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 . . .
The main complaint leveled against The Essential Lou Reed has to do with the fact that the tracks are not presented in chronological order. Normally, I would bitch about that, too (which I have in reviews of various “greatest hit” collections).
The thing is, I don’t mind the track order on The Essential Lou Reed. His music really doesn’t follow a conventional developmental narrative like most artists. Lou Reed just wasn’t a linear kind of guy.
He was a dynamic concentration of opposites: the angry drunk who beat women and wrote insightfully and empathetically about domestic violence; the ROTC platoon leader and aspiring poet; the avant-garde icon who left The Velvet Underground and moved back home with his parents on Long Island, working as a typist in his father’s tax accounting firm. He fired Warhol, he loved Warhol; he collaborated with Bowie, he gave Bowie a good sock in the puss. He was jealous and resentful of other musical artists who achieved greater commercial success; he successfully collaborated with a diverse group of top-flight musicians and composers throughout his career.
Howard Sounes, author of the controversial but well-researched biography on Reed, Notes from the Velvet Underground, identified one consistent manifestation of his complex personality. “The word that kept coming up was prick,” he said. “Girlfriends called him a prick, people he was at school with called him a prick; people in his band called him a prick.” Paul Morrisey of the Andy Warhol contingency told Sounes, “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch [or] The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says this isn’t a biography of a great human being, because he was not . . . He was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.” Sounes notes that at least some of Reed’s anti-social behavior could be attributed to long-standing mental health issues (bipolar disorder and manic depression) and the trauma of undergoing electro-convulsive therapy in his teens.
While I can’t defend his misogynistic behavior or some of his racially-insensitive outbursts, let’s face it: there have been few artists in any field with the personality of Mister Rogers. I think the quote that ends The Daily Beast’s article on Sounes’ biography says it best: “Lou was an easy person to despise,” said Ritchie Fliegler, who worked with Reed on Street Hassle. “He was the biggest prick I ever met, or ever worked for, but he sure wrote some great songs.”
The sunnier aspect of Reed’s personality was his endless fascination with the new and novel. He spent his life following his creative instincts, chasing one butterfly after another, always happy to let one fly away because another had just landed on his shoulder. It says a lot about Lou Reed that much of his best work initially bombed with fans and critics alike. He was driven first and foremost by the self-expressive urge that drives the true artist, and that urge rarely leads to immediate validation. Human beings have been programmed to trust the familiar, the tried-and-true; it takes time for our essentially conservative, protective orientation to adjust to something new.
And if you’re wondering how a guy completely incapable of melody could have been nominated for a Best Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy, I would suggest that the appeal of his vocal style is grounded in that sense of artistic integrity. There is an undeniable earnestness in his voice that somehow manages to overcome his technical incompetence. I’d also point out that Lou Reed was a first-rate lyricist, who fully embraced the teaching of his mentor, poet Delmore Schwartz, that “with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.” Lou believed that his purpose as a writer was to “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music.” What made that vision even more compelling was his boundariless definition of rock ‘n’ roll—in his mind, there were no limits to what defined rock and what you could do with rock. He believed that rock ‘n’ roll at its core represented freedom of self-expression.
Since Lou compiled the collection himself, he must have had his reasons for the apparent jumble of the track order. I’ve decided to assume good intentions and take in the presentation as he intended. As is often the case with collections, there will be arguments about which songs made the cut and which didn’t, but I’m going to nip that controversy in the bud. Lou obviously felt that these songs formed the essence of his work, a summation of what he was trying to achieve as an artist. Let’s try to look at the collection from his perspective and see how it all works out.
“Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song)” The Raven, 2003: It makes perfect sense that Reed chose this self-reflective song to launch the festivities.
