You might run across a few opinions here and there that attribute the demise of The Shirelles to the British Invasion. You might respond to that assertion by muttering to yourself, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
As soon as that utterance escapes your lips, I will appear out of nowhere and nail your ass. I will slap you silly and enjoy every minute of it. I will force you to fall to your knees and make you beg for mercy, which I will only grant if you agree to never say something that stupid again.
The problem with the theory is that it doesn’t make any sense:
- It doesn’t make sense because in February 1964, Beatlemaniacs were desperate for more Beatles than Capitol Records was willing to dish out. Despite the efforts of the Capitol legal team, the cash-strapped Vee-Jay label managed to release Introducing . . . The Beatles (a truncated, modified version of Please Please Me) at roughly the same time as Capitol was peddling Meet the Beatles (a truncated, modified version of With the Beatles). While Capitol held on to the #1 spot, little Vee-Jay’s entry remained at #2 for nine consecutive weeks. On that album, The Beatles covered not one, but two songs by The Shirelles (“Baby, It’s You” and “Boys”). Any profit-making organization in the universe would kill to get that kind of endorsement.
- It doesn’t make any sense because four months after the invasion began, another girl group topped the charts in the USA with “Chapel of Love.” A couple of months later—at the height of the British Invasion—The Dixie Cups were followed by The Supremes in locking down the #1 spot. Martha and the Vandellas and The Shangri-Las also made appearances at or near the top. Translation: there was still a healthy market for girl groups in the USA in 1964.
Nope, The Shirelles faded from public consciousness for two reasons: one, their songwriting contributor and collaborator (Luther Dixon) went elsewhere and management failed to supply them with solid material; and two, during the year of the Invasion, they found themselves in the middle of lawsuit hell with their record company (a company run by their manager) around a trust fund set up for the girls that mysteriously ran out of money. Members came and went (eventually Dionne Warwick joined the group for a spell), and though The Shirelles continued to deliver their wares with due professionalism, the material just wasn’t up to snuff.
But during their peak years from 1960-1963, The Shirelles firmly established themselves as a musical force, the girl group whose influence extended far beyond that limiting label. What makes their influence even more impressive is that unlike The Beatles, who wanted to “get to the toppermost of the poppermost,” or Charlie Parker, who aimed to take jazz to levels far beyond what any of the swing bands had in mind, the girls who would eventually form The Shirelles had no such ambitions; they sang together for the fun of it all. A teacher encouraged the girls to audition for the annual talent show and they agreed, calling themselves The Poquellos and performing an original composition they had created for the occasion. A classmate who attended the show encouraged the girls to meet with her small-time record executive mother, who had entered the music business because being a housewife bored the crap out of her. They told their new superfan they had no interest in going commercial and went on with their lives in Passaic, New Jersey. After months of pleading, the girls gave in, changed their name to The Shirelles and released the talent show single to modest acclaim. At that point, record executive mom sold her little record company and The Shirelles’ contract to Decca (while continuing to act as their manager). After two follow-up singles bombed, Decca dismissed them as “one-hit wonders” and gave The Shirelles back to mom along with $4000. Mom (Florence Greenberg) then formed a new record company (Scepter Records), hired a music marketing pro and a gent by the name of Luther Dixon to serve as A&R man. The Shirelles then released “Tonight’s the Night,” and the rest is music history.
The challenge of breaking into the Top 20 had nothing to do with the quality of the performers: the original lineup of Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, Addie Harris and Doris Coley blended together beautifully and exhibited professionalism far beyond their years. While The Shirelles made the usual concessions to capitalism, they never really went all-in for the commercial aspect; their main concern remained the quality of the music. Though still in their late teens and early twenties, they demonstrated a healthy amount of assertiveness in the recording process, insisting on involvement in song selection and modification. While most artists in the lean post-Buddy Holly period targeted the white teen market, The Shirelles pushed back on songs that sounded “too white,” and even had the gumption to adjust a Carole King-Gerry Goffin song to broaden its reach. Their best and most famous songs deal with the real-world quandaries of teenage girls, and they sang those songs with genuine, heartfelt empathy. In those pre-Pill, proto-feminist, grow-up-and-become-a housewife days, music that revealed an understanding of the challenges faced by young girls growing up in a society that viewed them as inferior, second-class citizens was deeply appreciated by the teen girl population.
This collection is fairly faithful to the chronology, allowing the listener to experience the thrilling rise as well as the sad and avoidable decline of The Shirelles. So, without further ado . . .
“I Met Him on a Sunday (Ronde Ronde)”: This was their talent show song, a group composition recorded and released in 1958. It almost qualifies as a novelty song, describing the day-by-day progression of a teenage romance. Things are going well until the guy doesn’t show up on Friday; when he arrives on Saturday to pick up his date for an evening of (fill-in-the blank: movie, bowling, malt shop dancing, putt-putt golf), the girl says “Bye, Bye Baby” in an unintended tribute to legendary Giants announcer Russ Hodges. While the song isn’t particularly impressive, you have to give the girls credit for creating a performance piece that was a perfect match for the occasion: the story was easy to follow and the punch line guaranteed to draw a few laughs from a crowd yearning for a distraction to take their minds off those horrid, cold metal folding seats. What is impressive is the vocal presentation, with shared lead vocal lines each followed by doo-wop harmonic lines covering the range from contralto to soprano and executed with remarkable precision. “Geez, these gals sure can sing!” I hear someone say. “All they need is one great song and by golly, they’ll be on Ed Sullivan lickety-split!”
“Dedicated to the One I Love”: Well! Here’s a great song for you . . . what? It died at #83? What kind of alternative timeline is this?
Sorry, it’s not an alternative timeline. One of the most iconic songs of the era pretty much bombed in its initial release. The common explanation is that Decca didn’t know how to market a black girl group. My question is this: did Decca know how to do anything right in the 1960s? They dumped The Shirelles (American Decca) and passed on The Beatles (British Decca). Well, they did sign The Stones in the spirit of the old phrase “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Fortunately for history, the new-and-improved Scepter Records re-released The Shirelles’ version as a follow-up to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” et voila! Success!
“Dedicated to the One I Love” was originally recorded and released by The “5” Royales, a jump blues/doo-wop band who contributed mightily to the origins of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s. Their version hit the shelves in 1957 and made it to #13 on the R&B charts. The Shirelles take on the song is pretty close to the original, and their desire to model that record may have manifested itself in the decision to give Doris Coley the lead vocal rather than Shirley Owens, who would sing lead on most of their hits. Doris has a big, brassy voice not unlike Eugene Tanner’s of The “5” Royales, though there are significant differences in phrasing and attitude. The first thing you notice when comparing the two is that Doris knew how to dial it down at the right spots while Eugene didn’t. The second noticeable difference is Doris had greater command of her vibrato, especially where you don’t expect it (like on the exiting vowel sound in the un-euphonious word “little”). Doris could also exit her path for a split-second, shift to conversational (“This is dedicated”) and glide right back into the melody. The tempo of The Shirelles version is a tad slower than the original, allowing the listener to savor Doris’ magnificent performance as well as the equally impressive contributions of the other girls in background and call-and-response modes. Of the three popular versions, The Shirelles’ take best captures the sound and feel of a teenage girl calling her favorite radio DJ and recording a dedicatory snippet addressed to this week’s crush.
The third version, of course, comes from The Mamas & The Papas and is absolute C-R-A-P. White bread overproduced insincere bullshit.
