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Inside the Birth of the Velvet Underground

Read an exclusive excerpt from a new biography, ‘Lou Reed: A Life,’ about how an unlikely group of musicians formed one of rock’s most important bands.

To Lou Reed, the legendarily cranky singer-songwriter, Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis was a true rarity: a music journalist that Reed actually liked. The pair encountered each other many times over DeCurtis’ decades as a writer and editor, and after Reed’s death in 2013, DeCurtis turned his admiration for Reed into an excellent new biography, the massive Lou Reed: A Life, due out October 10. In this exclusive excerpt, Reed is a literary-minded young man fresh out of Syracuse University, eager to explore New York’s sexual underground, and about to change rock & roll forever.

Despite what can only be described as a rocky student career at Syracuse University – getting tossed off the student radio station and booted from ROTC, dealing drugs – Lou Reed graduated with honours in June of 1964 with a B.A. in English. Along with his generally outrageous behavior and innate desire to shock, Reed displayed a characteristic savvy during his time at SU. His rebelliousness aside, Reed took care to avoid getting kicked out of school. He pushed the college to the limits of its tolerance, but he also taught himself how to work the system to his advantage. “When all is said and done, there was no reason for Lou not to graduate. He went to class and he was very smart,” his friend Richard Mishkin said. “And he made sure he took classes, especially as a senior, that you couldn’t fail unless you never showed up.” Reed deftly negotiated his course requirements so that he wouldn’t have to take too many courses he didn’t like. “Lou waited until senior year to take these nasty required courses,” his friend Erin Clermont said. “We wound up in the same Botany class. I had to take Biology and Botany, but Lou made a deal with the dean, so he only had to take one required science course, and he copied my notes for that one.”

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After graduating, Reed returned home to his parents’ house on Long Island and promptly succumbed to a hepatitis attack that sidelined him for two months. He wrote to Delmore Schwartz, a renowed poet and Reed’s mentor at Syracuse, and explained that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back to school for creative writing. Primarily, he was trying to get his music career off the ground. He also mentioned his attraction to the city’s sexual underground, though he described those interests as deriving from a personal weakness. He talked about Park Avenue johns willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch couples have sex. He said that he couldn’t resist exploring that world, walking right up to the edges of it, and, occasionally, toppling into it.

Reed later wrote about this period: “Much of my income came from selling envelopes of sugar to girls I met at clubs, claiming it was heroin. This led to hours of feigned stonedness with those more gullible than I, watching carefully to make sure they didn’t OD on sweets. What happened to the original drugs is another story.” The Vietnam War was beginning to escalate and now that he was out of college, Reed lost his student deferment. However, because of his emotional and psychological problems, he received a 1-Y classification, meaning that he would only be drafted in case of a national emergency or an outbreak of war, which, technically, did not apply to Vietnam because Congress never officially declared war.

Most notably, however, Reed took a songwriting job with Pickwick Records, a budget label whose factory-style work-for-hire ethos made the sweat-equity, no-nonsense hit-making of the Brill Building seem like Mount Olympus. In those days, fly-by-night record companies would jump on any trend – a dance craze, a musical style that would catch fire on the radio like surf music or teen-tragedy ballads – and cash in on them. “They would put us in a room and say, ‘Write ten California songs, ten Detroit songs,'” depending on what was happening at the moment, Reed recalled. Musicians, including Reed, would be assembled to record the songs, and albums would be printed up with covers and completely made-up band names designed to trick young record buyers into believing they were getting songs by established groups. These albums, sold in five-and-ten-cent stores and down-market department stores, were inexpensive to produce. If they sold even a few thousand copies, the profits were considerable. While Reed wasn’t the most accomplished musician, he had ranging tastes and an ear – and deep fondness – for pop music. Suddenly, he had something like an outlet, albeit the most low-rent one possible.