The Raven incorporates Lou Reed songs both old and new with pieces from Reed’s collaboration with Robert Wilson, POEtry, a collection of liberal interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work (“far more faithful to the spirit than to the letter of Poe’s work,” opined Rolling Stone). The last seven tracks form a suite based on Poe’s revenge story, “Hop-Frog: Or the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs,” succinctly summarized on Wikipedia thusly: “The title character, a person with dwarfism taken from his homeland, becomes the jester of a king particularly fond of practical jokes. Taking revenge on the king and his cabinet for the king’s striking of his friend and fellow dwarf Trippetta, he dresses the king and his cabinet as orangutans for a masquerade. In front of the king’s guests, Hop-Frog murders them all by setting their costumes on fire before escaping with Trippetta.”
It’s interesting that Reed made a slight change to the name of the female character, from Trippetta to Tripitena, a near-match to one of the trade names of Amitriptyline, an antidepressant. Whether that was an inside joke or a clue to interpretation is a jump-ball. The piece that precedes “Who Am I?” is “Tripitena’s Speech,” a Reed invention (Trippetta makes no speech in the story; she just splits with her psychopathic friend). The differences between Tripitena’s speech and Tripitena’s song are quite stark in terms of both substance and tone. Try to imagine Bernie Sanders dressed like King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, railing against the enemy (in this case, businessmen, not the French or the Democratic Establishment) and you’ll get the gist of “Tripitena’s Speech” (though Amanda Plummer is far less histrionic than the American socialist). By contrast, “Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song)” has absolutely nothing to do with the character or the story, but is obviously Lou Reed reflecting on his life from the perspective of an older man.
The opening passage is exceptionally well-executed, with the lead guitar establishing the melody over a majestic backing of power chords and Tony “Thunder” Smith’s breathtaking drum attack, mixing tempo support with exciting bits of punctuation. The closing power chord transforms into the sound of a cello playing three rising notes that fade along with the dying guitar, a marvelous lead-in for Lou’s half-spoken, semi-melodic, almost humble vocal:
Sometimes I wonder who am I
The world seeming to pass me by
A younger man now getting old
I have to wonder what the rest of life will hold
As the poem progresses, it becomes apparent that Lou is trying to deal with three basic issues: the meaning of identity; the conflict between the-world-as-imagined and cold reality; and the nature of time. The next verse addresses the issue of identity as he gathers his thoughts in a message to a lost love (who may be dead, or figuratively dead):
I hold a mirror to my face
There are some lines that I could trace
To memories of loving you
A passion that breaks reason in two
He seems to accept the truth that one’s identity is defined in relation to others, though later in the poem he seems to resist the pull of opposites (“You were always so negative/And never saw the positive”). At this point, he pulls back from that memory with the stuttering “I-I-I” which cues the band to enter in support of his rising tension. Lou’s thoughts then start to wander as he tries to grasp the meaning of his life and the meaning of life itself. True to his personality, he abandons linearity for impulse, later admitting “But thinking puts me in a daze/And thinking never helped me anyway.”
He first summarizes his life to date in the form of a simple truth: “One thinks of what one hoped to be/And then faces reality.” From there he begins to explore the larger question of existence in what serves as the chorus:
I wonder who started all this
Was God in love and gave a kiss
To someone who later betrayed
And God-less love sent us away?
Lou then admits, “Sometimes I wonder who I am” before asking a series of unanswered, probably unanswerable questions: “Who made the trees, who made the sky?/Who made the storms, who made heartbreak?” He ends that verse with the line, “I wonder how much life I can take,” then contradicts that sentiment in the next line: “I see at last a future self.” The contradiction and ambivalence continue; the struggle for understanding never ends. One verse reveals that his struggle is grounded in his own frustration with reality:
I know I like to dream a lot
And think of other worlds that are not
I hate that I need air to breathe
I’d like to leave this body – and be free
He echoes that yearning for freedom in the final verse, frustrated with time, frustrated with the limitations of the mind:
If it’s wrong to think on this
To hold the dead past, to hold the dead past in your fist
Why were we, why were we given memories?
Let’s lose our minds
Be set free!
I would have preferred the song ended there, but Lou decided to repeat the first verse and add two turns of the chorus (slightly modified). My second wish is that he had gone with a live version; as this 2011 video demonstrates, the live version really brings out the song’s emotional power. For an excellent review on The Raven from someone who actually listened to the 36-track album with an open mind, see Adrien Begrand’s review on Pop Matters.
