Like a lot of people, the first time I heard Lou Reed was in the fall of 1972 on a transistor radio. Slotted somewhere on the AM dial between “American Pie,” “Candy Man” and “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” and other hits of that year was this weird vamp portraying a shadowy world of a he becoming a she and sex for sale on the street.
You couldn’t sing it around your mom.
Who were these freakish characters, and who was this narrator who was too cool to even sing? We didn’t quite know, but after a few plays, it was too hard to resist, especially with the soulful, finger-snapping “doo-do-doo’s.”
“Walk on the Wild Side” was the only Top 40 hit charted by Lou Reed, who died Sunday at 71. It was Reed at his most commercial, and yet, the song, chronicling the flamboyant players in Warhol’s New York Factory, was still the essence of Lou Reed, pushing the boundaries and taboos that he’d established with the Velvet Underground a half-decade prior.
There’s that famous Brian Eno quote that “The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
Surely, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” — with its droning paeans to heroin and S&M sexual adventures — didn’t suit the flower-power zeitgeist in 1967. But the “Banana” record would help set the stage for the glam, punk, New Wave and goth movements of the next decade, and “VU-inspired” and “Velvet-y” are still among the most abused adjectives in rock criticism.
In many ways, the black-clad Velvet Underground was the antithesis of the Haight-Asbury hippie scene, so it’s a culture shock to recall that VU’s only stop in Pittsburgh, on Feb. 7, 1969, was with the Grateful Dead. It was one of the few shows that the Velvets played with the Dead, as Reed was openly antagonistic toward that scene.
On the other hand, the musically adventurous could find some sonic overlap between the two bands (both of which had been called the Warlocks at one time) in the way they experimented with noise, feedback, melody and psychedelic guitar jams. According to review of the show in a local rock mag, the Velvet Underground cleared the place out with its “sinister and frightening” songs about hard drugs and deviant sex.
“Sister Ray” is the last song,” according to the review. “It goes on for a full half hour. Three chords: EEE, D, A, EEE, D, A, EEE, etc. The scene is eerie. Together the band creates an apocalyptic vision of eroticism, sadomasochism and violence that is at once seductive and terrifying. The amplifiers feed back — the building seems to be shaking right to its foundations. The theatre is all but empty.”
Years later Reed talked about the pairing: “Once when we were playing on a bill with the Grateful Dead, some reporter from the Daily News asked me what was the difference between us and the Dead. With a perfectly straight face, I told him, ‘The difference is that they take the kids backstage and turn them on — but we shoot ’em up!’ Don’t you know, he actually believed me and printed that.”
By time Reed returned to Pittsburgh, the Velvet Underground was buried, and he was riding high with “Walk on the Wild Side” from his second solo album, “Transformer.” If you think the Grateful Dead billing was weird, this one tops it.
Rich Engler was the promoter of the show at the Alpine Ice Arena in Forest Hills in April 1973. “Lou was red hot,” Mr. Engler says, “and I was going to put my band [the Grains of Sand] on as the opening act. The agent said, ‘No, no, no. We got another act that’s going to do a few dates with Lou. They’re from England. They’re called Genesis.’ ”
Although Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, of Yes, had played on Reed’s self-titled solo debut, British progressive rock was a pretty far cry from the hard glam of “Transformer.” Memories of the early ’70s are fuzzy but as Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett once recalled, at least one show of the tour “deteriorated into a punch-up between the Lou Reed fans who were on downers and the Genesis fans who were more into Earl Grey tea.”
Mr. Engler says of the Alpine experience, “Lou Reed fans were so gooned up, when Peter Gabriel came out with that the flower on his head, people were going wild. That crowd was so weirded out by Gabriel, it went over.”
The “Sally Can’t Dance” tour in 1974, which found Reed in a funkier groove, went off smoothly at the Stanley — the PG headline was “He has little talent but plenty of nerve” — but his return there in ’78 was a nightmare. Reed was on the turbulent “Street Hassle” tour that produced the live album, “Take No Prisoners,” during which he repeatedly stops songs to rail against rock critics, among other things.
The Stanley show was marred by an atrocious sound mix — way too much “Moose” Boles bass — which drove the band off the stage after about 45 minutes. “People got thrown out, arrested, people were fighting. It was mayhem,” Mr. Engler recalls, forcing the band to return to finish the messy set.
There were no such glitches when he returned in ’84 after “New Sensations,” with that great Robert Quine/Fernando Saunders band, and then again in ‘86 after “Mistrial.” I recall one of those Syria Mosque shows being “Metal Machine”-volume loud to the point of pain.
Unfortunately, the ’86 show was his last in Pittsburgh.
In August ’89, supporting one of his stronger solo efforts, “New York,” he was set to play the Melody Tent at Station Square but broke his ankle in Cleveland two days before and was forced to cancel. It wasn’t much consolation that he made a brief ceremonial appearance at Metropol in May 1990 at a release party for “Songs for Drella,” his haunting Warhol concept album with former VU partner John Cale.
Although it attracted both Dennis Hopper and John Waters, Reed was a disappointing no-show at the opening of The Andy Warhol Museum in May 1994 and did not join Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker there later that year to provide a live soundtrack to Warhol films.
He didn’t make a public appearance there until 2007 when he opened “Lou Reed: New York,” a photo exhibit of his New York skylines. It was my one meeting with the man, who made a pastime out of torturing interviewers. In a third floor conference room, he wasn’t exactly friendly but he was relaxed, talking about how Warhol influenced his use of color.
He said of the building, “I do enjoy coming back here not as a member of the Velvet Underground — coming in through the door of pictures as opposed to from the door of music.”
Surprisingly, we were going to see Lou Reed again soon. In early October, Mr. Engler was negotiating a concert date with him for late November at the Benedum. Because the timing was too tight, they decided to push it back to early 2014. The promoter planned to call his agent Monday morning, but of course, he got the news Sunday that Reed had died.
Word from his doctor is that Reed fought to the end and was even doing tai chi exercises an hour before his death from liver disease.
From the Velvet Underground to the less loved “Lulu” (with Metallica), Lou Reed leaves behind a legacy as one of the great songwriters, poets, guitarists, iconoclasts and provocateurs of the rock generation, living a much fuller existence than anyone expected from the man who sang the words, “Heroin/it’s my wife and it’s my life.”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg