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.
Aidan Levy, in Dirty Blvd., expresses some skepticism:
Some claimed Lou was not allowed to attend his graduation due to infractions with the university, the law, or both, but Shelley [Albin] recalls that Lou did not attend of his own volition. If the Syracuse police finally thwarted the elusive campus dissident, it was part of the already blurred line between Lou and his growing myth; somehow, it was true even if it didn’t happen.
Anthony DeCurtis’s Lou Reed: A Life says only that “Reed graduated with honors in June of 1964 with a BA in English,” while Mick Wall’s similarly titled but much slighter Lou Reed: The Life omits the “with honors” part.
Bockris, meanwhile, quotes Shelley to the effect that Lou in fact stayed in Syracuse for a few weeks after graduation to look after her when she got sick. During this period they briefly got together for the last time. A short-lived honeymoon quickly soured, and Shelley finished her schoolwork and decamped to Chicago; Lou went home to Freeport.
As I try to distill these sources, along with everything’s that’s on the web, into a single coherent narrative, please keep in mind that — to quote a great political mind — nothing I say is intended as a factual statement. My goal is to tell a story, and while I always strive to hew as close to the truth as possible, that truth is a best guess based on the information at hand. When it’s a close call between competing versions, the most interesting one is going to win out. To quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
OK, anyway, on with the show.
Back in Freeport, Lou languished for a while, afflicted once again with the Fuck Around Blues. Also hepatitis, which he had most likely picked up from shooting heroin in Syracuse.
In my mental biopic Lou sits on his childhood bed strumming his guitar, freaking out his parents as he sings:
I have made the big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
There are a lot of ways the story could have gone from there. Lou could have joined the family tax accountancy business, as his father wanted him to.1He could have gone back to school, maybe to Harvard as Delmore Schwartz wanted him to. He could have died of an overdose, or been drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Like other recent college graduates, Lou was called to appear before the draft board that summer. If the hepatitis didn’t grant him an exemption, homosexuality certainly would; failing that, he could file as a conscientious objector or trigger-happy lunatic, plead insanity, or all of the above. He arrived bleary-eyed and disoriented, the effect of several 750-milligram doses of Placidyl, an anti-insomnia sedative. After ten minutes, Draft Board No. 4 in Freeport had seen enough. “I said I wanted a gun and would shoot anyone or anything in front of me,” Lou later recalled. “I was pronounced mentally unfit, and have a classification that means I’ll only be called up if we go to war with China.” (DeCurtis, Lou Reed: A Life)
That danger averted, he spent the summer playing with pickup bands and “selling envelopes of sugar to girls I met at clubs, claiming it was heroin.” He also apparently spent a couple weeks as a copy editor for a divorce lawyer, which sounds like a great summer job.
But as the fall rolled around Lou was under pressure to start planning his future. He had told Schwartz that he planned to move to New York City and get a job in the Welfare Department, which would allow him to make a living and help people without having to dress up. It’s not clear how serious he was about this idea; in any case, his future found him, in the form of young songwriter, producer, and record executive Terry Philips (nee Philip Teitelbaum).
Philips had gotten his big break from songwriter Jerry Leiber — one half of the legendary Leiber and Stoller team — after drunkenly serenading Leiber’s wife at a party. “You sang to my wife last night,” Philips quotes Leiber as telling him. “If you weren’t drunk I probably would have punched you…. [But] she loved the way you sang.”
Leiber offered Philips a job and teamed him with another up-and-coming talent named Phil Spector. Yes, that guy. This is hardly the place for a deep dive into the genius and insanity of Phil Spector — you probably know it all anyway, and this thing is already way too long — but Philips and Spector were “tight,” says Phillips. “We wrote together, we produced together and we lived together.”
They split up, though, when Philips was offered a job by Cy Leslie, owner of the record label Pickwick International. “They promised me I could do the type of things I wanted to do,” Philips says, meaning more experimental music. But his main job was to churn out as much product as possible, as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Cy Leslie, according to Aidan Levy, was “a bottom line–minded executive who had entered the recording industry selling prerecorded greeting cards on the Voco label.” He later branched out into children’s records, then cut-rate reissues of old hits. As the LP market grew in the wake of the Beatles, Pickwick began to specialize in 99-cent albums aimed at your less discerning music consumer.
Typical of the sort of thing Pickwick put out, and that Philips was in charge of making more of, was a 1964 album by “Billy Pepper & The Pepperpots.”
This collection of Beatles covers and Beatly originals (released, let it be noted, three years before Sgt. Pepper) was, according to the marketing, made by a group of Liverpudlians who had played with the Fabs at the Cavern Club. In fact it was a bunch of studio hacks that Pickwick had assembled around William Sheppard, a musician and songwriter who bore a strong enough resemblance to Paul McCartney that he was later rumored to have been “Faul,” the replacement Beatle.2
The covers are mostly harmless, if a little sloppy. The originals are truly awful. Check out the plodding rhythms and wobbly harmonies on this mess:
One wonders how many tears were shed that Christmas by children who asked for Beatles albums and instead got this from cheapskate parents or grandparents. Truly, the Long Plastic Hallway is a cruel and shallow money trench.
But to get to the point: Terry Philips needed help. In the summer of 64 he hired Don Schupak, formerly the manager of Lou Reed’s college band LA and the Eldorados, to help him usher Pickwick into the rock’n’roll era. It may have been Schupak who suggested Lou to Philips, but in Philips’s telling it was his cousin, one Leslie Silverman:
She said, “This guy can’t sing, he can’t play, but I know you’re gonna love him, because lyrically, he’s got this funky kind of sound.”
Come September Philips found himself driving up to Syracuse.
We get there, and I went to some kind of coffeehouse, and I heard Lou with a group. And I immediately saw what Leslie was talking about. I just said the same thing — he can’t play, sings like shit, but his sound, his feeling touched me. So here was my opportunity on the first label I had, and I signed Lou Reed as my first artist.
And so Lou joined the ranks of professional musicians, commuting every day from Freeport to write songs for money. His output at Pickwick will keep us occupied for awhile. Because they were working so fast the chronology is pretty scrambled, so I’ll cover the songs in whatever order seems appropriate. For starters, here’s one that Lou didn’t write but did sing on, despite his perceived vocal deficiencies (he kind of talk-sings through it, and is way down in the mix). Ponder this for a while, and I’ll see you on the other side.