Sunday, November 3, 2013

Send this one out for Lou and Rachel: the trans girlfriend turned mystery meme

One of many portraits of Lou and Rachel
taken by famous Brit photographer
Mick Rock.


In the Pantheon of iconic male rock stars, a goodly number have been linked with trans women. David Bowie had a lengthy relationship with Amanda Lear, as did Bryan Ferry, as did Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Bowie was also involved with with Dutch/German trans woman Romy Haag during his extended time in Berlin. Michael Hutchence of INXS hooked up with April Ashley (who has also written how Elvis Presley hit on her). But of all these connections to trans women, none is more shrouded in curiosity and hearsay than Lou Reed's relationship to his trans girlfriend Rachel Humphreys. With the recent passing of Lou on 10/26/13, a renewed interest in his life and songs has brought up a reexamination of the period in the mid-70s. Reed and Rachel were together for over 3 years when he also did some of his most controversial and beautiful work.


Some have characterized this time period in his life as Reed being 'lost' and especially messed up on drugs—curious, since he was already using heroin when he was in the Velvet Underground and admitted he was awake on amphetamines for several days when he met Rachel in a club in downtown Manhattan in 1974.
It was in a late night club in Greenwich Village. I’d been up for days as usual and everything was at that super-real, glowing stage. I walked in there and there was this amazing person, this incredible head, kind of vibrating out of it all. Rachel was wearing this amazing make-up and dress and was obviously in a different world to anyone else in the place. Eventually I spoke and she came home with me. 
I rapped for hours and hours, while Rachel just sat there looking at me saying nothing. At the time I was living with a girl, a crazy blonde lady and I kind of wanted us all 3 to live together but somehow it was too heavy for her. Rachel just stayed on and the girl moved out. Rachel was completely disinterested in who I was and what I did. Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did.  
Rachel knows how to do it for me. No one else ever did before. Rachel’s something else.



The place where they met was Club 82 (bordering the Bowery and East Village). A basement venue long famous for trans and gender variant performers but, by the 70s had morphed into an underground rock club which was an early hangout for the Max's Kansas City/Mercer Arts Center glitter crowd including the New York Dolls, Jobriath, pre-Blondie Debbie Harry and Jayne County (as well as Bowie, Bryan Ferry and John Lennon). Lou claimed Rachel didn't know who he was and could care less about his music... but she was clearly leading him on and confided to photographer Eileen Polk :

"I've met Lou Reed! I've made it! I knew this was gonna happen to me and this is it and I'm in love!" She was ecstatic. Eventually Lou would just sit in the corner and Rachel would keep everyone away from him. Rachel said, "he's mine" but she didn't threaten anybody. I felt like everybody wanted something good to happen for her, and when it did everyone [at Club 82] was happy. (from "Please Kill Me" a history of Punk by Eddie McNeil)

They were a passionate couple until late '77 early '78. Perhaps it should come as no surprise Reed was attracted to trans-fem people. In 1969, he'd already written the song "Candy Says" on the Velvet's first post-John Cale album (it was sung by Doug Yule, Cale's replacement, and not Reed), "Sister Ray" (later ripped off by Jonathan Richman for his song "Roadrunner"), "Lady Godiva's Operation" (about someone getting SRS) and then followed that in 1972 with his iconic hit ode to gender variance, "Walk on the wild side," which featured lyrics about Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis... all of whom were featured in the recently released Paul Morrissey/Warhol film "Women in Revolt." He was clearly quite smitten with Rachel and remained in constant phone contact with her during his 1975 tours. As described in Bambi Fanzine from 1997 (which had one of the best interviews of Lou):

"In July 1975 his tour was called off in New Zealand as Lou missed Rachel so much. He would spend hours on the phone to her, sleeping at night with the receiver off the hook and the call connected to New York so he could resume his conversation as soon as he awoke." 






