Seeing the Light

Inside the Velvet Underground

Rob Jovanovic

St. Martin's Press

Seeing the Light
Chapter 1
1942 - 1964 Beginning to See the Light
'They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. I wrote "Kill Your Sons" on Sally Can't Dance about that. You can't read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.'
Lou Reed
In New York during the late 1950s, the suburban view of homosexuality was that it was a mental condition that had to be 'cured'. Though Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beat gang were running around the city having their taboo-busting adventures, it was all nonetheless very much underground. Homosexual men were still seen in terms of extremely effeminate stereotypes. For a middle-class family, the mere thought that their son might be gay was cause for great concern, and in many cases drastic medical attention was sought. The Creedmore State Hospital Psychiatric Unit on Long Island was one of the local institutions used for 'curing' such 'disorders'. The methods usedfor such cures weren't pretty or sympathetic. Many doctors prescribed electroshock treatment to try and alter a patient's brain patterns.
With its eighteen floors rising above the local surroundings like the imposing centre of some gothic horror story, the Creedmore cast a physical as well as a psychological shadow over its local environs. Inside the new patient was taken through endless secured corridors before reaching a waiting room deep inside the massive complex. After changing into a hospital gown, he was strapped to a table while electrodes were fitted to his head and a sponge was placed inside his mouth. Within seconds the power was cranked up and a bolt of electricity was sent coursing through his seventeen-year-old body. Soon he lost consciousness while the treatment was continued. When he came round some time later, Lou Reed was terrified to realise that he had lost his memory.
To put it quite simply, New York is the ultimate city, the capital of the modern world. It's been mythologised as Metropolis and Gotham City, the iconic silhouette of its skyline is ingrained in memories across the world. The steam rising from under manhole covers, yellow taxis with horns blaring, skyscrapers rising up in every direction, with streetwise guys and hip girls on the street corners. A myriad TV shows and countless movies have made the city seem like the entire human race's second home.
From Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, as famously used in the opening sequences of that consummate New Yorker Woody Allen's Manhattan, to the birth of Tin Pan Alley and the boom in sheet music, through early Broadway musicals, it is also the epicentre of world music. The city has been called the capital of jazz (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington), been acentre for Doo Wop (Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers) and the 1960s folk movement (Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Greenwich Village), the birthplace of punk (The Ramones, Patti Smith) and new wave (Blondie, Talking Heads) and it was in New York where rap first hit the streets with Grandmaster Flash. Right up to the Beastie Boys' 'An Open Letter to NYC' on their post-9/11 album To The 5 Burroughs, this city has been the heart and soul of music for almost 100 years.
During the 1950s Manhattan was home to some of the world's most powerful record labels (Atlantic, Columbia, Decca and RCA), the biggest music publishers and most popular recording studios. The centre of activity was the famous Brill Building between 49th and 53rd Street. Here a hub of songwriting teams assembled to produce some of the twentieth century's most memorable music. Goffin & King, Pomus & Shuman and Leiber & Stoller among others honed their trade turning out scores of hit songs. 'Dream Lover', 'Spanish Harlem', 'Yakety Yak' and 'River Deep Mountain High' are just some of the countless songs New York exported to populate charts around the world. By 1962 the Brill Building was home to over 160 music-related businesses, with the whole structure of the industry represented over the eleven floors of just one edifice. You could find the songwriters, who would look to sell their output to the publishers; there were demo studios where you could hire musicians to produce a tape to help sell a song to the various artist management agencies also housed in the building, and when that was done you could also find the radio promoters who would help get the finished song out on the airwaves.