Pickwick, located in Long Island City, a section of Queens not far from Manhattan, was something like a songwriting emergency room. Every problem, difficulty or complexity that could present itself in a songwriting situation did, and the job became something like a laboratory for Reed’s more serious songwriting. While there, Reed would demo songs like “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” that he had begun working on at Syracuse. For the songs he co-wrote for Pickwick – numbers like “Cycle Annie,” which is credited to the Beachnuts, and the rocking “You’re Driving Me Insane,” credited to the Roughnecks – Reed often sang and played guitar for Pickwick’s in-house band. To cite a perfect example of how the Pickwick method worked, Reed read in a newspaper one day that ostrich feathers were going to be a fashion trend. In order to cash in on that unlikely development, Reed and his co-writers hastily came up with a song called “The Ostrich,” which – whether sincerely or ironically, it’s hard to tell – attempted to incite a dance craze. The song opens with a bruising bass line derived from the Crystals’ 1963 hit “Then He Kissed Me,” and Reed unleashes a searing guitar line. His vocal is a hoarse shout, a DJ’s manic exhortations to the imagined dancers to put their heads between their knees and do whatever they please. While its lyrics and concept are ridiculous, the song, aptly credited to the Primitives, sounds like raw, rough-edged garage rock.

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The Velvet Underground, November 1965. Credit: Adam Ritchie/Getty Images

The powers that be at Pickwick discerned commercial potential for the track, particularly when a local TV show invited the Primitives to perform for its on-air dance party. The problem, unfortunately, was that the Primitives didn’t exist. That was hardly insurmountable. Terry Phillips, one of Reed’s cowriters, was charged with assembling a band to play the show and some other promotional dates. Phillips rounded up John Cale, a young, Welsh, avant-garde classical musician; the sculptor Walter de Maria; and Tony Conrad, who, like Cale, was a member of minimalist composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, which was also known as the Dream Syndicate because of the droning, trancelike music the ensemble created. Phillips evidently assumed Cale was a pop musician because he had long hair – such were the times. Along with his appearance, the Welsh lilt in Cale’s speech could easily have been mistaken for an English accent, an inestimable attraction in those innocent days of the Beatles-led British Invasion.

By any measure, this was an unlikely quartet. Cale, a classically trained musician, had come to the United States on a Leonard Bernstein scholarship in modern composition; he had been interviewed for the position by the composer Aaron Copland. Skilled at many instruments, including viola and keyboards, Cale played bass with the Primitives. For all that, Cale had little more than a passing familiarity with rock & roll, and Walter de Maria, on drums, and Conrad, who played guitar, were hardly rock musicians themselves. Up for a bit of fun anyhow, the four young men did some rehearsals, played the TV show and some other promotional spots, and then disbanded. But the crucial link between Reed and Cale had been forged.

Though they came from very different backgrounds and had very different styles and tastes, the two men soon discovered that they had much in common. Reed’s longstanding desire was to combine the literary ambitions of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Selby with the energy and immediacy of rock & roll. Cale wanted to move beyond the insular world of the avant-garde and see what the possible impact of his forward-looking ideas might be on a larger audience. Reed was impressed by Cale’s tony credentials and his avant-garde credibility. Cale was sharp enough to perceive the vulnerability beneath Reed’s know-it-all posturing, as well as his unique talent. “My first impressions of Lou were of a high-strung, intelligent, fragile college kid in a polo-neck sweater, rumpled jeans and loafers,” Cale later wrote. “He had been around and was bruised, trembling, quiet and insecure.” Reed played Cale some of the songs he was working on, including “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.” Some of the songs Cale heard initially sounded like folk music to him, a genre whose plainspoken earnestness and relative musical simplicity held little appeal for him. It did not take long, however, for Cale to comprehend the scale of Reed’s ambitions. Reed, he said, “was writing about things other people weren’t. These lyrics were literate, well-expressed, tough, novelistic impressions of life. I recognised a tremendous literary quality in his songs, which fascinated me.”