“Look A Here Baby”: This was the B-Side of “Dedicated,” a snappy little number again featuring shared lead vocal lines with heavy doses of tight doo-wop harmonies. The background harmonies in the bridge are particularly delightful, and while the song doesn’t have a strong enough chorus to qualify for the hit parade, it’s a damn fine B-side in an era known for really awful B-sides.
“Tonight’s the Night”: Great story behind the creation of this one, courtesy of BSN Pubs’ “The Scepter/Wand Story”. “(Luther) Dixon began rehearsing The Shirelles and working with them on songs. Before a recording session in 1960, Florence told them they needed another song, and to go write something. Shirley Owens asked, ‘When?’ When Greenberg answered, ‘Tonight,’ Owens replied, ‘Well, I guess tonight’s the night.’ She and Dixon worked on a song using that title, and it was ready for the next day’s session.”
The story behind the song isn’t so great: teenage pregnancy was at its peak in the USA in the late 50s/early 60s. It’s not difficult to understand why: The Pill was years away, sex education virtually non-existent, guys hadn’t adopted the habit of keeping a condom in their wallets and abortion was a back alley horror. Teenage hormones were oblivious to those limitations, leading to a dangerous situation in which the desperate cries of the dick and the clit, combined with relative ignorance, emotional immaturity and naïvete regarding the responsibilities of pregnancy, increased the likelihood of a girl getting “knocked up” and daddy reaching for his shotgun to consummate a face-saving marriage.
“Tonight’s the Night” pretty much captures the ambivalence from the female’s perspective; the only thing missing is hearing the guy ramp up the pressure by saying, “If you really loved me . . . ” She is reasonably concerned that her emotional motivations might lead to ruin and ridicule:
You say you’re gonna make me (tonight, tonight)
Turn the lights down low (tonight, tonight)
You said you’re gonna make me (tonight, tonight)
Feel all aglow (tonight, tonight)
Well I don’t know
I don’t know right now
I might love you so (tonight, tonight)I might love you so much
You may break my heart
I may want you so much
And all my dreams may be torn apart
Apparently, she decides to go for it, though her optimism about the outcome is countered by a troubled soul:
Let’s take a chance (tonight, tonight)
It’s gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Feel it in my heart now (tonight, tonight)
It’s gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Upsettin’ my soul (tonight, tonight)
Gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Let’s take this chance
The song has the strangest intro to any pop song ever—a weird, disconnected fragment of clunky bass, thin violin and drums. The duple meter rhythm borrowed from Baião was a risky but effective choice by Luther Dixon, anticipating the craving for Brazilian rhythms that peaked a few years later with Getz/Gilberto. Shirley Owens is marvelous in the lead role, supported by her always-on colleagues. “Tonight’s the Night” is a masterpiece of pop, combining danceable rhythm, a hummable melody and a meaningful story in less than two minutes.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: Their first #1 hit (and the first by any African-American girl group) continued the exploration of teen sex, this time focusing on the trust angle. Their initial reaction to this Goffin-King creation was less than enthusiastic, as noted on The Shirelles’ fan website: “When Dixon received the song, he was overly excited about it. However, the girls were not. They felt that Tomorrow appealed to white audiences alone and did not cut across all divides of race. For instance, they felt it was too country for them.” The girls agreed to do the song only after Luther Dixon consented to their suggestion to add a string arrangement—but even with the added violins, none of the Shirelles believed they had a hit on their hands.
Supported by the strings another marvelously arranged and perfectly executed background vocal arrangement, Shirley Owens delivered a lead vocal that comes as close to perfection as any lead vocal can get. Playing the role of a more assertive and uncertain girl than we heard in “Tonight’s the Night,” Shirley sings with a palpable measure of detachment, as if she’s having the conversation with her suitor at arm’s length. As such, she tempers her emotions so that the emotional impact will land on the listener, which is as it should be. The lyrics themselves are a bit awkward from a metrical standpoint, but Shirley covers for them so well we don’t even notice. Her phrasing on certain lines—“Can I believe the magic in your sighs,” “You say that I’m the only one,” and the unwieldy “Is a love I can be sure of”—is exquisite. And though I usually abhor the Mantovani-Mancini strings of the early ’60s, the string arrangement here is restrained and highly complementary.
It doesn’t surprise me (though I wish it did surprise me) that the song was banned by some radio stations in the U.S. and U.K. for its “sexual content” and “description of a one-night stand.” Yeah. Like ignoring the issue and pretending it doesn’t exist will stop teenagers from having sex. Got it.
The thing that troubles me about both “Tonight’s the Night” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is the implication that the responsibility to stop the proceedings before they go too far lands solely on the girl. Whether it’s teenage hanky-panky or rape, the broad always gets the blame. I’ll also admit that when I hear the line, “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,” I want to scream, “That’s not love, that’s testosterone! Run for your life!”
“Boys”: I’ll say up front that I love the version by The Beatles. I love Ringo’s energetic vocal and I even love George’s post-modernist guitar solo. It’s an absolute gas! I will point out that the Wikipedia contributor who wrote the piece on this song is off-the-mark when he describes The Beatles’ cover as one that “bears many similarities between Ray Charles’s hit ‘What’d I Say’, particularly during the chorus verses.” Beyond the inappropriate use of the word “between” by failing to specify the comparative, the truth is that Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell used the same chord progression as “What’d I Say” and The Shirelles’ take is far more similar to the Ray Charles classic because of the omnipresence of piano. The Shirelles’ version is classic proto-soul grounded in R&B while The Beatles’ rendition was pure rock and roll designed to blow the walls off The Cavern. One could argue that the growling sax solo from King Curtis gives The Shirelles the edge, but really, both recordings are keepers.
The one “defect” in the Fab Four presentation is the half-hearted attempt at gender-bending. McCartney offered a suitable explanation in a 2005 Rolling Stone interview: “Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do ‘Boys’, which was a fan favourite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song. I think that’s one of the things about youth — you just don’t give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.”
“Mama Said”: And the hits just keep on coming! The Shirelles are on top of their game in this Luther Dixon-Willie Denson number that features another superb lead vocal from Shirley and the soulful precision The Shirelles always brought to their background vocals. The intro featuring the girls harmonizing with the horns is one of their strongest openers and mama’s message is spot-on. The Shirelles lived in an age when the primary mission of a young woman was to get married and crank up the baby assembly line ASAP. When Shirley sings, “Chapel bells are callin’ for everyone but me,” she’s expressing the pervasive fear among girls of the era that if they stayed on the market too long, they’d hit some kind of expiration date and earn the label “old maid” (something they were reminded of every time they played the old Victorian card game where you learned to avoid “getting stuck with the old maid”). Although the girl has the hots for a guy named Billie Joe, mama urges caution and dismisses the “need” for a girl to marry young as utter nonsense:
And then she said someone will look at me
Like I’m looking at you one day
Then I might find
I don’t want it any old way
You go, mama!
“What a Sweet Thing That Was”: This was actually the B-side of the next song on the album, and is fully deserving of B-side status. The production is seriously over the top and Shirley’s phrasing is unusually stiff as she tries to navigate the equally stiff Latin-esque rhythms. Unfortunately . . .
“A Thing of the Past”: The A-side isn’t that much better and suffers the same problems of poor rhythmic flow and ridiculously lush production. The single feels like management was attempting to expand The Shirelles reach into the easy listening market, as evidenced by the roughly simultaneous release of an album entitled The Shirelles Sing to Trumpets and Strings.
No, no, no and no!
“Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me?)”: I have no idea how or why two “Big John” songs were released in September 1961. Neither had anything to do with JFK and my research yielded no evidence supporting the theory that Americans had become enamored with larger toilets. Whatever the cause, the winner of the competition was Jimmy Dean, whose “Big Bad John” went all the way to #1 while The Shirelles “Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me?)” hit #21 on the Billboard Pop Charts and #2 on the R&B side.
