By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 08, 2024 at 9:06 AM

Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Milwaukee media over the decades needs no introduction to Jim Higgins, who is currently the arts and books editor at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Lou ReedX

Before the newspaper merger, he was a music critic and Let’s Go section editor at the Milwaukee Sentinel (where he helped a young Tanzilo get a foothold in this business).

While Higgins first book, “Wisconsin Literary Luminaries” mined his passion for books, simmering in the background was his love of music and especially of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed.

Now, thanks in part to Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Books, Higgins’ long-gestating look at the oeuvres of Reed and his influential band is about to be published in paperback and e-book.

In “Sweet, Wild and Vicious: Listening to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground,” Higgins does a deep dive into each of the releases by the VU and by Reed, and adds plenty of depth with sections on their enduring influence and more.

Robbins says that, "Higgins takes the reader on a long walk through one of the most complicated, controversial and influential of rock oeuvres in terms that are, in turn, scholarly, hip, informative and personal. The unstated goal of books like this is to make you go back and listen anew to records you thought you knew front to back. (He) achieves that and more."

I asked my friend Jim about the book in an email Q&A...

OnMilwaukee: You're a lifelong music fan and decades-long music writer but this is your first book on the subject. Was it a given for you that it would be about Lou Reed? I guess the more concise question is: was this a passion project?

Jim Higgins: It's certainly a passion project. In the years after his death, I read the biographies of Reed by Anthony DeCurtis, Howard Sounes, Aidan Levy and most recently Will Hermes. All were worth reading. But I felt unsatisfied in that I wanted to spend more time on the music itself.

Now those biographers were doing their job: they were trying to make sense of a messy and complicated life. But, encouraged by my friend (Chicago Tribune music critic) Greg Kot, I did that thing people are told to do: Write the book you wanted to read. There was no reason to expect anyone would publish it, given that a whole lot has already been written about Reed, and that I am an unknown guy from Milwaukee.

My first version of the book, written to please myself, was topical: An essay about Reed's songs about the world of Warhol, one on Reed as a guitarist, one on what his final run of albums says about him. Some publishers weren't interested in that book. Some liked the writing but didn't think it could sell.

Ira Robbins of Trouser Press Books told me he liked the writing but my original format wasn't right for him. “Would you consider recasting it to an album by album book,” he suggested. I thought about it and decided to try the approach Ira suggested. Took about another six months. Doing the original work on those topics made album by album pieces richer and more fun to write.

What made the Velvets such an enduring influence on music, especially considering their relative lack of success during their existence?

They greatly expanded both what rock songs could be about and how they could sound. Reed wrote "Sweet Jane," "Heroin" and "Rock and Roll" in the VU. And I am sure I'm not only the only mild-mannered listener who vicariously enjoys the belligerent and antagonistic strains of the VU.  

I know this is probably a tough one: but if you could bring just one Velvets record and just one Lou Reed record to that mythical desert island, which would they be and why?

If I left for the island today, I would take “1969: The Velvet Underground Live,” a double album, twice as nice, and “Street Hassle,” for its combination of songs, attitude and memories of that time in my life it evokes.  

I really enjoyed the Bonus Tracks at the end. Why did you focus on grading Robert Christgau's reviews of Reed's work, specifically?

Reed famously attacks Christgau's grades in “Live: Take No Prisoners.” I thought it would be fun to go back and look at Christgau's grades and see how hard a grader Christgau was or was not when it came to Lou. People can read the book and find out what I conclude.

I should say that I admire Christgau a great deal. He is also an exact contemporary of Reed: they were native New Yorkers born in the same year less than two months apart.  

Now that you've got a couple books on the shelf, are there plans for any others?

I'd love to write another book, but I don't have a specific plan for you right now. The well has to fill up for a while first.

NOTE: Higgins will do an event for the book at Boswell Books Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., on Thursday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m.

In related news:

Trouser Press Books has published a growing list of music books, including a great compendium of work focused on New York’s late 1950s and early 1960s folk music scene.

The Bleecker Street Tapes: Echoes of Greenwich Village,” collects essays on all the major – and many of the minor – lights of the scene that produced Bob Dylan and many others. Bruce Pollock – who has had a long career as a music journalist and also worked as an A&R producer for major labels, was there and so he has an insider’s perspective on the likes of Loudon Wainwright III, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Melanie, Richie Havens, Maria Muldaur, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Sebastian and others.

Carrying the story forward, Pollock also included Village folkies that came later, like The Roches and Suzanne Vega.

Another veteran rock critic, Jonathon Cott – whose work has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker and The New York Times to Rolling Stone and the Washington Post, has a new book about the Beatles on the 60th anniversary of their landing on U.S. shores.

Let Me Take You Down: Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever,” published by University of Minnesota Press, takes a unique look at perhaps the Fab Four’s most influence double-A-side single.

In addition to sharing the story of the conception and creation of these two landmark recordings that offered two very different in sound but similar in their revolutionary approaches to pop music, Cott talks in-depth to musicians like Bill Frisell and Laurie Anderson, as well as actor Richard Gere, Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck and urban planner Jonathan F. P. Rose to create an unusual and engaging look at a pair of unusual and engaging songs.

Jim GordonX

Lastly, but definitely not leastly, is “Drums and Demons: The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon” (Diversion Books), a deep-dive into the heartbreaking tale of the rapid rise and long fall of one of rock and roll’s greatest drummers.

At a young age, Gordon became a star on the studio circuit. Constantly in demand by producers for his steady tempo and inventive approach, Gordon played on hundreds of landmark recordings, from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” to “Good Vibrations” to “Layla” and many others. He played alongside three of the former Beatles, and worked with producer Phil Spector, to name just a few.

But, as author Joel Selvin recounts in this sad and candid book, Gordon’s success was tempered with mental illness. Haunted by voices for years, Gordon’s attempts to self-medicate led to a spiral that ended in tragedy.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.