Lou Reed's Life in the Suburbs, 'Transformer,' and the Days after the Velvet Underground
Check out an excerpt from Aidan Levy's new book on the rock legend.
Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed details the life of the solo artist, Velvet Underground legend, and icon and how he rose to become one of the most important figures in rock history. Using interviews to piece together the most crucial portions of his life as an artist, the book features the below passage detailing his return to the stage at Alice Tully Hall and the release and reception of his classic LP Transformer. Check out a chapter below
It was January 27, 1973—the day the Paris Peace Accords ceasefire officially ended US involvement in the Vietnam War. Earlier that week, the US Supreme Court had ruled overwhelmingly, in Roe v. Wade, in favor of granting abortion rights to women. The previous week, Richard Nixon's second inauguration had been held; the first Watergate convictions were only three days away. Turmoil roiled Wall Street in one of the worst economic downturns of the century due to the Nixon Shock, but nothing could prepare the public for the Lou Reed Shock.
Mainstream radio responded to the maelstrom of political turbulence with a mix of nostalgia and cynicism—Stevie Wonder's skeptical "Superstition" and Carly Simon's lacerating "You're So Vain" clashed with the bubblegum lyrics of Elton John's "Crocodile Rock." Yet as coarser sounds began to emanate from the lower frequencies, the public was just not ready to take a walk with Lou Reed, an affront to common decency that in the coming weeks was about to creep insidiously onto AM airwaves distinctly above the underground.
A poster went up in subway stations across the city: Will You Still Be Underground When Lou Reed Emerges on January 27 to Perform at Alice Tully Hall? the poster asked, advertising Lou Reed, the Underground Original. Actually, Lou was emerging from a stint as a typist at his father's accounting firm, but no one at RCA let that interfere with a successful marketing campaign. He was wizened by life's hard knocks and the toll of methamphetamine, but Lou was back. It was his first high-profile performance as a solo act—in, of all places, Alice Tully Hall. And this night was different from all other nights: it would be the first time anyone had sung about blow jobs at Lincoln Center. Or sung like Lou Reed.
That night, Lou was flanked in adjacent halls by Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic's performance of Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2 and the Metropolitan Opera's production of Puccini's La Boheme, but at Alice Tully, there was no feigning bohemianism. Ignoring the de facto dress code, Lou showed up in his black leather jacket and jeans, menacing black mascara and nail polish, and an unruly plume of curls—the fiercest Jew-fro in history—with his teenage Yonkers backing band, the Tots, and turned the amplifier to eleven as he limned a murky portrait of street life for the unwashed masses that had gathered to hear their Bacchanalian rock god eviscerate their senses.
Lou Reed on the road, photo by Barbara Wilkinson
It took some social lubrication to overcome the jitters of a two-year hiatus— more than a little. He was thirty years old and had just gotten married two weeks prior, but no institution, musical or matrimonial, could restrain the irrepressible force that was Lou Reed. On this night, set free by Scotch, the only thing that could restrain him was his leather. As the band launched into "White Light/White Heat," the message was clear. Respectability be damned. This was rock 'n' roll.
Lou had resurfaced after leaving the Velvets at Max's Kansas City on a balmy summer night in 1970 and moving home to Long Island with his parents, taking a menial forty-dollar-a-week job working for his father. It would take him a lifetime to truly learn to collaborate, but with the help of Mick Ronson and his biggest fan, David Bowie, the newly transformed Phantom of Rock—RCA's honorific—had released Transformer, a descent into a sadomasochistic underworld that would soon slip under the ears and over the heads of the censors, who just didn't know what "giving head" really meant. When "Walk on the Wild Side" hit, it was like a bomb going off as the seamy underbelly of Andy Warhol's Factory exploded into cars and basements across America, where adolescents full of pent-up political frustration and raging hormones found the voice of rebellion that put a vicious spin on the meaning of flower power.
