Velvet gold mind: Psychopathy, addiction, ECT, and the psychology of Lou Reed

Regular readers of my blog will have no doubt picked up that one of my all time favourite bands is the Velvet Underground (VU) – often referred to as “The Psychopath’s Rolling Stones“. I bought my first VU album on vinyl back in 1980 as a 14-year old adolescent (a 12-track compilation that I still have simply called ‘The Velvet Underground’). When I bought it I had heard very few VU songs on the radio and one of the main reasons I bought it was because a number of my musical heroes at the time (Ian McCulloch the lead singer of the Echo and the Bunnymen being the one I seem to remember) kept listing VU songs in their ‘Top 10 Tracks’ in Smash Hits magazine.

Over time I have steadily accumulated a massive collection of VU and VU-related albums (mainly solo LPs of VU band members, most notably Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico, as well as dozens and dozens of bootleg LPs). As much as I love the recorded solo outputs of Cale and Nico, it is Lou Reed that I have always found the most psychologically fascinating on both a musical and personal level (even though Cale was admittedly the better musician) – and because of his autobiographical lyrics (many of which were collated in his 1992 book Between Thought and Expression). Reed (along with a few other musicians such as John Lennon, Morrissey, David Bowie, Adam Ant, and Gary Numan) is someone I would love to have interviewed, as he was a psychological paradox and appeared to have so many different facets to his personality. During is early career, Reed was a self-confessed drug addict and wrote songs about both heroin (‘I’m Waiting For The Man‘ and admitting in his song ‘Heroin‘ that it was “my wife and it’s my life”) and amphetamines (‘White Light, White Heat‘). I would also argue that in later life he replaced these negative addictions with what Bill Glasser defined as a ‘positive addiction‘ in the form of t’ai chi ch’uan (i.e., tai chi).

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Reed’s lyrics covered topics that shocked many people. His song lyrics recounted life’s misfits and those that lived on the fringes (particularly of the life he had himself experienced in New York and as part of pop artist Andy Warhol’s entourage). His world was one of drug addiction, transvestite drag queens, bisexuality, and sado-masochism. Like many of the best and most literary writers, he wrote about what he knew and had experienced. As Reed himself pointed out many times, the subject matter of his songs were no different from his literary heroes such as Edgar Allen Poe, Hubert Selby Jr., William Burroughs, and Delmore Schwartz. Sex and drugs were common themes in novels and poetry. Reed wondered why listeners and rock critics alike were so horrified by the content of his songs when the same content could be found in books from the 1950s and early 1960s.

Reed was a much feared interviewee by music journalists and often poured vitriol on many rock critics (Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau being the most high profile). Just listen to his 1978 live LP Take No Prisoners that is remembered more for the acerbic monologues in between the songs than for the music. Although I would have loved to interview him, his experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists arguably left him emotionally scarred for life (or at the very least a deep mistrust of therapists). His affluent parents sent him for weekly sessions of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a young teenager to “cure” him of his homosexual desires and urges. It had such a negative impression on him that he documented the experiences on his song ‘Kill Your Sons’ (from his 1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance). As he was quoted as saying in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s 1996 book Please Kill Me:

“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”

Up until the ECT session, Reed appeared to have lead a relatively trouble-free childhood (although there were admittedly some juvenile delinquent activities). The ECT sessions may have been the catalyst that far from ‘curing’ him of his sexual urges confused the issue even more. Reed was more explicit in the lyrics to ‘Kill Your Sons’ about the whole experience of ECT and what he thought about it:

“All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electro shock/They say, they let you live at home, with mom and dad/Instead of mental hospital/But every time you tried to read a book/You couldn’t get to page 17/’Cause you forgot, where you were/So you couldn’t even read/Don’t you know, they’re gonna kill your sons”.

I have read almost every biography that has ever been published on Reed and there appears to be an almost unconscious pathological need to subvert the traditional rock cycle treadmill of fame and success. There is no doubt that Reed wanted to be respected and remembered for his literary writing – but many of his decisions and actions were self-defeating. In my own field of gambling, the psychologist Edmund Bergler speculated that addicted gamblers have an ‘unconscious desire to lose’ – a form of psychic masochism. If Reed was on Bergler’s couch, he may have come to the same conclusion about Reed.