“Sweet Jane” Loaded, 1970: We step into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and arrive during the waning days of The Velvet Underground for two back-to-back wannabe hits that never made a dent in the Billboard charts. Loaded was a deliberate attempt by the VU to increase radio play and bask in the glow of commercial success, but alas, ’twas not to be. As is true of many Lou Reed-related projects, the album is now considered a five-star masterpiece.
I don’t think I’d go that far, but “Sweet Jane” is a disarmingly brilliant piece of work. Though the Loaded version lacks the punch and power of the opening track on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and the tightness of the Mott the Hoople cover, its value lies in Lou’s loose, conversational vocal and the strength of the poetry. By inserting himself into the narrative in the opening verse (“Me, honey, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band”) he gives himself license to serve as both observer and commentator in addition to storyteller. At this point, the line seems more cute than substantive, a perception strengthened by the content of the second verse:
I’ll tell you somethin’—that Jack, he is a banker,
And Jane . . . she is a . . . clerk.
And both of them save their monies
And when . . . when they come home from work
Oooh! Sittin’ down by the fire . . .
The radio does play a little classical music there, Jim
The March of the Wooden Soldiers . . . all you protest kids?
You can hear Jack say
Sweet Jane, Sweet Jane, Sweet Jane
Jack and Jane would obviously be considered squares in 1970, hardly worthy of anyone’s attention. What’s important here is what Lou doesn’t do—he doesn’t dis them, make fun of them or put them down. He presents their wooing ritual as something sweet, simple and perfectly harmless. The interjection “All you protest kids?” suggests that he thinks that protesters may want to chill out and get back in touch with life’s simpler pleasures. At this phase in his career, Lou was strictly apolitical, famously responding to an audience question about his politics on Take No Prisoners, “Political about what? You give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue and you can wipe my ass with it.”
It all comes together in the third verse, where Lou drops all pretense, embraces his editorial role and gives us the moral of the story:
Some people they like to go out dancing
And other peoples they have to work . . . just watch me now
And there’s even some evil mothers
They’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
You know that women never really faint,
And that villains always blink their eyes.
And that, you know, children are the only ones who blush
And that life is just to die
But anyone who had a heart
They wouldn’t turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
They wouldn’t turn around and hate it
He may have been a prick in real life, but beneath that prickliness there was a ton of empathy for those subjected to cruel and unfair judgment.
One final note: Reed’s original composition included a bridge after the three verses that led to a two-chord version of the chorus. Though Lou was pissed off that “someone” cut the bridge from the final version on Loaded, I consider the person guilty of that unauthorized edit a true American hero. The bridge simply doesn’t fit.
“Rock & Roll” Loaded, 1970: As I noted in my review of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, “Rock & Roll” isn’t much of a rock song until it gets to the lead solo, and the story about transformation via rock ‘n’ roll radio has been told a gazillion times. Listening to the studio version included in this collection, I think there’s an energy imbalance at play, with Lou trying to pump up the energy and the band just sort of loping along. Lou said the song was about his experience in becoming an early devotee to rock ‘n’ roll, and I believe him. I just think he could have rocked a lot harder on this one.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: This is a song that dates back to 1965; a demo of that version turned up in the Peel Slowly and See collection. The original is a laid-back, acoustic, half-assed attempt at Delta blues with no edge whatsoever. The VU version is driven by rhythm guitar, drums and faint bass playing double time within a 4/4 time structure, giving the song strong forward movement and a sense of jumpiness that mirrors the state of mind of a desperate druggie. What blows my mind (she said, dropping into period-speak) is the realism of the song in the context of an era where drug use was glorified as a path to enlightenment. “Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive” is a long way from “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Although it’s a better rocker than “Rock & Roll,” I find the cheesy counterpoint/lead guitar on the right channel quite irritating. Sounds like it was played by a junkie.