That December, the New York Times did not mince words about Lou: "The public has never discovered him, and, unfortunately, Transformer will not help his cause." Ellen Willis, who rhapsodized about the Velvet Underground, trashed the album in the New Yorker, calling it "terrible—lame, pseudo-decadent lyrics, lame, pseudo-something-or-other singing, and a just plain lame band." The imperious Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, gave it a B– in his vaunted Village Voice Consumer Guide. But Lou was unfazed by the media machine; his indomitable metal machine ate journalists for breakfast.
Leading up to the release of Transformer, RCA took out ads in the Village Voice featuring a graffiti artist painting Lou's name on a subway car. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation promptly put out a cease and desist for this flagrant "act of vandalism." The ad never appeared again, but Lou had already begun making his indelible black mark on the sanitized veneer of the rigid establishment. His graffiti vandalized virgin ears, and once it was heard, it could never be unheard; the damage was irreversible.
The avant-garde cognoscenti already revered Lou as the amoral gutter poet of the Velvet Underground—Rimbaud with a guitar, the scowl that launched a thousand bands—but now he was coming out as, among other things, a bona fide rock star, much to his chagrin. Fifteen minutes of fame would have been enough for Lou; all that mattered to him was the music.
Lincoln Center was the Normandy invasion of Lou's carefully orchestrated comeback. As part of the city's transgressive avant-garde intellectual demimonde, Lou had been to the opera, but this was a far ride uptown from the boho-chic grittiness of Max's Kansas City; the Tots had never even set foot on the hallowed ground of New York's cultural mecca. That hadn't stopped Lou's manager, Fred Heller, from calling the programming director at Alice Tully Hall to arrange for his triumphant return to New York.
The venue had only been christened three years prior, under the supervision of CorningWare heiress and philanthropist Alice Tully, who had donated millions for an intimate chamber hall that would serve as a home to the Juilliard School. Brutalist architect Pietro Belluschi designed an angular, modern building with a jagged edge that jutted out into Broadway, a beacon of high culture at the epicenter of the asphalt jungle. Lou Reed's musical training started and stopped at his first lesson; Juilliard material he was not, but he would certainly give audiences a more intimate experience than they asked for and a whole new meaning to brutalism as he brought the cacophony of the street inside.
Lou Reed in 1973 photo, by Barbara Wilkinson
When Heller called the Lincoln Center brass, charming his way in with well-rehearsed pleasantries, to his surprise, they were receptive to the idea. Little did they know, they had just arranged for spectators to pay six dollars a ticket to witness the deflowering of Alice Tully Hall.
To stoke the flames of defiance, Lou recruited Garland Jeffreys as his opening act. A half–Puerto Rican, half–African American singer-songwriter from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, Jeffreys had just released his debut self-titled solo album on Atlantic a few weeks prior on New Year's Day. The two iconoclasts had met at Syracuse University, where they honed a distinctive brand of antiauthoritarian urban poetry that gave voice to the marginalized and translated the Beat Generation into the percussive language of nourish rock.
Jeffreys cut his teeth at small downtown clubs like Gerde's Folk City and Kenny's Castaways, developing a folk-rock persona that, unlike Lou's savage, electrified erudition, would foment revolution using the softer timbre of acoustic guitar and a mellifluous tenor. Where Lou was evasive, Jeffreys was honest; if Lou hit with the totalizing carnage of a wrecking ball, Jeffreys floated in like a Wiffle Ball; where Lou's caterwauling could wake the dead, Jeffreys's voice could lull a baby to sleep. So the yin and yang formula for the Transformer tour was set. Most important, though, with Jeffreys's racial ambiguity and Lou's sexual ambiguity, the evening was sure to blur boundaries and break down barriers that kept the nonconformists sequestered below Fourteenth Street where they couldn't wreak havoc on bourgeois society.
Performing in a sparse duo setting with guitarist Alan Freedman, Jeffreys began his set with "Ballad of Me," a honeyed paean to love conquering fear in the face of the type of contradiction he embodied:
Like a hawk in the night I separate wrong from right
I'm a legend you see, black and white as can be
And I give you this ballad of me
With "Harlem Bound," Jeffreys transported the audience to what was at the time the most dangerous part of the city, albeit populated by much more colorful characters, "Junkie Broadway, every kind of freak, shrimps, pimps, and honky girls . . . see 'em dancing in the street." By the time his set was over, they were primed and ready to turn up the volume.
