When Steve Katz, late of Blood Sweat & Tears and the Blues Project, signed on to produce some Lou Reed albums, he discovered that there were two Lou Reeds. The first one was an animal, captured beautifully live, and the second one was a zombie, sleepwalking through Sally Can’t Dance
I was about to leave Blood Sweat & Tears, the band I was in. Most of the time, I had enjoyed the music I was making, with both the Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears, but personalities and the music business always had to be addressed. I thought that on my own—and this would be the first time I would really be on my own—I would have the aesthetic freedom to choose whom I wanted to work with and how I would approach any given situation. I wasn’t going to suffer any more egos and assholes.
That is, until I met Lou Reed.
I first met Lou, or to put it more accurately, we first inhabited the same space, in 1966 when he was with The Velvet Underground. When I started out with the Blues Project, we were terrified of the Velvet Underground. We were suburban hippies, they were junkie warlocks. We balled girls in skirts and sandals. They were all about leather boots and whips and furs and God only knew what kind of dark sex magick they practiced. It was intimidating — we’d run into them all the time over at Max’s Kansas City which is where everyone would hang, but we kept our distance. The back room was where the avant-garde stars of the New York art, fashion, and music underground hung out. Andy Warhol would hold court with his coterie. We would eye each other suspiciously, but Lou and I would not formally meet until a few years later…
It was spring of 1973 and I was still in BS&T, rehearsing at our space in Dobbs Ferry, New York, just up the Hudson River from Manhattan. Lou was being managed by my brother, Dennis, who had just left RCA Records. He was to rehearse at our Dobbs Ferry studio with his new band of child rock ‘n rollers, local kids aptly called The Tots. That was how Lou and I were first introduced. It was Lou’s post-heroin, pre-speed period, a period when rock critic Lester Bangs referred to him as a “bibulous bozo”. Lou was drinking heavily then, confused about his sexual orientation, and shaking like a leaf. Lou Reed’s album, Berlin, had been a commercial failure. The question for Lou now was “What do you do after coming off of a bomb album?”
“In a studio situation, you have to live with the artist. My dream was to work with somebody who I liked and respected. This would not be that kind of situation.”
Luckily someone asked my opinion, and I replied, “You put Lou together with a great band and immediately record a live album of mostly Velvet Underground songs.” That way all those people who first heard Lou through “Walk on the Wild Side” would now be exposed, in a modern context, to some of the best material he ever wrote. The Tots were dismissed and replaced by an excellent band, some of whose members played on Berlin. Steve Hunter and my old friend Dick Wagner, both from Alice Cooper’s band, were the guitarists, In my opinion, it was their contribution, even more than Lou, that helped Rock ’n’ Roll Animal become a classic album.
Lou was doing epic amounts of speed. His drug of choice was methamphetamine hydrochloride, brand name – Desoxyn. He was losing weight and his shaking hands got worse. I was curious as to what Desoxyn felt like. One day, on a visit up to my house upstate, I asked Lou to leave me a pill before he left. Taking a break from my daily weed regimen, I swallowed half of it. I couldn’t get to sleep for three days. Nor could I properly form a chord on my guitar or press the play button on my tape deck. My wife had to change the channels on the TV. I was a zombie.
My first thought was, “How does he do this shit?”. My second thought was, “How do I come down from this shit?”. That’s when I switched to decaf, smoked another joint, and I haven’t looked back since.
Lou was probably too intelligent for his own good, but he could be one of the funniest people I had ever known, a refreshing change from the studio guys in boring old Blood, Sweat & Tears. That was the good side of him.
Lou respected that I was a musician and that we had a shared history in the New York underground, even if the Blues Project had been abjectly terrified of the Velvets. Lou, fully aware that I was looking for a way out of BS&T, liked my idea of doing a live record and asked if I would be interested in producing it. I had already produced one album, but I jumped at this chance to produce someone with a track record. My new career was about to take a giant step. I was getting back to rock & roll and overjoyed at the prospect of producing a possible hit album. I hadn’t even considered the fact that the compromises I would have to make producing this artist would make my role in the previous two bands seem like a walk in the park.
During the summer of 1973, Lou and I started spending more time together. Most of the time, I was able to see beyond the arrogance and the drugs and I learned that much of what Lou did was an act. Lou’s priority in life was to observe people and torture them, to find a person’s weakest point and go in for the kill. He was a pro at it. His questionable bisexuality during this period also lent him a mystique that he himself helped foster, but I knew that when you took that much speed, you probably couldn’t even get an erection and thus it became a moot point. In a perverse way, it probably caused his relationships, male or female, to be less threatening, but the illusion certainly fed his fans and critics alike.
Someone yelled out “Lou Reed sucks!” from the back of the Academy of Music. I kept it on the last part of the fade, and when I told Lou, he commented that he thought it was best thing I had ever done.
One evening, Lou asked me to pick him up and hang out. We decided to go down to Max’s Kansas City, but Lou had to make a stop first. He needed to see a Dr. Freyman, aka Dr. Feelgood, who was to give Lou his “vitamin” shot. I couldn’t believe he dragged me up there, so back in the car I turned to Lou and asked why he did that shit when he knew that eventually it could kill him. He told me that he would rather be dead than not do it. End of argument, Max’s, here we come.
The live concert that we decided to record was actually two back-to-back concerts at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music on 14th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan, on Friday, December 21, 1973. The band had rehearsed long enough on the road to keep the music fresh yet not too long to let it get stale. We hired the Record Plant remote, miked the band, ran the wires, did the sound check and were ready to go. Lou, as always, was the unknown factor. His performance depended not on any sense of professionalism but on whatever his mood was at the time, natural or artificially induced. Thankfully, in this case, it wouldn’t make too much difference. The band was that good.
