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The strange case of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground hiatus


The Velvet Underground were essentially less popular in their day than the cover band down your local that you suffered through last night. As Brian Eno once said, and I will continue to quote time and time again simply because it’s so remarkable: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

Nevertheless, two factors made Lou Reed’s return to civility seem impossible. Firstly, the band had pioneered something that could never be put back in the bottle. As David Bowie once opined: “It was Bob Dylan who brought a new kind of intelligence to pop songwriting but then it was Lou [Reed] who had taken it even further and into the avant-garde.”

The second factor is that he delved so deeply into the subterranean underbelly of society in song that you never thought he could emerge quite the same as a person. In an era of staunch conservatism, despite the retrospective view on flowery headbands, Reed’s tales of fetishes, freaks and f—king about with drugs surely ostracised him even if they were just pipedream tales to go with his equally visceral melodies. 

Thus, in a weird sort of way, the next chapter in Reed’s unfurling wayward existence is almost more stupefying than the first. In 1970, Lou ‘The Wild Child’ Reed, took a break from The Velvet Underground, broke and briefly spiritually beaten, and lived the quiet life in Long Island, all suited and booted at his father’s accountancy firm. 

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In fact, the tale gets even more domestique than that. After he wrapped up a set suddenly and quit. He waltz out of the dingy dive bar that they were playing, phoned his parents from the bar and got them to collect him from the street. At the time, he was the 28-year-old barely recognised king of seedy, sultry and account-eviscerating rock ‘n’ roll. 

Thereafter, in a state of post-traumatic despair, he entered a 48-hour stupor and failed to emerge from his old boyhood room. A few weeks later, as if to purge his body he donned a business suit and sulked his down to his father’s office. In an alternate universe, this could’ve been the end for Lou Reed the rocker and start of a successful family business, but, naturally, he hated it and in a twist of fate, it proved to be the most fertile creative ground of his career. 

As John Cale once opined in 1974: “I think he might start writing good songs again, were he to go back and live with his parents. That’s where all his best work comes from. His mother was some sort of wealthy ex-beauty queen and his father was a wealthy accountant.” From that safe bosom of his childhood home, Reed was able to view the underbelly like a voyeur and his self-titled solo masterpiece was born.

However, it is a note that will change tracks like ‘I Can’t Stand It’ forever when you picture Reed punching figures into a calculator before returning home for the home-cooked roast before scurrying up his room, turning over the ‘Keep Out!’ sign on his door and scribbling down a quick ‘Ride into the Sun’.