou Reed to love this book, but it certainly helps. I love Lou. I love Lou despite, or perhaps because, I never knew him. Lou has been my guiding star, my inspiration, my comfort and his music provided both a guidebook to survival and the soundtrack for my adventures. It will come as no surprise that I then so greatly enjoyed this delectable nugget of 1970s coming-of-age novel, that features Lou Reed as the catalyst for the 16 year old Matthew’s journey from childhood to adulthood.
Michael Imperioli’s first novel, The Perfume Burned His Eyes is a homage to both youth, and to Lou Reed. Knowing the mythos and rock and roll history behind the man that was Lou Reed, and the time of his reign over New York City, as The Man, provides an immediate context and backstory to the neat, compact and sometimes sparsely written narrative. The novel reads like the natural successor to Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, wasting no words or time in deftly painting a place and time in a bold and exciting way that goes beyond the narrative and intrudes into our own personal coming of age stories, and those of our heroes and heroines, both dead and alive, that accompanied our youths.
Michael Imperioli’s personal relationship with Lou Reed, however brief and towards the end of Reed’s life it was, provides a solid platform for this beautiful and engaging novel. Imperioli describes meeting Reed at a Knick’s game, and their short but meaningful interaction revolving around Imperioli taking on the part of Ondine in the 1996 movie I Shot Andy Warhol. Reed reportedly told Imperioli he thought the project ‘despicable’ for making entertainment out of the actions and life of the ‘psychotic bitch’ Valerie Solanas, wished him ‘good luck’ and then turned away. Moments later he returned and gave Imperioli some invaluable advice to the tune of remembering that Ondine was very funny, alongside an exhortation to ‘work hard‘. Andy always did say ‘work‘, according to the song Work in his 1990 album Songs For Drella. “Work. All that matters is work” goes the refrain in the song. For Lou Reed to tell Imperioli to ‘work hard’ feels like he was passing Andy’s advice along to the man who was going to be acting in a movie about the terrible shooting of Warhol. It is almost as if Lou was passing Andy’s blessing to Imperioli. I suppose if the movie could not be stopped, then at least the ghost of Warhol and his work ethic could be summoned by Lou Reed and Imperioli in an effort to make the movie about his beloved Warhol at least not suck.
This push-me-pull-you classic Lou Reed combination of sarcastic passive aggressive disinterest, followed by a warm and helpful afterthought of kindness run through with a concern for the project forms the basis of Imperioli’s main character, Matthew’s relationship with Reed in the novel. The novel has a simple premise: the sixteen year old Matthew, having recently lost his grandfather, and not so recently lost his father, moves to Manhattan with his downer addicted mother, thanks to an inheritance. Matthew’s life changes overnight. His mother is still addicted to quaaludes, but at least more functional, but Matthew is now going to a progressive school in Manhattan, they have money, and they now live two floors below Lou Reed and his lover, Rachel. Imperioli takes this simple premise and forges it into rock and roll writing gold.
The main character, Matthew, is well written and fully fleshed out. It was a wise move to make Lou the satellite moving in orbit around the sixteen year old boy, rather than have Lou as the main character. Lou Reed is written with immense sympathy and affection, in a way that only someone who truly loves Lou Reed could ever write him. There is a lack of judgement in Imperioli’s writing, whilst not shying away from the reality that was Lou Reed’s life in the 1970s. Junkie. Alcoholic. Noise merchant. None of these labels have any malice in this book. This book is a safe space for the refugees and survivors of the rock and roll underground.
I divide books that tackle booze, drugs, sex and rock and roll into two categories: written by those on the outside looking in, and by those on the inside screaming out. This novel is of the latter category. Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done is a song of a man who did not partake in the excesses of the ‘iced honey’ that Lou sings about, let alone the heroin and amphetamines and the lure of the rig. These outside-looking-in works have an air of pity about them, the stench of judgement and superiority comes off their lines, notes and pages. Imperioli’s deeply affectionate and brutally honest work does not have the unyielding darkness of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, but rather the vaseline smeared lens of Lou Reed’s White Heat White Light, or the fragile beauty of Street Hassle. We wish that we could ‘slip away’, whilst being removed from the pain to a large enough degree to move the story forwards, with its deft little character portraits and intriguing twists and turns. Imperioli doesn’t shy away from themes of suicide, death, teenage prostitution, drugs or alcohol; he takes that adolescent claustrophobia, and all those teenage kicks and documents them faithfully, whilst not reveling in their darkness and nihilism.
Make no mistake, The Perfume Burned His Eyes is a dark little number, a book infused with the qualities of magick and witchcraft. The teenage sex in this novel is not sweet or revelatory, it is a tool of dark magick and prostitution. The subplot of Matthew’s relationship with the twisted and ultimately doomed Veronica is unbearably and painfully clearly doomed to ultimately dangerous failure. There is no listening to albums crying over lost love, instead a breakdown over lost life. Matthew is a lone small figure, not quite yet a man, being tossed on the tempestuous seas of a drunk and high rock stars whims, and a fucked up teenage girls obsessions with esoterica. Lou is fickle and forgetful as well as being warm and caring. Lou is not just legendary in this work, he is also infinitely fallible. He lets people down, he fucks people up, he loves and he loses. It is this immensely human rendering of Lou Reed that forges the charm of this beautiful story.