“Big John” features a rollicking beat, an odd choice for a song where the girl is left waiting at the altar. The lyrics don’t reveal if the girl has something cooking in the oven, but the lines “My folks know you’ve jilted me/I’m ashamed to show my face” imply that the façade enabled by the girl not showing yet is about to collapse. Shirley adds some oomph to her vocal during the stop time passages but something tells me that The Shirelles were more comfortable and at their best with the slower numbers.
“Baby, It’s You”: Luther Dixon used a pseudonym for his co-writing credit here, perhaps because he was nervous that working with Burt Bacharach and Hal David might damage his R&B cred. Whatever, dude.
While the song doesn’t have the more complex jazz-oriented chords that mark many a Bacharach composition, Burt does go off-script by starting the verse with the IV chord (Eb) instead of the root (Bb) and compromising resolution by refusing to stay on the root at the end of the verse, quickly shifting to the complementary minor chord (Gm). The emphasis on the minor chords in the transition lines gives the song a melancholy, bluesy feel and the expansive melody offers a tremendous opportunity for a singer willing to go for it. Shirley Owens does just that, giving a highly varied and remarkably nuanced vocal loaded with dynamic shifts ranging from conversational asides to belt-out mode. Though the album tells you to expect twenty-five songs, there are actually twenty-six tracks: the compilers included both a mono and stereo version of “Baby, It’s You.” If you really want to appreciate Shirley’s vocal, listen to the stereo version, which gives her an open playing field on the right channel. Though I think the mono mix works better in comparison, the clarity assigned to Shirley’s voice in the stereo mix serves as an exceedingly pleasant form of education in vocal phrasing, controlled dynamics and that elusive quality known as command.
“Baby, It’s You” is obviously a great slow-dance number, but I do resent the intrusion of male background singers burying The Shirelles. One note of caution regarding the stereo mix: turn the volume down a few notches when the song nears the organ solo. That sucker is loud.
“The Things I Want to Hear (Pretty Words)“: Uh-oh. Syrupy strings always trigger my internal alarm bells, and in this case, the alarm bells are more than justified. The Shirelles were simply not designed to do Jerome Kern.
“Soldier Boy”: In 1962 the number of those in active military service on behalf of the USA (not counting reserves) stood at 2.8 million. Given the numbers of WWII and Korean veterans, it was pretty likely that everyone in America knew someone who was in the service, had left the service or was praying that they wouldn’t get the call from the draft board.
All that data meant that a sentimental song about missing one’s beloved while he was in the service would likely do very well in what had become a very pro-military country. The Shirelles played the part of the ever-faithful chick keeping the home fires burning for her man in uniform and played the part so well that the song became their second #1 hit.
Congratulations on the success, girls, but this is probably my least favorite track on the album. The music is rudimentary, like the first song written by a fifth-grader who has taken three piano lessons. The rhythm is so clop-along-little-dogie that I’m stunned that the girls didn’t reject it as being too country-western. The harmonies and unison singing are nice but the song structure forces the girls into a rhythmic straitjacket, turning the vocals into something you might hear from the fifth-grade choir. In the middle of the song is what Tom Breihan of Stereogum called “a plinky-plonk go-nowhere guitar solo” that could have been played by a fifth-grader who heard Duane Eddy three times. “Soldier Boy” doesn’t seem to be a song worthy of The Shirelles’ talent, but they did it, it went to the top of the charts and what the hell do I know anyway.
Another thing that pisses me off about “Soldier Boy” is that none of The Shirelles received songwriting credit despite making THE major contribution to the song. The original was a collaborative effort by manager/executive Florence Greenberg and lead songwriter Luther Dixon titled, “I’ll Be True to You.” They gave the song to The Shirelles, who made one teeny weeny change: they turned the song into a story about a girl missing a soldier.
Yes, that’s right. The original “Soldier Boy” mentions no soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. No hussars, Red Army, Wehrmacht or confederate rebels. Not even a mention of the followers of popular golfer Arnold Palmer, a group known as “Arnie’s Army.”
If you think a fifth-grade song about missing some unidentified loser boyfriend would have shot to the top of the charts, let me sell you a bottle of my coronavirus cure. Without the soldier, you’ve got bupkis! The Shirelles should have received songwriting credit and the fattest royalty check in history!
“Welcome Home, Baby”: The follow-up to “Soldier Boy” made it into the Top 30, not bad for a follow-up. The music is classic early 60s slow-dance, displaying a strumming pattern similar to that presented by the girl-group-influenced Beatles in “This Boy.” The song features a far more interesting chord progression than “Soldier Boy,” and the girls sound great, tackling the more complex harmonies with ease and grace. The song opens with two turns of the girls harmonizing “There is no place like home,” then goes on to describe a particularly dull day in the life of a housewife:
Well, at ten o’clock
I was lonely and blue
At twelve o’clock
I thought of nothing but you
From two o’clock
Till a quarter of four
I waited patiently
To hear your footsteps at the door
It is very tempting to interpret this song as a pointed protest of female repression, but there are two obstacles to getting there. First, the song was written by a man (dear old Luther) who also co-wrote “Soldier Boy,” a tribute to those women who faithfully wait. Second, instead of reaming the bastard who has given her such a meaningful life, she welcomes him home with open arms. Still, there is something in the tone of The Shirelles that hints they might have been playing dumb . . . but I think that’s probably wishful thinking on my part. All the supplementary evidence indicates that the phenomenon of the “bored housewife” gobbling down drugs to retain her sanity came to light years later in a variety of psychological studies and The Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.”
But then there’s that line about “That little stain on your lips/Where honey drips.” Was the guy dipping in another woman’s honeypot? Nah. Can’t be.
“Stop the Music”: Stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere . . . girl has party . . . invites her guy . . . her guy winds up with another girl . . . girl is devastated. If that sounds like Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” well, you’re right! It’s also the plot behind “Stop the Music.” The Shirelles’ busted party song came out a year before Lesley’s, but even with that edge, Lesley’s tale is musically superior. The difference is obvious: Quincy Jones produced “It’s My Party” and I don’t really care who produced “Stop the Music” but they should be jailed for musical manslaughter. The ridiculous strings and absurd piano crescendos will serve as Exhibits 1 and 2.
“It’s Love That Really Counts (In the Long Run)“: The B-side of “Stop the Music” is another Bacharach-David composition sharing some of the same production flaws of the A-side but to a lesser degree. The bright spot here is the quality of the harmonies, falling like a welcome, gentle rain and blending beautifully with the lead vocal.
It was roughly at this point in 1962 timeline that Scepter owner (and still Shirelles manager) Florence Greenberg found her shiny new thing in the form of Dionne Warwick, who had provided the lead vocal on one of Bacharach’s demos. Greenberg signed her to a contract and rushed her first single to the market in August 1962 (“Don’t Make Me Over”). Warwick’s debut almost broke into the Top 20, but more relevant to the story is that it outperformed “Stop the Music,” which stalled at #36. The Shirelles now had competition for management care and feeding.
“Everybody Loves a Lover”: Luther Dixon took Doris Day’s more swing-oriented hit and used Barbara George’s “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” as a rhythmic template to push The Shirelles back into the Top 20. Doris Coley returns to the lead vocal spot, delivering a spirited vocal I’ll describe as “secular gospel.” An unfortunate switch to group vocals following the sax solo weakens the song’s soulful feel, but on balance, it’s a pretty solid number.