Lou marched onstage with the Tots and peered out at the crowd, craving the velvet fix they had been deprived of and thought they might never experience again. Their hunger was palpable for the long-awaited second coming of "Jesus' son," that prodigal prophet of rock who had ostensibly been to hell and back, a leather-clad Orpheus who traded his lyre for a Gretsch Country Gentleman and a Fender Deluxe.
"'Sweet Jane'! 'Heroin'!" the crowd barked. They expected the Velvet Underground; what they got was the pallid, menacing apparition of a reanimated corpse, perhaps resuscitated like Frankenstein's monster by David Bowie, glam rock's enfant terrible. Lou's face glowed in opalescent white, his sunken eyes shrouded by black moons as though he were Pierrot newly emerged from a transorbital lobotomy, or Lon Chaney lurking in the catacombs. It was a whole new Lou.
So Lou took one last apprehensive look into the blinding abyss of frenzied white noise, almost breaking character under the crippling strain of self-doubt and bile. Then he remembered who he had become, inhaled deeply, and grimaced. He was rusty, out of shape, and a little bit plastered, but it didn't matter. He was Lou fucking Reed.
Lou turned to the band. "'White Light/White Heat,'" he said. The moment had come to show New York that he was back with a vengeance. "One, two, three, four!"
He slashed the guitar with a deafening wrath, down-tuned for Alice Tully Hall's descent into the subterranean, amphetamine-laced clangor, as the drums exploded into an unhinged shuffle. The song, the blues-inflected title track of the Velvet Underground's second album, only had three chords, but that was all he needed. "All right, now," Lou yelled as the guitar erupted into peals of violence before the band modulated into the key of "Wagon Wheel," the mounting frisson of drums, bass, and guitar coalescing into a howling din. Without a pause, he launched into his first post-Velvets song of the night, a propulsive rockabilly-inflected ramble: "You've gotta live, yeah your life, as though you're number one, and make a point of having some fun"—carpe diem a la Lou. By the time he reached the bridge, there was the palpable sense that Lou had truly emerged from a long hibernation:
Oh, heavenly father, I know I have sinned
But look where I've been, it's makin' me lazy
Where he had been was not exactly synagogue; Lou had escaped the solipsistic Long Island of the mind and jet-set across Europe, climbed to the highest highs and sunk to the lowest lows, slipped from art factories to shooting galleries, and somehow ended up at Lincoln Center, where everyone wanted to hear about the places he'd been that they would never dare go. The pace accelerated as the guitar took over, with Lou vamping in the background: "Please don't let me sleep too long!" If not fully lucid, Lou was awake all right, as was anyone within a two-block radius of the show. He was not on Long Island anymore—Lou Reed had finally arrived.
The next stop was at 125th and Lexington with the Velvets staple "I'm Waiting for the Man," a matter-of-fact account of a Harlem drug score, slowed down to the behind-the-beat drawl of a gutter ballad to convey the inevitable anticipation and existential dread of syncopated rhythm on life's lower frequencies. At Alice Tully, the song acquired deeper meaning.
Lou wasn't only waiting for junk, pot, amphetamine, ravenous A&R men, or the dire fate of many a rocker who had died prematurely in a city that never sleeps and all but requires external stimulants to stay awake in. The stalled-out Ford of his youth had finally kicked into gear, but Lou was still waiting—waiting for himself.
Patience was a cruel overlord he met early on and sneered at as though it were gravity, inertia, entropy, or any of the limiting powers that could be overcome by sheer brute force. He wanted the world immediately, and it came to him in an exhilarating adrenaline rush that obliterated all past and future concerns, as those bequeathed with that certain je ne sais quoi known as stage presence often only feel truly alive on stage and die a little death when reality floods back in at the end of every performance. He never wanted a spotlight, but he played Lou Reed better than anyone else.
