‘I’ll be your mirror’: Lou Reed’s time at SU shapes career as music legend

Photo courtesy of SU Archives

Lou Reed (center) plays in front of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house in 1961 or 1962. Reed, an influential music legend, developed much of his musical style while a student at Syracuse University.

Before his anti-authority attitude became a staple of his performances, a young Lou Reed mastered the art of the prima donna rock star at Syracuse University.

As a budding frontman for his band, L.A. and the Eldorados, Reed once refused to play a frigid outdoor gig aboard a boat on the St. Lawrence River. He punctuated his disapproval by smashing his guitar-playing hand through a plate-glass door.

“He just didn’t want to play,” said Richard Mishkin, a 1965 SU alumnus who played bass in the Eldorados. “We had to take him to the ER and I told him, ‘Lou, you play guitar like sh*t anyways.’ And he played the show.”

Reed was a massively influential artist who would go on to form the Velvet Underground — a band whose music inspired everyone from David Bowie to Sonic Youth — not long after graduating from SU in 1964. His avant-garde songwriting earned him the nickname “the Godfather of Punk,” a name Reed despised despite his influence on the emergent 1970s genre.

He died last week at the age of 71.

Reed’s classmates at SU — a place that would shape the rock legend — remember him for his individual spirit and refusal to fit in with the mainstream.

‘He had novel-sized ideas’

Mishkin met Reed when he still went by Lewis, in October of Reed’s first semester on campus, through a mutual friend, Allan Hyman, who grew up just down the street from the future rock star in Freeport, N.Y.

Hyman and Reed, friends since third grade who first visited campus together in the fall of 1958, were looking for a bassist, so Mishkin set aside his impression of Reed’s intentionally off-putting persona and joined L.A. and the Eldorados.

“Lou was a prick,” he said. “He’s not the kind of guy who would be nice to people in most circumstances.”

Often the bandmate tasked with getting Reed out of bed at 10 a.m. on gig days, Mishkin hauled L.A. and the Eldorados around in an enormous white Chrysler boasting huge tailfins and painted with bright red guitars and the band’s name.

The band made the rounds through Central New York, playing regular shows at Cornell and Colgate universities. After one particularly memorable winter gig at Hamilton College, the snow on the drive home was so heavy that the band was forced to trek half a mile in tight black jeans and gold lamé vests to spend the night in a local jail when they found out the nearest hotel was booked solid.

When L.A. and the Eldorados stuck around the SU campus, the band made money playing at fraternity house parties. Mishkin and Reed shared the only amplifier the band owned.

“We got a lot of beer thrown at us over the years,” he said.

L.A. and the Eldorados were routinely kicked out of fraternity parties, said Hyman, a 1962 alumnus and the band’s drummer. Reed would insist on performing his own material, even if partygoers couldn’t dance to the minimalist songs.

“Lou debuted a new song at a party called ‘The F*ckaround Blues,’ and some girls got offended and we were politely asked to leave,” Hyman said. “But Lou kept playing, and we had to go along with him. If people didn’t like it, it was too bad.”

Though L.A. and the Eldorados skewed their sets toward Chuck Berry covers, Reed was prone to unleashing his own material during shows. The singer penned classics like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” while still at school. Mishkin remembers writing an early form of the latter’s bassline.

Reed’s relationship with fraternities was strained at best, said Hyman, a brother of Sigma Alpha Mu. Hyman convinced Reed to rush Sammy, where the band would have jam sessions. Reed did, showing up to an event at the house in an unpresentable outfit Hyman could only call “indescribable.”

“A brother criticized Lou’s outfit and Lou said, ‘I think you’re the biggest a**hole I ever met,’” Hyman said. “I took him outside and asked him what the hell he was doing and he told me he only went because I asked him to. It was a hilarious night.”

Hyman said he shared the responsibility of showing up at Reed’s residence hall — the singer lived in Sadler Hall as a freshman — to make sure he made it to gigs on time.

“He’d be asleep under 300 pounds of pistachio nut shells, because Lou loved pistachios, so I’d have to shake him awake, throw him in the shower and physically get him dressed,” Hyman said. “He would be surly, but he’d play.”

‘Excursions on a Wobbly Rail’

Donald Schupak, a 1964 alumnus who booked and managed L.A. and the Eldorados, said Reed “marched to his own tune,” was bright, intelligent, somewhat elusive and had an ironic sense of humor. He said he didn’t have any trouble getting along with Reed. They never had a disagreement.

When he performed, Reed didn’t emulate anyone, Schupak said. He wanted to be a rock musician in his own image.

“He was very much his own individual,” said Schupak, who was also a brother of Sammy.  “He was definitely not a frat boy.”

Schupak also booked other campus acts, including Felix and the Escorts. The band featured Felix Cavaliere, who would later go on to gain rock ‘n’ roll fame as the leader of blue-eyed soul group The Rascals. Like Reed, Cavaliere was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Cavaliere said their paths crossed irregularly when they were both at SU and when Reed was fronting the Velvet Underground in New York. Reed was kind of a loner who would hang out by himself, Cavaliere said.

“It was kind of difficult, in the early days, to get to know him,” he said. “We were kind of like two ships passing in the night,” Cavaliere added.

The last time they saw each other was a few years ago, when Reed was honored at the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. They embraced and shared their past experiences, Cavaliere said, which he described as “wonderful.”

But Cavaliere wasn’t the only alumnus with whom Reed would eventually reminisce about his early days. 

Don Cronson remembers that, on occasion, Reed would come to his room in Watson and Kimmel halls throughout the years to listen to his 45s. Cronson, a 1964 alumnus, said he had about 800-1,000 that he had brought to school. The records included Tina Turner, B.B. King and James Brown — all, at that time, were considered “race music” and weren’t Top 40 material.

Cronson said he and Reed weren’t close friends, but acquaintances with similar music tastes. About six or seven years ago, Cronson said, he was at a New York Knicks game in Madison Square Garden when he noticed Reed sitting two rows in front of him.

“At halftime, I went up to him and I said, ‘Hey Lou, you don’t remember me but we went to school together,'” Cronson said.

Reed looked at him blankly, until Cronson brought up Reed’s days with his old band.

“I said to him, ‘I remember that band you played with, L.A. and the Eldorados.’

“And he blinked his eyes and looked at me. He smiled and he said, ‘The best.'”


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