Though he did some pre-production work for their next single (and earned half-credit for production), this was Luther Dixon’s farewell to Scepter Records and The Shirelles. Dixon’s departure and Florence Greenberg’s fascination with Dionne Warwick would soon result in a noticeable drop in the quality of material sent their way . . . but first, The Shirelles had one last fling with chart success.
“Foolish Little Girl”: The Shirelles’ last trip to the Top 10 is a morality tale from Brill Building pros Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield that begins with a spoken word introduction from Doris Coley:
You broke his heart and made him cry,
And he’s been blue since then.
Now he’s found somebody new,
And you want him back again.
What follows is a mini-play featuring three roles: The Voice of Wisdom (played by Shirley Owens), The Foolish Little Girl (portrayed by Barbara Lee) and The Greek Chorus (obviously a group effort minus Barbara). The casting is perfect, as Shirley’s confident and commanding Voice of Wisdom contrasts beautifully with the childlike voice of Barbara Lee playing the sadistic dingbat. The Greek Chorus appears from time to time to call bullshit when The Foolish Little Girl attempts to offer a defense for her ultimately cruel behavior:
The Voice of Wisdom: Foolish little girl, fickle little girl, you didn’t want him when he wanted you. He’s found another love, it’s her he’s dreaming of and there’s not a single thing that you can do.
Foolish Little Girl: But I love him.
Greek Chorus: No you don’t it’s just your pride that’s hurt.
Foolish Little Girl: I still love him.
Greek Chorus: If you got him back again you’d go right out and do him dirt.
Not exactly Shakespeare, but surprisingly effective . . . and it sounds like the girls had a lot of fun with the theatrics. The music is quite advanced for the time, with repeated use of a minor seventh chord combination that serves to enhance the tragi-comic quality of the mini-play. The spoken word intro would soon become a staple of the girl group genre, and prove particularly effective in songs by the “tough girl” ensembles like The Angels and Shangri-Las.
Their performance on “Foolish Little Girl” showed that The Shirelles still had it and that not only could they handle more complex material but that they seem more engaged doing it. Instead of throwing them challenges, management began tossing them a few crumbs—second-rate songs made worse by substandard production. The last seven songs in the collection are both unmemorable and frustrating—frustrating because you get flashes of unrequited potential that prove The Shirelles were capable of so much more. These include Shirley Owens’ let-it-rip vocal on “What Does a Girl Do?”, the sensitive background vocals on “His Lips Get in the Way” and the energetic call-and-response featured in “Maybe Tonight.” The problem wasn’t the performances, it was the dated, stilted, limiting material. The chart pattern beginning with “Foolish Little Girl” in early 1963 and ending with “Maybe Tonight” in late 1964 demonstrates the effect of gross mismanagement: 4-26-53-57-69-63-88. To add insult to injury, their release of the Oscar-nominated title song from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—a terrible mismatch for their talents—peaked at #92.
One can only imagine what The Shirelles might have achieved had they not become victims of mismanagement and comparative neglect. It’s healthier to focus on what they managed to achieve the triumph of overcoming the many obstacles they faced. In Jacqueline Warwick’s fabulous study Girl Groups, Girl Culture, the author points out that one of the most significant but generally unacknowledged obstacles facing the girl groups was the label itself—“girl group” implies something soft, cuddly and inconsequential. Warwick argues that The Shirelles and the other young female vocal groups of the era managed to overcome that stigma and generate an impact that still resonates to this day: “The well-known girl groups of the 1960s are clearly archetypes of girlness set to music, so much so that their musical vocabulary, choreographed moves, and matching outfits, as well as many of their actual songs, have transcended their initial social and historical context and continue to be significant forty years after their original moment.”
Let’s see . . . where did we leave off?
Oh, yes. I looked at the track order on Disc 2 and said, “Oh, shit.” I uttered the expletive because track one is “I Wanna Be Black.” The dismay has nothing to do with any discomfort I feel discussing the subject of race. It has to do with the discomfort most other people feel about discussing the subject of race.
I’m sure I was influenced by my progressive parents, but I really don’t remember a moment when they “taught” me not to be prejudiced against people of color. Kids aren’t born racist; they learn that crap from mom and dad. My first encounter with racial prejudice took place in elementary school when one of my white girlfriends berated me for hanging out with a Latina girl (yes, we had racists in San Francisco). My first reaction was very Spock-like: I thought that judging people based on skin color was illogical. I remember going home that afternoon and demanding an explanation from my mother, and she patiently educated me on the interrelated subjects of prejudice and white privilege. I remember I kept saying over and over again, “But that doesn’t make any sense!” Maman cautioned me not to expect human beings to act in a sensible manner. “But they should!” I cried.
Obviously, I still had a lot to learn about life.
The term “white ally” wasn’t in use back then, and I’ve never consciously thought of myself in that way. While my reaction to the concept of racial prejudice was grounded in logic and common sense, my reaction to witnessing prejudice in action was uncontrollable outrage. If I heard a classmate use a racial slur against another classmate, I would get right in their face and tell them to knock it off unless they wanted their ass kicked. I have never learned to control that outrage, probably because I don’t want to. Though racism is systemic and institutionalized, I still think calling out racism and standing up for victims of prejudice in the moment is good work. If that makes me a “white ally,” whatever. To me, it’s just the right thing to do.
I take no pride in and feel no guilt about my obvious whiteness (I didn’t have much say in the matter), but I’m acutely aware that being white has given me privileges that people of color don’t have. I just wish that my skin color was irrelevant and that people would judge me by “the content of my character.” I always wondered, “Did I get this job because of my talent or because I was a white chick?” But let’s face it: all I have to deal with is the pervasive sexism on the planet and the more-common-than-you-would-think belief in “dumb blondes.” People don’t cross over to the other side of the street when they see me walking down the sidewalk. Cops don’t view me as a threat. No one’s going to call the gendarmes if I stroll through their neighborhood. If I committed a crime, I’d be more likely to get probation than a jail sentence. I’m also considered a desirable catch by racist black guys who want a blonde trophy to send a big fuck-you to white guys—a kind of “Yeah, we’re gonna steal your white women, motherfucker” attitude. Until we learn that both prejudice and privilege are both forms of dehumanization, talk about it openly and honestly and then do something about it, we’re always going to be in this stupid self-destructive mess.
The conversation has to start sometime, and I can’t think of a better conversation starter than “I Wanna Be Black.”
“I Wanna Be Black” Live: Take No Prisoners, 1978, original from Street Hassle, 1978: The live version of “I Wanna Be Black” is a loose bash featuring an extended instrumental passage featuring hot sax, in-the-groove female singers and a thick layer of crowd delight. The virtue of the original is that it includes the full set of lyrics; on the live version, Lou skips verses, throws in plenty of ad-libs and interacts directly with the audience. It’s an absolute gas.
The live version doesn’t go into the graphic detail of the studio version, so I do want to quote from the original. Let’s start with the first verse:
I want to be black
Have natural rhythm
Shoot twenty feet of jism, too
And fuck up the Jews
Later we hear a wish for “a big prick, too.” We also hear a reference to the late Dr. King:
I want to be like Martin Luther King
And get myself shot in spring
And lead a whole generation too
And fuck up the Jews
Taken out of context, it’s easy to understand how those words could be taken as deeply offensive . . . so let’s put them into context. Lou delivers the most important line in the song with special emphasis in the live version:
I don’t wanna be no fucked-up middle-class Jewish middle-class college student.