Lou’s transsexual lover, Rachel, is so warmly and deftly painted, that the scenes with her fill my heart with joy. Rachel, the muse and inspiration for so much of Lou Reed’s best work, deserved so much more than Lester Bang’s cruel focus on her in that mean spirited and nasty little piece for Creem. The fact that Imperioli took on that little bit of rock and roll history and devoted space to dealing with Lou Reed’s imagined response to Bangs’ oafish nastiness was a ray of sunlight in a mean and small hearted world. Lou’s relationship with Rachel is treated with both sensitivity and kindness. Rachel and Lou and their close, long term and devoted love affair has never been treated with anything like respect in rock and roll writing, but now they get their love story lauded and immortalized, not just in Reed’s songs, but also by someone who has taken the love and time to write about them both so sweetly. Don’t get me wrong. I love Lester Bangs. He remains one of the most important critics and scribes of rock and roll…and also one of the most brutally oafish perpetrators of crimes against Lou Reed. His battle with Lou was in turns revelatory and slanderously cruel, focusing on the man instead of the music. The deftly written imagined letter from Lou to Lester, without mentioning Lester’s name, whilst giving the nod to those in the know, is a thing of great beauty. The slight was avenged, if not in full, at least with enough style and spittle to assuage the hurt.
The title of the novel foreshadows its last few chapters. The title is taken from one of Reed’s masterpieces, Romeo and Juliette off his New York album, the ending line of Reed’s song reads:
“The perfume burned his eyes. He held on tightly to her thighs and something flickered for a minute and then vanished and was gone.”
The title is woven into the narrative, with Rachel’s clove perfume ‘not agreeing’ with Matthew, as he and Rachel and the skinny doorman try to move the immoveable behemoth of an amp to a van. This slapstick scene, with Reed acting as a foreman directing the action, but not risking his delicate rock star back or fingers, brings our little gang of three into an intensely physical, cinematically vivid folie à trois. There is no way on earth this sixteen year old kid, desperate to please his hero, is going to be able to drive this thing across town alone and not come to harm or be subject to foul play and larger forces arraigned against him. The fact that the three of them enter into this delusion that this is a good idea, fueled by speed, booze and love, would be funny if it was not so clearly doomed to disaster. This is great writing, a beautiful high point in the novel, which no doubt one day will transfer to the screen with not a small measure of success. It brought my heart great joy to read it. I am smiling at its memory. Something flickered for a minute…and then vanished and was gone.
This novel is a series of perfect New York minutes: flickering scenes and perfect moments that vanish and disappear as fast as they are born, dying before they can harden into anything permanent. Bars and drinks and trips and magick. Girlfriends, fathers, rock stars, vans and amps all appear and disappear as if loss is the ultimate reaction to the magick within. Life is impermeable and impermanent at sixteen, and Imperioli captures this dichotomy perfectly.
The end of the novel takes this impermanence and dissolution of reality to the logical conclusion: insanity. The novel is a mirror of itself, and the spell it casts disintegrates the narrative. Psych wards are rendered in movie script form. New York dissolves into Salem horror shows. Mothers fall apart. Sons fall apart with them. People die. Lou himself can’t last in this world, and disappears from Matthew’s life as abruptly as he appears and then in the postscript, set many years later, the narrator merging with the author, Lou’s physical body cools and dies and leaves our physical reality. We find ourselves on the blessed 101, on the west coast, ripping Iggy and Strummer apart in an act of love towards proto-punk supreme, Reed. The rain falls once more and life goes on, but never without Lou. Lou is always there weaving his magick through our loss, and snarkily telling us ‘swoop swoop. bop bop’ – the meaning of life. That is it. You know, ‘some people like to go out dancing, other people they have to work…just watch me now!” Lou and Imperioli waltz off into the distance, working but doing so with glee and wild rock and roll abandon.
If you like dancing with Sweet Jane, and are partial to Carroll-esque sparse but vivid dialogue with no words or scenes wasted, then The Perfume Burned His Eyes is more than a good time, it is a requirement. This is not a long book, but it is an important work of rock and roll writing, a fine addition to the coming of age catalogue, Lou Reed studies, and underground exploration. It is a work of extreme affection and love, with no malice but plenty of darkness, a bit like Lou Reed himself. It is also the novel I have most enjoyed since I last re-read the Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, or Just Kids, by Patti Smith: it is that good. Imperioli’s novel can hold its own amongst the great counter-culture writing of the 20th century, and deserves all the accolades, it will no doubt receive. I cannot wait to see it on the big screen. Buy it. Read it. Love it. Put on New York, and let the words wash over you. Unkle Lou might not be able to work it all out for us, or for Matthew, while us lost kids are waiting for our man, but he will at least make the descent into darkness less lonely and more survivable. You know what, reading this novel to pass the time will help too. You know the man is always late, the worst can always happen, but we might survive it anyway, and New York is always there waiting for us to show up and grow up.
10/10. BUY IT