People often say a song or an album got them “through a tough time.” The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” got me through a tough few hours—although “tough” doesn’t begin to describe them.
I was 20 years old and I was having a bad trip. For those who’ve never had one, I’m afraid that phrase woefully undersells the experience. A meal in a restaurant is “bad.” A drug-induced psychedelic experience gone wrong is a Boschian nightmare.
I’d done acid a couple of times before, but this was my first foray into psilocybin mushrooms. My LSD trips hadn’t been without their difficulties. Strychnine-induced stomach cramps, crippling paranoia, and minor panic attacks all made appearances during those uneasy experiments. But friends had assured me that mushrooms would produce a mellower experience. I imagined spending eight hours bathed in a warm psychedelic glow that would bring to mind scenes from Woodstock.
Instead of Woodstock, I got an amped-up version of Altamont. And once the bad vibes arrived, they multiplied like bacteria, quickly blotting out all good things. Everything was bad—this simple dictum was presented to me with axiomatic clarity. People were bad, the world was bad, and I, especially, was bad.
All of the self-preserving psychological mechanisms that had previously allowed me to function like a normal human being had suddenly broken down. I was stripped of any illusions about the nature of my, or anyone’s, existence. Life was meaningless and absurd, and sooner or later, it would get excruciatingly painful.
As this storm was gathering inside my brain, two friends (who were also tripping) and I were walking around the part of Ball State University known as “The Village.” My friends soon sensed something was wrong with me, and took me to a nearby house, where I lay curled on a secondhand couch as a kind female friend tried to talk me down. In the other room, I overheard a debate about whether or not to take me to the hospital.
Eventually, my friends coaxed me to my feet, and the three of us returned to a house they shared with two others. One of them, in a charitable gesture that I appreciate to this day, let me lie down on his bed as he lit a couple of candles and put on The Velvet Underground.
I’d heard the album a number of times before, and I may have even requested it that night; I don’t remember. But I do remember—I will always remember—how the first delicate few seconds of “Candy Says” landed like a cold compress on my overheated mind. I remember lying there as Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison’s interweaving guitars enveloped me in a sweet narcotic haze. My diastolic blood pressure sank as I floated along, held aloft by Doug Yule’s gentle tenor. I remember it feeling like an expression of sympathy meant specifically for me when he sang, “I hate the quiet places / that cause the smallest taste of what will be.”
From the opening notes to the closing “doo, doo-doo-waahs,” “Candy Says” wiped my troubled mind clean of monsters. And the song that followed, the rollicking “What Goes On,” helped it reboot anew, bringing me back from the brink of a dark sort of deliverance. As Lou sang, “Baby be good, do what you should / and you know it will be alright,” I knew, undoubtedly, for the first time in what felt like days instead of hours, that it would be all right.
I don’t know if Lou Reed was afraid of death in his final hours. But if he was, I hope something gave him something like the solace that he granted me that night. I don’t know if that’s possible, but I hope so—for his sake, for mine, and for yours, too.
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