Since Lou graduated from Syracuse fourteen years before writing “I Wanna Be Black,” that line should tell you that Lou isn’t speaking for himself but playing a character. Through that prism, the lyrics do not represent some kind of weird, envy-filled racist rant but a penetrating portrayal of white male insecurity and the legacy of Jewish self-hatred. The narrator is a deeply insecure individual, burdened with fears of sexual inadequacy and the centuries-old stigma of Jewishness. Though his use of the term “nigger” when he’s jiving with the black girls in the crowd gives me the creeps, it highlights the love-hate-admire-resent confusion in the kid’s head.
If you Google “Lou Reed racist,” nearly all the articles that pop up concern the “colored girls” reference in “Walk on the Wild Side.” That tells me that most people understood where Lou Reed was coming from when he came up with “I Wanna Be Black,” but just in case there’s any doubt, I want to quote at length from The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor, a marvelous reference work that devoted four pages to “I Wanna Be Black”:
In “I Wanna Be Black” (taking the studio and live versions together), Reed offers enough stereotypes of black sexuality, utters enough obscenity, and expresses enough self-hating Jewishness to offend just about everyone. And still, people found it, and continue to find it amusing. Why? Not because in the mid-1970s and thereafter all or most of Lou Reed’s non-black fans were/are secret racists who were/are glad he revealed a non-black man’s honest feelings about a race that lends itself to absurd stereotypes, but because they were/are not racists and understood that Reed used these stereotypes to expose the racism that necessitated the song’s composition. In the hands of Lou Reed, racial profiling has never been so ironic . . .
Reed employs bitter humor to dramatize the reality of racism. To pull off this feat requires impersonation—the standard move, whatever the subject, of American satirists from Ben Franklin to Tina Fey—at which Reed excels, and listeners react by smiling at the incongruity of it all.
For it must be emphasized that Lou Reed does not want to be black; his narrator (“a fucked-up Jewish middle-class college student) does. Behind the joke in “I Wanna Be Black” lies the irony that this speaker doesn’t have a clue as to the extent of his racism. He may think he’s elevating and celebrating blackness; instead, he’s revealing his condescending ignorance: an incongruity laced with malice causing unsympathetic listeners to laugh at him. Reed’s narrator aspires to blackness because the feels that blackness, as evidenced for the most part by greater physical endowments among black males, is superior to whiteness. To fully realize the narrator’s immaturity and inability to think beyond crude stereotypes of African-American life, for which the narrator yearns, at the expense of his own race, with no sense of irony, Reed had to put himself at the mercy of those listeners (i.e., listeners not familiar with his work) inclined to level charges of racism against Reed himself, thereby misdirecting their disgust at what Reed knew full well was despicable, just as Vladimir Nabokov, despite penning a comic novel (Lolita) about child rape, considered child-rape heinous, and just as Mark Twain, despite penning a sometimes comic novel (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) about slavery, considered slavery heinous. The narrator’s incongruities, coupled with the relief we enjoy when beholding Lou Reed’s nerve and courage to say such things in order to satirize racist fools—these explain why we laugh, chuckle, smile, snicker, or shake our heads when hearing the vile lyrics of “I Wanna Be Black.”
Perhaps Reed believed that such extreme comedy was the best way to condemn a human flaw as terrible as racism. But again, Reed isn’t the racist, the narrator is—and although this fact may be hard for some shocked listeners to grasp, even harder for them would be to grasp the possibility Reed is chastening non-black listeners who resemble the narrator in wanting to be black, too.
Or, as Lou explained to the crowd in his defense, “I never said I was tasteful.”
“Temporary Thing” Rock and Roll Heart, 1976: Lou’s zig-zag approach to his work in the early 70s, following his pop-glam albums with extreme bleakness (Berlin) or cacophony squared (Metal Machine Music) earned him a rating of “unreliable” from his masters at RCA, who bid him a not-so-fond adieu. Hearing that Lou was facing bankruptcy, Clive Davis decided that Lou was worth a second chance and signed him to Arista. His first effort for his new boss, Rock and Roll Heart, failed to impress either the critics or his dwindling fan base. “Temporary Thing” is probably the most salvageable piece on the album.
The arrangement is intriguing—imagine an updated version of a Ronettes song without Phil Spector’s wall of sound. The heart of the arrangement is a 16-beat pattern consisting of two emphatic syncopated beats from the bass drum followed by fourteen hi-hat beats as steady as a metronome. A thin drone runs in deep background throughout the song, joined only occasionally and unobtrusively by piano and guitar. The background vocals are exceptionally well-designed, a combination of echo and call-and-response that have the effect of rooting Lou on as he blames the bitch he’s trying to dump (Discogs claims that Lou did the background vocals; but I have a hard time believing that those melodic feminine voices came from Lou Reed’s windpipe). The narrative seems to imply that the broad in question walked in on Lou while he was shooting up; he attempts to justify his nasty habit with typical junkie bullshit (“It’s just a temporary thing”). Then again, the argument they’re having could qualify as “a temporary thing,” but even if that’s the case, this relationship has the lifespan of one of those old summer re-runs (yet another “temporary thing”). She is of “good breeding,” obviously too scholarly for a man of the streets (“You’ve read too many books/You’ve seen too many plays”) and he can’t stand her goddamn family. It’s ov-ah! The thing is . . . he wouldn’t waste his time trying to pin it on her if he really wanted her to leave—all his vitriol is a smokescreen defense because he got caught and can’t handle her emotional reaction. “Temporary Thing” is like one of those comparatively obscure Beatles songs (I’m thinking of “Any Time at All”) that never get any airplay but when you hear it, you say, “Hey, that’s a damned good song.”
“Shooting Star” Street Hassle, 1978: I have no idea how or why this song made the cut on Street Hassle, much less this collection or any of the other collections that include it. It’s a badly-produced zero of a song, and I don’t know what sort of patois Lou was trying to emulate, but “snotty teenage spaced-out brat” wasn’t a good fit for him.
“Legendary Hearts” Legendary Hearts, 1983: Lou probably received more consistent critical acclaim during the ’80s than any other decade; even lifelong needler Robert Christgau started to warm up to his work after years of attacking Lou for his “cheapjack ennui.” Looking at the artist-selected content of The Essential Lou Reed and using the original release date of the live tracks, it’s pretty obvious that Lou had a different take on the quality of his work:
I attribute his critical success in the 80s to a combination of 60s-critic nostalgia and the simple truth that the ’80s were a lean period for rock ‘n’ roll in general. What bugs me most about his work in the ’80s are the fantastically awful music videos. Rolling Stone’s list, “Lou Reed on YouTube: 10 Incredible Videos” consists of nine live performances and one Honda commercial. Mother Jones came up with a set of eight videos that include live performances and interviews, but no especially-for-MTV productions.
1983’s Legendary Hearts was produced by Lou himself, and, prick that he was, he abused the power of his office to cut or mix down nearly all of Robert Quine’s guitar work. Quine’s side of the story: “The atmosphere was really uptight—it’s impossible to be friends with him. When I got the final mix, I was really freaked out. He pretty much mixed me off the record. I was in Ohio and took it out in the driveway and smashed the tape into pieces. I have cassettes of the rough mix of the record was a really good record but he made it all muddy and murky.”
Quine was right—the mix is muddy at times, with sort of a dull edge to it. The title track has the feel of a modern country song that could have benefited from a well-placed slide guitar. The lyrics wander a bit but the basic premise is that we are hampered in our attempts to experience true love by an idealized version of romance depicted in song, story and Shakespeare. The first verse defines both the problem and its deleterious effects on the human soul:
Tearing us apart
With stories of their love
Their great transcendent loves
While we stand here and fight
And lose another night
Of legendary love
Translation: This attempt to live up to the standards established by fictional romance characters and this stupid fight are interfering with my nightly fuck! How dare you mess with my prostate!
