Mojo NOVEMBER 2016 - by David Fricke


Lou Reed's transition from cult morlock to mainstream solo artist was painful and drawn-out, beset by parental pressures, the shadow of The Velvet Underground, and doubts over his own destiny. Then Transformer, a hook-laden boho-glam fantasia enabled by VU fanboy David Bowie, changed everything. But for better or worse? "I know my obituary has already been written," Reed told David Fricke. "And it starts out, 'Doot di-doot di-doot...'"

On August 23, 1970, Maureen Tucker arrived at the Manhattan club Max's Kansas City to see her Velvet Underground bandmates. Tucker, their drummer, was on sabbatical, pregnant with her first child. The others - singer-guitarist-songwriter Lou Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and bassist-organist Doug Yule - were soldiering on with a substitute, Doug's younger brother Bill. The Velvets were in the second month of a summer residency at Max's and in the final stages of recording their fourth album, Loaded.

Tucker was not impressed by what she heard that night. "I didn't hate it, but it wasn't The Velvets," she said years later. She was shocked, though, when Reed stepped outside with her and said he was leaving the group. "I knew something must have been terribly wrong, that he had to leave to survive the thing."

Reed did not bother telling the rest of the band. Morrison - who co-founded The Velvets with Reed and original bassist-viola player John Cale in the summer of 1965 - recalled a phone call from manager Steve Sesnick: "He said, 'Lou's gone home and has quit the band.' We finished the week at Max's without him."

"Home" was 35 Oakfield Avenue in Freeport, Long Island, the suburban New York residence of Reed's parents, Sidney and Toby. It was also the house where the Velvets' leader - born in Brooklyn in 1942, the older of two children - spent a troubled adolescence in the 1950s amid the formative inspiration of vocal-harmony R&B and the early stirrings of rock'n'roll. Lou chafed against his accountant-father's middle-class Jewish conservatism while wrestling with his own sexual identity, undergoing electroshock treatment in 1959 and 1960 when Sidney and Toby sought psychiatric help for their son.

That turbulence and its afterburn, including hard-drug use, became the raw material for an unprecedented songwriting style. Reed's blunt, incisive examinations of love, need, deviance and redemption - honed by his immersion in contemporary fiction at Syracuse University and immortalised in feedback, drone and stark-comfort balladry on his four historic albums with The Velvet Underground - were rooted in his anxiety and rage on Oakfield Avenue. Yet on Reed's last night at Max's, Sidney and Toby came to the club and drove their son, after the second set, back to Freeport. Fed up with the music business and frustrated by The Velvets' perpetually dire record sales, Reed took a job as a typist in Sidney's firm.

"He really wanted me to be in the family business," Reed told me in 1989. "That was a real impossibility. But when I left The Velvet Underground, I just packed up. I'd had it." He said that Toby "always told me in high school, 'You should take typing. It gives you something all back on.' She was right."

Two years later, in April 1972, Reed played the first shows of the rest of his life: two dates in upstate New York at the University of Buffalo. He had a new record label, RCA, and was about to release his solo debut, Lou Reed, an ornately produced set of mostly old, unreleased Velvets songs cut in London with top session musicians. His backing group in Buffalo was more expedient: a young quartet from Long Island called The Tots.

"He didn't have much interaction with them," says Billy Altman, the future Creem editor on the student concert committee that booked the shows into the club-sized Millard Fillmore Room. On the first night a young woman jumped up on stage during the encore - Reed's drug-life memoir Heroin from 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico. "He freaked," Altman says. "She just wanted to touch him. But he got real spooked."

The next day Altman's story about the gig ran in the Buffalo News. When he and a friend visited Reed that afternoon at his motel, Altman noticed a copy of the newspaper on the bed, turned to his review. "I sheepishly said, Lou, great to meet you - you know, I wrote that," Altman says. "He took the paper, threw it off the bed and goes, 'Always great to get good press.'" Altman remembers something else about the encounter. While he was there, a messenger arrived with a special delivery: "a dozen roses spray-painted in gold." They were sent by David Bowie.

When RCA issued Lou Reed in May 1972, the company sent out a press bio with handwritten comments by the singer. For the period after his exit from The Velvet Underground, he wrote "exile and great pondering".