There are so many points in Reed’s life where he appeared to deliberately sabotage his own career and commit what others have described ‘artistic suicide’. For instance, after David Bowie had befriended him in the early 1970s and produced his first hit LP (Transformer) and biggest hit (‘Walk On The Wild Side’), he fell out with Bowie and recorded what a number of rock critics have described as “the most depressing album of all time” (the 1973 LP Berlin). He then seemed to get his career back on course with his one and only top 10 US album (1974 LP Sally Can’t Dance) only to follow it up with the album consisting of four tracks of guitar feedback each 16 minutes in length (1975 album Metal Machine Music). James Wolcott writing for the Village Voice went as far as to say that  Metal Machine Music “crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence”. Although both “career killing” LPs have since been hailed as masterpieces in their own way, both releases provide an argument that Reed was a masochist on some level even if the original pain didn’t become pleasure until 30 years later.

The arguably self-inflicted pain didn’t end with his musical output. Almost every important person he looked up to in his life between 1964 and the early 1990s were cast aside and verbally and/or physically abused by Reed at some point. This included his managers (e.g., Andy Warhol, Steve Sesnick, Dennis Katz), his admirers and benefactors (e.g., David Bowie), his record company senior executives (e.g., Clive Davis), his lovers (e.g., Shelly Albin, Nico, Bettye Kronstad, Sylvia Morales, “Rachel” [Tommy] Humphries), and his musical collaborators (e.g., John Cale, Doug Yule, Robert Quine).

Some people have claimed Reed was almost psychopathic in some of his actions. The criminal psychologist Professor Robert Hare developed the Revised Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), a psychological assessment that determines whether someone is a psychopath.

At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of ‘revocation of conditional release’ (i.e., broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy”

Personally, I think there are psychopathic traits in almost any person with a successful career, and Reed (from the many biographies I have read) would certainly endorse some of the indicators in the list above. However, as he (i) became older, (ii) became teetotal and drug-free, (iii) studied Buddhist philosophy (including meditation and tai chi), and (iv) settled down and married performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson, he arguably became happier and produced some of the best music of his career.

The trio of ‘concept’ albums including his ‘warts ‘n’ all’ tribute to his home city (New York, 1989), his moving tribute to Andy Warhol (Songs for Drella, 1990, with John Cale), and his lyrical musings on illness, death and dying (1992, Magic and Loss) were all critically lauded (and among my own personal favourites). Songs for Drella (the VU’s nickname for Andy Warhol – a contraction of the names Cinderella and Dracula) is not just one of Reed’s best albums but it’s one of the best LP’s ever. The fact that the songs were heartfelt and full of remorse for the way Reed had treated Warhol in the latter years of his life, suggest that the characterization of Reed as a psychopath is unfair.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bockris, V. (1994). Lou Reed: The Biography. London: Hutchinson.

Bockris, V. & Malanga, G. (1995). Up-tight – The Velvet Underground Story.London:Omnibus Press.

Doggett, P. (1991). Lou reed – Growing Up in Public. London: 
Omnibus Press.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Henry, T. (1989), Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style, Ann Arbour MI: UMI Research Press.

Hare, R. D., & Vertommen, H. (2003). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. Multi-Health Systems, Incorporated.

Heylin, C. (2005). All Yesterday’s Parties – The Velvet Underground In Print 1966-1971. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hogan, P. (2007). The Rough Guide To The Velvet Underground. London: Penguin.

Jovanovich, R. (2010). The Velvet Underground – Peeled. Aurum Press.

Kostek, M.C. (1992). The Velvet Underground Handbook
. London: 
Black Spring Press.

McNeil, Legs; McCain, G. (1996). Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. London: Grove Press.

Muggleton, D. & Weinzierl, R. (2003). The Post-subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg.

Reed, L. (1992). Between Thought and Expression. 
London: Penguin Books.

Wall, M. (2013). Lou Reed: The Life. Croydon: Orion Books.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on June 8, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Alcohol, Case Studies, Drug use, Fame, Pain, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Pornography, Psychiatry, Psychology, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: