A tale of two 1973 Massey Hall performances by the influential musician, who died yesterday.
“You’ll never see the LP on the pop charts. It’s doubtful whether you’ll ever hear much of it on the radio,” warned Toronto Star rock columnist Ralph Thomas when The Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967. While the airwaves might not have been ready for the album’s most uncompromising tracks about drugs and deviancy, Thomas praised it for creativity, singling out singer/guitarist Lou Reed for his “Dylanesque style.”
Reed, who died Sunday morning at age 71, went on to become one of rock’s most influential figures. His more memorable songs inspired many musical careers, but some of his more difficult works amounted to prickly f-yous to fans, journalists, and record labels (we dare you to sit through all four sides of 1975’s Metal Machine Music). His first solo gigs in Toronto, in 1973, fit this pattern.
Following two local appearances with the Velvet Underground—a performance of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable roadshow at Hamilton’s McMaster University in November 1966 and a spot at the Toronto Pop Festival at Varsity Stadium in June 1969—Reed made his Toronto solo debut at Massey Hall on April 9, 1973. It was not one of the auditorium’s finest moments. Ticketholders were locked out while problems with Reed’s equipment were remedied. The show started about 90 minutes late, to the detriment of opening act Genesis. The differences between each act’s following heightened tensions which, as Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett recalled years later, “deteriorated into a punch-up between the Lou Reed fans who were on downers, and the Genesis fans who were more into Earl Grey tea.” Booing ensued.
The headliner’s subdued set failed to excite the 2,250 concertgoers. “Dressed in black leather, and looking wan and tired, he seemed to be only going through the motions,” observed the Star’s Peter Goddard. “And even the motions weren’t particularly interesting.” The Globe and Mail’s Robert Martin felt the bluesy style Reed applied to songs like “Heroin” reflected the relaxed tone he sensed in the singer’s most recent album, Transformer. “Reed does to song lyrics what Warhol did to art; he records the seemingly artless debris of New York’s demi-monde and presents it without comment,” Martin reflected. “His lyrics are as ambivalent as is his own sexuality.” Soon after the show, Reed fired his backing band.
Reed returned to Massey Hall on November 29, 1973, to promote his album Berlin. His new touring group included two veterans of the Toronto music scene, drummer Whitey Glan and bassist Prakash John. Tales of Reed’s previous appearance may have affected attendance, as only 1,000 people showed up. Those who did enjoyed a solid, hard-driving set that mixed Velvet Underground staples, new material, and Reed’s recent hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed, according to Martin, appeared “both hard and sensuous, a street punk in leather, and chains, but softened by his frequently coy and effeminate gestures.” Goddard compared Reed’s appearance to Joel Grey’s sexless MC in Cabaret and, while not entirely satisfied with the performance, felt it gave a better sense of what Reed was capable of.
Goddard’s fear that the low turnout would discourage Reed from returning to Toronto proved groundless. Reed—joined by surprise guests Alice Cooper and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp—played Massey Hall the following October and would perform here many times over the remainder of his career.
Additional material from the April 21, 1973, and November 30, 1973, editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 4, 2011, edition of the Guardian; and the June 10, 1967, April 10, 1973, and November 30, 1973, editions of the Toronto Star.