Revisiting the song, I felt myself having a flashback (no, not that kind of flashback; I only did acid once, as documented in my Psychedelic Series). It was one of those, “Hey, I’ve heard his before” kind of feeling. Then I remembered . . . the beat is identical to Oasis’ “Mucky Fingers,” where Zak Starkey banged away on a snare covered by a cereal box.
Noel Gallagher plagiarizing? Say it ain’t so, Joe!
“White Light/White Heat” Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, 1974, original on The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: From my review of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal: “‘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!”
Yep, I’m good with that.
“Street Hassle” Street Hassle, 1978: Fast-forward eleven years . . . what the fuck, Lou? Think of the havoc you’re wreaking on our limited linear brains!
Well, it turns out that there was a method behind Lou’s madness: he considered Street Hassle “a continuation of his work with the Velvet Underground.” Much of that work involved tales of the alien cultural norms of life on the streets in what was then a dying New York City. The centerpiece of the album is the title track, a three-part suite unified by a distinctive musical figure in the key of E major in a cello-dominated string arrangement designed by Aram Schefrin. Modern music critics, who tend to pay more attention to the juicy gossip of a backstory than ACTUALLY LISTENING TO THE FUCKING RECORD, have claimed that the song was “largely motivated by and representative of the end of Reed’s three-year relationship with Rachel Humphreys, a trans woman who died in 1990, likely of AIDS, and was buried in NYC’s Potter’s Field.” (Wikipedia). That assessment applies only to the third segment of the suite, where, as he did in “Sweet Jane,” Lou gives us the moral of the story, connecting the so-called “moral decline” of the Big Apple to his personal experience.
The first two segments describe scenes familiar to anyone who watched NYPD Blue during its peak (seasons 1-5 plus the first five episodes of the sixth season). The first (I. Waltzing Matilda) features a horny well-heeled broad from the Upper East Side trolling the Lower East Side for a suitable male prostitute. Lou carefully narrates the story, highlighting the subliminal shame the woman gives away through her sha-la-la stutter and “this isn’t how I normally conduct myself” qualification:
Waltzing Matilda whipped out her wallet
The sexy boy smiled in dismay
She took out four twenties ’cause she liked round figures
Everybody’s a queen for a day
Oh, babe, I’m on fire and you know how I admire your
Body why don’t we slip away
Although I’m sure you’re certain, it’s a rarity me flirtin’
Sha-la-la-la, this way
Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey, baby, come on, let’s slip away
Note the use of the phrase “slip away,” a phrase that will morph into multiple meanings as the suite progresses.
Although she admires his “luscious and gorgeous” bod, it’s really the thrill of doing something secret and naughty that gets her off (“She creamed in her jeans as he picked up her means/From off of the Formica-topped bar”). Lou gives the dude high marks for attentive customer service (“And then sha-la-la-la-la, he made love to her gently/It was like she’d never ever come”) and ends the story with rich insight: “Neither one regretted a thing.” She found her thrill on Blueberry Hill; he earned a nice tax-free shot of income (adjusting for inflation, that $80 becomes $316.53); and both got their rocks off “despite people’s derision.” The first part of the suite presents an anomaly: the underbelly of society attaches no shame to the natural human urge for sex, while the supposedly morally superior majority (publicly, anyway) would condemn both jill and the prostitute for their aberrant, scandalous behavior. Which is the healthier culture?