When we spoke in 1989 for his only cover story in Rolling Stone, he revisited this period of uncertainty. "Did I want to do it myself? Did I want to have a band? Did I just want to do songwriting, not even get on stage? I'm the last person in the world I'd have thought should be on stage. Some people like having a spotlight on them. I don't. What I like is the song and performing it. Doing it for people - who like it."

That dilemma - how to write original rock'n'roll songs of literary worth and true-life complexity, then to be heard and accepted without compromise - was the foundation and consuming force of Reed's life in The Velvet Underground, then across an audacious solo discography of more than thirty studio and concert albums until his death in October 2013 aged seventy-one. "My week beats your year," he boasted in the liner notes to the 1975 feedback bonfire, Metal Machine Music, a concise summation of the changes and challenge packed into the middle of that decade: the opulent 1973 song cycle, Berlin; the live, metallic KO of 1974's Rock 'N' Roll Animal; the wounded airs and doo-wop graces on 1975's Coney Island Baby; the violent subterranean noir of 1978's Street Hassle.

These extremes had a price: record sales veered wildly between the improbable - the 1974 snooze Sally Can't Dance was Reed's only Top 10 LP in America - to insult: Ecstasy, a late-period triumph stalled at 183 in Billboard in 2000. "I would like more commercial success," Reed said in 1986. "But it doesn't particularly affect what I do. Because I always end up doing the thing I like, for better or worse."

It could be said that Reed launched his solo career four months before he left The Velvet Underground. Over two days in April 1970, at Atlantic Records' New York studio, the band recorded demos of nine Reed songs before the formal sessions for Loaded. Only one, Rock And Roll, made it to that album. The rest were shelved, to be spread out in rerecorded, often rewritten, even retitled form on Reed's first three solo albums. Five of them - Walk And Talk It, I Love You, Ride Into The Sun, Love Makes You Feel and Ocean - were on Lou Reed.

Co-produced by Reed with Richard Robinson, a pop-music journalist then working at RCA, Lou Reed nearly killed the singer's new career at birth, selling just seven thousand copies in its initial weeks - a dismal return on the money spent on the December 1971 and January 1972 sessions at Morgan Studios in London. With extravagant arrangements lavished on songs first performed by The Velvets with simpler, intimate tension - a 1969 outtake, Lisa Says; the elegiac Ride Into The Sun; the stately Ocean - Lou Reed was a grand delusion: Reed dressing his orphans for the mainstream by raiding Elton John's wardrobe. Actually, he sidemen included John's guitarist at the time, Caleb Quaye, as well as guitarist Steve Howe and keyboard player Rick Wakeman of Yes.

"Lou saw the songs as his songs, divorced from having recorded them on previous occasions," Robinson says, recalling the album's genesis. "If he was singing a song and I liked it, it wouldn't bother me if he had done it fifteen times." In any case, "we would still wind up doing what he wanted to do.

"My approach is if somebody can do something with a minimum of technology - just their voice - make it as good as possible," continues Robinson, who'd produced cult-classic albums for the Flamin' Groovies and later worked with David Johansen and again with Reed on Street Hassle. "But Lou saw things in these songs that he now had the opportunity to do the way he wanted. My job was to keep him from committing suicide," he adds, laughing. "But Lou was pretty good at that."

Robinson had already played a part in Reed's emergence from his Oakfield Avenue seclusion. The singer had turned up at his apartment in mid-1971 with writer-publicist Danny Fields - a friend and Velvets fan from the Warhol orbit who was hoping Robinson would sign Reed to RCA. Robinson and his wife Lisa, also a prominent rock journalist, hosted informal get-togethers that drew fellow critics and music-biz associates - some of them stars, most of them hungry.

"Basically, we gave parties," Lisa wrote in her 2014 memoir, There Goes Gravity: A Life In Rock And Roll. "We ordered in Chinese food. I made brownies. The record company paid for it." Reed often sang and played acoustic guitar; he also brought his new wife, Bettye, an actress. "She was, in my house, an incredibly fleeting moment," Richard says, "standing over here, standing over there, never seen again." The marriage did not last, although she appears in the Lou Reed romp Wild Child ("I was talkin' to Betty about her auditions / How they made her ill"), originally a Velvets tune rehearsed at Max's.

