Lou Reed: From The East Village To The East End
With Halloween four days away, Lou Reed died on a Sunday morning on Long Island. How’s that for timing?
And the location? Springs and Freeport are two different worlds, but both situated on the same Island. Like many New Yorkers of a certain age, Reed was born in Brooklyn and moved to Long Island. In his case, Freeport. Judging from the electro shock therapy he had as a teenager, Lou Reed and the suburbs weren’t the best fit.
1990’s Songs for Drella, a collaboration between Reed and ex-Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, dedicated to their mentor Andy Warhol, opens with “Small Town.” The Sondheimesque last verse states, “When you’re growing up in a small town/you know you’ll grow down in a small town/There’s only one good use for a small town/You hate it and you know you’ll have to leave.” Reed was writing about Warhol, but also referring to himself and any other suburban or rural misfit dreaming of the big city.
Through The Velvet Underground, Reed and Warhol made a seismic impact on the city, specifically downtown culture. In 1966, Warhol promoted a series of multimedia (a term coined that year by Bobb Goldsteinn for his Lightworks extravaganza at L’Oursin in Southampton that summer) events called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It combined live music by The Velvet Underground with screenings of Warhol’s films and dancing. There was also performance art, which was so under the radar at that point, it hadn’t even reached cult status. Around this time, the part of the Lower East Side between 14th Street and Houston Street became known as the “East Village.” The big city got bigger, and future artistically inclined misfits had a wider, richer canvas to dream about, and when they got there, to dream on.
Despite the Warhol connection however, Reed had more in common with Jackson Pollock, the genius painter who became as symbolic to the End End as Mickey Mouse is to Disney World. Aside from living and dying in Springs, each one transformed their art forms. Reed’s work with The Velvet Underground was like nothing that had come before, abstract expression with amps.
The Velvet Underground would eventually become the most influential rock’n’roll band not named The Beatles. That may sound like hyperbole, but the reality is three Nassau County natives, a Welsh mastermind, and a German Cabaret singer from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita started what would later be known as “alternative” music. There’s also the fact that Reed’s anger for his Long Island past had been channeled into ruthless, avant-garde guitar freak-outs and grim, poetic lyrics which played a part in the development of punk, post-punk, grunge, art rock, hard rock/heavy metal, goth, synth pop, dark wave … you get the idea.
When you listen to The Velvet Underground & Nico, their 1967 debut, you’re stepping into the New York City they created, a phantasmagoric funhouse where every day sounds and looks like Halloween. Reed’s early work with the VU shared a macabre, All Hallows’ Eve atmosphere as some of Pollock’s paintings on paper. When looking at 1950’s Untitled, featuring black ink appearing like a ceremonial circle of ghouls, you can hear John Cale’s dark, droning, stormy castle electric viola, and Reed’s Mummy trudge guitar/Howard Cosell as Dracula from Freeport vocals. I’m referring to “Venus in Furs,” which is essentially Transylvania psychedelia, a reminder that while an entity unto themselves, the Velvets still possessed some then-contemporary touches.
The opening guitar riff of “There She Goes Again” had been taken from Marvin Gaye’s 1962 “Hitch Hike,” but sounded more like the incidental music from Ralph Bakshi’s late ‘60s Spider-Man cartoons. In the mid-‘60s, rock’n’roll started to lean towards the baroque and exotic, and that’s exactly what John Cale brought to the band. “Sunday Morning” is no exception. Cale’s viola and celesta match the plaintiveness in Reed’s voice on this paranoid lullaby. Reed never sounded as innocent as he did on “Sunday Morning,” the first song from The Velvet Underground & Nico, his first album.
It was apparent from the start that Reed, at just 24 years old, could write love songs better than most. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is a perfect example. “Heroin” is an even better, albeit more unorthodox one, especially the 14th Street “Freebird” version on Reed’s live Rock’n’Roll Animal. Recorded in December 1973 at the Howard Stein Academy of Music in the East Village, it rivals 1971’s At Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers Band and that same venue/year’s Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore from Humble Pie as all-time greatest live album.
It mainly consists of drastically different renditions of VU tunes done hard rock ’73 style, with dueling guitars. Reed declares at the beginning of “Heroin,” “I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can.” The astonishing guitar duo of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner see to it that he does. Reed was a consummate team player; A distinctive guitarist in his own right, he simply sang and played the part of flamboyant front man, wearing a choker collar, makeup and closed-cropped hair, resembling Rahm Emanuel as Christopher Lee’s Frankenstein’s Monster.
“Heroin” builds up like the “a little bit louder now” section of “Shout” by The Isley Brothers. As the music takes on a more frantic pace, Reed shouts what chillingly could be a description of the past year, “And all the politicians making crazy sounds, and all the dead bodies piled up in mounds! Yeah!” It’s followed by pure, intense euphoria; Dick Wagner’s guitar solo simultaneously conveying the power of the will to live, adapting to life without something or someone you love, and the torture of addiction.
Wagner, who passed away nine month’s after Reed, starts off with interstellar proto-Van Halen pyrotechnics, then swerves to a ride the lightning delirium mixed with melancholy comparable to Duane Alllman’s work on Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” This is high art that aims for the cheap seats, a microcosm of the entire record. You can bet that throughout the ‘70s, it was blaring from cars filled with teenagers making nocturnal drives around the kind of suburban neighborhoods Reed escaped from.
Like Reed, my father is a Brooklyn/Freeport Doo Wop kid, although they never crossed paths. By the time he reached high school, Reed was at Syracuse University. Freeport is best known for their football team, with the recently retired New York Jets Pro Bowl offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson an alumnus. During Reed’s time at Freeport High, the football coach was Bill Ashley, an iconic figure in the town’s history. Ashley coached for over 20 years, brought four Rutger Cups to Freeport and his teams went undefeated all four years Reed was there. He’s the “coach” referred to in 1976’s “Coney Island Baby,” which is Reed at his most contemplative.
The first half of the song, Reed uses the line, “I wanted to play football for the coach,” as a refrain, the same way Allen Ginsberg used, “I’m with you in Rockland” in Howl. Who knew Reed was a “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lo(u)se” kind of guy? It was a fascinating revelation, proof that even Lou Reed, who countered the defiant 60’s counterculture with tales of sadomasochism/violence, the NYC man who personified urban rebel soul and rock’n’roll heart, deep down just wanted to take the first syllable out of “misfit.”
“Coney Island Baby” has a mellow, late summer Sunday afternoon at the boardwalk feeling to it, a setting when you’re apt to be reflective about the past and future. The other half of the song has Reed looking ahead, rhapsodizing on how “The glory of love might see you through.” This becomes a refrain towards the conclusion, invoking 1951’s “The Glory of Love” by The Five Keys.
During the afternoon of October 31st, a few hours before the Village Halloween Parade that Reed immortalized on 1989’s “Halloween Parade” as a meditation on loss, Laurie Anderson posted an open letter in The East Hampton Star. It gave a brief glimpse of their final days together. She wrote, “What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. Water surrounding us.” Declaring Springs their “spiritual home,” she stated that Reed, “spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature.”
Long Island, of all places, was where the glory of love saw Lou Reed through.