Little is known about Rachel's background other than she had been a hairdresser, was popular among other club goers and was from Philadelphia. In stories about Lou where she's mentioned (and there were quite a few because the 70s were, in some ways, less squeamish about androgyny and gender variance than we are now), she was constantly referred to as 'half-mexican' (a 'half-Mexican transvestite'). I can only think the Mexican aspect of it was a form of racism in an attempt to make her sound more sleazy and marginalized. Raquel Welch, Lynda Carter, Martin Sheen and Ted Williams were all half-Mexican well known in the 70s, yet weren't inevitably referred to as such.

She was also frequently referred to as a transvestite (a sensitive few called her a transsexual), a label which was then often applied as a blanket term to anyone male assigned who presented as female (Candy Darling was usually referred to as such even though she was obviously a transsexual). It's pretty clear from any mentions of her after 1975 she lived as a woman 24/7, was on hormones (she's described by several people as having breasts) and, although she dressed androgynously in some photos (as was common among rock fans of both genders in mid-70s lower Manhattan), in photos from 1977 including their 3 year anniversary pic by famous Brit rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky, Rachel is clearly presenting female, and always wearing women's tops and shoes (and sometimes dresses). She also had almost waist length hair worn in a female style (unlike the typical hippie dude 'parted-down the middle tied low in back' style of the mid-70s), plucked her eyebrows and shaved her legs. Even gay men who did drag or genderfuck didn't present that way.

Rachel appeared on stage with Lou at a number
of performances in Europe.

During this era, when Reed was coming off his biggest commercial success (although not necessarily his best work, the big hit record "Sally Can't Dance"), he came out with what's doubtless his most controversial album, a double record set called "Metal Machine Music." It's an indulgent reaction against rock stardom which consisted of zero 'songs' and 4 sides of industrial noise, and feedback which was played at different speeds and processed though guitar effects. It was greatly influenced by avant-guard German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and former Velvet Underground member, John Cale's mentor, LaMonte Young. Universally reviled at the time, many critics and writers thought of it as a joke (although it ultimately had a big impact on industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Nine-Inch Nails and other groups like Sonic Youth). It was given as proof how Reed had lost his mind and gone off the deep end of drugs and transvestites. Yet right after that, Lou wrote what is perhaps his most romantic opus in 1975—the album "Coney Island Baby." A testament to how much his relationship with Rachel meant to him. It was much softer than the rest of his output, more sentimental and nostalgic (in its references to doo wop and old R and B hits) and songs like "Nobody's Business" were direct retorts to media which continued to pry into the relationship and to characterize it as a bizarre aberration.

And how did people in the 'scene' and media treat Rachel? It wasn't pretty. For example:

Mary Harron (photographer and director of "i shot Andy Warhol' who bizarrely cast Stephen Dorff as Candy Darling??!!)
 "We all went off to the Locale... Lou Reed ordered a cheeseburger. Lou was with Rachel, who was the first transvestite I'd ever met. Very beautiful but frightening. But I mean, definitely a guy: Rachel had stubble. I sat next to Rachel, and asked her what her name was—and he said Rachel." I thought, right. That kind of shut me up for a bit. I think I actually sort of tired to make conversation with him, but Rachel wasn't talkative."
Not talkative to you... gosh Mary, I wonder why? Eileen Polk (known for her photos of punk musicians):
I started going to the 82 Club real early on and made friends with all the drag queens. That's where I met Rachel, Lou Reed's girlfriend. Rachel was a drag queen [she actually never did onstage drag] who was very feminine and really nice. The drag queens liked me, but Rachel was especially nice. One night she was really drunk and told me she could never be a guy because she had such a small dick. Then she showed it to me and it was really small. I said, "That's okay, Rachel. That's okay." And she said, "Well, it better be, because I make a better woman than I do a man."
One of the rudest reactions towards Rachel was from rock writer/critic Lester Bangs who worshipped Lou Reed, but also attempted to attract attention from Reed by being incredibly rude to him. In an article for Creem (a then famous alternative national rock magazine), Lester Bangs’s description of Rachel was so vicious that Reed never forgave his friend and staunchest supporter. Bangs described Rachel with stunning insensitivity:
“[L]ong dark hair, bearded, tits, grotesque, abject… like something that might have grovellingly scampered in when Lou opened the door to get milk or papers in the morning.” “If the album Berlin was melted down and reshaped in human form, it would be this creature.” [Berlin was one of Reed's darkest albums]
Reed never forgave Bangs for this attack on his girlfriend. When Reed's sometime guitarist, Robert Quine later informed Reed how Lester Bangs had OD'd [at the age of 33]:
Lou said, "That's too bad about your friend." But then he launches into a forty-five minute attack on Lester.
He mentioned the article in Creem when Lester describes Rachel [Reed's transsexual lover]. He says, "Do you understand, Quine--this is a person I was close to. And he is calling her a creature and ‘thing.'"
 