The second section (II. Street Hassle) opens with the musical mourning cry of a woman before returning to the dominant figure. A chorus of four women then join voices to create a gorgeous harmonic overlay as the strings give way to stereo electric guitar. Lou now adopts the role of drug dealer with a female stiff in his flat; the song finds the dealer speaking to a companion of the deceased who has probably been searching for her in her usual places. The drug dealer proves to be the ultimate pragmatist, a man who knows how things operate in the real world of the underclass:
Hey, that cunt’s not breathing
I think she’s had too much
Of something or other, hey, man, you know what I mean
I don’t mean to scare you
But you’re the one who came here
And you’re the one who’s gotta take her when you leave
I’m not being smart
Or trying to be cold on my part
And I’m not gonna wear my heart on my sleeve
But you know people get all emotional
And sometimes, man, they just don’t act rational
They think they’re just on TV
Why don’t you just let her slip away
When death is just another hassle to deal with, grief becomes a nuisance—hence the encouragement to let her “slip away.” From the drug dealer’s perspective, this is just another bitch who’s lost her usefulness, sha la la:
And it’s not like we could help
But there’s nothing no one could do
And if there was, man, you know I would have been the first
Oh when someone turns that blue
Well, it’s a universal truth
Then you just know that bitch will never fuck again
The dealer has a problem; the dealer has a common-sense solution:
And I know this ain’t no way to treat a guest
But why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet
And just lay her out in the darkest street
And by morning, she’s just another hit and run
For the cops, it’s all about closing cases, and the question of which statistical column the stiff falls into hardly matters. The dealer ends his monologue with a shoulder shrug, attributing the woman’s death to a combination of choosing a risky path towards personal fulfillment and simple “bad luck.” The detachment is horrifying, the common sense even more so.
The third and final segment (III. Slipaway) opens with electric bass reproducing the bottom support for the dominant musical figure, which is nowhere to be heard. The pattern varies, incorporating notes from the blues scale as guitars enter to reinforce the blues touch. Eventually the strings reappear with the dominant figure but the guitars continue on their blues path, offering a contrasting E7 to the E major scale. The music fades, leaving only the sound of soft snare playing a truncated line that hints at a funeral march. Prevented from recording his own material due to the usual studio legal problems, Bruce Springsteen recites the first verse, borrowing and adjusting a few lyrics from “Born to Run” in the process. The verse seems to be one half of a conversation about a breakup—the attempt to make sense of the split. As the split in question involved a trans, the twin struggles for identity and simple acceptance tend to complicate matters:
Well hey man, that’s just a lie
It’s the lie she tells her friends
‘Cause a real song
The real song she won’t even admit to herself
The beating in her heart
It’s a song lots of people know
It’s a painful song
With a load of sad truth
But life’s full ofsad songs
Penny for a wish
But wishin’ won’t make it so, Joe
But a pretty kiss or a pretty face can’t have its way
Joe, tramps like us, we were born to pay
Lou then steps in for two verses that form direct appeals to his lover, both connected to the different meanings of “slip away.” The first expresses the wish to slip away and fuck their problems away (won’t work); the second is a heart-breaking plea to please, please stay:
Love has gone away
And there’s no one here now
And there’s nothing left to say
But oh how I miss him, baby
Oh baby, come on and slip away
Come on baby, why don’t you slip away
Love has gone away
Took the rings off my fingers
And there’s nothing left to say
But oh how, oh how I need it, baby
Come on baby, I need you baby
Oh, please don’t slip away
I need your loving so bad, babe
Please don’t slip away
“Street Hassle” may be dark and disturbing, but, as Lou pointed out in an interview with the Los Angeles Times shortly after its release, it feels darker and more disturbing because of the expectations attached to the art form: “If this was a novel or a movie, this stuff would be no big deal. But in rock and roll, the parameters you’re allowed to work in are so horrifyingly narrow. If you do anything other than pure, surface optimism, you seem to come off as intrigued with the dark, murky, kinky, downside of existence. It’s just a little realism. I think it’s fine and dandy that people enjoy themselves and they’re happy and everything, but to constantly paint that picture leads to a general dullness on the part of the listener. He’s just shocked when he finally gets to the reality of it all and finds out that he’s been lied to.” (Songfacts)
“Berlin” Berlin, 1973, also released on Lou Reed, 1972: Now we go back six years to an equally disturbing album that was universally condemned at the time but is now considered a masterpiece. The inspiration for the album came from none other than Bob Ezrin, whose work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall gave us the memorable children’s chorus. The song “Berlin” appeared on Reed’s first solo effort, and Ezrin wanted to know what happened to the couple depicted in the song. Lou obliged him with a complete rock opera that literally gave Enzin PTSD.
