Reed called one song “Growing Up in Public” and his career was an ongoing exhibit of how any subject could be set to rock music — the death of a parent (“Standing On Ceremony), AIDS (“The Halloween Parade”), some favorite movies and plays (“Doin’ the Things That We Want To”), racism (“I Want to be Black”), the electroshock therapy he received as a teen (“Kill Your Sons”).
Reviewing Reed’s 1989 topical album “New York,” Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote that “the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery — plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation — all that’s missing is a disquisition on real estate.”
He was one of rock’s archetypal tough guys, but he grew up middle class — an accountant’s son raised on Long Island. Reed was born to be a suburban dropout. He hated school, loved rock n’ roll, fought with his parents and attacked them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy as a supposed “cure” for being bisexual. “Families that live out in the suburbs often make each other cry,” he later wrote.
His real break began in college. At Syracuse University, he studied under Schwartz, whom Reed would call the first “great man” he ever encountered. He credited Schwartz with making him want to become a writer and to express himself in the most concrete language possible. Reed honored his mentor in the song “My House,” recounting how he connected with the spirit of the late, mad poet through a Oiuja board. “Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore,” he sang.
Reed moved to New York City after college and traveled in the pop and art worlds, working as a house songwriter at the low-budget Pickwick Records and putting in late hours in downtown clubs. One of his Pickwick songs, the dance parody “The Ostrich,” was considered commercial enough to record. Fellow studio musicians included a Welsh-born viola player, John Cale, with whom Reed soon performed in such makeshift groups as the Warlocks and the Primitives.
They were joined by a friend of Reed’s from Syracuse, guitarist-bassist Sterling Morrison; and by an acquaintance of Morrison’s, drummer Maureen Tucker, who tapped out simple, hypnotic rhythms while playing standing up. They renamed themselves the Velvet Underground after a Michael Leigh book about the sexual subculture. By the mid-1960s, they were rehearsing at Warhol’s “Factory,” a meeting ground of art, music, orgies, drug parties and screen tests for films that ended up being projected onto the band while it performed, part of what Warhol called the “Floating Plastic Inevitable.”
“Warhol was the great catalyst,” Reed told BOMB magazine in 1998. “It all revolved around him. It all happened very much because of him. He was like a swirl, and these things would come into being: Lo and behold multimedia. There it was. No one really thought about it, it was just fun.”
Before the Velvets, references to drugs and sex were often brief and indirect, if only to ensure a chance at radio and television play. In 1967, the year of the Velvets’ first album, the Rolling Stones were pressured to sing the title of their latest single as “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” instead of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” when they were performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The Doors fought with Sullivan over the word “higher” from “Light My Fire.”
The Velvets said everything other bands were forbidden to say and some things other bands never imagined. Reed wrote some of rock’s most explicit lyrics about drugs (“Heroin,” ”Waiting for My Man”), sadomasochism (“Venus in Furs”) and prostitution (“There She Goes Again”). His love songs were less stories of boy-meets-girl, than ambiguous studies of the heart, like the philosophical games of “Some Kinda Love” or the weary ballad “Pale Blue Eyes,” an elegy for an old girlfriend and a confession to a post-breakup fling:
It was good what we did yesterday
And I’d do it once again
They fact that you are married
Only proves you’re my best friend
But it’s truly, truly a sin