Lou Reed came to the world on March 2nd, 1942. America had recently engage in World War II – another “war to end all wars” (it failed to accomplish that mission). Of course, Lou wasn’t consciously aware of the global insanity until the post-war era. From 1947 to 1952 America suffered devastating changes caused by the emergence of Madison Avenue. Sell, sell, sell. Paul Mall and Lucky Strike had created a generation of cigarette addicts by providing free butts to all soldiers. With bullets flying overhead, you became a Marlboro Man, quickly.
The Country entered a boom time where manufacturing jobs became plentiful and lucrative as production rose to meet the demands for refrigerators, radios, dishwashers, and cars… lots of cars. Detroit and Flint, strategically located on a Great Lake with easy access to materials and worldwide shipping, began to crank out automobiles at an astonishing rate. Citizens that seldom traveled more than five miles from home were now free to travel from coast to coast, to move out of the big cities and commute to work.
Toby and Sidney Reed took that opportunity by moving from Brooklyn to Long Island to raise their young son in relative affluence. But, Lewis wasn’t an ordinary boy. Lou was prone to panic attacks in social situations. Bullied by his “peers”, he began to withdraw and soon became depressed. His parental units brought him to a psychologist who diagnosed that his homosexual tendencies were the result of bad parenting. The “cure” for such “illness” at that time was electroconvulsive therapy, which is basically a scaled down version of electrocution. Theory taught that burning away memory would reverse the bad parenting and return him to “normal” heterosexuality. So, they hooked up the battery cables and zapped Lou’s brain severely hindering his short-term memory. He described the experience in his 1996 book Please Kill Me, “The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.”
Fortunately for the world, Lou recovered enough to study journalism, poetry, and creative writing at Syracuse University. He was nearly expelled from U after libeling a student and other illegal activities. His genius won out and he eventually graduated with honors.
In college a select group of folks gravitated to him, a group that would soon become the Velvet Underground comprised of Lou, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker.
Lou’s goal was to write the Great American Novel in song on an album. The result was The Velvet Underground & Nico. Andy Warhol maneuvered Nico into a role with the band. Lou begrudgingly wrote two songs for her to sing. Somehow, her terrible voice works in the context of the album. Only Lou Reed could turn that sow into a velvet purse.
Masterpiece is faint praise for one of the most influential albums ever recorded. Brilliantly written, recorded, engineered and mixed by Reed, the album is the Great American Novel and so much more.
Sunday Morning features Nico’s wavering vocals. I love that her voice is dropped into the Grand Canyon of reverberation on the chorus.
Looking for My Man, sung by Reed, throws the closet door open. Oh no, he’s proclaiming his homosexuality. Unthinkable, in 1967. The word gay still meant a merry, lively mood. Fagot and homo were the common terms for boys who liked boys and dyke was the term for girls who liked girls. Homosexuality was considered a medical disorder.
Perfect imperfections are the triumph of eccentricity on this masterwork. The guitars aren’t perfectly tuned. The beat doesn’t always follow rigid timing. However, the varied elements complement each other in sublime disorder.
Lou Reed went onto greater artistic heights. He never became a marketable commodity, like the Beatles or Monkees, another testament to his brilliance. He remained underground and velvety.