Here’s a plot summary from Songfacts: “On the album, we learn that the couple are drug addicts who are completely dysfunctional. They get names: Caroline and Jim. The songs reveal details of their lives: Caroline loves music but can’t get her life together; Jim beats her. They have kids, but are unfit parents and lose them to the state. Caroline kills herself by slitting her wrists. The album ends with ‘Sad Song,’ where Jim dispassionately reflects on his life. His conclusion: ‘I’m gonna stop wasting time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.'”
Charming pair! Love to have you over for dinner, dahlings.
The version of “Berlin” on this album was drastically reduced to fit with the now larger narrative. References to Bogie, Bacall and Casablanca have been supplanted by a chaotic cabaret scene ending with a sodden crowd singing “Happy Birthday.” The nightclub vibes fade into Bob Ezrin’s cabaret-influenced-with-a-hint-of-Rachmaninoff piano, eventually leading to Lou’s single verse, where he describes happier days in the divided city:
In Berlin, by the wall
You were five foot, ten inches tall
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice
We were in a small cafe
You could hear the guitars play
It was very nice
Oh, honey it was paradise
Given the plot summary above, this is going to be as good as it gets for Jim and Caroline.
“Caroline Says II” Berlin, 1973: I’m not exactly sure why Lou chose to omit “Caroline Says I” from the collection . . . well, it’s a really crappy pop song, so there’s that. Anyway, it does provide important context for the domestic violence described in “Caroline Says II.” The long and short of it is that Jim viewed Caroline as a “Germanic queen,” and admits that she dominates the relationship through humiliation—telling him he’s not a man, making him aware that she’s still in the hunt for a harder dick and refusing to consider herself his possession in any sense of the word. Jim refers to her as “poison in a vial,” and says “People shouldn’t treat others that way” and that at first “I thought I could take it all.”
Diagnosis: Jim is a natural submissive who wants to worship at a woman’s feet but he hooked up with an immature sadist who believes in domination through cruelty. He feels guilty about his submissive streak and represses it rather than finding a healthier outlet.
Perhaps the omission of the “Caroline Says I” was deliberate—an attempt on Lou’s part to adjust the trajectory of his violent legacy. If you don’t know the backstory, Caroline comes across as a feminist hero, willing to stand up to Jim’s toxic masculinity:
As she gets up from the floor
You can hit me all you want to
But I don’t love you anymore
While biting her lip
Life is meant to be more than this
And this is a bum trip
Since Lou didn’t hide any of his other flaws on the album, I’m going to go with the crappy pop song theory as the reason behind the demise of “Caroline Says I.” In part two, we learn that Caroline is enough of a cold-hearted bitch that even her friends call her “Alaska,” and her addiction to speed isn’t likely to turn her into warm-and-cuddly. The key thing to remember is that Jim is the narrator, and given his fragile mental state, he should not be considered a reliable source. Caroline nails it on the head when she tells him (as she treats her black eye), “You ought to learn more about yourself—think more than just I.”
The music for the piece is a perfect fit for what is essentially a deeply sad story: acoustic guitar, piano, a few subdued string flourishes and Lou’s fragile voice.
“The Kids” Berlin, 1973: Also opening with acoustic guitar, this time in the form of slide chords in stereo, “The Kids” features a slight country touch that helps bring out the sadness of story—one with multiple layers of sadness.
Sadness #1: Although it seems incredible in the era of The Pill, these two misfits had children. My fucking god, people—are you nuts? After I started this blog and confessed openly and freely my sins of bisexuality and sado-masochism, I referred to those delightful perversions as one reason I would make a lousy mother. One of my followers dared to protest, saying I would make a great mother. I had one of those Ralph Kramden ba-da-ba-de-ba-ba moments—completely thunderstruck. Putting aside the simple truth that I don’t even like kids, imagine how hard it would be to explain why mommy sleeps with boys and girls and sometimes both at the same time, or answering the question, “What are those, mommy?” with “Oh, those are mommy’s whips and riding crops, sweetie.” I may be a pervert but I’m not stupid! I’m not saying that perverts can’t raise healthy children, but that I don’t see how I could pull it off (if I wanted to) without setting up a series of baffles and barriers that would make parenting a drag and compromise my erotic lifestyle. And shit, I only do cigarettes and alcohol—Caroline and Jim were doing speed and heroin. What the fuck?