The band soared through "Sweet Jane," "Vicious," and "Satellite of Love," which surged into each attenuated measure as Lou propelled himself into orbit and ended with a heavy dose of feedback. "Cut down on the feedback!" came a voice from the crowd. Lou Reed, cut down on the feedback? Not a chance. He was not certain of a great many things, but one thing was for sure: he would never scoff in the face of feedback, figurative or literal. Lou started strumming the song many had come to see, "Heroin," a totemic generational anthem of disillusionment, alienation, and intravenous escapism; by the time he reached the first chorus, the audience was clapping along in transfixed rapture. The crown jewel of the Velvets' catalog, the song consists of only two alternating chords in a plagal cadence, tension and release, a pendulum swinging from the pits of despair to a manic high, from lacerating self-pity to vainglorious hubris, from a spiritual void to the negation of the self, from the numbing of all conviction to ejaculations of passionate intensity. This black mass was more than a little autobiographical, part of the parade of inner demons and debilitating habits Lou would spend his life taming.
Lou Reed on the road, photo by Barbara Wilkinson
Lou was just getting started. He had left the Velvet Underground in the dust; John Cale was off on his own, Sterling Morrison was in Austin pursuing his doctorate in medieval literature, and Moe Tucker had started a family in Georgia. Striking the opening chords to "I'm So Free," Lou had the acute sense that they were gone, maybe forever. He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but there was no looking back.
Andy Warhol was far from gone; Lou invoked his memory every night with "Walk on the Wild Side," and tonight he was there in the flesh. When the bass began its metronomic pulse and Lou joined in on rhythm guitar, he did not know that the man he felt he owed everything and nothing was watching in the audience, conducting a mental screen test for Lou's debut in his most challenging role to date, a superstar beyond Warhol's wildest dreams.
As Lou enticed listeners to break their conformist lockstep, he refused to whitewash the gritty origins of the music; this was a melody that bubbled up from the concrete, populated by deviants, "colored girls," and prostitutes, and now it was in Lincoln Center.
As his voice seduced the uninitiated with its beautiful ugliness, the man in the platinum blond wig smiled from behind his red-framed glasses. Lincoln Center and Warhol's Factory in Union Square were diametrically opposed cultural markers, but suddenly the spiritual homes of New York's debauched avant-garde and the traditionalist old guard had converged in a big bang.
The raw sound of freedom hadn't come from nowhere. It had evolved out of the transistor box, with the primordial thump of Bo Diddley and the liberating fire of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," those three magic chords that danced around life's slings and arrows with a relentless smirk, birthing rock 'n' roll guitar from the womb of the blues; the boogie-woogie piano and falsetto doo-wop harmonizing of the Paragons with those lovelorn sonorities; the Ravens, Lillian Leach and the Mellows, Dion, and the innumerable others who had come before—a syncopated rhythm that was so new, yet somehow as old as the Earth itself. That sublime sound had traveled to Lou's basement in the Long Island suburbs, permeating his very core, and was inextricably part of him. He channeled it all into his closing number, "Rock & Roll," a Velvets classic distilled into the pure essence of rock.
It was a cathartic moment of liberation from the stifling strictures of middle-class society, combating the Pavlovian conditioning that compels those who feel deeply to clamp down on emotion before it ruins the garden party. "Rock & Roll" was an assault on the mechanized order, a clarion call that embraced the sweat, grit, and guts of raw human experience, blemishes and all. There was nothing perfect about it—not Lou's voice, not the shambolic shifts in rhythm of the drums, not the offbeat accents of the guitar or the percussive hit of the bass. Lou knew that perfection was a myth, and that all that mattered was this high-voltage poetry, within it fecundity, death, bloom, and decay, the secrets of desire and its unholy consummation. The audience began to clap in rhythm as the band unraveled into a resounding crescendo, dissonance and lyricism merging into an overpowering shout, the sound of raw emotion. Then rhythm dropped out altogether as the noise rose to a peak before the final cymbal crash. "Good to see y'all. Good night," Lou said. "It's nice to be back in New York." As applause rang out, Lou stared into the crowd with a bemused look and wondered if the audience's lives had also been saved. Evidently, yes; they wanted an encore.
