Perfect Sound Forever


Beyond Aesthetics: Luck, Personality, and the Industry
by Mark S. Tucker
(December 2013)

Allow me, if you will, to burnish up my reputation as a bastard by singing the praises of Lou Reed in the most off-key way possible, thus properly tributizing the man rather than playing into the corporate lie factory that is rock and roll "journalism" and "criticism." From what I've been able to glean beyond carefully sanitized reports of the guy in real life, Reed was more than just somewhat an asshole. He was a walking, talking, living, breathing, full-on, predatory asshole... but not without his odd charms. There may have been very good reasons for the downside by the way, so I'll reveal what few are willing to divulge in several respects of Reed's life, 'cause the man was an interesting enigma.

Before anything, we must look at what's now almost completely censored: when a teenager, Reed displayed bisexual tendencies and was forced to undergo electro-convulsive "therapy" at Rockland State Hospital to "cure" the homosexual side of that equation. Apparently, his Jewish parents weren't about to have a fegelah in the family and so sonny-boy was trotted off to be tortured. I think the Bible recommends that, maybe the Talmud, though I could be mistaken. In Reed's own words, "[t]he effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable," and one must ponder what that savage psychiatric practice, which couldn't help but damage the victim's brain, actually induced in Lou. One thing we do know is that, while platoon leader of his ROTC squad, though this is equally downplayed, Lou put an unloaded gun to his superior's cranium and was promptly 86'ed. He went on to graduate with honors from college and host a radio music show, "Excursions on a Wobbly Rail," title taken from a Cecil Taylor song.

Despite what's bandied about now, Reed's career did not start with the famed Velvet Underground. In '64, working for Pickwick Records as an in-house songwriter, Lou wrote "The Ostrich," which the company saw as a potential novelty dance hit and assigned John Cale and Tony Conrad, then studying with noted avant-garde figure La Monte Young, to sit in. Cale was intrigued by Reed's detuning of his guitar to create a drone effect, by the tousle-haired individual's attitude, and by what was expressed in the song's lyrics. The single went nowhere, but Reed picked up on what would be the key event in his life: meeting John Cale, the real main man behind the Velvs.

Cale & Reed recruited two other collegians Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, also vastly better musicians than Reed (the proof lying in the killer Japanese box set Final V.U. 1971 - 1973), and the Underground was formed. If any group could be called 'unstable,' it was pretty much the prototype and began falling apart almost as soon as it was forged... the fact of Reed being a junkie (something completely ignored, by the way, by Wikipedia in its usual sanitized fashion) helping not at all, though here we must pause and look back a moment, my contention being that his addiction was likely as much attributable to electroshock as any alienation arising from bisexuality.

VU's debut sold a miserable 30,000 copies, provoking Brian Eno to much later famously quip that everyone who bought a copy started a band...but, um, also to stop short of further noting that the listener mindset seemed to be one of "Hell, if this Lou Reed guy, who can't sing or play guitar f'shit, can do it, then so can I!" a sentiment that would arise again and again in regard of other groups: The Stooges, Ramones, etc., punk laying in the not-too-distant horizon. Too, Vaclev Havel was inspired to become president of Czechoslovakia based on that now highly influential debut release. Wonders never cease.

On the other hand, the LP was signatory of what was to come. VU was taken in hand by Andy Warhol who forced singer/model/actress Nico on the outfit, to everyone's objections... except Nico's, of course. The title The Velvet Underground & Nico was meant to imply distance between she and the band but the move actually backfired, as giving the newbie such titular prominence read, in consumer minds, as, among other things, an alliance of someone verging on the famous with an unknown rock group. This, of course, irked Reed no end. Ironically, he and Nico soon became lovers, as did she and Cale afterwards, and then she and Jim Morrison, and then she and James Osterberg (Iggy Stooge), and in fact she and just about anyone who wore pants.

By the sophomore release, Nico had quit, Warhol'd been fired against Cale's much better judgment, and Reed brought in the reptilian Steve Sesnick to manage the band. Sesnick immediately urged the firing of Cale, to Sterlng's and Tucker's protests, but... well, Reed was an asshole, and assholes do as assholes do. He turned the group more in a pop direction, which saw the "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane" compositions erupt, the closest the group would ever get to success - which is to say, not very - and then Reed himself deserted the group he'd co-founded.

There was karma present, however: pretty much a pauper, Lou went to work for his father as an accountant making, heh!, $40/wk. Somehow, though, he came to wangle a contract for a solo LP with Atlantic Records and recruited Steve Howe & Rick Wakeman (both incredibly talented players with Tomorrow, the Strawbs, Yes, etc.) to accompany a set of smooth-rock versions of unrecorded VU songs. The album went straight into the shitter, but Reed was to prove ever a gent whom luck tended to favor, at least in the musical domain, and David Bowie, also a bisexual and fascinated by Reed, came along with Mick Ronson and produced Reed's sophomore Transformer, the record that really made him, but... yet another typically assholian move, Reed argued heatedly and prolongedly with Bowie over some subject still unknown, and The Thin White Duke severed the connection forever. Reed would never again see such artistic acclaim, though the sales record of the remarkable 1974 Rock 'n Roll Animal (the later Lou Reed Live, issued in '75, extended the coverage of that show), Reed's best-selling LP ever, eclipsed its predecessor. Transformer, though, was basically Bowie's LP, and Reed resented its success for the rest of his life, never coming to grips with the fact that his talents were extremely limited, confined mostly to an outsider mode of thinking but not musical prowess. Animal proved the contention though 'cause like Transformer, it was actually the work of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, a famed guitar team who also boosted Alice Cooper, post-Buxton and crew, and others through the roof. Reed himself had feeble musical talents, as LP's would continue to show all too plainly thereafter, too many of the slabs virtually unlistenable except that...

...there was an undeniable squalid charisma to the man, and even crits like myself, who couldn't stand the guy as a human being, couldn't help but pick up his work. The answer to that lay in Reed's original objective: he was actually a writer, perhaps even a lower-case poet, and wanted to meld The Great American Novel, rather: a seamy Nelson Algren/Charles Bukowski version of it, into music. He never did, never even came close, but his failures were pretty spectacular aesthetically, and one couldn't help but be drawn to them, as hideously wanting as they were.

Much is made of Reed's godfatherhood to punk, but that's typical industry bullmez. In fact, he hated punk - and who could blame him? - publicly distancing himself from it as, among other things, illiterate, though this objectification was suppressed in order to keep commercial ties somewhat alive. Lou was twice nominated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but rejected both times. Whether that was deserving or not depends on how one looks at rock 'n roll- as music or social phenomenon. If the latter, Reed most definitely deserves enshrinement; if the former, forget it. However, his influence on musicians has been undeniable, so perhaps the guy, as atypically as everything else in his fucked-up-save-for-luck life, occupies a third bridging category. I, for one, would breath no objection were he to finally posthumously be ushered into that highly questionable venue. As a unique figure, he deserves it as much as almost anyone already captured.

Lou Reed was definitely one of rock's prime tormented individuals. I have to, especially after readings in Alice Miller's work in trauma and its effects on brain and personality, travel back to the electro-shock therapy as affective in that regard. Whether Reed was an a-hole anyway - that is, from the moment of birth - is at the moment unknown, as far as I can tell, but regardless, he achieved a hell of a lot, and only a fool would deny him his due as a very large figure in the American arts. If that's a tribute, then that's my tribute to and of him.

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