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Reed, Lou

Category: Musician or composer

 

Lewis Allan "Lou" Reed (March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013) was an American musician, singer, and songwriter. He was the guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of the Velvet Underground, and his solo career spanned several decades.

The Velvet Underground has gained a considerable cult following over the years and has gone on to become one of the most widely cited and influential bands of the era. Brian Eno famously stated that, while the Velvet Underground's debut album "sold only [sic] 30,000 copies, everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."

What many do not know is that the inspiration behind the Velvet Underground largely stems from the brutal and callous treatment he received at New York psychiatric hospital.

 

Reed’s family was Jewish, and although he said that he was Jewish, he added, "My God is rock'n'roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar." 

He was gifted as a teenager but fragile.  Having learned to play the guitar from the radio, he developed an early interest in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and during high school played in several bands.  His love for playing music and his desire to play gigs brought him into confrontation with his anxious and unaccommodating parents. So they took him to a psychiatrist. 

The psychiatrist suggested electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), his parents consented.

Lou Reed  - Please Kill Me (1996)
They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That's what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can't read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.

'Closest thing to Hell in Queens': Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital opened
in 1912 in Queens Village for 32 patients. It became a place of destitution and
the abandoned building still stands today 
 

I will now turn to an article which summarises Aiden Levy’s book [see below references] about the treatment meted out to Lou.

The article is by Daniel Bates and can be found in the DailyMail online website.

Wrapped up in a bed sheet and with a rubber block between his teeth, 17-year-old Lou Reed was carefully placed on a wooden gurney for treatment.  He was given no anesthetic and just a muscle relaxant to calm him as the two electrodes were placed on his head.

Two orderlies barely older than him lay across his chest and knees to brace him for what was to come.  Then a doctor flipped a switch and the musical genius who would later found the Velvet Underground convulsed in agony.  Lou Reed had just had his first taste of electroshock therapy - a treatment he was given in part because of his sexuality.

By the time Reed arrived jazz pianist Bud Powell had already passed through
its doors and undergone a year of electroshock therapy.
Woody Guthrie would die there in 1967
 

Reed's parents had sent him for 24 sessions at two day intervals at the Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens, New York during the summer of 1959 because of his mental health issues.   But it turned him even further away from them and Reed thought to himself: 'He had read Frankenstein: now he was living it'. 

In 'Dirty Blvd: The Life and Music of Lou Reed', Levy writes that Reed's parents sent him to a psychiatrist after he had graduated Freeport High School and had just started at New York University.  He was grappling with clinical depression, mood swings and was experiencing his first homosexual urges.  At the time attitudes towards gay men and women were radically different that they are today; homosexuality was only removed from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973.

The institution opened in 1912 in Queens Village as a farm colony for the nearby Brooklyn State Hospital and was originally only supposed to house 32 patients.  By the mid 1950s hundreds had been consigned to its grim, dank halls where drug dealing among the staff and patients was common.  Hundreds of children diagnosed with 'autistic schizophrenia' were given electroshock therapy at Creedmoor over the next decade.  Levy writes that the facility was 'plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies, inhumane treatment, and brutality endured by the thousands of inpatients sequestered within its concrete walls, some of whom were tortured artists'.

 

By the time Reed arrived. jazz pianist Bud Powell had already passed through its doors and undergone a year of electroshock therapy. 

Woody Guthrie would die there in 1967.

In 1974 New York state ordered an inquiry after 22 assaults, 130 burglaries, six suicides and a riot all took place within a 20 month period.  And even during the 1980s the abuse continued, according to a New York Times article called 'Fear and Brutality in Creedmoor'

In the book Levy interviewed Dr Irwin Mendelsohn, whose residency at Creedmoor began in 1960 shortly after Reed was there.  He said: 'It was mainly used to treat people who were considered in serious danger of suicide.'  Dr Mendelsohn said that patients were given 'mostly muscle relaxants to prevent fractures. I think the person was pretty aware of what was going on'.

 

He said: 'A lot of it was not so much treatment; warehousing was the term that comes to mind.  'Many of these people were very sick, depressed, and there wasn't much that could be done.  'They were not candidates for psychotherapy, for the most part, and they were abandoned by their families.'

