(Note: I encourage you to listen to the following playlist while reading, by way of marinating in the music that inspired Lou Reed’s first attempts at songwriting. You may have to read slowly, or make yourself a cup of tea, or do the Wordle, if you want the timing to work out.)
As Alan Freed pounded a telephone book and the honking sax of Big Al Sears seared the airwaves with his theme song… I sat staring at an indecipherable book on plane geometry, whose planes and angles would forever escape me. And I wanted to escape it, and the world of SAT tests, the College Boards, and leap immediately and eternally into the world of Shirley and Lee, the Diablos, the Paragons, the Jesters. Lillian Leach and the Mellows’ “Smoke from Your Cigarette.” Alicia and the Rockaways’ “Why Can’t I Be Loved,” a question that certainly occupied my teenage time. The lyrics sat in my head like Shakespearean sonnets with all the power of tragedy. “Gloria.” “Why don’t you write me, darling/Send me a letter” — the Jacks. And then there was Dion. That great opening to “I Wonder Why” engraved in my skull forever. Dion, whose voice was unlike any other I had heard before. Dion could do all the the turns, stretch those syllables so effortlessly, soar so high he could reach the sky and dance there among the stars forever. What a voice that had absorbed and transmogrified all those influences into his own soul as the wine turns into blood.
Born in 1942, Lou Reed belonged to the first generation of American “teenagers.” Before the period of peace and prosperity that followed World War II, such a concept had simply not existed.
In 1945 the New York Times published an article called “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” the first article of which was:
I. The Right to Let Childhood Be Forgotten
“I couldn’t have been unhappier than in the eight years I spent growing up in Brooklyn,” Lou Reed once said. He didn’t have good things to say about Freeport, Long Island — where his family moved when he was 8 — either:
I came from this small town out on Long Island. Nowhere. I mean nowhere. The most boring place on Earth. The only good thing about it was you knew you were going to get out of there.
But in the meantime, a kid stuck in the suburbs had no choice but to dream (see also: Bowie, David). For Lou Reed, those dreams came in the form of music beaming in over the radio. As he would write some years later:
You know my parents are gonna be the death of us all
Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars
Well, you know it ain’t gonna help me at all
Then one fine mornin’ she turns on a New York station
She doesn’t believe what she hears at all
Ooh, she started dancin’ to that fine, fine music
You know her life is saved by rock ’n’ roll
Lou’s relative privilege gave him the wherewithal to pursue his dreams. When he asked for a guitar, he got a guitar. When he wanted guitar lessons he got them; or more accurately one lesson, from which he picked up four chords and never looked back.
By the age of 15 he was playing in bands and dabbling in songwriting. And this is where Lou Reed’s story starts to diverge from that of a regular person. When his band the Shades won their high school talent show, the audience included a former Mercury Records A&R man named Bob Shad, who was looking to start his own label. Soon they were in a recording studio working on their debut single.
Shad thought that there were already too many bands named the Shades, so he renamed them the Jades. He also hired some heavy-duty musicians to back them up: King Curtis on sax and Mickey Baker on guitar. (Now why would two African-American R&B legends be playing backup to a group of unknown teenage white kids? That question answers itself, I’m afraid.)
Their presence elevates “Leave Her for Me,” which is a prime example of another article of the Teen-Age Bill of Rights:
VII. The Right to Be at That Romantic Age
Lyrically, “Leave Her for Me” is pretty basic stuff:
Take away the oceans
take away the seas
take away the sunshine
take away the trees
Take away the rosebuds
that bloom in spring
take all the blossoms
all I asking is one thing
Please leave my baby
please leave her for me
It’s a good tune; I don’t know if I’d say it’s a great one. Lou was not the lead singer on it. I assume one of the backing voices is his, though I’m hard-pressed to pick it out. Given that Mickey Baker was there, it seems dubious that Lou would have played guitar. But it was his first composition to find its way onto vinyl, and that’s a beginning.