LAST week we saw Lou Reed quitting the Velvet Underground in 1970, dismayed at their lack of commercial success – just as their talents were about to be acknowledged. So what does a 28-year-old rock and roll wild man do next? Why, go home to mum and dad, of course. This was surprising as Lou had resented his parents since his troubled late teens, which culminated in a nervous breakdown and incarceration in a mental hospital where he was given electro-convulsive therapy. He never forgave his father Sidney and mother Toby for agreeing to the debilitating ECT.
While back living in Long Island with Mr and Mrs Reed (the family name was changed from the original Rabinowitz), and recovering from a second breakdown, Lou worked as a $40-a-week typist for his father’s tax accounting firm. However he tired of the non-stop glamour and, on the strength of his history with the Velvets, plus a recommendation from David Bowie, who idolised him, signed a recording contract with Bowie’s record company RCA. He flew to London (‘to get out of that New York thing’) and made his debut album with a bunch of session musicians at Morgan Studios in beautiful downtown Willesden.
When I first heard Lou Reed, released in April 1972, I thought it was a comic masterpiece. His bored, camp, low-key vocals are punctuated by heavy-handed, crashing drums from Clem Cattini, a former member of the Tornados, and prog twiddles from Yes men Steve Howe on guitar and Rick Wakeman on keyboards. Sadly, as I later discovered, the amateurishness was not deliberate, just the result of naïve production by Reed and fellow New Yorker Richard Robinson, who had little contact with the musicians. However there are some great songs in there, mostly written when Lou was still with the Velvets. The opener, I Can’t Stand It, and the next track, Going Down, survive being almost clubbed to death by Cattini while the third, Walk and Talk It, is driven by a weedy version of the riff from the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.
Best track for me is Wild Child – ‘I was talking to Chuck in his Genghis Khan suit and his wizard’s hat’. This is one of the waspish snapshots of the New York demi-monde that would become his trademark and for once the playing is up to scratch. Sadly for Lewis Allan Reed, the album would bring him no more success than his efforts with the Velvets.
Then came the breakthrough. In August that same year Reed went into Trident Studios in Soho with Bowie as producer and his sidekick Mick Ronson as arranger. Bowie was a huge name by now thanks to the success of Ziggy Stardust. Lou decided to follow his example, go glam and exploit his bisexuality. The result was the aptly named Transformer, whose front cover is an over-exposed photo of Reed on stage in black eye make-up. I was reliably informed by several people at the time that the male and female photographed on the back were both Reed; alternatively that they were the same person but not Reed. In fact they were a male roadie (with a plastic banana crammed down the front of his jeans Derek Smalls-style) and a female model.
By the end of 1972 Lou had moved from cult status to stardom thanks to a single from the album, Walk on the Wild Side.
Its mentions of oral sex, transvestism, drugs and prostitution failed to be recognised by the BBC, usually so keen to ban records, and it became a top ten hit. In it, Reed tells the stories of five characters from Andy Warhol’s movie entourage: Holly and Candy are the transsexual actresses Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling; Little Joe, Sugar Plum Fairy and Jackie are the actors Joe Dallesandro, Joe Campbell and Jackie Curtis.
The musical idea that turns the song into a masterpiece cost a grand total of £34. Session man Herbie Flowers suggested he played interlocking lines on double bass with electric bass overlaid to provide the unmistakable motif behind Reed’s deadpan vocals. Because Flowers used two instruments, he received double the normal £17 daily session fee agreed with the Musicians’ Union. He never got any royalties, however, and neither did Ronnie Ross, whose lovely baritone sax solo concludes the song after the Thunder Thighs’ doo-doo-doo-doo-doo chorus.
Transformer opens with Vicious – ‘you hit me with a flower’ – which sets the queeny, bitchy, acerbic tone of the album. It is followed by Andy’s Chest, a bizarre tribute to Warhol written after a 1968 attempt on his life left a huge scar on said torso. Perfect Day is one of my least favourite cuts but went on to become a number one hit when released with a cast of thousands as a charity single in 1997.
Then comes Hangin’ ’Round, with its contemptuous druggie reference ‘You’re still doin’ things that I gave up years ago.’ Side one concludes brilliantly with Walk on the Wild Side, whose subject matter probably qualifies it nowadays as a subject to be taught to six-year-olds in state schools.
Wagon Wheel and I’m So Free are both rockers while the two remaining tracks are quintessential Reed: New York Telephone Conversation – ‘did you hear who did what to whom, happens all the time’ and Goodnight Ladies – ‘Ah, all night long you’ve been drinking your tequila, but now you’ve sucked your lemon peel dry’.
Critical reaction was initially patchy – Rolling Stone said the album was mainly ‘artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff’ – but Transformer came to be accepted as a classic, thanks greatly to the work of Bowie and Ronson. Expectations could not have been higher for its successor.