With his skinny amphetamine physique, newly close-cropped dyed hair, leather jacket, and basically looking like a Hitler youth who just emerged after twenty-eight years in a Berlin bomb shelter, Lou was about to take the stage after the Hunter/Wagner overture and begin his classic “Sweet Jane”. Forget praying that Lou would sing in tune that night – I would have been happy if he came somewhere close to a melody. But he did, the band was terrific and the night a success.
When it was time for post-production, thankfully, Lou was still on tour so I was able to mix the album without the artist in attendance, a producer’s dream, and especially this artist in particular, who was just starting his descent into amphetamine-induced psychoses. He would take speed for a month or two and then clean out his system for another couple of weeks. This was when he was the most difficult to be around, not when he was high, but when he was in remission. This was when you did not answer the phone if Lou called. This was when I had to take two aspirin every time I had to speak with him. Maybe, I thought, being a musician in a band was not so bad after all.
RCA had a union rule, that if you were an RCA artist, you had to use an RCA engineer. The way around this was to record outside the country. Rock ’n’ Roll Animal was recorded in New York so I had to use a staff engineer, but I lucked out with Gus Mossler who, with his short hair and Archie Bunker-like demeanor, turned out to be a treasure. I would use Gus for the mix as well. We ran into only one problem: It’s usually wise to record the audience track separately, in stereo on two tracks, which we thought we had done until we listened to the playback and found that one track was missing, probably due to a faulty cable at the venue. It was still possible to “fly” an audience track in, so Gus came up with the idea of using someone else’s applause from the RCA vaults. So Gus went to the vaults, came back and asked if I minded borrowing the audience track from a John Denver concert. Mind? Could I have been any happier? Be still my beating heart! It was an absolutely brilliant idea.
As the album fades, I found that on the one original audience track, someone yelled out “Lou Reed sucks!” from the back of the Academy of Music. I kept it on the last part of the fade, and when I told Lou, he commented that he thought it was best thing I had ever done.
The real fun part was, like laugh tracks in sitcoms, you could play with the volume. Loud laughter can make a bad joke sound funny, loud applause can make a mediocre performance sound positively virtuosic, so halfway through “Sweet Jane,” when the band is still playing the overture, and Lou begins his entry onstage, we beefed up the applause. We turned up the volume so that it sounded as if the Pope just entered Vatican Square. It was beautiful, and that’s the way it stands to this day.
Rock ’n’ Roll Animal was released in February of 1974. The album got great reviews, tons of airplay, and sold well, picking up new fans and confusing the old ones without alienating them, which was good since that lot generally seemed to thrive on confusion.
With Rock ’n’ Roll Animal we got away from the high-minded stuff and made a decidedly excessive guitar romp aimed right for the heart of the beer-drinking American rock-concert-going public. But Lou could never escape pretense and was a victim of his own junkie gimmick, pretending to shoot heroin on stage, actually tying off and hitting himself in the arm with a syringe while crowds of stoned kids cheered him on, as if shooting dope in front of an audience for kicks was actually cool. But they ate it up like candy.
That same month we began pre-production of Lou’s new studio album. It was one thing to work with Lou on a live album. You record it one night and if your artist is a problem, you don’t have to spend too much time with him. In a studio situation, you have to live with the artist. My dream was to work with somebody who I liked and respected. This would not be that kind of situation. I shamelessly convinced myself that Lou could be a great artist when, in fact, the closer I got to working with him, the more I regretted it. My house upstate was my retreat, where I could pick up my guitar and not worry if Lou Reed was demanding my attention, where I didn’t have to answer the phone if I didn’t have to, and where I could gather the strength to deal with the next round of Lou’s psychological missiles which were becoming more tedious by the day.
We started to work on Lou’s next album. I booked Electric Lady Studios on 8th Street in Greenwich Village from March 18 to April 26, 1974. The extraordinary guitarists, Hunter and Wagner, had to rejoin Alice Cooper. I kept the Rock ’n’ Roll Animal rhythm section and replaced Hunter and Wagner with Danny Weis, a great Telecaster player who had been in Rhinoceros and did a stint with Iron Butterfly. I added Michael Fonfara on keyboards.
Sally Can’t Dance was to be a melange of styles – I was still trying to avoid the “concept” album route that had already been a commercial failure. I even added a horn section on two tracks. The two horn tracks, the title song, and “Ride Sally Ride” were R&B influenced.
“Kill Your Sons” was pure Lou Reed hostility with a little metal thrown in.
“Ennui” and “Billy” could have come from a folk-rock singer-songwriter repertoire, and “Animal Language” could have appeared on a children’s comedy album. The album had no real thread running throughout, though most of that was on purpose to avoid setting it too deep in one niche, which had been the commercial ruin of Berlin. I would rather have gone in the direction of Lou’s later albums, simpler and more guitar oriented. The one thing that Sally Can’t Dance lacked was Lou himself. He was at the sessions and contributed rough vocals when we needed him to, but otherwise, we had to work around him. Mostly he was just getting high. We would be working on tracks until 4AM and Lou would come out of the bathroom after shooting up and ask what “we” were going to do next. The rest of us, of course, had been done for hours.
That was it for Lou and I. I had to call off sessions for Coney Island Baby. Lou just couldn’t function properly at that point. RCA decided to put out an album of outtakes from Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and called it Lou Reed Live.