Once the finished product was out in the open, it was often the backing of a disc-jockey that would make or break a tune and so the DJ suddenly became a powerful figure in the burgeoningmusic business. One of the most influential and important of these emerging DJs was Alan Freed. Freed is most famous for coining the phrase 'rock and roll' as a term for the overt rhythm and blues that was then gaining in popularity. He'd been working in radio since the Second World War as a sports-caster and then as a jazz and pop DJ in his home state of Ohio. Under the working name of 'Moondog' he hosted the Moondog Coronation Ball - now regarded as the world's first 'rock concert' - at the Cleveland Arena in 1952. By the mid-1950s, Freed had moved from Ohio to New York and hosted a show on WINS radio, where his voice reached the growing Long Island suburbs and the first generation of teenagers.
Freed was spreading the word to a massive, rapidly expanding and hungry listener-ship. New York in the 1950s was expanding its boundaries as more people were moving out to the neighbouring suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. It was a time when the middle classes were indulging in a blossoming new consumer culture and people were increasingly likely to spend their disposable income on records.
Rock music was in its infancy and the newly named 'teenagers' were showing their first signs of rebellion; James Dean and Marlon Brando portrayed troubled and tenacious figures on the silver screen and the still-new music of rock and roll began to fill the airwaves. Writer Jack Kerouac used New York as his East-Coast base while writing his classic On The Road and spearheading the Beat Generation, and as the decade progressed, more and more jazz clubs morphed into rock and roll dance halls. At the same time, black music was seeping into the mainstream as traditional blues evolved, through the electrification of the guitar, to rhythm and blues, and then to rock and roll. The latter of these genres was hijacked by white performers like ElvisPresley and Jerry Lee Lewis who, alongside black singers like Chuck Berry, took the nation by storm, providing the teenagers with a thrilling new medium through which to enjoy themselves. Without the responsibilities of their pre-war forebears, the American youth of the 1950s was the first to have both the time and the money, to simply have fun, and rock and roll music was the centrepiece of the fun they wanted to have.
Alongside the chart toppers were the popular vocal Doo Wop groups of the New York area. Doo Wop was a vocal style that had evolved from a mixture of gospel and black pop vocal groups like The Ink Spots. The Ink Spots had been around since the early 1930s in Indianapolis, but really grew to national prominence during the Second World War, culminating with the success of 'The Gypsy', which topped the US charts for thirteen weeks in 1946.
During the late 1940s, Doo Wop started to have a real influence on vocal music. The Ravens were one of the first of these groups to have chart success, and became a massive influence on all kinds of popular musicians, as they integrated jazz and gospel into a more mainstream format. 'Ol' Man River' was one of eight Top Ten hits they enjoyed. It wasn't just their sound that was influential, many bands with 'bird names' sprung up too, with The Swans, The Crows and The Wrens. But it was The Ravens who continued to push musical boundaries and even incorporated rock and roll with its swinging saxophone arrangements.
The Jesters were one of the more successful groups to follow The Ravens, scoring several mid-1950s hits ('So Strange', 'The Wind', 'The Plea', 'Please Let Me Love You') and becoming synonymous with the new New York sound. Through Alan Freed's radio show this new music was heard across the tri-statearea, and bands started popping up in suburban neighbourhoods across the region. In 1955 the five-piece black vocalists of The Cleftones were formed in Queens, going on to have terrific local, if not national success. These bands in turn led other local kids to have a go for themselves. One of those local kids who had been listening intently, and was utterly taken with the Doo Wop bands, was Lou Reed.
During the Second World War, Jewish accountant Sidney George Rabinowitz was living in Brooklyn when he met local beauty queen Toby Flutterman; both were native New Yorkers. Sidney changed his surname to Reed, they married and soon started a family. Their first child was born on 2 March 1942 and they named him Lewis Allan Reed, five years later a daughter, Elizabeth (known to everyone as Bunny), joined the family. In 1953 the conservative, middle-class family moved to Freeport, Long Island, a predominantly Jewish suburb.
Toby wore her hair fashionably short, became the model of 1950s domesticity and doted on her son, hoping for great things with him such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. Sidney, meanwhile, expected his son would eventually take over the family business, as was tradition. 'My parents were self-made millionaires,' Reed explained in 1976. 'I know what it's like to have money.'