The complicated dynamic of Reed and Cale’s relationship began to take shape right then. Cale encouraged Reed not to see himself as frail and damaged. Reed, Cale recalled, was “seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed a tranquilliser called Placidyl. When I asked why, he said, ‘I think I’m crazy.’ I told him, ‘Fuck, you’re not crazy.’ I didn’t believe in schizophrenia. All I saw in it was a different way of seeing things. Anyway, I could not believe somebody who was writing those songs could be crazy.” Cale began to withdraw from the downtown avant-garde world he was moving in to concentrate on working with Reed. He became determined to demonstrate to Reed exactly what they could do with his songs by combining Reed’s groundbreaking lyrics and intense knowledge of rock & roll with Cale’s avant-garde approach to sonics. “I would fit the things Lou played right into my world,” Cale wrote. “He was from the other world of music and he fitted me perfectly. We were made for each other.”

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Cale and Reed, December 1965. Credit: dam Ritchie/Getty Images

Certainly, Cale’s musical sophistication meant that Reed would have taken his encouragement seriously. But Reed also served as a mentor to Cale, who was exactly Reed’s age and had just moved to New York from London. Unsteady as he may have been at the time, Reed was a street-wise native who knew the local terrain. He was ambitious and willing to hustle to get where he wanted to go. Cale recognised all those qualities in his new friend, and valued them. While he continued to live with his parents on Long Island, Reed began spending more and more time at Cale’s apartment at 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. The area consisted of tenement buildings and loft spaces that were increasingly becoming available, legally or illegally, as manufacturing businesses abandoned Manhattan. Rents in the area were impossibly cheap, and artists took over these spaces. Filmmakers, musicians, painters, sculptors and actors could live and work in the large flats, and would frequently stage performances there as well. The neighbourhood was grittily urban, but, as so often is the case with New York, that rawness mingled with lyricism and glamour.

Reed and Cale began intensely working on songs at Cale’s apartment. As their friendship developed, they realised they shared interests beyond music and literature, not all of them so high-minded. Reed’s consumption of drugs continued, while Cale recalled that “Before I met Lou, I had snorted, smoked and swallowed the best drugs in New York, courtesy of La Monte, but I had never injected anything. We smoked pot, took acid and other pills, mostly downs or Benzedrine. Now dime and nickel bags of heroin were added to the menu.” Reed injected Cale with heroin for the first time, an intimate initiation into the ninth circle of illicit drug use that bound the two men more closely together. It also led to their being stricken by hepatitis. In addition, Cale became familiar with Reed’s perverse desire to provoke. Reed, he wrote, “enjoyed taking situations to extremes you couldn’t imagine until you’d been there with him. He would befriend a drunk in a bar and, after drawing him out with friendly conversation, suddenly ask, ‘Would you like to fuck your mother?’ I thought I was reckless, but I’d stop at goading a drunk. That’s where Lou would start.”

Various members moved in and out of the group, including a couple of female singers, as Reed and Cale sought to define the music they wanted to create. They initially named the group the Warlocks, though the possibility of the Falling Spikes – an allusion to the slang use of “spike” for a syringe – seems to have been at least jokingly considered. Tony Conrad moved out of Cale’s Ludlow Street apartment and returned to filmmaking, and Walter De Maria decided to concentrate on his own artistic projects. Cale recruited Angus MacLise, another member of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, to be the group’s percussionist. Reed, meanwhile, encountered his old acquaintance from Syracuse, guitarist Sterling Morrison, on the subway one day, and he and Cale invited Morrison to play with them. He agreed and soon became a member of the group. The band decided to call itself the Velvet Underground after seeing a copy of a paperback book of that name that Tony Conrad had found in the street. (As with all origin stories, this one is somewhat in dispute: Angus MacLise’s wife later claimed that he had purchased the book.) Written by journalist Michael Leigh and published in 1963, The Velvet Underground explores the subterranean worlds of fetishism, extramarital sex and S&M, subjects that were far beyond the pale of mainstream publishing at that time. The title appealed to the band because the term “underground” was already being used to describe the experimental film scene taking shape in downtown New York. Applying that same subversive impulse to music could easily stand as a statement of intent for Reed and Cale’s artistic goals. That Reed was fascinated, both personally and as a songwriter, with what would at the time have been termed sexual deviance only made the reference all the more fitting.

