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.
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.)read more…
Pickwick started Lou’s career. It taught him the discipline of showing up.
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.
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.
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:
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:read more…
(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”:
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:read more…
As far as I can tell there are no extant recordings of Lou Reed’s college bands. This is too bad because a) I’m very curious what they sounded like and b) it would give me some material to work with during this period of his life. Instead, all we have is a pair of songs he recorded for Shad Records in either 1960 or 1962, depending on who you ask.2
Bob Shad didn’t release them at the time; they only saw the light of day in 2000 on an EP of dubious provenance called All Tomorrow’s Dance Parties. It’s possible they they were actually only demos that Shad meant to recut at a later date with a more polished vocalist. But in any case, they are the first Lou Reed lead vocals put on tape, and that’s something. I plan to cover them in two posts that will have to span Lou’s last three years at Syracuse, and that’s going to necessiatate some skimming. For greater depth I commend you to Victor Bockris’s Transformer, which covers this period in borderline-exhausting detail.
The putative A-side is called “Your Love,” and pretty much picks up where the Jades left off:
Pretty catchy, but run-of-the-mill stuff, except for the vocal — which is as loud and strong and sure as Lou ever got, but already with a hint of the jaded sneer that we know so well. Though he is singing his own words, he sounds above it all somehow.read more…
In his senior year of high school Lou Reed formed a band called the Valets, who mostly played around Freeport. According to guitarist Rich Sigal, “We played at parties, bars, beach clubs, never making much money, and playing for as little as plates of spaghetti.”
Lou continued to write songs and tried to sell them to established doo-wop groups with no success. The next recorded evidence of his musical efforts doesn’t come until 1962, which jumps us forward four years. Whilst we bridge that lacuna, here’s some music to listen to, the relevance of which will become clear as we go along.
In 1959, Lou graduated from Freeport High. That was a high point; soon after came the low point of being subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. I don’t necessarily want to dwell on that, having already discussed it at some length; nor do I want to underplay its significance. Let’s just take it as read that it was A Big Deal that we’ll have occasion to refer back to in the future.read more…
The Jades’ single was a moderate success on jukeboxes and the radio, especially in the South. It didn’t do as well locally but did garner some airplay on WINS, then New York City’s biggest rock’n’roll station. (Nowadays WINS has an all-news format.) After “Leave Her for Me” was named “pick of the week,” the Jades were invited to appear on a battle of the bands hosted by legendary DJ Alan Freed.
The saga of Freed is a whole epic unto itself, and more than we have bandwidth to get into here. Wikipedia’s précis is economical and hits all the high points:
Albert James “Alan” Freed (December 15, 1921 – January 20, 1965) was an American disc jockey. He also produced and promoted large traveling concerts with various acts, helping to spread the importance of rock and roll music throughout North America.
In 1986, Freed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His “role in breaking down racial barriers in U.S. pop culture in the 1950s, by leading white and black kids to listen to the same music, put the radio personality ‘at the vanguard’ and made him ‘a really important figure,’” according to the Executive Director.
Freed was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991. The organization’s website posted this note: “He became internationally known for promoting African-American rhythm and blues music on the radio in the United States and Europe under the name of rock and roll.” In the early 1960s, Freed’s career was destroyed by the payola scandal that hit the broadcasting industry, as well as by allegations of taking credit for songs he did not write and by his chronic alcoholism.
In fact, Freed was bounced from WINS not long after the Jades’ appearance. But though he was a Big Deal, the prize that Lou and the boys really coveted was a spin on “Swingin’ Soiree,” the WINS prime-time show hosted by Murray Kaufman, a.k.a. Murray the K.
“So Blue,” the B-side of “Leave Her for Me,” was written by Lou Reed and Jades lead singer Phil Harris. It’s another classic teenage romance number, this time working the heartbreak side of the street. The lyrics are simple, almost monosyllabic, and so wholesome there’s even a candy store reference.
Lou’s actual love life was not so wholesome. According to high school classmate Richard Sigal,
We all had long-term girlfriends. Like, for months on end, or a year, we would be going steady. Lou never did. All of a sudden he would show up with these girls. They were all sluts. I had no idea where he found them. He didn’t do traditional things, like take them to the movies and then to the ice-cream parlor. Lou once told me, “I like girls with black hearts.”
He didn’t just like girls, of course. Sometime early in high school he had started frequenting a nearby gay bar called the Hay Loft; later he played music there and even got a part-time job as a waiter. It was during this period that Lou began vocally exercising another one of his “teen-age rights”:
VI. The Right to Question Ideas
“He was kind of a depressed personality,” says Elliot Garfinkel, who knew Lou as a teen and would become his first manager. “[Freeport] was affluent, and he was somewhat critical of that kind of environment. I don’t think he was happy with that. He looked more to the seedier side of life.”read more…