"Lou played riffs for me, and I would make suggestions," Robinson says of those impromptu recitals, which included songs ultimately recorded for Lou Reed and, later, Transformer (Wagon Wheel, Hangin' Round). "That's how it started. And it never ended. There were a lot of people out there writing and singing great songs. They just didn't wind up in our apartment."

According to Lisa, Reed and Bowie - who also signed with RCA in 1971 - met at a dinner she arranged that autumn at the Ginger Man restaurant. (Bowie and Iggy Pop said hello for the first time that same evening at Max's.) They connected again a few nights later at the Robinsons' over Chinese take-out. Richard remembers Bowie and his manager Tony DeFries, "who was right out of Charles Dickens, taking magazines and underground newspapers from the apartment that had stuff on Lou. They were boning up on him before they started anything serious." It was Reed's idea to make his solo debut in London. "I'm not sure he had set his sights on Bowie at that point," Robinson says. "[He] just wanted to get out of New York." But Reed brought round-the-clock New York intensity with him. "He would stay up to six in the morning, playing everything over and over again." (Going Down - one of the few non-Velvets artifacts on Lou Reed, an odd stab at country soul punctuated with tubular bells - "was enough to make me sit in a chair, hold my head and wait 'til he was finished."

Lou Reed has its charms - the opening, comic crunch of I Can't Stand It, a nightly rave-up for The Velvets in 1968-69, driven here by the great British session drummer Clem Cattini; Berlin as a garage-rock ballad, two years before its makeover as the foreboding entrance to the 1973 album of that name. And Billy Altman remembers Reed perking up in that Buffalo motel room when talk turned to the LP's cover - a mélange of urban skyline, hummingbirds, a Fabergé egg and Reed's name in flowers and thorns, created by Tom Adams, well known for his jacket designs of Agatha Christie mysteries. "Reed said he specifically got him," Altman notes, "because he was a Raymond Chandler fan." Adams had recently finished artwork for a new series of Chandler's classic detective novels. "Of course," adds Altman, "if you were trying to get to people who knew The Velvet Underground, that was not the cover to do it."

Reed had moved on long before Lou Reed was released. On January 29, 1972, Robinson celebrated the end of recording with an intimate listening party at London's Portobello Hotel. Reed did not attend - he was in Paris, on-stage at the Bataclan for a partial Velvet Underground reunion with John Cale and singer Nico. Back in London that summer, talking to Mick Rock for a story in Rolling Stone, Reed dismissed his new record - taking none of the blame. "I was in dandy form," he declared. "I'm just aware of all the things that are missing and all the things that shouldn't have been there."

The next LP was already done, Rock reported. And it was, Reed assured him, "groovier".

Released seven months after Lou Reed, in December 1972, Transformer was the complete opposite of disaster: an absolute triumph. It was Reed's first hit LP - reaching Number 29 in Billboard; going Top 20 in the UK - and featured his two biggest singles: Walk On The Wild Side, his affectionately barbed roll call of the desperately glamorous misfits and sexual changelings passing through The Factory, the studio-circus of The Velvets' original manager-patron Andy Warhol; and Perfect Day, a ravishing example of what the critic Ellen Willis called Reed's "distinctive cosmic sadness" and Reed's only UK Number 1 in a 1997 remake. "Great chord change," Reed said of the song in 2003. "You find one of those, then that's it. You're done."

Transformer also had Bowie: then twenty-five, five years younger than Reed but the bigger star and a label-mate; leveraging his overnight success as the star-crossed glam superhero Ziggy Stardust to save his idol's record deal. Bowie - who co-produced Transformer with Mick Ronson, his guitarist-consigliere in the Spiders From Mars - was steeped in Reed's history and associations with the New York avant-garde. Reed, in turn, was willing to be led to glory. "I wanted to see how he did things," he later said of Bowie. "What did he do? He seemed really quick and facile. I was very isolated. Why were people talking about him so much? What did he do that I could learn?"

