I first heard Lou Reed while hanging out at the UCLA radio station KLA, in 1968. One of the music programmers there had the first two Velvet Underground albums and he let me to go into one of their spare studios to check them out.
I thought I was a very hip dude back then, playing in bands since high school, being the first on the scene to discover new music, etc., etc.. I thought I’d been listening to the heaviest music being deeply ensconced in The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, and the southern California sounds of the bands Spirit and Love. Indeed, my band played “Hey Joe” (the fast version) way before anyone knew the song. We’d ripped it from another LA band named The Plague.
So, here I am thinking I’m really cool and totally out there on the edge musically, and I drop the needle on “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” and for the first time I hear, “Heroin.” I was stopped, dead in my tracks. I’d never heard any music that dark, sinister, and yet incredibly alluring in my whole life. And that VOICE—again, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and it was sucking me in and capturing me, and owning me like the drug the song was about. I listened to the whole album twice and then I put on “White Light/White Heat from their second album of the same name. The driving sound of the guitars–the whole band, for that matter, coupled with the lyrics put images in my head of an experience I’d only heard and read about. But it made it so real, and again, drove me to a place I’d never been. I was in shock that someone could capture that on vinyl. I listened to that album twice, all the way through, as well. Then I put both albums back on the radio station rack in the main studio and walked outside—my life had been changed forever.
This was an art form beyond Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd—with a force that could not be controlled, so visceral it made your skin crawl but you came back again, and again—you had to have it, just like the song said, “It’s my life, and it’s my wife…”
The Velvets became my new benchmark for cool. And for years and years nothing surpassed that kind of cool.
I believe, the whole Punk movement stemmed from the Velvet Underground, as did a large part of the glam rock scene.
Lou Reed went on to have his own hit records (for us “Sweet Jane” had already been an underground Velvet hit), and in 1972 released another game changer, “Transformer,” produced by David Bowie. The song “Walk On The Wild Side” featured taboo lyrics about transsexualality, male prostitution, drugs, and oral sex. It celebrated the whole Andy Warhol scene. Somehow, Lou was so freaking cool he even got away with the line, “…and the colored girls go…” It just didn’t sound racist coming from him.
I had the pleasure of working with him a couple times as a guest on a radio series I’d developed for Columbia Records known as “The Columbia Records Radio Hour.” The show started as a Sunday morning, live one hour, radio special emanating originally from Howard Schwartz Studios and later from Sony Music Studios, where a Columbia artist would be featured and could invite other artists from Columbia as well as from any another label to be a guest and collaborate playing songs together.
One of our first shows was a Christmas special that featured Bruce Cockburn which we called “Christmas With Cockburn,” and Bruce invited an eclectic crew for sure—Rosanne Cash, Rob Wasserman (on stand up bass), and,…Lou Reed.
We were thrilled, but had heard Lou could be difficult to work with and wasn’t all that friendly. I wasn’t surprised to hear that after listening to all those insane and heavy lyrics for so many years. In truth, we found him very easy to work with—he was just very particular and a perfectionist. That was cool, because so were we.
He asked for a particular, rare kind of Fender amp, a Twin Reverb, but a “Red Button” Twin. My buddy, and audio genius, Mitch Maketansky found one and Lou was shocked and pleasantly surprised when he walked into to the studio. He actually got a big smile on his face. He told us that most people don’t deliver on that request thinking it’s just not that big a deal. He understood that we understood him, and aimed to please, also looking for the ultimate in creativity. Mitch and I have joked for years that we actually made Lou Reed smile!
The next two events that took place were really kind of a crack-up. Lou wanted to do his song “Christmas In February” (which has to be the most depressing but also the most politically poignant Christmas song ever), and asked if he could bring in his own lead guitar player. So Cockburn says don’t bother, that he can handle a good lead solo. Now, Lou only knew of Bruce as a great songwriter and storyteller, but he had no idea that Bruce was a consummate guitarist as well. So, Lou starts arguing, “No,” he says, “You really need to let me bring my guy in if you want the song to be great.”
And Cockburn, is begging for a chance at it, “Really, Lou, let’s just play it one time through and let me have a crack at it, I’ll bet I can handle it, really!” Finally, Lou just gets worn down, and agrees to play the song through once. They start, get to the solo part, and Cockburn just rips it! Lou looks astonished and amazed. At the end he smiles a little smile and says to Bruce, “You were once a lead guitar player well before you were a singer songwriter, weren’t you!!!” Cockburn smiles back big time and says, “Yeah.”
The other thing that was fun was discovering that Lou was Jewish! I just never would have thunk it. He told me even though this was a Christmas special of sorts that he wanted to do a Hanukah song and that Cockburn thought that’d be cool.
So Lou “freaking’” Reed, asks me to get him a book of Hanukah songs so he can learn “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” because, “I really want to try and rock it up!” Those two thoughts juxtaposed, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground–the “White Light/White Heat” Lou Reed, wanting to play “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” in ANY fashion just blew my mind.
Anyway, that performance never quite materialized because, in fact, Lou found it impossible to create a rock version of the song. I guess “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” just defies rock, but we did all have Latkes for brunch in the studio after the live radio show!
Lou Reed is definitely in the top five of those artists who personify rock, pushing the boundaries well outside any box, and creating his own art form which tons of artists and bands have emulated for years.
He probably is to rock what Van Gough was to impressionist painting. Yeah, that important.
Next time, back to THE PINK FLOYD AIRSHIP!
Thanks for reading,
© Paul Rappaport 2013