In July of 1965, the band recorded demos of six songs – including “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Venus in Furs” – at the Ludlow Street apartment. Versions of that tape began to make the rounds as the band sought increased visibility and a record deal. John Cale brought a version of the tape to England and got a copy to Marianne Faithfull in the hope that she would pass it along to her boyfriend, Mick Jagger, or the Rolling Stones’ producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham. As inevitably happens, the tape began circulating beyond its intended recipients, and an English band aptly named the Deviants began performing “Prominent Men,” a mild protest song – complete with Reed mimicking Dylan’s phrasing and, unbelievably, harmonica accompaniment — that appeared on the tape.

Barbara Rubin, whose films the band occasionally accompanied, introduced the group to Al Aronowitz, an influential journalist and scenester in New York. Aronowitz, who wrote for the New York Post and was sufficiently well positioned to introduce the Beatles to Bob Dylan in a New York hotel in 1964, knew everyone and liked to make things happen. He wasn’t precisely a fan of the Velvet Underground, and when he took his friend Robbie Robertson of the Band to hear them, Robertson was completely dismissive. But Aronowitz was sufficiently intrigued to visit with the group while Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and songwriter Carole King waited in a limousine for him to finish. Whether in an official capacity or not, he became something like the Velvets’ manager for a brief time.

Aronowitz, who lived in New Jersey, also managed a folk-rock band named the Myddle Class, who were based in Berkely Heights. Aronowitz had booked the Myddle Class for something like a hometown gig at Summit High School in Summit, NJ, and he lined up the Velvet Underground as an opening act. It was to be the Velvets’ first paying job: $75, the equivalent of a month’s rent for many people in those days, but still not much given the four-way split. The prospect of a paying gig, however, was enough to drive Angus MacLise out of the band. The Velvets’ pop aspirations would always be in tension with their avant-garde urges, and that struggle was particularly acute for MacLise.

Reed, Cale and Morrison needed to find a replacement fast. One name that came up was Maureen Tucker, the younger sister of Jim Tucker, a friend of Sterling Morrison’s from Syracuse University whom Reed had also met. Going from a drummer who had been playing with one of the leading minimalist visionaries of the era to a college friend’s kid sister from Long Island who had never performed live might initially seem like a step down, but the choice of Maureen Tucker proved inspired. A rock band with a female drummer was simply unheard of at the time. It could have been seen as a gimmick, except that Tucker’s looks didn’t at all correspond to the eye-candy criteria that might have made that notion credible. She was slight, cute rather than conventionally pretty, and boyish looking. Her drumming, too, was a significant departure from most rock drumming. Though far from a virtuoso, she was an admirer of the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunje, the relentless tribal jams of Bo Diddley and the minimalist swing of the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts – hardly the presumed influences of a “chick drummer.” She played standing up, didn’t use a high-hat, never rode her cymbals and emphasised her tom-toms over her snare. The result was a sound that brought a raw primitivism to the Velvets’ more experimental moments, and added an off-kilter touch to their more conventional pop-sounding songs. That she had a car and an amp, both of which the band sorely needed, didn’t hurt. Reed traveled to Levittown, the Long Island suburb where Tucker was living with her parents, and auditioned her. On the strength of that one afternoon’s performance, she was in.

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Reed, Morrison, Cale and Tucker (from left), 1968. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Summit High School gig has become the stuff of legend, the unlikely place where the classic lineup of the Velvet Underground made its public debut. That the Velvet Underground were playing a gig at a high school was an example of the nonexistent infrastructure of the day for rock music. High schools held dances and had at least modest budgets; some hired bands to perform. Back then it was as simple as that. Admission was $2.50. By most accounts the Velvets’ three-song set – “There She Goes Again,” “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” – caused half the crowd that night to exit. Cale recalled apologising to the Myddle Class for driving people out of the room, but “secretly I was exhilarated.”

And, already, the Velvets began to exert the influence which is so much a part of their legacy. Clint Conley, who would later play in Mission of Burma, and Rob Norris, who would play bass in the Bongos, both were in attendance that night. “I think it was one of the most important nights of my life,” Norris said. “I felt like someone turned a blender on inside my head.”

From the book Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis. Copyright © 2017 by Anthony DeCurtis. Published by Little, Brown.