Ya Running, but I’ll Getcha

This faux-dialect phrase is the name of a song on a “Design Records” (Pickwick International) compilation album I just got. In true Pickwick style it is a hodgepodge of miscellany, including two songs each by Johnny Rivers, Neil Sedaka, and the Four Seasons. Each side is filled out by two tunes credited to the “J Brothers,” which is the Pickwick house band that Lou Reed played in when he wasn’t too stoned to stand up.

Even at that, the two sides together clock in at less than 25 minutes. Chintzy, but then again, what do you want for 99 cents? The spiel on the back of the album explains why it is actually a fantastic deal; I’m going to share the whole thing with you here because it is an absolute masterpiece of Long Plastic Hallway horseshit:

In creating the Design Catalog we have succeeded in bringing you many of America’s leading recording artists performing tunes which have made them famous. It is these individual performer’s [sic] talents which add so much to your perennial favorite songs, making them so enjoyable that you want the opportunity of hearing them over and over again.

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Maybe Tomorrow

This one will be short as I am still reeling from having learned that at the Lou Reed exhibit currently running at the New York Public Library, there is a special room where they play Metal Machine Music twice a day in quadraphonic sound. I wonder if they lock the door behind you. I tried to listen to MMM all the way through once and I didn’t make it; round about the middle of side 3 I started ideating homicide and/or suicide, and cut short the experiment in the name of sanity. (Supposedly Lou once said, “Anybody who gets to side four is dumber than I am.”)

Anyway.

Like “Tell Mamma Not to Cry,” the B-side — which is called “Maybe Tomorrow” — is credited to Vance/Sims/Reed/Philips. Since the four of them worked as a team, it is impossible to tell who is responsible for what, exactly. I assume Lou worked on words more than music, but that is pure speculation.

The words here are pretty minimal, but they get the idea across. The music takes a back seat to Robertha Williams’ vocal performance, which is certainly committed, if a little shaky towards the end. Another take might have been a good idea — but maybe she had shredded her voice doing this one, or maybe it was considered Good Enough for Pickwick’s cut/print/move on ethos. It’s a pretty good tune — I can’t tell you why there’s a picture of Amy Winehouse on the video, but I don’t really need to know, either. Cut. Print. Move on.

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Tell Mamma Not to Cry

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This strange slice of gothic pop-soul is credited to one “Robertha Williams,” about whom I have found very little information. The YouTube video has exactly one comment:

I suppose I could reach out to Tiffiny, but I am at heart a lazy man and is isn’t necessarily relevant anyway. What matters is the song, which — despite Pickwick’s quick-n-dirty recording style — sounds like it had some care lavished on it. The verses are minimalist and ominous, the choruses ornate and fervid; a lot of drama is crammed into two and a half minutes.

The scenario here is clear enough: The singer is preparing to run off with her boyfriend, and telling her sister (I assume) to break the news gently to her mom. But there’s something unsettling about the way the song is presented, as if it were being sung by a ghost. It seems pretty clear that things are not going to work out, and that Mamma is going to end up crying one way or another.

Wild One

[Lou Reed] would come into work stoned every day, because he was the king, as I found out, of pills. I could never figure out what he took. Lou was very bright, and he was taking pills that I think doctors didn’t know about. We used to have to pick him up off the floor each day; he had to be taken to the emergency room twice. Nobody would have gone near him but a wild man like me. [Label owner] Cy Leslie would come in and they would go crazy. And I kept saying, “You’ve got to understand, this guy’s special.”
—Terry Philips

It’s nice when the boss likes you. In Lou Reed’s case, Terry Philips was content to let him get wasted every day as long as he produced. This was no ordinary workplace, after all; it was a “songwriting emergency room” where the goal was to churn out saleable material and do it fast.

I think that in Lou, Philips saw the wildman he wanted to be. As the supervisor, Philips had to be responsible; he was the point of contact with Cy Leslie, who signed the checks. “In order to keep Lou’s pill-taking ass and get him his weekly paycheck and allow him to write,” Philips said, “I had to compromise my — not his — my integrity.” So Philips kept the factory going and did the paperwork while Lou indulged himself.

One of the songs they wrote together for Swingin’ Teen Sounds of Ronnie Dove & Terry Phillips is called “Wild One,” and it tries very hard to live up to the title, with a manufactured party atmosphere and would-be jungle drums high in the mix:

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But it is not convincing. I don’t think people really call this guy “the wild one”; I think he would like them to, but no one does. (One thinks of George Costanza trying to get people to call him “T-Bone.”) The real Wild One was probably passed out in a corner.