The move to Freeport brought more of a change for the eleven-year-old Lou than a move of just twenty miles would probably indicate. The hard-city atmosphere in the shadow of Manhattan's skyscrapers was replaced by an overdose of suburbia. The streets were quiet and local parks were plentiful. Just miles from the self-proclaimed capital city of the world, Long Island could be called the ultimate suburb. Just as New York City sets thestandard and trends for major cities around the globe, so life on Long Island has helped shape suburbia too. A city apartment was exchanged for a new house on Oakfield Avenue with a large lawn perfect for ball games. The newly-found idyll soon proved to be boring for the teenage Reed, however.
Lou Reed attended first the Atkinson Elementary School and then Freeport High, which was just a few minutes' walk from the family home. At the insistence of his parents, Reed had started classical piano lessons before leaving Brooklyn, but by the time they reached Freeport his musical attention had wandered, and he was now voraciously collecting seven-inch rock and roll singles. Like millions of other children his age, he wanted to have guitar lessons instead of piano ones. Sidney and Toby eventually relented and bought Lou a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar, and booked him in to have lessons in the back room of a local musical instrument store. At his first lesson the instructor tried to show Reed how to pick his way through 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'. But Reed had other ideas. He rummaged around in his satchel, pulled out a copy of the latest Carl Perkins' single and said, 'Show me how to play this.' The instructor explained that it was only three simple chords, and showed him. It was Reed's first and last guitar lesson, but those three chords would carry him a long way.
In 1954 Reed was deeply affected by the death of his then-favourite musical hero. Twenty-five-year-old black R&B singer Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself in a game of Russian Roulette. Johnny Ace, real name John Alexander, had his first hit in 1952, 'My Song', and followed up with eight more hit singles including 'Please Forgive Me' and 'Never Let Me Go'. It was while playing a holiday show in Houston that during a shortbreak he started playing around with his gun backstage. Ace put a single bullet in the revolver and was messing around when the gun discharged. He died later from his injuries on Christmas Day, and Reed was so shaken he wore a black armband in mourning for weeks afterwards.
By High School, Reed was becoming an avid writer and carried around notebooks of poems and notes. He was better suited to mental rather than physical pursuits. He tried his best to make the school's football team, but as he was quite thin he opted for basketball instead. At the age of thirteen he started having homosexual fantasies, which spilled over to his writing. Childhood friend Allen Hyman recalls that 'Some of his [Reed's] stories and poems were starting to focus on the gay world, there was a lot of that imagery in his poems.' For a conservative middle-class neighbourhood, homosexuality was definitely a taboo subject.
It didn't take much for the bored minds of suburban communities to get worked up about something. What became known as the 'Commager Affair' was one of many examples of rampant McCarthyism across Long Island. Henry Commager was a noted historian who had a school speech cancelled because he was deemed to be 'controversial'. He was just one of countless innocent Americans whose careers were tarred by false accusations of being Un-American. If Reed's homosexual feelings had become common knowledge it's likely he'd have been similarly pilloried. Despite the growing cultural diversity of New York, its suburbs were not a place where you wanted to stand out in the 1950s.
Reed was also exploring the world of cinema. After his parents bought him a motorcycle he would ride around, pretending to be James Dean or Marlon Brando. The emerging cultural image ofthe American teenager was perfectly timed for Reed, whose reportedly moody behaviour and escalating questioning of authority fit his anti-establishment motor-biking image. Musically, he was interested in the likes of Little Richard, Paul Anka and the staple sounds of 1950s radio.
Reed's appetite for all musical genres covered rock and roll, blues, R&B and Doo Wop vocalisations. He and a cousin often ad-libbed songs at family gatherings. Reed's early musical inspirations included The Ravens, The Diablos, The Cleftones and The Jesters. 'I used to go crazy for records like that, the street group sound,' he admitted. 'My favourite song was Elisha and The Rockways "Why Can't I Be Loved".' When The Velvet Underground had formed, Reed commented on the musical tastes of the late 1960s: 'Everyone's going crazy over the old blues people,' he said, 'but they're forgetting about all those groups like The Spaniels. Records like "Smoke From Your Cigarette" and "I Need A Sunday Kind Of Love", "The Wind" by The Chesters, "Later For You, Baby" by The Solitaires. All those ferocious records that no one seems to listen to anymore are underneath everything we're playing.'