Sadness #2: Though Caroline was clearly not fit to serve as anyone’s mother, it’s still damned sad when the state steps in and throws the kids into the system:
They’re taking her children away
Because they said she was not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
Because she was making it with sisters and brothers
And everyone else, all of the others
Like cheap officers who would stand there and flirt in front of me . . .
Because of the things that they heard she had done
The black Air Force sergeant was not the first one
And all of the drugs she took, every one, every one . . .
Sadness #3: This is sadness multiplied a thousandfold by outrage. Jim turned her in!
I am the Water Boy, the real game’s not over here
But my heart is overflowin’ anyway
I’m just a tired man, no words to say
But since she lost her daughter
It’s her eyes that fill with water
And I am much happier this way
They should have taken Jim away and let him rot in a cell for the rest of his miserable wimp-ass life. This sick display of schadenfreude makes the listener want to take Caroline’s side . . . then you read about her dangerous debauchery and the drugs and it’s . . . it’s completely hopeless. And as I know from my work with domestic violence victims where I sometimes get involved helping a woman through the absurdity of Child Protective Services, the deepest sadness comes from thinking about those kids.
And I think that’s what Lou Reed was trying to achieve here.
“Walk on the Wild Side” Transformer, 1972: Lou Reed’s most commercially successful album was initially dismissed by Rolling Stone contributor Nick Tosches as “”artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff.”
Fuck you, asshole.
There is no doubt that the success of the album owes much to David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who produced the album and served as backing musicians. That said, I want to honor the contributions of one Herbie Flowers, a U. K. session musician who specialized in the lower ends of the scale and played tuba and double bass as well as the smooth-and-sexy bass guitar on “Walk on the Wild Side.” The prominence of the bass gives the song a slick edge that is extraordinarily compelling. Bowie and Ronson further exploited the lows by having Bowie sax tutor Ronnie Ross deliver an outstanding performance on baritone sax, completed in a single take.
Despite its graphic descriptions of the gender-bending tendencies of four Warhol acolytes, “Walk on the Wild Side” was a surprise hit, reaching #16 on the Billboard charts. I still cringe at the “colored girls” reference but I am happy to report that Lou took the feedback and deleted the phrase in live performances. I’m still amazed that the song did as well as it did in the homophobic USA, but even more amazed that the BBC didn’t ban the song, largely because none of the censors understood the phrase “giving head.” While Lou called the song and “outright gay song”, he also confessed that it was “carefully worded so the straights can miss out on the implications and enjoy them without being offended.”
For future reference, the British terms for oral sex on a male are “gobble” and “gob job.” Fortunately, neither would have with the meter on “Walk on the Wild Side,” and might have seriously offended Americans who would have thought the song was celebrating bestiality with turkeys.
Lou followed up his most successful foray into the pop charts with the defiantly un-commercial Berlin. That is so Lou Reed.
“Kill Your Sons”: Live in Italy, 1984, original on Sally Can’t Dance, 1974: This one’s personal. Lou recounts his electric shock therapy, the humdrum life on the Island, drugs both prescribed and purchased. The problem is it’s too personal—the description of his troubles is so specific that it blurs his message . . . if he even had one. “I was seriously fucked by my parents and by mental health professionals, and oh, by the way, my sister married a nonfunctional automaton—whaddya think of that, huh?” That’s about all I get.
“Vicious” Transformer, 1972: Songwriters often find themselves the recipients of suggestions for new songs. In this case, the guy who dropped his idea in the suggestion box was Andy Warhol, who suggested Lou write a song with the title, “Vicious.” When Lou asked what kind of vicious, Andy responded with “Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.” Lou wrote it down and later complied with Warhol’s suggestion, even incorporating the flower-as-weapon concept in the first verse, describing a woman who hits Lou with a flower every hour as a form of teasing (I suppose). In the next verse, she wants Lou to hit her with a stick, indicating curiosity about BDSM. Lou obviously thinks she’s a poser and tells her “When I see you walking down the street/I step on your hands and I mangle your feet.”