Reed's therapy began by being tied into the gurney with the two orderlies above him and the doctor pacing behind his head, Levy writes.  The book says: 'The doctor flipped the switch on a metal box, the size of a small amplifier, and Lou Reed, who had up to that moment in his life been an acoustic human being, became quite literally electrified.

'It only lasted a few seconds, but the excruciating pain of the convulsions was far more than any seventeen-year-old suffering from the usual maladies of existential angst and heartache was able to bear.  'If the orderlies had not stabilized his back during the seizure, he would have broken his back'.

The treatment left Reed in a stupor.

His short term memory was permanently damaged and he and his family suffered the stigma of being mentally ill.  Neighbors gossiped and Reed became even more of an outsider.  Levy writes that the electroshock therapy led Reed to 'question whether it was he that was crazy or everyone else, and it wasn't him'.

Velvet underground

He writes: 'The punishment solidified Lou's unflappable spirit of rebellion...Lou had already embraced the counterculture, but electroshock secured his allegiance to the underground.  'If he wanted to escape he would have to do it himself.'

In April this year as he was about the be admitted posthumously to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame his sister Merrill Reed Weiner defended their mother and father and said they acted on bad advice from doctors.  Reed's sexuality had nothing to do with their decision, she said.

Weiner, a psychotherapist, wrote in an article for Medium: 'My parents were many things, but homophobic they were not.'  Weiner also said that their parents were 'treated as perpetrators by the psychiatric establishment' and were left feeling 'hopeless and guilty'.

She wrote: 'For all those whose families' lives were damaged by the pervasive medical thinking of the time, I hope to offer solace and comfort'.

 

The treatment that Lou Reed received, the trauma and pain, the living hell he was subjected to did not turn him in upon himself.  Those in hell and gifted, as he was, often surge to great heights of creativity and genius in order to restore the balance in the universe – sometimes they create heaven in their music to show that heaven exists, sometimes they recreate hell to show what it is like. 

Author Aiden Levy writes that going through such trauma at such a young age cemented Reed's anti-establishment views, his hatred of the system and his refusal to conform.  He would be an outsider for the rest of his life, but then truly gifted people are.  Those who are gifted and spiritually inclined look at the world created by the ‘white man’ and are horrified by what they see.

The world of the white man, particularly in America, is aggressive and brutal.  Aggression wins of course in the short term, in the sense that the meek cannot stand up against the truly brutal.  But as Jesus said ‘the meek will inherit the earth’.  Lou Reed’s influence and music will be remembered long after the psychiatrists who tortured him.

Reed fled the suburbs of Freeport in Long Island as soon as he could and found his way to the Lower East Side in Manhattan where he met John Cale and founded the Velvet Underground.

They fused experimental noises with the beat poetry of Alan Ginsburg to form a revolutionary sound that brought the 'seedy underbelly' of New York to the mainstream.  Sex, sadomasochism and drugs were the themes of the group, who were chosen by Andy Warhol to be the house band at his infamous Factory work and party space. 

When you listen to his music, it is not right to think that the sex, the sadism and the drugs were part of him or the people round him.  They are mirrors of American culture.  He and all around him were simply reflecting the world of the American white men who sell and manufacture porn, who run establishments like Rockland state hospital or who sell and prescribe pharmaceuticals to children without illness or adults who need simple emotional help and not drugs.

Weiner may say 'For all those whose families' lives were damaged by the pervasive medical thinking of the time, I hope to offer solace and comfort'.  But there is no comfort to offer.  The pervasive medical thinking has not changed.  Instead of ECT the solution to the non conformist is now pharmaceuticals, legally administered and just as damaging. 

 

If you shudder at the aggression in the music or poetry of today, shudder instead at the culture they are trying to capture and reflect back.  Lou Reed and other American artists and musicians are mirrors.  Just mirrors.  If you do not like what you see in the mirror, then it is time to change it.

After his death in 2013 at the age of 71 Reed was inducted into the Rock n Roll hall of fame while the Velvet Underground are now seen as one of the most influential bands of all time.

"Lou Reed doesn't just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we're likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised."

—Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, (1979

 

References

 

 

 

 

The book describing the treatment that Lou received is called Dirty Blvd: The Life and Music of Lou Reed and is by Aidan Levy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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