Every Lou Reed biography I have tells the story of “The Ostrich” differently, but my favorite version is the one in Victor Bockris’s Transformer:
One day in January 1965, Lou, who had not let hepatitis slow him down, had ingested a copious quantity of drugs. As he felt the rush of creativity coming on, he leafed through Eugenia Sheperd’s [sic] column in a local tabloid and came across an item about ostrich feathers being the latest fashion craze. Flinging down the paper and grabbing his guitar with the manic pent-up humor that fueled so much of his work, Lou spontaneously created a new would-be dance craze.
Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd. helpfully shares some actual text from the Eugenia Sheppard column in question:
Look at all the ostrich that was floating around Paris…. Those stiff, beautiful brocades are strictly for sitting. Even some of the crepes, unless they’re very bias, tend to go dead on a dance floor. As for the skinny, wool evening dresses, they’re so chic, but after 10 hard minutes on the dance floor, the girls just have to give up.
It’s a typical act of Reedian perversity to base your “dance craze” — following in the lucrative wake of the Twist, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, and 997 more — on outfits that made it hard to dance. And then to build the music for it around a guitar with all the strings tuned to a D. Said Lou:
I did that because I saw a guy named Jerry Vance [a fellow Pickwick songwriter] do that. Jerry Vance was not an advanced avant-garde guy. He was just screwing around. And he didn’t realize what he had, but I did.
Terry Philips suggested combining Lou’s song with a three-note riff stolen from the Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me,” which had been produced by Philips’ buddy Phil Spector:
And it was off to the races:
Philips was so enthusiastic about “The Ostrich” that he created a new imprint, Pickwick City, to release it. This despite the fact that it is a clearly deranged piece of music, and completely out of step with what was selling at the time — though not too far a cry from the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which would be a big hit the following year.
Credited on record to the Primitives, “The Ostrich” did not move a lot of product. “We probably sold four copies, ” Terry Philips later admitted. “But we got tremendous play on college and avant-garde stations.” That may or may not have been so; in any case Philips managed to convince his boss to finance a Primitives tour. He also somehow managed to wangle the band an appearance on American Bandstand.1
Of course, there were no Primitives; the record had been made by Pickwick’s usual crew of semi-pros. According to the Lou Reed: Words and Music 1965 liner notes, which I will now quote at length, as I paid $20 for them (the CD was superfluous):
The studio band, other than Reed, didn’t have the right look, so Philips started scouting around for Lower East Side musicians to be in The Primitives. He wasn’t even concerned if they could play well, or at all, as he intended to have the band play along to a prerecorded tape of the “hit” and then cobble together a few other songs they could actually play.
At a party in Manhattan, he found two musicians who looked just right to him. They were… in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music and had been part of the city’s serious avant-garde musical scene for over a year. Philips asked them to come out and meet Reed at Pickwick and bring along a drummer, too. The two musicians, John Cale and Tony Conrad, thought it sounded interesting, and with the promise of a paycheck, they made it to the meeting. Bringing along sculptor Walter De Maria as the drummer, they became The Primitives.
So: enter John Cale.
Anyone reading this probably knows who John Cale is, but still I feel obligated to give a little background.
“I come from Wales,” Cale tells us in his 1984 song “Autobiography.” (He also helpfully clarifies, “Never wrote a song called ‘Cocaine’/Never wrote a song called ‘After Midnight.’”)
The Wikipedia tells us that:
Having discovered a talent for viola, Cale joined the National Youth Orchestra of Wales at age 13. Receiving a scholarship, Cale studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. While he was there he organised an early Fluxus concert, A Little Festival of New Music, on 6 July 1964. He also contributed to the short film Police Car and had two scores published in Fluxus Preview Review (July 1963) for the nascent avant-garde collective. He conducted the first performance in the UK of [John] Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with the composer and pianist Michael Garrett as soloist. In 1963, he travelled to the United States to continue his musical training with the assistance and influence of Aaron Copland.
Upon arriving in New York City, Cale met a number of influential composers. On 9 September 1963 he participated, along with John Cage and several others, in an 18-hour and 40 minute piano-playing marathon that was the first full-length performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” After the performance Cale appeared on the television panel show I’ve Got a Secret. Cale’s secret was that he had performed in an 18-hour concert, and he was accompanied by Karl Schenzer, whose secret was that he was the only member of the audience who had stayed for the duration.
By 1965 Cale had become an acolyte of La Monte Young, an influential avant-garde composer who made ends meet by selling drugs. When Cale wasn’t playing viola in the Theatre of Eternal Music, he was dealing weed, speed, and opium. Even so, a few extra dollars were always welcome, so when Philips approached Cale he agreed to join the Primitives as a “lark.”
That lark would end up changing Cale’s life and music as we know it. We’ll pick up that story next time.