The first story in a new occasional series at Local Spins revisits a landmark 1970s appearance in West Michigan by the late, great Lou Reed, who startled some fans with his graphic depiction of drug use.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Some milestone concerts should never be forgotten, from ‘the band of tomorrow’ U2 playing Fountain Street Church in 1981 to a fledgling Alice Cooper shocking small lakeshore venues in the early 1970s. Vintage Gigs looks back at these historic West Michigan concerts. Today, just a few days after the first anniversary of Lou Reed’s death and a few weeks before the 40th anniversary of his Grand Valley State Colleges concert, Lansing-area writer Steve Miller — author of “Detroit Rock City” — gives us a glimpse into the Allendale debut of the “N.Y. Star.” Were you there? If so, share your memories of the show in the Comments section below.
Grand Rapids circa 1974 was a million cultural miles away from New York’s Union Square, where The Factory birthed the Velvet Underground and its leader, Lou Reed.
If you wanted to catch a GR show and keep it local, you were going to be checking out Gordon Lightfoot, The Eagles, Santana and The Beach Boys … unless you wanted to take a little drive to Allendale, where some students were making things happen in the circular, domed fieldhouse at what was then Grand Valley State Colleges.
They brought in pre-fame Aerosmith, Sly and the Family Stone (yes, they hit stage promptly an hour late) and Frank Zappa, a step ahead of the folkies that dominated the city.
But none of them crossed the cultural divide like Reed did during a Sunday evening concert in November 1974.
Reed already was a legend at the height of his solo career, touring for his latest LP, “Sally Can’t Dance,” which had become a weird commercial success. There was no hit single, a la 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” but it was a set of a sleazy R&B, balladry and bombast with an uptown haze to it that stuck in the brain’s grooves.
Reed was still singing about drugs, drag queens and derangement, much the same territory as he had in the Velvets. He had dyed his hair a golden blond and carried a meth habit that turned him into a walking stick figure, all limbs and all mouth, the man who reminded everyone more than once that “my week beats your year.”
Grand Rapids radio station WLAV-FM (96.9), like a bunch of radio stations across the United States, was shifting into Coolsville full time, a for-real AOR station that played album sides and nine-minute songs and tunes that were never meant for radio, but rather deep night bong-and-booze sessions.
And that meant Lou Reed deep cuts, on a good night. Imagine hearing “Kill Your Sons” on the radio. That sort of airplay piqued the interest of West Michigan rock fans.
For $5 on a Sunday night, who wouldn’t want to check out Reed, playing on a bill with Dr. John the Night Tripper, who had started to make money with his 1973 single, “Right Place Wrong Time”?
NEARLY A FULL HOUSE FOR THE PERFORMANCE OF ‘HEROIN’
It was pretty much a full house, says Mark Harmel, then a 20-year-old sophomore at Thomas Jefferson College, who was assigned to shoot the show for the Grand Valley student newspaper, the Lanthorn.
“These were the days when you could get in there and shoot the whole show, it wasn’t just three songs,” Harmel says. “And a lot of the time, I was the only photographer there.”
He turned in a number of shots of Reed, but the paper’s editors passed on the money shot: the singer tying off with the mic cord and miming administering himself a shot of heroin as he performed the song of the same name.
“I was shocked when he first started wrapping the cord around his arm,” says Harmel, who shot for The Grand Rapids Press before moving to California, where he is now a public health consultant in Los Angeles. “I mean, I was from Detroit, but it was the suburbs.”
Harmel realized later that there was little chance of the fixing shot making it into print, as it “was probably a little much for the student paper.”
A photo on the front page of the Nov. 21 Lanthorn showed Reed with something that today is considered by the lifestyle police just as evil as junk: a cigarette.
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