While the song is solid, the video is painful to watch. What puzzles me is why Lou didn’t tap the resources of one of the many top-tier film schools in New York to produce his videos . . . or given Scorsese or Jules Dassin a call. Geez.
“Heroin” Live in Italy, 1984, original on The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: I would argue that all the live versions of “Heroin” are superior to the VU studio version, but the one on Live at Italy stands out for the superior stereo guitar work from Reed and Robert Quine—yes, the same Robert Quine whose outstanding contributions to The Blue Mask made that album one of Lou’s best; the same Robert Quine who had a bitter falling out with Lou over Legendary Hearts. Needing to shore up his financials, Quine accepted Lou’s offer to go on a world tour despite his hatred of touring. I don’t know how he did on the financial compensation side, but I’m sure this scholar of Velvet Underground music derived ample satisfaction from the opportunity to play some of those old favorites.
The guitar work—supported superbly by Fernando Saunders, whose bass handles the dominant motif—is so good that sometimes I just shut out whatever the hell Lou’s talking about to follow the guitar dialogue. I’m particularly attracted to the dual counterpoints in the slower section, where Lou takes care of the foundation while Quine moves in and out of semi-complementary keys. I’m thinking maybe these guys should have given up trying to have conversations in the English language and just strapped on their guitars when they wanted to communicate: each is remarkably responsive to the other.
And I don’t know of any songs that describe the repulsion/attraction dynamic of drug addiction as impactfully as “Heroin.” If you think about all the life-sapping noise filling our world today then read the last verse of “Heroin,” you understand why deciding to “nullify my life” with a drug that the user knows “will be the death of me” is understandable and almost . . . logical:
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds
‘Cause when the smack begins to flow
And I really don’t care anymore
Ah, when that heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I’m as good as dead
And thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know
“Coney Island Baby ” Coney Island Baby, 1976: After the hissy fit of Metal Machine Music, Lou needed a time out. His financial troubles were piling up, his manager was threatening a lawsuit and RCA was footing the bill for his digs at the Gramercy Park Hotel. The one thing he had going for him was his relationship with Rachel Humphreys. Rachel gave him the emotional support and the personal validation he needed to get through that rough patch; the album forms an extended ode to their relationship.
“Coney Island Baby” is specifically dedicated to the couple: “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel.” The song’s strength lies in Lou’s rare display of humility and his treatment of the concept of “glory.”
American men in search of glory tend to gravitate towards either the military or sports. Though we’re astonished to learn that Lou went out for the high school football team, his motivations are similar to men who are willing “to die for the glory of the nation”:
Wanted to play football for the coach
‘Cause, you know someday, man you gotta stand up straight unless you’re gonna fall
Then you’re going to die
And the straightest dude I ever knew was standing right for me, all the time
So I had to play football for the coach
And I wanted to play football for the coach
Motivated in part by male mythology (stand up and be a man), Lou had to play football because of male peer pressure but he wanted to play football to show he was a man. Truth be told, he was too young to know what he really wanted. Lou then considers his life in the music business, where glory is nowhere to be found:
When you’re all alone and lonely
In your midnight hour
And you find that your soul
It has been up for sale
And you’re getting to think about
All the things that you done
And you’re getting to hate
Just about everything
That pretty much describes the period in his life between Sally Can’t Dance and Metal Machine Music. Lou could have remained in that state of mind if he hadn’t been fortunate enough to meet Rachel and redefine glory:
But remember the princess who lived on the hill
Who loved you even though she knew you was wrong
And right now she just might come shining through
And the glory of love
Glory of love
Glory of love, just might come through
He muses on his “two-bit friends” who have ripped him off and talked behind his back; he considers the vibes in the city, “a funny place something like a circus or a sewer.” None of that matters now that the princess on the hill has become a living, breathing human being who loves Lou for who he is:
And the glory of love
Glory of love
Glory of love, just might see you through
The verses are delivered in a quiet, reflective voice hovering over acoustic guitar backed by some marvelous counterpoints from Bob Kulick on lead guitar; the volume only rises during the bridge and fade, where glory is imagined and finally realized. A fine piece of work.
“The Last Shot” Legendary Hearts, 1983: This is one of my favorite Lou Reed vocals, combining a laconic narration of his days as a drunk with emotional, off-beat phrasing to the chorus: “When you quit, you quit, but you always wish/That you knew it was your last shot.” Most songs follow the drummer’s lead when it comes to the rhythm; here the band follows Lou’s phrasing, navigating through the imbalanced verses and adding emphasis in the stutter-stop moments. Fred Maher is simply outstanding on the drums, attacking each part of the kit at just the right moments. And if I’m not mistaken, the stereo guitars indicate that this is one track where Robert Quine’s contributions weren’t obliterated.
If you’re wondering why “you always wish that you knew it was your last shot,” there’s a huge difference between a conscious, affirmative decision to give up the bottle and quitting in response to an embarrassing incident:
Let’s drink to the last shot
And the blood on the dishes in the sink
Blood inside the coffee cup
Blood on the tabletop . . .
I shot blood at the fly on the wall
My heart almost stopped hardly there at all
I broke the mirror with my fall, with my – fall-fall-fall
“The Bells” The Bells, 1979: Let me turn the post over to Damien Love, who wrote a most insightful review of this curious album:
There are cults within the larger cult of Lou, and the most stubborn gathers around this half-forgotten record from the summer of ’79. Some find it a travesty. Others contend that, if you can’t hear The Bells, you never really heard Lou Reed at all. Reed himself might have agreed. He cited the title track as his favourite among all the songs he’d written, while also admitting that he never really wrote it – he improvised the lyrics on the spot at the mic in one take, he claimed, never sure quite where the words came from . . .
. . . The album’s mad, bleak finale, the backdrop is a slight return to the experimentalism of Metal Machine Music, a dash of “The Murder Mystery” (barely audible voices are telling us something beneath the wash of noise), as a nine-minute drone descends, built around synth static, a blunt three-note bass figure, a monstrous gong and Cherry’s scrabbling, scratching Spanish sketches on the horn. Then, finally, at the climax, enters Reed’s phantom of rock voice, with that strange, supposedly improvised tale, about a Broadway actor after his play has ended, plagued by visions, leaping from a window ledge.
“‘The Bells’ is about a suicide,” Reed once said. “But not a bad suicide. It’s an ecstatic moment . . . ” Is The Bells the metaphorical suicide of the Lou Reed of the 1970s? On the cover, he holds a mirror, but looks away from what he sees. Certainly, on the records that followed, a changed man would soon appear – happily married, cleaning up – and he would write different kinds of songs. Ask not for whom The Bells tolls. It tolls for Lou.
There really isn’t a representative song on The Bells, as all the tracks are wildly different, covering ground from disco to experimental. This title track is the experimental contribution, one that Laurie Anderson, avant-garde pioneer and Lou’s last wife, called “transcendent.” Well, what else would you expect from an experimental musician and spouse? The piece isn’t particularly groundbreaking; it’s a jigsaw puzzle of sounds that came into existence long before Lou “improvised” this piece. Damien Love pointed out the similarity (I would say blatant ripoff) between Don Cherry’s trumpet and Miles’ Sketches of Spain; I’ll point out that the tones on the Fender Rhodes are an eerily close match to the tones produced by Tony Banks’ Mellotron on “Watcher of the Skies” and that the musique concrète isn’t all that different from “Revolution 9.” The 2003 remaster didn’t disguise the fact that this was a relatively primitive electronic recording made by people who only had a vague idea of what the hell they were trying to accomplish.
