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.
After visiting the Syracuse University campus, Lou and his friend Allan Hyman had made plans to attend together. But Lou, most likely at his parents’ insistence, ended up enrolling at NYU’s Bronx campus instead. The next year was lost in a haze of depression and medication.
It appears that he actually went to class at NYU little, if it all. Mostly he just, for lack of a better term, fucked around. He read a lot, discovering William S. Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg during this period. He hung out at jazz clubs listening to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Something was fomenting, but it would take a while.
By the next fall his mood had improved and he decided to transfer to Syracuse. Biographer Victor Bockris sets the scene this way:
The Syracuse campus looked like the perfect set for a horror movie about college life in the early 1960s. Its buildings resembled Gothic mansions from a screenwriter’s imagination. Indeed, the scriptwriter of The Addams Family TV show of the 1960s, who attended the university at the same time as Lou, used the classically Gothic Hall of Languages as the basis for the Addams Family mansion. The surrounding four-block-square area of wooden Victorian houses, Depression-era restaurants, stores, and bars completed the college landscape. A pervasive ocher-gray paint lent a somber air to the seedy wooden houses tucked away in side streets covered, most of the time, with snow, wet leaves, or rain. The atmosphere was likely to elicit either poetic contemplation or depressive madness. It provided a perfect backdrop for the beatnik lifestyle.
Lou Reed jumped headlong into that lifestyle. He shared a pig sty of a dorm room with an aspiring novelist named Lincoln Swados, and the two of them would stay up all night on epic writing binges, then sleep all day. He started a radio show called “Excursions on a Wobbly Rail” that, according to Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd., “consisted of excursions through the sonic worlds of Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, the doo-wop of his youth, and whatever din he could dig up in the station library.”1
Faced with a choice of phys ed and ROTC, Lou chose the latter. (Try to imagine Lou Reed in uniform; I’ll wait.) This did not last long. “Rumors circulated,” says Levy, “that he was dishonorably discharged for holding a gun to the platoon commander’s head”; more likely he was bounced for simple insubordination.
Finally, inevitably, he formed a band with Allan Hyman and some of Hyman’s frat brothers. They called themselves LA and the Eldorados and began playing nearby college campuses. Their setlist was mostly covers, including “Night Time Is the Right Time,” “Twist and Shout,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” and eventually Beatles and Dylan covers. People liked those songs; their original material, not so much.
“The stuff that Lou was writing at the time was not well received,” Hyman says. “It was not the music that was heard on the radio.” Lou always insisted on playing “The Fuck Around Blues,” an inflammatory shuffle that got them kicked off the stage. “People were just not ready for Lou,” Hyman says. “‘The Fuck Around Blues’ did not appeal to a lot of the sorority girls who were then attending those parties.”
Sadly, no recorded version of “The Fuck Around Blues” exists. Instead I invite you to imagine what it might have sounded like, given Lou Reed’s predilections and influences at the time. That should keep you occupied until we meet again.