Cue Connie Francis, singing “Who’s Vicious Now?”
This song doesn’t work for me on many levels, from Lou’s over-the-top reaction to her advances to the thin production values that make Ronson’s guitar sound like it barely escaped from a five-watt amp. Sorry, Lou, but the award for Greatest Song to Be Derived from an Off-the-Wall Suggestion goes to Joe Strummer for his work in transforming a Montgomery Clift bio into the extraordinarily inventive “The Right Profile.”
“The Blue Mask” The Blue Mask, 1982: Now this song is vicious. Though the majority of songs on The Blue Mask are candidates for a Lou Reed retrospective, he chose the angriest of them all, a barely-controlled rant on the origins and impact of extreme toxic masculinity as manifested in the creation of a soldier/killing machine, offering a palpable contrast to the spongy sentiments in “Vicious”:
They tied his arms behind his back
To teach him how to swim
They put blood in his coffee
And milk in his gin
They stood over the soldier
In the midst of the squalor
There was war in his body
And it caused his brain to holler
Make the sacrifice
Mutilate my face
If you need someone to kill
I’m a man without a will
Wash the razor in the rain
Let me luxuriate in pain
Please don’t set me free
Death means a lot to me
Critics have attributed the artistic achievement of The Blue Mask to two factors—Lou settling into marriage and kicking his addictions, and his selection of bandmates. I don’t have enough information to comment on the first, but the strength of the band is undeniable. One of the virtues of this title track is it gives the listener a clear example of the inventive and wildly effective use of stereo guitars, with Lou on the right and the brilliant, multi-faceted guitarist Robert Quine on the left. Though there are vast stylistic differences between the two guitarists, Quine decided to further distinguish his output by using D major tuning and using fingerings a major second higher than Reed’s. The result is a strangely harmonious tension coming from the notes themselves, further intensified by the heavy distortion on both guitars. Add the diverse capabilities of future Tull member Doane Perry and the inventive yet rhythmically grounded Fernando Saunders on bass and you have one powerhouse of a band.
It’s really too bad that Reed and Quine were such touchy individualists. Asked about his on-and-off four-year relationship with Lou, Quine said, “The first week and a half was great.” Sigh. This lineup was probably the most powerful band of the wimp-ass ’80s, and their inability to make nice with each other left a huge power vacuum that wouldn’t be filled until Nirvana and Fugazi hit the scene.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” Perfect Night: Live in London, 1998, original on The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: Needing something gentle to counteract any radioactivity still lingering from “The Blue Mask,” Lou inserted this live version of the VU song he’d written especially for Nico. I appreciate the intent, but neither Lou’s melodically-challenged vocal cords nor the Lurch-like voice of Nico are appropriate for this flowery song. Suggestions: Bjork. Early Françoise Hardy. Mary Hopkin.
“Magic and Loss: The Summation,” Magic and Loss, 1992: Uh oh. When a musician tells you that his latest release is “my dream album,” they’re saying that they are unusually attached to a sub-par effort and you should avoid it like the Coronavirus. This “summation” is Hallmark-card-quality advice from someone who was allegedly able to “pass through the fire to the light” and assumes that his personal journey is everybody’s personal journey. The music is bo-ring; by the third go-round, I found myself nodding off to the faintly beating tempo of a dying song.
“Ecstasy” Ecstasy, 2000: Boy, it sure seems like Lou wanted the audience to take a little nap at the end of Disc One! This lazy bossa nova lacks excitement and distinction; there isn’t a single phrase that awakens my senses. The album is supposed to be a concept album centered on the themes of love and kinky sex, so you’d think that this leather-lovin’ lady would have lapped it up in spine-tingling delight.
Nah. You can’t fuck when you’re snoring.
Well! While Disc One ends with a soft thud, it still contains some of Lou’s greatest work, so overall I consider the listening experience a definite plus. Maybe things will liven up a bit on Disc Two . . . let me check . . .