[Quine defended Bangs] Lester was under the impression that Reed had her on his arm precisely because she was a creature. And Reed made her fair game by writing songs about her.
In other words, that Quine felt Bangs couldn't conceive of how Reed could really be in love with a woman like Rachel except as a kind of prop of sleaze and rebellion. Quine felt Reed was being extremely unfair about what Bangs wrote. [btw, Quine himself OD'd in 2004]

Some people were (a little) more sensitive towards her. Andy Warhol wrote in his diary in 1976:
Lou Reed called and that was the drama of the day. He said Rachel had gotten kicked in the balls and was bleeding from the mouth and he wanted the name of a doctor. Lou's doctor had looked at Rachel and said that it was nothing, that it would stop [the bleeding?] but Lou wanted another doctor to check. Lou called back and said he got Keith Richard's doctor to come over. I told him he should take her to the hospital. I was calling Rachel 'she' because she's always in drag but then Lou calls him 'he.'
Musician and sometime producer Steve Katz (Reed's Rock and Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance) said, "Imagine a woman in a man's body getting by as a juvenile delinquent. The whole thing about 'was Lou gay or was he straight—Rachel was gorgeous for any sex. Straight men were hitting on her all the time."

Lou and Rachel at their anniversary
party in London not long before
they broke up.Photo by Jill Furmanovsky

With Lou Reed's passing in 2013, there seemed to be renewed interest in this period of his life. It's known how after he broke up with Rachel and, especially after becoming involved with performance artist Laurie Anderson, Reed seemed to skip over this prior period of his life, not really wanting to talk about Rachel (okay, most guys don't want to talk about their ex-girlfriends when they're involved with someone else), downplaying his bi-ness and queer-ness and looking a lot more cleaned, presentable and focusing on eastern religion and Tai Chi. He and Laurie Anderson seemed to have a happy marriage although, let's face it, it's a lot easier to do that when you're not dealing with issues of addiction and even mental illness. You can't blame someone who had gone through long periods of substance abuse for wanting to clean up their act, it's just a pity that included erasing one of his key relationships from his life (and likely losing some of his creative energy in the process).

As for Rachel, I admit I've tried to find out what happened to her for the last several years with absolutely no results. I've seen some people theorize she died of AIDS. I assume this was because they couldn't conceive how a half-Mexican trans woman would survive the 70s and must have been prostituting herself and shooting up (while Rachel is mentioned as being drunk with Reed several times, I've seen no evidence she was an IV drug user nor seen any specific mention of her doing sex work). In the following decades when Reed was a punk and alternative rock icon, and both of those music genres sadly developed along strongly dude-centric lines, someone like Rachel became an embarrassment which tarnished the manly reputation of their hero. And without his trans obsessions, Lou became a healthier, distinguished (AKA boring) gentleman of the *cough-cough* 'mainstream rock community.'


And you, you really are a queen
oh, such a queen, such a queen

And I know, 'cause I made the same scene
    ~That Crazy Feeling on Coney Island Baby

4 comments:

  1. Coney Island Baby has long been my favorite post-Velvets Reed album, perhaps unsurprisingly given who I am. It speaks to me more than any of his others. This is a really fine piece of writing and the best eulogy for Lou Reed that I've read.

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  2. It is unique in his work that it has so much love in it, which I think says a lot about how much he valued their relationship. Thanks for the comments.

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  3. Rachel is my uncle. If you have an questions, you can reach me at djcecesatx@aol.com

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  4. LOVE is between two people and two people only, nobody should or could Judge about that

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