"It seemed like a happy bunch of people," says photographer Mick Rock, who shot defining images of both artists that year and remained close to them for the next four decades. Rock attended the Transformer sessions at Trident Studios in August '72 and says, "Lou very much put his trust in David. It was Lou's album. But David and Mick's influence on him was huge, and he was happy to listen."

The romance went into high gear on July 8, 1972, when Bowie and The Spiders played a Save The Whales benefit at London's Royal Festival Hall. For the encore, Reed came out to sing three Velvets songs, backed by the headliners - his British stage debut. "It was David's concert," says Rock, who met Reed for the first time backstage that night. "But when I look at the pictures I took, you can see that Lou was important to him." While Reed was in the spotlight, "David never went to the microphone with him. He held back, extremely respectful."

A week later, on July 14, Reed played a full show at the Scala Cinema in King's Cross with The Tots, imported from Long Island. Guitarists Vinny Laporta and Eddie Reynolds, bassist Bobby Resigno and drummer Scottie Clark remained Reed's road band into mid-1973. Rock's iconic photo on the cover of Transformer - Reed at the mike with a thousand-yard stare, his face coated in white Japanese classical-theatre make-up - was taken at the Scala.

"Lou was very quiet, a subdued personality," Rock says, describing his first impressions. "He had a certain underground reputation in England. The know-it-alls knew about him. But he wasn't overly social. He wasn't staying in the middle of London. Lou was actually staying in a condo in Wimbledon."

The Velvets' reputation - and Reed's standing as an intimidating authority on New York drug culture, transgressive sex and the joys of noise - preceded him. In London in 1965, John Cale left an early rehearsal tape of the band with Marianne Faithfull, asking her to pass it on to Mick Jagger (she did not). Two years later, Warhol met Paul McCartney and The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein to find funding for a Velvets tour of Britain; that too came to nothing.

Bowie recorded his first cover of a Reed song, I'm Waiting For The Man, in 1967 with freak-beat combo The Riot Squad, returned to it at a session for the BBC in April 1970, and paid explicit homage to Reed's old band on 1971's Hunky Dory in the proto-glam grenade Queen Bitch. "Some V.U., White Light, Returned With Thanks," Bowie noted on the back cover, next to the song title. RCA "had a lot of faith in Bowie," said Dennis Katz, the A&R executive who signed Reed and Bowie to the label. The company was ready to drop Reed over the expense and woeful sales of his first album. "But if David took over, they could accept that."

Transformer was recorded briskly at Trident as Bowie prepared for a British tour and, right after that, his first US shows as Ziggy Stardust. "They were day sessions, which was unusual for David," engineer Ken Scott said in a 2013 interview, because the star and his Spiders were rehearsing at the Rainbow Theatre in the evenings. Bowie also got bored quickly in the studio. "When he was finished with his role," added Scott, "he was out the door."

Typically, Reed ran down a tune for Ronson. "Then," Scott said, "Ronno would transfer what the song actually was to the session musicians" - among them, The Beatles' Hamburg friend Klaus Voormann on bass, Patto drummer and future Rutle John Halsey and Bowie's old sax tutor, British jazzman Ronnie Ross, who played the baritone solo over Herbie Flowers' doubled-bass glide on Walk On The Wild Side. Arrangements were, Scott said, "worked out on the spot."

Katz later expressed surprise over the production, which "did not come out the way I expected it... it was much too sparse." Actually, Transformer was brilliant, nuanced subversion, with Ronson's hard-rock moxy and instinctive tonal finesse as an arranger binding Reed's contradictory gifts - lyric shock, that seething monotone, the tenderness of his favourite doo wop records - into a striking, eccentric accessibility. Transformer was the Loaded Reed never got to finish. Or as he put it in early 1973, listening to Walk On The Wild Side with a journalist in New York, "That's my masterpiece. That's the one that will make them forget Heroin."

Transformer was also Reed's rebirth as a composer and storyteller, triggered while he was still hiding out with his parents on Oakfield Avenue. At one point, Warhol - fired by Reed as The Velvets' manager in 1967 but unable to hold a grudge - asked his old protégé to write music for a Broadway show that ultimately went nowhere. But Reed salvaged three songs from the job, saving them for Transformer: Make Up, a wily play on gender transformation spiked with cartoon tuba; the catty miniature New York Telephone Conversation; and Vicious, with its taut, dirty riff and a first line from Warhol.