Definitely a cult classic for the New York artsy-fartsy crowd.
“Perfect Day” Transformer, 1972: The word on the street is that this is a drug song. The same was said about “Get Off My Cloud,” based on the belief that “detergent pack” = heroin.
Since the sources for these interpretations were likely drug users, I think we can safely dismiss their assertions.
In this case, we have confirmation straight from the horse’s mouth that the drug angle is bullshit: “No. You’re talking to the writer, the person who wrote it. No, that’s not true [that the song is about heroin use]. I don’t object to that, particularly . . . whatever you think is perfect. But this guy’s vision of a perfect day was the girl, sangria in the park, and then you go home; a perfect day, real simple. I meant just what I said.”
But Lou is guilty of peddling some bullshit, too. The perfect day he describes sounds like it came from a movie on the Hallmark Channel, which should raise listener suspicions. The repetition of the line “You just keep me hanging on” (thank you Holland-Dozier Holland) is also cause for concern. It gets clearer that something is rotten in Fantasyland when we get to the third verse:
Just a perfect day
You made me forget myself
I thought I was
Someone else, someone good
So his date was dissing him as they strolled through the zoo, and probably rejected his attempt to hold hands during the flick. The clincher is the quadruple repetition of the catchphrase, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” Just in case you’ve been out of touch with the original source of that phrase, let us quote from Galatians 6:7-8:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Our boy did not appreciate the mockery, and this babe is in a world of trouble. “Perfect Day” isn’t a drug song and it certainly isn’t a nice song at all: it’s a revenge song.
As was true of a good chunk of Transformer, the arrangement is a bit over-the-top, with Berlinesque piano and strings supporting Lou’s game attempt at a vocal. When I listen to the song, I can’t get the unpleasant image of Lou in a tuxedo out of my mind.
“Sally Can’t Dance” Sally Can’t Dance, 1974: This is a surprising choice given how Reed felt about the album, according to Lou Reed: Walk on the Wild Side: The Stories Behind the Songs. “I hate that album. I despise that record . . . I slept through it. They’d make a suggestion and I’d just say, ‘Oh, all right.’ I’d do vocals in one take, in twenty minutes, and then it was goodbye. It was produced in the slimiest way possible.” He told Melody Maker, “I just can’t write songs you can dance to. I make an effort—and Sally Can’t Dance was an effort. But I despise it.”
And what really pissed him off was that Sally Can’t Dance turned out to be his highest-charting album. #10 on the Billboard charts. After the commercial failure and negative critical reaction to Berlin, Lou was in a contrary mood, hiding his hurt and cynically agreeing to play the pop star game.
Sally Can’t Dance has a couple of good moments, but the pairing of Lou Reed and producer Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat and Tears fame was one of the worst pairings in music history. Lou spends most of his time buried under horns, guitars and background singers as if Katz felt it was his job to make sure that every recording track was filled with something or another. Unlike Bob Ezrin, Katz didn’t give a shit about art, which is probably why RCA hired him—-to rein in the wayward artist.
As for the song, it’s not bad, though I wish it wasn’t so busy. The background singers are too loud, the reverb too broad and all-encompassing and the horns pure Blood, Sweat & Tears. For a superior version, check out the horn-free, background-singer-free performance on Live in Italy.
The lyrics present something of a conundrum because the version most people are familiar with has been sanitized and never answers the question, “Why can’t Sally dance no more?” The original composition fills in the blanks; an early take containing the full set of lyrics can be found on YouTube.
The first chorus adds a line—“They found her in the trunk of a Ford”—which sure as hell explains why Sally can no longer trip the light fantastic. The line in the second chorus—“She went and carried on and can’t get off of the floor”—was originally “She took too much meth and can’t get off the floor.” The bridge is missing two key lines that shed light on Sally’s penchant for sporting a Napoleonic sword:
She was the first girl in the neighborhood
To wear tied-dyed pants, ah, like she should
She was the first girl that I ever seen
That had flowers painted on her jeans
She was the first girl in her neighborhood
Who got raped in Tompkins Square, real good
Now she wears a sword, like Napoleon
And she kills the boys and acts like a son
There is also a missing verse that has been used by some to tie the song to model and Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, who reportedly had an affair with Bob Dylan (denied by the Nobel winner) before her early drug-related demise:
Watch this now
Sally became a big model
She moved up to eighties and park
She had a studio apartment
And that’s where she used to ball, folk singers
And that’s where she used to ball, folk singers
Add those missing pieces to the puzzle and you have a REAL Lou Reed song, a tragic tale of a traumatized young woman punished for her hedonism. Take them away and you have a New York hipster travelogue. If you click the link to the buried version, you’ll also hear a vast difference in Lou’s vocal attack—he sings with energy rather than cool detachment. I assume that the missing verses were deleted by a combination of Katz and RCA because a.) a stiff in a trunk would reduce sales b.) a girl getting raped would reduce sales and c.) depicting a woman with multiple partners would reduce sales.
“Satellite of Love” Transformer, 1972: Our award in the Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing category goes to Lou Reed, David Bowie and Mick Ronson for their performance in “Satellite of Love.” The song was originally conceived during Reed’s VU days in response to Doug Yule’s suggestion that the band needed more airplay. Lou told him he had a song about a satellite, and because satellites were in the news at the time, Yule said “Yeah, that’s the ticket,” or something to that effect. They demoed the song for the Loaded album but it failed to make the cut.
Which says a lot.
Enter David Bowie at the peak of his early producer phase with his talented pal Mick Ronson. The pair immediately set themselves to the task of gussying up the song and boy, did they ever gussy! Ronson strengthened the nothing-much verses with a lovely little piano counterpoint to Lou’s fragile vocal, supported by Klaus Voorman with a not very McCartneyesque bass pattern and magical vocal splashes from Bowie. For the bridge, Ronson leaps from the piano bench and whips out a recorder to back Lou’s now semi-stern vocal and guitar counterpoint. After a smooth transition, we get one last verse before a barely pregnant pause heralds a shift in tempo supported by handclaps and finger snaps. Cue the background singers! Cue the horns! Shift focus to Bowie! Soar to the heavens, David! Fade . . . that’s a wrap!
Some Beatles comparisons are appropriate here. First, think of “Satellite of Love” as a condensed version of “Hey Jude.” The structures are similar—the song proper is followed by an extended fade designed to raise the excitement level. The differences are that McCartney could sing and actually had something to say. Another way to look at “Satellite of Love” is to view it as a mini-version of Abbey Road—brilliantly produced, brilliantly arranged but not much substance under the hood.
I also find it fascinating that the two best-known covers of the song are by the two best-known narcissists in the business: Morrisey and Bono. Maybe “Satellite of Love” was written in some kind of secret narcissist code that appeals to egomaniacs. If that’s the case, you can expect to hear it shortly as the crowd-warming music played at Trump rallies before whoever is managing Lou’s estate issues a cease-and-desist order.
The story has a silver lining. Joel Hodgson borrowed the song title for the name of the spacecraft in Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I hope that proves to be the more enduring legacy.
“NYC Man” Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996: Despite the frequent presence of grunge guitars and rock arrangements, Set the Twilight Reeling is a rather subdued effort with straightforward arrangements and not a lot in the way of dramatics. Even the provocative “Sex with Your Parents (Motherfucker), Part II” is delivered in a relatively even tone that actually serves to give Lou’s rant about right-wing hypocrites more credibility. “NYC Man,” though, is probably my least favorite track on the album. The arrangement is fine and Lou is fine and the horn section is fine but what the hell do all those Shakespeare characters have to do with anything?
