Okay, let’s deal with the elephants in the room and get them out of the way.
Elephant #1: Lou Reed was probably the worst singer ever.
Lou Reed approached each note like the rookie trapeze artist who is absolutely terrified he’s going to miss the wire. When the intro has faded and he gets ready to make his first tentative step into the scale, you can almost feel the tension on the recording. “Come on, Lou!” you want to shout, but you hold back for fear of blowing any chance he’s got. So you remain silent and pray that for once in his fucking life he’ll realize that the band has given him a big hint by playing in a specific key and that there are only a few choices available to him in terms of note selection. Those last nanoseconds before he attempts to sing are often excruciating. “Come on, Lou! You can do it!”
No, he couldn’t. Blew it every fucking time.
What’s amazing is this voice-sensitive reviewer nearly always forgives Lou Reed’s complete lack of vocal ability. There was something about Lou Reed that made me like the guy, no matter how many times he wobbled on a note, no matter how many melodies he left for dead. It may be because he was completely hopeless that I wind up giving him a pass. What’s the point of dwelling on such an obvious flaw if the guy has compensating strengths? Lou Reed was not only a great songwriter, but also had a fabulous sense of compositional structure. His musical themes are often strong and memorable, and frequently overcame his technical deficiencies. His lyrics were always memorable, and sometimes gelled into real poetry.
Elephant #2: When people talk about Lou Reed, they often mention his status as a founding member of the Velvet Underground in hushed tones of reverence. I have to believe that the people who elevate the Velvet Underground to sacred status have never actually bothered to listen to their records, and I would love to interrogate them under a bright light. Which Velvet Underground are you referring to? The Warhol-produced original line-up with the racist female singer who sounded like a zombie from an Ed Wood flick? Or the post-Warhol boys-will-be-boys cacophony conjured up by the duo of John Cale and Lou Reed? The post-Cale folk-rock group? The “lost album,” VU? The more mainstream-ish band you hear on Loaded? Some good things did come out of the various incarnations of the Velvet Underground, which is why people refer to them with that overused adjective “influential.” From my perspective, their value has nothing to do with the quality of their music but to the timing of their arrival on the music scene. The primary virtue of The Velvet Underground is that they weren’t fucking hippies, which in 1967 was a pretty bold statement. At their best, they had a naturalist, anti-idealist grittiness that provided a balance to all that love, peace and happiness crap.
My original intention was to review The Essential Lou Reed, a collection of songs hand-picked by the artist himself. The problem with the album is that the songs were hand-picked by the artist himself. I’ve always thought artists were the worst judges of their own work, and there are so many misses on The Essential Lou Reed that I would have spent half the review bitching about them. New York is horribly underrepresented, and I don’t know how “I Wanna Be Black” made it but “I Love You, Suzanne” missed the cut. It’s a wildly inconsistent album, but then again, Lou Reed had a wildly inconsistent career. Perhaps he wanted to bequeath an accurate representation of his work, and if that was his idea, he nailed it.
Instead I chose his most popular work, the one that first comes to mind when people think of Lou Reed; the one that makes people smile. It has another virtue: whether it’s the excitement of the live venue or all those distorted guitars flying through the air, Lou Reed’s vocals are more confident and energetic. You still will have a hard time picking out a melody, which makes a sing-along rather difficult, but the music sounds fab anyway. It’s great rock ‘n’ roll, and in his heart, Lou Reed was first and foremost a rock ‘n’ roller—not in a strict musical sense, but in his attitude of tender toughness and his essential rebelliousness.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal couldn’t have come at a better time for Lou Reed. Critical reception of Berlin proved to be disappointing (though the same review mills now pronounce the album a masterpiece), and he was still recovering from the funk resulting from his brief partnership with Bowie. He was desperate to escape the Transformer image and reassert the unglamorous, genuine guy inside. After collecting a talented group of once-and-future contributors to the strange phenomenon known as Alice Cooper, he made the decision to have the band record a live performance at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music on East 14th Street on December 21, 1973.