Lou came out from the wings and turned up the distortion with a plaintive cry on the guitar as a drumroll got the pheromones stirring.
"This is the sad, sad story of Sister Ray," he said. The song was the closing track on White Light/White Heat, an eighteen-minute pressure cooker hung around the sordid story of a transgender heroin dealer, Sister Ray. Ray and her band of marauding drag queens have a drug-fueled orgy with some sailors during Fleet Week, searching for functional veins and the American Dream gone awry before the police intervene. Lou wasn't singing so much as hollering in his inimitable guttural growl, exuding the savage wit and nihilism of the French New Wave as he narrated a Godard-esque orgiastic murder.
Yet in 1973, cold-blooded murder would not be the most verboten transgression in this profane litany of shock and awe—fellatio would. For Lincoln Center, Lou made a slight adjustment to the lyrics from the record, which only used the female pronoun; now, he removed all doubt as to the brand of sexual and gender indeterminacy suggested by the song, confounding the rigid classification the IRS relied on when law-abiding citizens checked off male or female on their annual 1040 check-up.
And so Lincoln Center was violated: acoustically, normatively, and spiritually. It was the ultimate taboo.
The band unleashed a raging sound and fury, pushing blues pentatonics to the brink, dueling guitars battling to the death as the bass and drums shunted onward into oblivion. The crowd erupted. Lou went blank. His newlywed wife, Bettye, came onstage and shoved a bouquet of roses into his hands. This was Lincoln Center, and though Lou was far from standing on ceremony—more like trampling on it—they didn't want to flout ovation rituals altogether. So there he stood, holding his guitar in one hand, a bouquet of roses in the other. Despite himself, he had done it.
Backstage, Lou saw a familiar face, a man he had not seen in good spirits since he unceremoniously fired him in 1968: Andy Warhol. Warhol was a lifelong Ruthenian Catholic—his name shortened from Warhola—and the beatific impresario apparently couldn't hold a grudge. Though Warhol was only thirteen years older, he knew Lou viewed him as an artistic father figure, and he couldn't miss the birth of his Factory-made rock star as a solo artist. So when Andy approached Lou and Bettye, the reunion was a long time coming. He took out his infamous Polaroid—a tool used to document countless timeless moments in the history of New York's avant-garde pantheon—and snapped a picture of the two newlyweds. Andy handed it to him; if the record tanked, Lou could always sell the photo.
For Lou's triumphant return, the label spared no expense; at the after-party, the bohemian Max's Kansas City crowd crammed into the posh Sherry-Netherland on Fifth Avenue, amounting to a punk incursion into upper-crust society. Lou and Bettye spent the night at the Plaza across the street on the label's dime; even though they had a studio across town on the east side, the occasion called for a more celebratory atmosphere than their shag carpeting would allow. For one night only, the sultan of sulk was on top of the world.
It was as though he had always been there, perched atop a black onyx throne, the demonic ruler of an edgy underworld of glitter and smut with no taboos or conventions, a malevolent smirk on his face. But before his name became a byword for the excesses of rock, he had toiled in the salt mines of much humbler beginnings; before he was Lou, he was Lewis, an accountant's son growing up in Freeport, New York, where he felt far from free, and the ebb and flow of the tides in his waterfront community served as a constant reminder that he was marooned in the suburbs. Back then, he was only thirty miles from Lincoln Center, but a world apart; it would take more than the Long Island Expressway to get there. To distill that potent intoxicant we call truth, he would have to get past that six-lane pipeline of the American Dream we call the LIE. How did a Jewish boy from Long Island rise to such great heights? It would be a bumpy, interminable ride before his life was saved by rock 'n' roll; decades longer before his soul would be saved by the power of the heart. And it all began in Brooklyn.
Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed hits on October 15. Order yours.