"He said, 'Why don't you write a song called Vicious?'" Reed said in 1989. "I said, Well, Andy, what kind of vicious? 'Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.' And I wrote it down, literally - I kept a notebook in those days."

Walk On The Wild Side came out of another theatrical commission, an adaptation of Nelson Algren's 1956 novel, A Walk On The Wild Side, that never got off the page. Robinson first heard the song in his living room, sung by Reed with less-than-precise background vocals by rock critic Richard Meltzer: "Lou had the rhythm, the phrasing and ninety per cent of the lyrics," Robinson says. "I honestly don't know why we didn't record it" for Lou Reed. "He may have been holding on to it - for something better."

Robinson also recalls Reed playing Satellite Of Love, a deceptively menacing refugee from the Loaded demos, during the Lou Reed sessions: "It was just once in the studio, just messing around." The words may have still been in flux. "I've been told that you've been bold with Harry, Mark and John," Reed sang in the jaunty, accusing bridge on Transformer. In The Velvets' take, the three cads came from a nineteenth century children's poem: Wynken, Blynken And Nod.

"Jesus, best left forgotten," Reed exclaimed with a mock-sigh in 1994. "I probably wanted to make sure I wasn't using a name that really meant something to me. I mean the song is about the worst kind of jealousy." Fortunately, he said, "the melody was so pretty."

That instinct and potency - serving the bitter inside the sweet - went back to Oakfield Avenue in the '50s: Reed "trying to figure out solid geometry" to the street-corner love songs on his radio - records by The Diablos, The Paragons and The Jesters. "All my background vocal parts are based on that kind of music," Reed said, including that saucy vocal lick in Walk On The Wild Side, echoed by "the coloured girls" - British backing singers Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou and Casey Synge, AKA Thunder Thighs. "I know my obituary has already been written," Reed cracked in the '90s. And it starts out, 'Doot, di-doot, di-doot...'"

A year almost to the day after he sang with Bowie at the Royal Festival Hall, Reed was in London again, recording his third solo album, Berlin, at Morgan Studios. The producer was Alice Cooper vet Bob Ezrin. Bowie was in Britain as well, playing his last concerts as Ziggy. He and Reed were already estranged. "This is going to totally destroy them," Reed said of Berlin, a harrowing passion play with kitchen-sink production that alienated the majority of Bowie fans who bought Transformer. "I told people I was gonna do that. They throw me in so many categories."

Reed was a little more reasonable looking back, years later, at his short-lived spell in Bowie's glitter-era aura. "A lot of it reminded me of Warhol," he said in 1987. "It was just that more people were doing it. Then it became stylised and commercialised. And when that happened, it became nothing."

"You have to remember the craziness," Rock says now, looking back at the intensity of Reed and Bowie's partnership in '72 and their parting by '73. "You can put it down to the drugs - it sounds facile, but it's legitimate. It started to come in for David. And Lou was overstimulated to be honest. He wouldn't sleep for days. That had a lot to do with the fragmentation of the relationship."

Reed was also tired, Rock says, "of interviews where people always wanted to talk about the sex and drug songs" - and about Bowie. "Lou got very touchy. He wanted to shake that off." At one point, during an exchange of jabs in the press, Reed called Bowie "a very nasty person, actually".

"It was more Lou misunderstanding what David was saying," Rock claims. "But that passed." On January 7, 1997, Bowie's fiftieth birthday, Reed joined him at the mike - singing Queen Bitch and I'm Waiting For The Man - during an all-star bash Bowie threw for himself at New York's Madison Square Garden. A few years later, Bowie took the vocal part of a comic, homicidal dwarf, Hop Frog, on The Raven, Reed's 2003 treatment of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems. And Rock says that after Reed died, Bowie told his widow, Laurie Anderson, that he thought Reed's last album, 2011's controversial Lulu, made with Metallica, "was one of the best things he'd ever done."

Rock says he has photographs of Bowie and Reed, now both gone, from their summer of '72, sitting together at London's Dorchester Hotel "with their arms around each other. They bonded very quickly, the two of them. And that carried on. There was that confrontation. But as they got older, the love came back. There is no doubt about that."