Lou Reed has left the building

Chronicler of the wild side, Lou Reed, has died. Reed was particularly notable for students of human nature for his descriptions of drugs, madness and his own experience of psychiatry.

We’ve touched on his outrageous performance to the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry before and his songs about or featuring drug use are legendary.

But there was one song that was particularly notable – not least for describing from his own experience of being ‘treated’ for homosexuality with electroshock therapy when he was a teenager.

Kill Your Sons, released in 1974 (audio), is just a straight-out attack on the psychiatrists that treated him:

All your two-bit psychiatrists
are giving you electroshock
They said, they’d let you live at home with mom and dad
instead of mental hospitals
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

Here Reed describes the effects on memory that are common just after electroconvulsive therapy. In this case, forgetting what you’ve just read.

The last verse also describes some of his other contacts with psychiatry, mentioning specific psychiatric clinics and medications:

Creedmore treated me very good
but Paine Whitney was even better
And when I flipped out on PHC
I was so sad, I didn’t even get a letter
All of the drugs, that we took
it really was lots of fun
But when they shoot you up with Thorazine on crystal smoke
you choke like a son of a gun

The last line seems to refer to the effect of being given a dopamine-inhibiting antipsychotic when you’re on a dopamine boosting amphetamine – presumably after being taken to a psychiatric clinic while still high. Not a pleasant comedown I would imagine.

I have no idea what ‘PHC’ refers to, though. I’m guessing it’s a psychiatric treatment from the 60s.

It’s interesting that the song was released the year after homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, although it’s never been clear whether this was intentional on Reed’s part or not.

Link to YouTube audio of Kill Your Sons.

9 thoughts on “Lou Reed has left the building”

  1. As a retired psychiatrist, I apologize for the cruel indifference of my profession. I guess the good news is that the health insurance industry has decided we are superfluous. From now on, GPs and internists will administer the mind controlling drugs.

  2. I suspect that Stuart Bramhall is being sarcastic, but as a regular consumer of mental health services for nearly 20 years, I’m very happy to hear this news. I’ve seen at least a dozen psychiatrists and a smaller number of GPs, along with various psychologists, counsellors and psychiatric nurses. I’ve never found a psychiatrist the slightest bit helpful, rather, I would agree with Lou Reed that they are more often dangerous. With the help of my GP, I have found the right medication and I am living a good life.

    1. I’m not being sarcastic. I’ve seen the insurance industry projections on future health care costs. They include virtually no allocation for direct patient contact for psychiatrists. They visualize the psychiatrist’s role as limited to one of consultation with the GPs and internists who provide mental health care.

      1. Sorry, I assumed that you were being sarcastic when you said that this was good news. I’m so glad to hear that you meant it literally, that you do realise the benefits of keeping psychiatrists away from patients.

    2. “With the help of my GP, I have found the right medication and I am living a good life.”

      Amen to that, it’s a sad fact that the poor beleaguered GPs tend to do most of the leg work whilst so-called dedicated mental health services might do a cursory assessment then hit the ejector seat button.

      Strange world…

  3. Yes, that’s so true. Once I went to visit a friend and found her in the middle of a major psychotic episode. I called mental health services. They came out and agreed she was completely psychotic. I’ll never understand what they said next. They said my friend was ‘too sick for a hospital to take her’ and that I would just have to look after her. And they left us alone. They told me I should not tell my friend about any of my experiences with mental health services, lest I prejudice her against psychiatrists. They also told me I should not leave her alone and ‘keep an eye on her’ – they didn’t ask, but just expected that I would take responsibility for her. My visit was supposed to be for a few days, I had to stay six weeks and physically restrain my friend from doing dangerous things. But, according to mental health services, there was simply nobody else who would take care of her.

  4. TL;DR – meandering thoughts on interpretations of “when I flipped out on PHC I didn’t even get a letter” means.

    “I didn’t even get a letter” in that era could mean something like “they didn’t care enough to give me the even the least personal type of follow up”.

    When you see “on” and then three initials your first reaction is a drug, and “flipping out” is something you very well might do on drugs, but there could be a different meaning of “flip out on”. We still say “flip out on” today to indicate a (probably inappropriate) emotional reaction directed at someone, but there could be another slang interpretation from Lou Reed’s time and circle.

    If PHC is Puntnam Hospital Center in Carmel, NY, he might have “flipped out on” them while in their care. He might have had an emotional outburst that caused them to eject him from the facility, and did not check up on him later. He might have “flipped out on” them by escaping or leaving against medical advice, and he might be saying that for all he knows they didn’t notice. He didn’t even get a letter.

    The escape is my favorite interpretation because it fits the rest of the verse. The verse reads almost like someone recommending hotels to a traveller to a city. He knows so much about the mental health facilities of New York because he’s been to all of them.

    No where else in the song does he divulge a personal shortcoming without attributing blame to a doctor or facility, so it’s a better fit for this to be a cool “flip out” (escape) than a vulnerable one (emotional outburst). And if he escaped, he’d have achieved the physical separation in space common in situations where one might expect to receive a letter.

    Vaughn’s treatment interpretation is my second favorite, if the treatment made him worse rather than better, and the letter they didn’t send was a letter of apology for causing him harm. That’s a good fit too with the tone and content of the rest of the song, so the case for this interpretation only lacks a candidate treatment with the initials PHC. Given one, it might fit better, because in Kill Your Sons he points out the hypocrisy of the people who condemn him and try to “treat” him into their way of life (check out the second verse). He was fine until he was intervened on. The crystal was fun until they thorazined him. And “they” are hypocrites because they try to force you to live a normal (married, [straight], settled, non-drug taking) life, but “they” also threaten their wives with axes and don’t send apology letters when their psychiatric treatment hurts you.

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