Trying for the Kingdom: Lou Reed’s Early Years

Music Features Lou Reed

“The first time Lou played ‘Heroin’ for me it totally knocked me out. The words and music were so raunchy and devastating. What’s more, Lou’s songs fit perfectly with my concept of music. Lou had these songs where there was an element of character assassination going on. He had strong identification with the characters he was portraying. It was Method acting in song.”
-John Cale, founding member of the Velvet Underground, from the book Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

“Lou Reed: Musician. Guitarist, singer, songwriter: the Velvet Underground. Solo recording artist. Godfather of punk.”
-From the book’s Cast of Characters

There is plenty of room for disagreement, but for me Lou Reed is most fascinating in the late ‘60s, in the early days of the Velvet Underground. He was tied to Andy Warhol and the Factory then, strung out on various kinds of drugs, sexually unrestrained and writing his best music. Paul Morrissey, who was Warhol’s right-hand man, didn’t think Reed could hold his own on stage, and so he foisted the German singer Nico, with her throaty voice and austere beauty, on the band for their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. There was an element of chaos in everything Warhol touched, and in combination with Reed’s dark vision of the American urban apocalypse, they created an album with an unfinished sound (“so cheap yet so good,” in Iggy Pop’s mind) that manages to seduce you with its wildness. The imagery of Reed’s lyrics keeps everything raw; the sex is sado-masochistic, the happiness is tinged with ruin, and the energy from the drugs is manic and dangerous.

For me, the iconic track from that first VU record will always be “Heroin.” The spirit of disorderly revolution, and the feeling of emptiness at the heart of the American dream that arguably began with the Vietnam era, is distilled to its essence here. This is the perfect embodiment of young Reed; poetic, sad, depraved.

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I tell you things aren’t quite the same

Good luck finding a copy of Lester Bang’s 1971 article, “Dead Lie the Velvets, Underground” from the defunct magazine Creem. But this quote from Reed, at least, is preserved:

“I meant those songs to sort of exorcise the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hoped other people would take them the same way. But when I saw how people were responding to them it was disturbing. Because like people would come up and say, ‘I shot up to “Heroin,’” things like that. For a while, I was even thinking that some of my songs might have contributed formatively to the consciousness of all these addictions and things going down with the kids today. But I don’t think that anymore; it’s really too awful a thing to consider.”

It’s the same old problem—how can you speak about a dark moment, in art, with subtlety? If you’re not outright denouncing the drug, and instead trying to depict the objective experience, can you expect everyone to read between the lines? Or will they hear the lonely guitar, and the warlike drum, and take in words like “kingdom,” “spike,” and “man,” and decide immediately that Reed is a Leary-esque drug prophet advertising the high?

Yes, heroin nearly ruined his life. But it wasn’t a slice of pure evil that came into his orbit unbidden. Reed was born to an accountant and a woman John Cale called an “ex-beauty queen,” and when he was 14, they made him undergo electroshock therapy to try to eradicate any trace of his bisexuality. When he went to Syracuse University, he chose to join ROTC so he wouldn’t have to take a gym class, and then held an unloaded gun to an instructor’s head so they’d kick him out.

There’s a reason someone like that gets into drugs, and that reason is escape. And it’s possible to discover in those lost hours. If Lou Reed shied away from that part of the story, he’d be lying. Heroin will destroy you, but it will also give you what you’re after.

When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

My favorite book is a collection of short stories called Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. It follows a young drug addict as he careens around the Midwest from one misadventure to the next, risking death and not really caring. Johnson saw something in that line—”And I feel just like Jesus’ Son”—something that struck him as true about the drug experience. I’m not sure I understand what the feeling must be like, of such power and destiny and strength, and anyone like me who has never delved into the hard drugs probably can’t know.

I have made big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death

Lou Reed would take methedrine (a brand of speed particular to the ‘60s) with his friend Billy Name, and go to a gay bar called Ernie’s to have sex, with each other or not, in the back. Then, still buzzing, they’d go out dancing, and then back to the Factory to fool around some more. In the book Edie: American Girl, journalist Danny Fields called Reed a “little devil, a great talent,” and said everybody was in love with him—”me, Edie, Andy, everyone.” The name “Velvet Underground” came from a 1963 pulp novel about aberrant sexual behavior in American adults.

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
In a sailor’s suit and cap

When they formed in 1965, the Velvet Underground were managed by Al Aronowitz, and their first gig was a high school in New Jersey. (Later, Warhol would book them odd gigs, like a psychiatrist’s convention where Edie Sedgewick danced on stage, or a Factory film festival, where the band played with their backs to the audience in front of a screen showing Warhol’s movies.) In Please Kill Me, Aronowitz described the band as “junkies, crooks, and hustlers,” who lacked the usual ideals you found in musicians.

But while Reed wasn’t political in the normal sense, despite a reference to “politicians making crazy sounds” and “dead bodies piling up in mounds” later in the song, there’s a profound sense of being born out of time in “Heroin” and the rest of his albums. He would never phrase it in terms of America’s diminishment, but this verse in particular never fails to remind me of Hunter S. Thompson’s wave speech from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It came out almost five years later, but the ending corresponds to Reed’s sense of loss:

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Maybe Reed sensed the collapse earlier than Thompson, but the atmosphere is the same. America is full of lost souls.

Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils of this town
And of himself and those around
Oh, and I guess that I just don’t know

Reed wrote “Heroin” in 1964, before he had formed the Velvet Underground, when he was 22 years old. The next year, under Aronowitz’s representation, they played at a tourist bar in the West Village to gain exposure. When Warhol came to see them play, they were using an electric viola, and he couldn’t tell if the drummer, Maureen Tucker, was a man or a woman. Morrissey sounded Reed out about whether he had management, but he was noncommittal. When Warhol showed interest, though, he backed out of the “handshake deal” with Aronowitz and joined with the Factory.

Some of Warhol’s flunkeys would dress up in leather, snap their bullwhips and dance on stage while the band faced away from the audience. They called themselves the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” and while the entire entourage was touring in 1966, they stopped in Hollywood to record part of the album in two nights. The rest was recorded in New York, and the total cost was around $3,000. Nobody was happy with how it turned out, and Nico was particularly upset because Reed would only let her sing on three tracks. Cale and Tom Wilson actually produced the music, though Warhol fought to help Reed keep his controversial lyrics intact. Verve Records only knew it sounded inaccessible, and they wouldn’t release it until 1967. The album was a commercial failure.

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow
And I really don’t care anymore
Ah, when that heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I’m as good as dead
And thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care

Reed hired a new manager and fired Warhol before recording the Velvet Underground’s next album. Nico had already quit, and Reed drove Cale out of the band by September 1968. The music would take on a more pop-oriented sound, but it still wouldn’t sell. Reed finally left to start his solo career in the summer of 1970. He had success with songs like “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Satellite of Love,” but it never again felt so raw, so dirty, so elemental. In “Heroin,” Reed starts slow and solemn, builds to a crescendo of maniacal strings, and settles back into that famous guitar riff to glide home. There’s a muddy, improvisational magic to the song, and to the entire album, that could only have been captured in a fugitive moment.

Reed burned for years, but this was the man at his brightest. Rest in Peace.

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