“Dirty Blvd.” New York, 1989: New York was universally feted as the greatest thing Lou had ever done at the time of its release, but in reconnecting with the album thirty years later, I was surprised that so many of the songs have become dated due to too many period-specific references. I guarantee you that if I were to poll a thousand members of my millennial generation on the question, “Who was Kurt Waldheim?” you’d get 90% blank stares, 5% “action movie star” and 5% “Wasn’t he a goalie in a World Cup?” Shit, even I thought Jesse Jackson was dead until he came out for Bernie. On the other hand, some of the songs were prescient in perceiving the fatal flaws in the American character that have become painfully obvious today, like “There Is No Time” and (especially) “Last Great American Whale.” When I argued with my dad over his mission to “save American democracy,” I quoted the last line of the final verse:
They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”
No, the “Donald” in the song wasn’t he-who-shall-not-named but John Mellencamp.
New York is marked by Lou’s deepest exploration of socio-political themes and contains some of Lou’s sharpest lyrics and richest imagery. It’s too bad that the collection only contains one track but we’re probably lucky to have it, as Lou’s liner notes advise the consumer to listen to it in a single setting. I do think you get more out of New York by listening to it straight through—it’s a tight volume of poetry held together by its penetrating social criticism, Lou’s engaging narration (he rarely “sings” on the album) and a comfortable mix of back-to-basics rock, country and a touch of light blues.
But if you had to pick one track, “Dirty Blvd.” is the obvious choice. In three verses, Lou lays out an airtight indictment of American racism, gentrification, income inequality and breathtaking hypocrisy. The story centers around the archetypal character of an immigrant kid named Pedro, who lives with nine brothers and sisters and a dad who beats them with a coat hanger. The family lives “out of the Wilshire Hotel,” with the emphasis on out of, as “Pedro looks out a window without glass/The walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet”. Unlike the DACA dreamers, Pedro’s dreams are limited by his very ugly reality:
Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
But that’s a slim chance he’s going to the boulevard
He’s going to end up, on the dirty boulevard
He’s going out, to the dirty boulevard
He’s going down, to the dirty boulevard
In the second verse, we learn that Pedro’s family pays $2000 a month for the privilege of living in a shithole and that the money comes from working on Dirty Blvd. through begging or whatever it takes to survive. Lou views Pedro’s situation as something more than failed social policy, but prime evidence of American hypocrisy and racism:
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard
Get ‘em out, on the dirty boulevard
The third verse compares two alternative realities: the world of the wealthy (many of whom are probably liberals who have satisfied their conscience from the safe distance of noblesse oblige) and the world of the mean streets, where peddlers, whores and immigrants try to survive another day:
Outside it’s a bright night
There’s an opera at Lincoln Center
The movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the Mean Streets
A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
He’s selling plastic roses for a buck
The traffic’s backed up to 39th street
The TV whores are calling the cops out for a suck
And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
He’s found a book on magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3,” he says, “I hope I can disappear”
And fly, fly away, from this dirty boulevard
I’ve said that we could really use Phil Ochs right now, but I’d take the Lou Reed of New York in a heartbeat.
“Rock Minuet” Ecstasy, 2000: Congratulations to Lou are in order here, as he managed to completely remove the stiff formality of classical minuet while still holding to the 3/4 time signature. Nothing puts me to sleep quicker than a classical minuet and I find myself in awe of those broads at Louis XIV’s soirées who managed to dance to that crap in hoop skirts without nodding off and rolling into the fountains. If you’d like to compare Lou’s dawn of the millennium effort to a classical minuet (Boccherini’s Minuet from String Quintet op.11 n.5 for Orchestra), have yourself a ball.
Lou pulled off the anti-minuet with Mike Rathke’s dissonant lead guitar playing an augmented fifth (or flatted sixth) that would have sent Mozart to an even earlier grave. The drums are very faint in the mix; the strings serve as an ironic reminder of the musical origins.
Of course, minuets in those days of yore didn’t come with lyrics, and I think les parôles du Lou would have caused those ladies to blush themselves to death:
He pictured the bedroom where he heard the first cry
His mother on all fours, ah, with his father behind
And her yell hurt so much, he had wished he’d gone blind
And rocked to a rock minuet
The “he” is a confused young man with gay leanings trying to navigate his way through a don’t-ask-don’t-tell culture that comes alive in still-not-for-polite-company places called gay bars. That image of his father slipping it into his mother’s ass was a traumatic experience for the kid, indicating that he’d already taken some heat for being a “mama’s boy” (rather than a normal human being who gravitated towards mom because of his father’s toxic masculinity). At the start of the song, he is “Paralyzed by hatred and a piss ugly soul,” believing that “If he murdered his father, he thought he’d become whole.” When he comes of age, he heads for the gay bars where “he consummated hatred on a cold sawdust floor.” Though filled with loathing for the men in the bar, he also finds them irresistibly attractive—particularly those who practice BDSM:
In the back of the warehouse were a couple of guys
They had tied someone up and sewn up their eyes
And he got so excited he came on his thighs
When they danced to the rock minuet
What’s important to note here is what gets him off is a fundamental misperception of BDSM, a sexual lifestyle characterized by honesty, trust and conscious, mutual permission. When a psychotically-disposed person sees something like bondage or whipping, they see it as license to act out their truly sick fantasies . . . and the kid does just that:
On Avenue B, someone cruised him one night
He took him in an alley and then pulled a knife
And thought of his father, as he cut his windpipe
And finally danced to the rock minuet
Lou chose the minuet because it is a superficial form of dance, a hypocritical form of “fake sex” where no honest communication occurs: form over substance. Tough to listen to, but “Rock Minuet” is a very clever piece of music.
“Pale Blue Eyes” The Velvet Underground, 1969: Despite the general consensus that Lou could easily win the top prize at the Asshole of the Year pageant, he could do soft and tender at times. “Pale Blue Eyes” is a lovely little song, though the contradictory feelings expressed by the narrator defy pop norms on what should or shouldn’t go into a pop song. In one of his best early vocals, Lou manages to capture the fragility of a guy in an affair with a married woman as he rides the pros and cons of his attachment:
It was good what we did yesterday
And I’d do it once again
The fact that you are married
Only proves you’re my best friend
But it’s truly, truly a sin
The duet between Lou and the arpeggiated guitar is quite lovely, especially when paired with such a romantic statement as this:
If I could make the world as pure
And strange as what I see
I’d put you in a mirror
I’d put in front of me
I’d put in front of me
Linger on your pale blue eyes
Although there are few songs like “Pale Blue Eyes” in his catalog, it seems the perfect ending to an amazing, non-linear journey.
There is a stock phrase used to describe people like Lou Reed: temperamental artist. He went through a lot of painful experiences; he inflicted painful experiences on others. Though you can argue the nits, The Essential Lou Reed paints a vivid, accurate picture of a man who made relatively few compromises over a very long career, tackled subjects most artists wouldn’t touch and created more than his fair share of great songs with unusually memorable lyrics.
You can apply a whole lot of adjectives to Lou Reed—competitive, talented, abusive, courageous—and a whole lot of labels—the guy who picked himself up off the canvas, the prototypical rocker, the avant-garde icon. But after spending the last few weeks with Lou Reed, experiencing his remarkable achievements and grappling with his endless contradictions, if you were to ask me to describe Lou Reed in one word and only one word, that word would be . . .