I’ve always wondered what Lou Reed was feeling as he waited offstage during the introduction to “Sweet Jane.” As he listened to Steve Hunter’s extended composition featuring a duet of soaring early 70’s guitars, did he wonder, “What the fuck was I thinking?” or “Damn, how am I going to follow this?” Hunter’s arrangement is a wonder, a blend of sweetness and raw power with marvelous interplay between the two lead guitars and bass. It’s an absolute delight to listen to Hunter and fellow lead guitarist Dick Wagner on a good set of headphones, with Wagner on one side and Hunter on the other, for you can really hear how they support and contrast each other. If I were Lou Reed, I might have packed up and gone home—these guys were good. But wait—here comes the crescendo! The power chords and high-fret riffs tell us that it’s all building up to a marvelous climax, and when it finally comes, in the form of one of the greatest rock riffs ever written—the syncopated chords of “Sweet Jane”—Lou Reed must have woken up from his trance and said, “Hey, I fucking wrote that! Yeah, this is my music!”
And he walks on stage. And the crowd bursts into applause. And I get the chills every fucking time.
Picking up on the crowd’s energy, Lou steps up to the mike and delivers a cheeky, sassy vocal that tells you he’s feeling it. Meanwhile, the band doesn’t let up at all, delivering raw power in every strum and thrust. What the crowd is hearing is so completely different from the acoustic-harmonic version on Loaded that they may not have recognized the song at first. This Jane rocks like a bitch in heat, which in turn transforms the lyrics from a nostalgic recollection of an idealized past to an urgent plea that we recognize that life can be beautiful right fucking now if we stop all the trash-talking bullshit and treat each other with a sense of common decency:
Some people like to go out dancing
And other people, (like us) they gotta work
And there’s always some evil mothers
They’ll tell you life is full of dirt.
And the women never really faint,
And the villans always blink their eyes.
And the children are the only ones who blush.
‘Cause life is just to die.
But, anyone who has a heart
Wouldn’t want to turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played the part
He wouldn’t want to turn around and fake it
People! It’s not cool to worship death! Life is worth every fucking minute, even when it’s raining shit on you!
Lou’s vocal on “Sweet Jane” is one of his strongest, but I think he outdoes himself on “Heroin.” I’ll take this version over the original on the The Velvet Underground & Nico album because of the vast difference in Lou’s phrasing. On the original, Lou basically recites the words; in the live version the words stand out more because Lou emphasizes specific words and phrases to dramatize the meaning. These two lines say it all (emphasis in bold):
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
With the emphasis, you visualize the spike—not the needle, but a more durable and painful implement crashing through the skin. Now you get the impression that the heroin addict is punishing himself through the act of seeking pleasure, and the nature of his sin was revealed by the emphasis on the word “man.” Women often forget that in the crazy strictures of gender identity that while the male half of the species may be in the dominant position in our societies, the weight of expectations that come with masculinity are as metaphorically heavy as the cross Christ had to bear. In other words, where inequality exists, we all suffer. The addict seeks a world free of the pain of those expectations and from the ugliness of the world itself:
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town
And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
And everybody puttin’ everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds
‘Cause when the smack begins to flow
Then I really don’t care anymore
Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I’m as good as dead
Then thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
Lou’s message is a hard one for many people to swallow: if you want to cure the addict, cure society first. Even though some will bemoan the thirteen-minute length of the live version, I love it because it gives the musicians time to develop the supporting musical themes. Lou Reed was a master of memorable motifs, and the dominant motif in “Heroin” is exceptionally strong.
