Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The pieces come into place for the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed to become massively influential

I'm finally committing to a full-length Lou Reed biography. Alongside The Beatles, Reed is second on my list of musical performers I wish I could have seen perform live. So he's a big deal to me. I started PCLB's coverage of Lou Reed: The King of New York, by Will Hermes, with an article about what Lou Reed was like before he was The King of New York

Here's part 2.

A history of mental-health issues and hepatitis likely saved Lou Reed from getting drafted into the Vietnam War. It probably helped that he allegedly told the draft board to give him a gun and he “would shoot anyone or anything in front of me.” This fortunate turn allowed him to focus on music and he got a job as a songwriter for Pickwick Records.

John Cale, the Velvet Underground's other guitarist, was born in Wales one week after Reed and had his own early mental-health issues. Reed and John Cale’s first iteration of a music group was to busk on the streets of Manhattan, but soon they put together a band that included Sterling Morrison. They called themselves The Falling Spikes until they changed their name to the Warlocks, which was at the same time the name of a band that would soon change its own moniker to the Grateful Dead. Moe Tucker joined as the band’s drummer right after they were wisely renamed the Velvet Underground. Their first gig was at a Jersey high school with about 1,000 people in attendance. While some were mesmerized, many others ran out screaming from the drone noise.

Next, enter Andy Warhol, who grew up as Andy Warhola in Pittsburgh. Like Reed, he had also suffered mental breakdowns as a child. But that was also a time when he developed his strategy to mostly stay quiet rather than telling people what to do. It became his style and power. He offered to be VU’s manager as long as he got a 25 percent cut. 

Nico allegedly first witnessed the Velvets in action on the same night Warhol first saw them. She had been kicking around as a singer and had even previously hung out with Bob Dylan for a week or so. She called that night seeing VU “the most beautiful moment in my life.” Reed came around pretty quick to her joining the band, although he was still pretty insecure as the lead, saying “I was just this poor little rock and roller and here was this goddess.” 

As they worked on the many brilliant songs from the debut album, Reed and Nico entered a relationship. Years later, she called him “very soft and lovely. He always stayed that way. I used to make pancakes for him.” She also always kind of thought Lou held a grudge against her for what her German people did to his Jewish people. During the same short period that Reed and Nico dated, Cale and It Girl Edie Sedgwick also had a brief fling.

Things didn’t stay great with Nico and the band all that long. She wanted to play Dylan covers and the band mostly refused, knowing he was one of their top rock’n’roll poet competitors. She also asked to sing “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” to which Reed refused. 

But much more influential on Reed than Nico was Warhol. They were best friends and a lot alike. “But Reed’s biggest takeaway was Warhol’s work ethic, which would stick with him for life.” Reed also watched closely as Warhol transformed himself from an “uptown commercial artist” into a flamboyant and open gay man - “in the tentative pre-Stonewall era” - knowing that it was possible to remake himself anyway he liked. 

Billy Name was a kid from the New York suburbs and he became a right-hand man at Warhol’s Factory art spaces. While Warhol and Reed were “strictly comrades,” Name and Reed clicked and not only hung out but would sometimes hook up together afterwards. 

The band finally hit the road - with Nico driving scarily in the English style of occasionally drifting into the wrong lane while Warhol “couldn’t care less” - going to Rutgers and the University of Michigan. It’s safe to say people in the hinterlands didn’t really get it, but the Velvets were about to begin a residency throughout April 1966 in the East Village at a run-down, smelly place called the Dom that was going to truly start to put them on the map, much like The Beatles at the Cavern Club a few years earlier.

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