Reed and Bowie, however, stopped working as a team after the latter warned the drug-addled New Yorker that he needed to clean himself up. Reed responded by hitting him, and not with a flower, although the couple would publicly kiss and make up.
So how could Louie Boy top the success of Transformer? Answer, he couldn’t. After years of mainlining heroin and amphetamine his brain was frazzled, to use a specialised psychiatric term. He was also drinking a bottle of scotch a day and had to be helped on and off stage by his wife Bettye when touring to promote the album in late 1972.
Enter Bob Ezrin, a young Canadian producer who had enjoyed success with Alice Cooper, notably the chart-topper School’s Out. He persuaded Reedbook on Reed to expand Berlin from his first solo album into a song cycle redolent of the film musical Cabaret, which had come out that year. It involves a couple named Caroline and Jim carrying out a doomed romance in the German city. ‘We came up with a concept and he went and wrote it,’ Ezrin is quoted as saying in Howard Sounes’s book on Reed.
Not exactly, Bob. Reed dug out four old songs he had written for the Velvet Underground, Oh, Jim, Men of Good Fortune, Sad Song and Stephanie Says, the latter of which became Caroline Says parts I and II. Berlin made five. Not enough to fill an album. Then, one emotional night after Bettye had learned that her mother had cancer, she poured her heart out to Lou, telling him of her troubled childhood during which her father accused her mother of sleeping around. This he shamelessly used as the basis for The Kids, including the line ‘That miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn anyone away.’ He also based the character of Caroline largely on Bettye in the song The Bed – ‘These are the boxes that she kept on the shelf, filled with her poetry and stuff’. Bettye was not the first and certainly not the last person to have felt betrayed by Reed. In fact the word to describe him that comes up over and over again, from many different sources, is ‘pr*ck’, usually preceded by ‘self*sh’.
Berlin is an overblown, overproduced, ponderous, pretentious piece of work which was duly panned by the critics. Worst of all, it totally lacks the wit and humour of his earlier output. Only the song How Do You Think It Feels? stands comparison in my view.
The worst part of all is at the end of The Kids, which features Ezrin’s two young sons wailing miserably for their mummy. It was claimed at the time that the producer had lied to them that his missus had been killed in a car crash but I hope this is untrue.
To promote Berlin live, a band was formed featuring the ace guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, who had both played on the album. Wagner produced bombastic new, stadium-friendly, heavy-metal arrangements of Reed classics. They went down a storm, with critics praising the axe duo to the heavens while waxing much less lyrical about the singer, much to his chagrin. Wagner told Howard Sounes: ‘All the newspaper reviews talked about the band and kind of belittled him as being out of it, and he was. He was doing a lot of speed at that time. He was pretty drugged up.’
Two New York concerts in December 1973 were recorded and released two months later as the live album Rock ’n’ Roll Animal, which was a great solace to fans such as myself who had been sorely disappointed by Berlin. It begins with lengthy interplay between Wagner and Hunter before moving irresistibly into the Sweet Jane riff. Ah, bliss.
I was expecting fireworks when, on May 31 1974, Reed played at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Sadly, they didn’t happen on stage. Wagner and Hunter had departed the band in a dispute over royalties for the Rock ’n’ Roll Animal sequel, Lou Reed Live. Reed shuffled out in jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt known in America as a wife beater (true in his case), his hair dyed blond. When the crowd roared he looked surprised and raised his sunglasses to blink owlishly at us. He was clearly off his face. Ten songs raced by in perfunctory fashion and after a mere 35 minutes he was gone. Shouts for an encore proved fruitless; presumably he had passed out in his dressing room. The crowd turned ugly and started trying to storm the stage and seize the band’s equipment. Roadies responded by swinging mike stands at the invaders’ heads, making contact on many occasions. At this point I deemed it wise to leave with my girlfriend, rather than have to explain to her parents why I was bringing her home covered in blood. I later learned that the front five rows of seats had been torn out and hurled on to the stage.
That night marked the end of my (platonic) love for Lou Reed. The next studio album, Sally Can’t Dance, was generally dismal. Its most notable track, Kill Your Sons, was Reed’s revenge on his parents and psychiatrists for the ECT, which he would claim in a later interview was designed to ‘cure’ his homosexual tendencies. His sister Bunny and her husband Harold, living on Long Island, likewise fell victim to his spite. He sang:
‘And sister, she got married on the island
And her husband takes the train
He’s big and he’s fat and he doesn’t even have a brain.’
Bunny was incredulous when he told her what he had written. ‘Are you serious?’ she asked him. ‘You wipe out my lifestyle and my husband in four phrases?’ He replied: ‘Ah, I needed something to rhyme with train.’
It was a surprise to me that Reed even survived the decade, eventually dying of liver disease at the age of 71 in 2013. There would of course be many more albums displaying flashes of brilliance, including New York (1989), Songs for Drella (1990) and Magic and Loss, (1992) but all in all his life and lost inspiration served as a terrible warning to anyone who might consider dabbling with drugs.