Flowers for the Lady

And now we are forced to reckon with the fact that some of the stuff Lou Reed was involved in at Pickwick Records was just plain schlock. “This Rose” is followed immediately on Swingin’ Teen Sounds by “Flowers for the Lady,” a leaden piece of dross on which Terry Philips sounds for all the world like Jerry Lewis, and not in a good way.

Maybe this was one of the days when Lou was passed out, or in the ER. More on that next time.

This Rose

About a foot away from this computer sits a copy of a Pickwick International album called Swingin’ Teen Sounds of Ronnie Dove & Terry Phillips, vintage 1964. I couldn’t find it anywhere online so I looked it up on eBay and was able to score it for $10 plus shipping.

When it arrived, still shrinkwrapped, I discovered that — true to Pickwick’s bargain-basement ethos — there was no inner sleeve. So after 58 years the record is in less-than-perfect condition despite being technically “new.” But that matches the quality of the material, which is… let’s be generous and say fair to middling. And at less than 25 minutes of music total, it’s over with quickly. I get the sense that disappointment is a familiar sensation to Pickwick customers.

Terry Philips,1you may recall, is they guy who hired Lou Reed to work at Pickwick. Six of the album’s ten songs are sung by him and Lou is credited as co-writer on three of those. (Ronnie Dove, a journeyman singer who had a few pop and country hits, is of no relevance to us here.)

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Soul City

Pickwick started Lou’s career. It taught him the discipline of showing up.
—Don Schupak

Achieving artistic success requires a combination of talent, luck, and hard work. The exact proportion is different in every case, but you need some of all of them. And of the three, only the last one is under your control.

In rock’n’roll this is complicated by the fact that it’s uncool to look like you’re trying too hard.2So the work has to happen behind the scenes, but having the “discipline of showing up,” as Schupak puts it, makes a difference.

Lou Reed was lucky in that, even before falling into the orbit of Andy Warhol — artistic workaholic par excellence — he had his time at Pickwick International, where his actual job was to write as many songs as he could as quickly as possible. It only lasted a few months but was tremendously productive and educational. Lou recalled:

There were four of us literally locked in a room writing songs. We just churned out songs, that’s all. They would say, “Write ten California songs, ten Detroit songs,” then we’d go down to the studio for an hour or two and cut three or four albums really quickly, which came in handy later because I knew my way around the studio, not well enough but I could work really fast.

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Little Deuce Coupe

When writing about somebody’s life I often think of this quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Many stories are told of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s journey to the Frogstar. 10% of them are 95% true, 14% of them are 65% true, 35% of them are only 5% true, and all the rest of them are… told by Zaphod Beeblebrox.

I’ve been using four Lou Reed biographies as sources and the stories they tell of various periods in his life often diverge, sometimes wildly. And then you have the man himself, who is generally the most unreliable source of all.

For example, the tale of Lou’s graduation from Syracuse University and departure from the town is told many different ways. Lou’s own version, as quoted in Victor Bockris’s Transformer, goes like this:

As soon as exams were over, at the graduation ceremony, I was told by the Tactical Police Squad that if I wasn’t gone within an hour, they’d beat me up. They couldn’t [arrest] me, but they’d break every bone, every movable part of my body. So I split, but I still graduated with honors.

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Baby, Let Me Follow You Down

First off, the answer is no — there is no recording of Lou Reed singing Bob Dylan’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” in 1963. But it happened, according to Richard Mishkin, who played piano and bass in Lou’s college band LA and the Eldorados:

Lou idolized Dylan when Dylan first came on the scene with his first album. We knew every inch of his music inside and out. All of a sudden there was this music and poetry together, and it wasn’t folk music. Lou was blown away by it. It was an exciting thing. And Lewis immediately got a harmonica and was playing that. And I remember sitting in the apartment with [fellow Eldorado] Stevie Windheim and Lewis figuring out the chords to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.”

So you’ll just have to imagine it’s Lou’s voice here instead of Bob’s:

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Dylan was everything Reed wanted to be: a suburban Jew who had recreated himself as a worldly troubadour bringing a literary sensibility to popular music. But when he got famous Lou would downplay the influence; not unlike David Bowie, he was leery of being too much in Dylan’s shadow. He quickly abandoned the harmonica for that very reason. But there it is in the demo version of “I Found a Reason” recorded by the Velvet Underground several years and a lifetime later:

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Merry Go Round

(Note: Only after posting the last entry did it occur to me that if a) “Your Love” is about Shelley, and b) Lou met Shelley in 1961, then it probably is from 1962 after all. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.)

Like the Jades’ single, these lost recordings pair a happy, pro-love song with a cautionary one about romance’s pitfalls. The latter in this case is called “Merry Go Round”:

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Musically, this is a step up from Lou’s previous compositions, with an anarchic feel and an intricate start/stop structure. But the words are pretty cookie-cutter:

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