When I was fourteen, a momentous event occurred: my sister joined the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, a notorious rip-off outfit that promised twelve records for a dollar and then proved harder to leave than the Cosa Nostra.
The technical term for their business practice was “negative option billing,” which meant that, once you joined the club, they kept sending you records at full retail price (plus shipping and handling) until your parent called them up and threatened legal action. Every month, unless the member specifically declined, the club would send you their current hot selection and you had no choice but to take it. Our family had only gotten a stereo the Christmas before, and before my sister joined the club our record collection consisted of Herb Alpert, a few children’s records (“John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!”), and the Best of Bread, which we’d found on someone’s lawn. And then the Columbia House records began to arrive. They really did send you twelve records for a dollar, and I remember the day the first box arrived, a big fat cardboard box filled with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Todd Rundgren, Boston, Peter Frampton, all of the faves of the average 15-year-old girl in 1978. Everything was fine for a while, my sister dutifully paid the bill with money she made at the ice cream shop, but she was not diligent in declining the monthly selection every time, and soon records began to arrive that she’d never ordered: I think there was a Bee Gees record, maybe something from Donna Summer?
Anyway, one month the selection we received was Lou Reed’s Live Take No Prisoners. The cover looked like this:
Suffice it to say that we’d never seen anything like this in our Catholic household, and I’m surprised in retrospect that my mother didn’t destroy this abomination the moment it arrived. I suspect we hid it from her. My sister didn’t want it and she couldn’t return it, so she let me have it, whereupon it became the fourth record in my growing collection behind the Best of the Beach Boys, the Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl (generally agreed to be the only bad album the Beatles ever released), and Kiss Alive II. It was not an easy fit. Aside from the transvestite hooker on the cover, the inside of the album sleeve had a drawing of Lou cooking what even I at 14 recognized to be heroin.
And then there was the music. Half stand-up act, half diatribe, the album is several hours of Lou Reed riffing for the audience, and it’s not always an easy relationship. “Shut up and I’ll keep singing,” he says at one point. And later, to a persistent heckler: “What do you think, this is fucking question and answer?” It was also the first time I’d ever heard a musician admit to being sick of playing his own songs or ask his piano player if he had any coke. Take No Prisoners features what is still to this day my favorite version of “Sweet Jane,” a shambling ten-minute monologue in which Lou takes potshots at everyone from Barbra Steisand to Patti Smith to Robert Christgau, a rock critic whom I’d never heard of (here is Christagau’s remembrance of Reed, which mentions this song).
Then there was this little ditty, which even now 35 years later still manages to be profoundly offensive, hilarious, and deeply heart-felt all at the same time:
The album closed with this solid wall of sonic sludge:
I listened to these songs over and over, trying to puzzle out what the hell Lou was going on about, trying to make sense of all the obscure references — it was a glimpse into a world that I didn’t know existed. What I’m trying to say is that this album single-handedly rewired my brain and sent my musical tastes richocheting off in a dark new direction. That event, coupled with the explosion in punk rock and new wave in 1977/78, changed everything for me.
So, thanks Lou. You’ll be missed.
And thanks also to you, Columbia House Record and Tape Club, you greedy, cheating, small-print motherfuckers.