Omitted from the original release of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal were three songs from Berlin, most likely because the record company didn’t want to have anything to do with a record that American critics universally condemned (The Brits rather liked it, by the way). Apparently the critics fell into line by 2000, and the songs appear on the remastered version. Berlin was a hard look at the life of the underclass and the ugliness of drug addiction, domestic violence, state-sponsored child abduction, suicide—a lot of subjects that people would rather avoid. “How Do You Think It Feels?” is about the highs and lows of addiction, with the title phrase becoming both a cry of joy in the high and the pathetic dependency in the crash. Lou Reed had a powerful sense of empathy for life’s losers, describing the complexities of their interactions in disturbing detail:
How do you think it feels
To feel like a wolf and foxy
How do you think it feels
To always make love by proxy?
When making love becomes an out-of-body experience, you have to know things are seriously fucked up. Drummer Pentti Glan has a great turn on the drums here, synthesizing relaxed rolls with a good strong beat, and Dick Wagner gives us a few heat-inspired licks in the empty spaces.
The couple depicted in Berlin have a mutually-assured-destructive relationship, and in “Caroline Says I,” the male half recites the abuse he receives from his better half—a German dominatrix who revels in crushing his masculinity. The theme of drugs to compensate for masculine insecurity is the same as in “Heroin,” and for that reason alone I wish Lou would have opted for “Caroline Says II,” where Caroline becomes the victim of abuse and coldly decides she’s had enough. In any case, both of these Berlin performances certainly pleased the crowd, despite the consumer warnings from Rolling Stone.
“White Light White Heat” moves us from heroin to speed, but from a lyrical standpoint this song is no match for “Heroin” or “How Do You Think It Feels?” From a musical standpoint, it’s a great rock ‘n roll song that sounds like it’s driven by a carload of amphetamines. Prakash John’s bass really keeps this song moving, and at this point in the festivities, Lou Reed has lost any sense of vocal self-consciousness, delivering a high-energy, cocky vocal. The lead guitar solo goes to Steve Hunter on this one, and he’s as amped up as the rest, finally hitting his peak on the blistering solo that ends the song. Whew!
The third song from Berlin appears in the form of “Lady Day,” which in this context serves as sort of a breather between “White Light White Heat” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The song is appropriately on the dark side, though the analogy between Billie Holiday and the character in described in Berlin is more of a hint than a clear link. This is probably Lou’s most passionate vocal on the album, as he sounds like he’s desperately trying to save the girl from a dead-end life of decadence and despair.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” ends the album, an expectation-defying song from Loaded. The expectation emanating from the title is that this will be a butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners all out bash, but the song opens as a so-so, mid-tempo rocker that I find somewhat disappointing. I’m always ready for more, I guess, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” doesn’t get there until after the too-lengthy instrumental section centered around wah-wah pedaled guitar chords, when finally—at last!—the guitars get good and nasty and the energy goes way up. The lyrics are a compact retelling of the cause-and-effect of the rock revolution in the consumer-driven 50’s:
Jenny said, when she was just five years old
You know there’s nothin’ happening at all
Two TV sets, two Cadillac cars
Ahhh, hey, ain’t help me nothin’ at all
Not at all
One fine morning, she heard on a New York station
She couldn’t believe what she heard at all
Not at all
Despite the amputation
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station
It was all right
It was all right
Oh, now here she comes now-now
The lyrics served as a good reminder of the origins of rock ‘n’ roll at a time when it was drifting far from its roots. The song itself eventually reconnects with those roots, and rescued by a powerhouse ending, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” serves as a strong closer for a great live album.
I hate having to leave Lou Reed having looked at just a snippet of his work, as I think his catalogue is certainly worthy of a full scholarly study. Still, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is a great place to start, because the Velvet Underground songs sound much better here and the cuts from Berlin give the listener motivation to give the work the attention it deserves. While Lou Reed adopted many persona and explored various approaches to music, his work was always grounded in the sublime cry for freedom we know as rock ‘n’ roll. Vocal deficiencies aside, Lou Reed’s career clearly established him as the keeper of the flame.
We could really use another Lou Reed right now.