How one bird paved the way for New York City’s experimental rock scene…
As many of you are already well aware, rock n’ roll legend, poet, prophetic deviant, and experimental visionary Lou Reed passed away yesterday. I could dedicate an entire post to Reed’s career, and how his music’s significance is not only important to rock music, but greatly affected my youth and development as a writer. However, no words could do the comprehensive and ever-changing nature of his musical repertoire justice.
Reed’s music transcends genre, and at times has even transcended our very notion of what “music” is (i.e. his 1975 Metal Machine Music.) His rhythmic vocal style, and absurdist prose paved the way for other musicians such as Patti Smith, Joy Division, The Violent Femmes, R.E.M., and King Missile, to name a few. He pushed the borders of propriety by covering topics no one dare mentioned before him—sexual deviance, drug use, transvestism, and moral degeneration.
However most don’t realize that, quite possibly, the strangest chapter in Reed’s career was the beginning—when he wrote a bizarre song about a solitary bird.
After Lou Reed graduated at Syracuse, he moved to NYC and took a job as a staff songwriter for Pickwick International record s. While at the label he churned out catchy bubblegum pop and surf inspired tunes, while writing songs such as “Heroin” and “Sister Ray” in his free time.
However, Reed wasn’t asked to record any of his Pickwick creations until he wrote a little song called “The Ostrich.”
“The Ostrich’s” lyrics described a made up dance, parodying the popular instructional dance songs of the era, (i.e. “Put your hand on your hip, let your backbone slip” or “Well shake it a baby! Twist and shout!”) employing Reed’s sardonic twist: “Put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it … do The Ostrich!”
Upon reviewing the song, the label (for some unbeknownst reason, most likely to capitalize on shock value) found the tune promising, and decided to pair Lou Reed with musicians John Cale and Tony Conrad to record the song, calling the band The Primitives. The song’s recording featured absurd shrills and squawks in the background, as well as the drone of Reed’s signature drone and feedback techniques on guitar.
Although neither The Primitives nor “The Ostrich” garnered commercial success, the band’s very existence proved “The Ostrich” to be the most important creation Lou Reed ever made. It was because of The Primitives’ assembly that Cale and Reed became roommates. At this time, Cale became interested in Reed’s more experimental recordings outside of Pickwick such as “Heroin.” Cale introduced his college friends Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker to Reed—thus the Velvet Underground was born. Cue Andy Warhol, and the rest is history!
Moral of the story? Ostriches are more important than you thought.