Lou Reed died on Sunday morning. He was pop music’s Baudelaire – a game-changing modernist not just unafraid to go into dark places, but devoted to their exploration, which is distinct from glorification. He was a great artist, and his influence on pop music and culture is immeasurable.
As I wrote in Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, a book in which his figure looms large, he grew up on Long Island. And when he was a teenage troublemaker, after admitting a sexual attraction to men, his psychiatrist got his parents to sign off on some rounds of electroshock therapy in hopes of curing him of his deviance. They were conducted at Creedmore, a huge mental hospital in Queens; I used to ride my bicycle past their creepy, fenced-off campus when I was growing up.
Maybe it’s reductive to make too much of this. But holy fuck. When a culture says its OK to strap a kid down in a psych ward and pump electricity into his skull because he likes boys and tends towards “deviant” behavior, is it any wonder said brilliant kid dedicates his art to setting deviance a place at the table, and chipping away of the hypocrisy of this brutish culture?
Thank you, Lou Reed, for keeping up the fight.
From my book:
Lou Reed’s Transformer, produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, was released in November ’72. It earned its name: it transformed him from rock musician into rock star. In early ’73 the single “Walk On The Wild Side” was a radio staple, reaching #16 on the Billboard charts despite, and because of, lyrics that peeped through a dirty window at New York City’s gender-melting underground. Reed biographer Victor Bockris called it “the no. 1 jukebox hit in America in 1973,” which may well be true; it was definitely worth a quarter to play it in a diner or pizzeria and watch heads turn. Most listeners had no clue that the song’s characters— Holly the transvestite, Candy the blow-job queen, Little Joe the gay hustler, Sugar Plum Fairy the Harlem cruiser, Jackie the speed freak—were actual people: Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe Dallesandro, Joe “Sugar Plum Fairy” Campbell, and Jackie Curtis were all members of Reed’s extended artistic family at the Factory, Andy Warhol’s salon/clubhouse/culture incubator, which at the time was located on the 6th floor of 33 Union Square West, just across the park from Max’s.
Reed was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island. He was moody, pegged as a problem child, and the summer after he turned 17, a psychiatrist convinced his parents to send him to Creedmore State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens for eight weeks of electroshock therapy, intended to cure him of his homosexual and anti-social sentiments. He attended Syracuse University, played in a rock band, took drugs, and studied with poet Delmore Schwartz—who he called “my teacher, my friend, and the man who changed my life.” He moved back home to Long Island and got a job as a staff songwriter and session musician with Pickwick Records, where met John Cale, an expat viola player from Wales. The two became musical pals and drug buddies, and Reed moved into an apartment with him at 56 Ludlow Street, south of Delancey, in the old Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side.
The two formed the Velvet Underground in 1965 with two other Long Island kids, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. They were all fans of raw r&b: Ike & Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” Eddie & Ernie’s “Outcast.” Reed also loved Ornette Coleman; Cale had worked with John Cage and, when the Velvets came together, was performing screechy, hypnotic drones with composer La Monte Young in the latter’s Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble. Their band name was swiped from the title of a paperback about suburban sex kinks plucked from a Manhattan gutter, and they made music where primitivism camouflaged brainy underpinnings, playing Reed’s bad-trip rock songs about s&m and heroin at the height of international flower power culture. Of course, their city marched to its own demented drummer. As critic John Rockwell noted, “Psychedelic weirdness never caught on very firmly in speedy, street-oriented New York.”