Reed would rush out and spend his allowance as soon as the latest singles were released, and he soon had quite an impressive collection. He set about trying to get together his own band, and by the age of fifteen he'd formed one and named it The Shades. While not exactly a band, he described it thus: 'Just one guitar and two guys singing. I was in the background. I wrote the stuff, I didn't sing it. We would play shopping malls and some really bad violent places.' Bob Shad, an A&R man for Mercury, came across them, and agreed to take them into the studio. The singer was Reed's High School friend Phil Harris, and Reed wrote a handful of tunes including 'So Blue' and 'Leave Her For Me',which were chosen to be used on a single. The former was very typical of its time, saxophone intro, a dramatic spoken-word break in the middle, gang-style harmonies and a simple guitar line. 'So Blue' was almost identical, but a little faster. Both tracks were typical mid-1950s fodder, lots of 'oooh-aaaah' backing vocals reminiscent of the vocal groups that Reed loved so much.
In the studio, Harris allegedly had to stand on a box in order to be able to reach the microphone, but he did a reasonable job of apeing the vocal deliveries he'd heard on the radio. Shad assembled a decent studio band for the session and pulled off something of a coup when he managed to get legendary sax player King Curtis1 2 to play on both songs. It's not surprising that his sax work is the highlight of both tracks.
The Shades had to change their name to The Jades to avoid confusion with another band with the same name, and their single was issued in 1957. Though Reed readily admitted he was just copying what he heard on the radio, the single failed to gain much attention. '[local celebrity DJ] Murray the K was going to play it,' deadpanned Reed, 'but he was off sick that day and it never aired.' Reed's first royalty cheque was for just 75 cents. Up against the likes of The Everly Brothers' 'All I Have To Do Is Dream' and The Coasters' 'Yakety Yak', these adolescent musings, while commendable for a first attempt, never really stood a chance. Undaunted, Reed continued writing and practising his guitar work. His favourite player at the time was James Burton, who played in Ricky Nelson's band on the Ozzie and Harriet TV show.
His longing to be a rock and roller, his early homosexual leanings and his general rebelling against his parents (knowing that being gay and wanting to be a rock star were at odds with their hopes for his adult life) all built up until Sidney and Tobydecided that drastic steps would have to be taken. They were suspicious of rock and roll, and wanted him to take up what they considered to be a respectable job, like an accountant or a doctor.
As homosexuality was very much a taboo subject, it was just not discussed and not understood. Extreme measures were often taken against people suspected to be gay, such as severe beatings. Reed knew that he just had to get away from it all. 'I came from this small town out on Long Island,' he said. 'The most boring place on Earth. The only good thing about it was that you knew you were going to get out of there.' He hatched a plan with Allen Hyman that they should both go to the same college, Syracuse, in upstate New York. Reed biographer Victor Bokris reported that shortly before leaving home he wrote a song called 'You'll Never, Never Love Me', a number that was apparently aimed at his parents, though it's never been released. It was just the first of many songs that have been interpreted as being about his psychiatric treatment.
Though both Hyman and Reed were accepted into Syracuse, Reed changed his mind at the last moment and accepted an invitation to attend New York University in the Bronx instead. The Bronx campus was located close to the clinic where he was undergoing his post-electroshock therapy, so it made sense not to travel the 200 miles to Syracuse. When the therapy was over in the spring of 1960, he quit New York University and enrolled at Syracuse for the following autumn semester.
