The Year Lou Reed Gave Up on Music


At Max’s after the reading, Reed tried to put on a good face, at one point challenging the rock critic Richard Meltzer to a drinking contest. But he felt the response to his reading had been decidedly lukewarm, and by the night’s end, Reed was drunk and miserable. Kronstad recalls him “with his head in his arms on a table in the back room, incredibly sad. He felt totally rejected.”

Soon after the event, Reed decided to revive his music career. Kronstad remembers a night of heavy drinking that ended at “a Long Island gay bar,” where Reed was received as prodigal royalty. They closed the place, and she drove them home in his dad’s Mercedes; they both passed out in his parents’ den. The next morning, Reed laid out his new career plans to Kronstad. He also proposed marriage.

Startled, Kronstad declined, asking for time to think about it. She figured Reed was an alcoholic. But she also figured he was a genius, and was confident that, for better or worse, he was en route to becoming a very famous, paid-in-full rock star.

The path back to rock stardom was circuitous.

Around this time, Reed had been in conversation with an Off Broadway director named Carmen Capalbo, who was trying to stage a rock musical based on Nelson Algren’s novel “A Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed had been approached to possibly contribute some songs, and even after the project fizzled, the book’s themes, and its title, stuck with him.

The first to hear what he would do with them was the rock ’n’ roll power couple Lisa and Richard Robinson. She was an ambitious music journalist, he an artists-and-repertoire man and youth-culture barometer at RCA Records. They both revered the Velvet Underground, and after meeting Reed through Fields, they had him over for dinner at their Upper West Side apartment in the spring of 1971.

That night, and on subsequent ones, they recorded him playing songs on acoustic guitar. Some were outtakes from the Velvets era; others were new, including a giddy sketch about Manhattan life with a hooky chorus revolving around the phrase “take a walk on the wild side.” Richard liked what he heard, and thought he could get Reed a record deal. He did.

Will Hermes is an occasional contributor to The New York Times and is the author of “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever.”


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