Many miles away from his parents and Freeport, Syracuse housed around 20,000 students on a 600-acre campus. Studying music, literature and philosophy, he soon adjusted to campus life. Allen Hyman was entering his second year, had a car and was well involved in the social scene, so Reed had a ready-madeentry into the campus night life, but he did rebel against his friend's attempts to get him to join Hyman's fraternity. The majority of the students were from wealthy families and destined for well-paid white-collar work as doctors and lawyers. The campus was usually wet, with snow and rain for much of the year, and the architecture was so Gothic-looking that it had been used as the basis for the Adams Family mansion. The town of Syracuse was a busy industrial setting, without much time for artists and poets.
Reed managed to hold down a spot presenting a jazz show on the college radio station, but was fired after complaints that his selections (Ornette Coleman, Hank Ballad and James Brown) were just too unorthodox for the conservative student listenership. There was little sign in the singles charts of the cultural and social changes that rock music would bring over the next decade. Both Connie Francis and Brenda Lee had two number one singles each, and the chart-topping Elvis songs were gentle ballads: 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' and 'It's Now Or Never'.
In his first year at college, Reed began to experiment sexually. He had his first affair with an unnamed male student, though it wasn't consummated, and he was also seeing a girl at the same time. 'I couldn't figure what was wrong,' he admitted. 'I wanted to fix it up and make it okay. I figured if I sat around and thought about it I could straighten it out.' In his second year at Syracuse he met Shelly Albin, who would become his muse for several years to come, and long after they later split up. When he took her home to meet his family for the 1961 holidays, they must have thought his homosexuality had just been a passing phase, or that the electroshock therapy had worked.
For the first two years of college, Reed spent more time on the pretty mid-westerner Albin, drugs (he soon moved on from smoking joints to taking LSD) and music than he ever did his academic studies. His grades were poor and he got into several scrapes over smoking pot on campus, before being eventually put on probation. It wasn't until a new lecturer arrived to take the creative writing classes in the autumn of 1962 that Reed's interest in his college courses was really awoken. It was the poet Delmore Schwartz who had come to Syracuse to take the post.
Like Reed, Schwartz had been born in Brooklyn, but unlike Reed he stayed there while his parents' marriage dissolved. Schwartz's early life scarred him and he went through a series of doomed relationships as he turned increasingly to find comfort in liquor and amphetamines. Through the turmoil of his private life he still managed to build up a reputation as an incredibly gifted young writer. In the late 1930s, his book In Dreams Begin Responsibilities was widely praised by the likes of Vladimir Nabakov and T.S. Eliot. It tells of a young man's dream about going to a movie theatre and seeing an old film of his parents' courtship. At the end of the film he thinks his future parents are going to split up and he eventually gets escorted out of the building. The story ends as he wakes from this dream on his 21st birthday. By 1962, Schwartz's stock had fallen after a number of short-lived teaching positions had seen him zig-zag from campus to campus before settling down at Syracuse.
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities had a profound effect on Reed. 'It was really amazing to me,' he recalled. 'To think that you could do that with the simplest words available in such a short span of pages and create something so incredibly powerful. You could write something like that and not have thegreatest vocabulary in the world. I wanted to write that way, simple words to cause an emotion, and put them with my three chords.'
As well as the teacher-student relationship, Schwartz took on a father-figure role to Reed and would often hold court around campus. He would delight the impressionable students by telling stories of the great writers and poets that had influenced him. Schwartz could start drinking with Reed in the morning and when they moved to bars later in the day he would sometimes order five drinks at a time. 'Schwartz was my spiritual godfather,' said Reed. 'He was my teacher and friend. He was the smartest, funniest, saddest person I'd ever met. He had a large scar on his forehead he said he got duelling with Nietzsche. He was the unhappiest man I ever met in my life, and the smartest, until I met Andy Warhol.'
Through his poetry, Schwartz pointed Reed in the right creative direction to the likes of Ginsberg and the other Beats, which helped Reed find his 'voice of the streets', bringing out his ability to tell stories in a simple language. 'That alone made the whole wretched college experience have some value,' claimed Reed. He was also turned on to the writings of William Burroughs and especially his landmark 1959 novel Naked Lunch. Reed was inspired by Burroughs' unusual subject matter (the lifestyle of heroin addicts, talking typewriters, time travel and viruses) and juxtaposition of images. 'He could write about everything,' said Reed. 'In some ways his surreal world was much more real than other people's, which is what New York's punks appreciated, along with the risks he took to do it.'
Schwartz saw Reed's potential to be a great poet, but Reed turned his back on a pure writing life and threw himself into his music. While he still loved traditional rock and roll, he wasalso aware of the folk movement gaining momentum across the universities of the country, and it was this direction that he started to explore. The first band Reed was involved in at Syracuse was an unnamed folk ensemble which did some busking and played at small bars around the campus. As would become apparent in his writing over the next couple of years, Reed was being influenced by the new folk sensation that was sweeping the country. Bob Dylan was changing people's perceptions of what 'pop' music could say, and he was doing it with the simplest of instruments, his acoustic guitar.
Reed didn't sing in the folk band as he was unhappy with his voice, so he played guitar and harmonica instead, just like Dylan. He was writing prodigiously and soon afterwards formed a rock band with old friend Allen Hyman. Using the first initials of their first names, 'Lewis' and 'Allen', they became LA and the Eldorados. Reed was convinced to sing and play guitar, Hyman was the drummer and fellow students Richard Miskin (bass and keyboards), Bobby Newman (saxophone) and Stephen Windheim (guitar) were added to the line-up. They were soon earning over $100 a night at fraternity parties and college dances, playing Chuck Berry covers and the occasional Reed original.
Most of the time Reed seemed to enjoy the spotlight, but his mood swings could also return and he'd decide he didn't want to play. The rest of the band would sometimes have to physically drag him to gigs. He could be obnoxious, and often they'd be banned from returning to the venue, though Reed later offered that this was because they sounded so bad. One night he punched through a glass door just before the show was due to begin. 'Of course he couldn't play,' recalls Richard Mishkin. 'We took him to hospital and there were lots of stitches.'
To get around the bans they would often play under assumed names like Pasha and the Prophets, until someone realised who they were and then they'd have to change names again to keep playing on the circuit the following week. There was a good music scene at Syracuse, with Felix Cavalieri (later of The Young Rascals) and Mike Esposito (later of The Blues Magoos) among their fellow students.
While at college, Reed's fascination with free jazz grew. He would often travel down to New York City to track down where the Ornette Coleman Quartet was playing. Reed couldn't afford the entrance fee so he'd try and grab an aural vantage point at the stage door or by an open window. Coleman's approach to free jazz was something that would be carried through Reed's entire musical career. Reed continues to play 'free' interpretations of his songs and guitar parts to this day, including the 2010 live tour of his 1975 solo effort Metal Machine Music.
During this period Reed's own material was taking shape, and he had written a piece called 'The Gift' (it shared a title with one of Delmore Schwartz's poems),2 which drew on his difficult separation from Shelly Albin in the summer of 1962. She had gone home half-way across the country and he'd write to her almost every day. 'The Gift' would later be recorded as a song by The Velvet Underground and tells of a lovelorn character posting himself to his girlfriend in a box, with a tragic outcome. Reed was reading William Burroughs, Raymond Chandler and Herbert Selby Jnr, a mix of influences that would mesh with his musical tastes and spawn his lyrical output for the next half a century. He also penned 'Fuck Around Blues', 'Coney Island Baby' and 'All Tomorrow's Parties' around this time. The latter two would be recorded and released in the following years.
During a visit to New York he took Shelly into Harlem, wherehe met a drug dealer at the corner of 125th Street. This trip would become the basis of another song 'Waiting For My Man' (sic), and then he would surpass all of his previous work with a song called 'Heroin'. He didn't realise it, but he'd written what would be seen as two of the most influential songs of his generation.
SEEING THE LIGHT. Copyright © 2010 by Rob Jovanovic. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.