Category Archives: Rock, Punk, Alternative, Garage

Lou Reed – The Essential Lou Reed, Disc 1 – Classic Music Review

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
Sha-la-la-la, man
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:

Caroline says
As she gets up from the floor
You can hit me all you want to
But I don’t love you anymore

Caroline says
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 . . .

Oh shit!

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland – Classic Music Review

One challenge I always run into when researching historical works like Electric Ladyland has to do with the plethora of music critics, philosophers, sociologists and musicologists who attempt to connect the music to larger socio-cultural trends. Some seem to be searching for a Grand Unified Theory linking music and culture while others want to inflate the significance of the music that mattered to them when they were growing up. The more academic types (or at least those who like to present themselves as academics) carefully compile page after page of footnotes, knowing that most readers will take their word for it that the citations are both valid and relevant.

Fortunately or not, I’m one of those people equipped with a bullshit detector, and when I smell bullshit, I dig deeper to find out where the bullshit is coming from.

The gauge on my bullshit detector nearly exploded when I read the Jimi Hendrix segment in NPR music critic Ann Powers’ well-footnoted effort Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (one of the most sexless books I’ve ever read, BTW, but what do you expect from NPR?):

Near the end of his life, Hendrix’s performances became strangely lackluster. Realizing that his audience was having trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision of lust and satiation as an aspect of a larger spiritual evolution—a very science-fiction scenario, reflecting Hendrix’s immersion in that genre—he retreated more and more into his Electric Lady Studios, where he could, as the historian Steve Waksman has observed, “enact his wildest fantasies of sound, and . . . work to exert the greatest amount of control.”

I decided to check this out with my dad, a lifelong Hendrix fan who saw his famous performance at Monterey Pop and (lucky bastard) a gig at the old Fillmore Auditorium where he shared the bill with John Mayall. I asked him to pop over for breakfast one morning to talk Hendrix and here’s how the conversation went (more or less):

ME: Dad, towards the end of Jimi Hendrix’s career, did you have any trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision of lust and satiation as an aspect of a larger spiritual evolution?

DAD: What? Hey, take it easy, Sunshine—I haven’t finished my coffee! (slurp, slurp) Say that again?

ME: (repeated the question)

DAD: Hold on . . . late 60’s, lust, spirituality . . . the answer is no. We all thought sex was a spiritual experience.

Bolstered by dad’s first-hand knowledge, I scoured Hendrix bios, online sources and common sense to confirm the scent of bovine manure in Ms. Powers’ contentions:

  • Near the end of his life, Hendrix’s performances became strangely lackluster.” That is such a dumb fucking statement that I can hardly get my head around it. Let me offer an analogous replacement: “Toward the end of their final U. S. tour, The Beatles’ performances became strangely lackluster.” The Beatles stopped touring because a.) they were tired of playing to audiences who couldn’t hear them and b.) they had expanded their musical palette and were unable to reproduce their new material in concert (the Candlestick concert setlist features a grand total of zero songs from Revolver, released just a few weeks before). There was nothing “strange” about The Beatles deciding that touring was a drag, especially when they were highly motivated to redefine the limits of rock ‘n’ roll in the confines of Abbey Road Studios. The same was true with Hendrix, who had taken a more active role in production with Electric Ladyland and was very upset he wasn’t given the time to perfect the final mix. “Pressured by Reprise for a finished product, he was forced to mix the record while out on tour with the Experience. ‘It’s very hard to concentrate on both,’ he lamented to Hullabaloo magazine, shortly after the album’s release. ‘So some of the mix came out muddy — not exactly muddy but with too much bass. We mixed it and produced it and all that mess, but when it came time for them to press it, quite naturally they screwed it up, because they didn’t know what we wanted.'” Both The Beatles and Hendrix wanted to spend more time in the studio than on the road because that’s where they felt they could manifest their creativity to the max; touring was a distraction, a break in the creative flow. Though Powers is guilty of misusing a quote to justify her ludicrous argument, Waksman was right: Hendrix wanted to “enact his wildest fantasies of sound and . . . work to exert the greatest amount of control.” Isn’t that what every musical artist wants to do?
  • Realizing that his audience was having trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision . . .” What audience was that? The audience that made Electric Ladyland Jimi’s first #1 album? Or the audience that made “All Along the Watchtower” the Experience’s sole top ten hit? Or the audience that pushed Band of Gypsys into the Top 10? Or the half-million who saw him at the Atlanta International Pop Festival a few months before his death?
  • . . . he retreated more and more into his Electric Lady Studios . . .” I guess it depends on your definition of “more and more.” Hendrix first tried out his new playroom on June 15, 1970 and flew to the UK on August 25, 1970 to play at the Isle of Wight Festival, never to return to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, USA. Ten lousy weeks interrupted by two performances at pop festivals is a long way from Miss Havisham.

Ms. Powers concludes the paragraph by linking Jimi’s accidental overdose to a specific cause: “The man who had so nimbly moved through sexual stereotypes in hopes of rendering them obsolete had found the counterculture’s unceasing craving for them too much overcome.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. Jimi Hendrix died because he had problems with drugs and alcohol and did a dumb thing. I don’t think he was thinking about the obsolescence of sexual stereotypes when he popped those sleeping pills.

Most critics consider Electric Ladyland Jimi’s masterpiece. Given his disappointment in the mix, I don’t think he would have agreed. He died before he could transform the musical vision constantly spinning in his head into what he would have considered perfection. Electric Ladyland is far from perfect; there are some clear misses that might be attributable to poor mixing but a couple of tracks that even the most talented engineers couldn’t have saved (and that includes the 1997 remix by Eddie Kramer and the 2018 Deluxe Edition). Roger Mayer, the man who redesigned Jimi’s wah-wah pedal and served him in the role of electronic advisor on his first two albums called it “a patchwork quilt . . . As a body of work it didn’t resolve itself.” There were ongoing tensions with management and with the label; the tension between Hendrix and producer Chas Chandler rose to the point that Chandler walked out, leaving Jimi to take on the production role. I think it’s fair to say that Hendrix placed too much of a burden on himself during the recording of Electric Ladyland and at times it shows.

One of the most curious aspects of the history of Electric Ladyland has to do with why Chandler left Jimi holding the bag. Some sources say Chandler was sick and tired of Jimi’s perfectionism (50 takes of “Gypsy Eyes!”); others say he was pissed off about Jimi allowing a constant stream of musicians and hangers-on into the studio (some of them winding up in Chandler’s control room). Apparently, Chas wanted more of a balance between tight and loose and Hendrix wasn’t listening. To me, those competing forces may weaken Electric Ladyland in some respects, but also serve to strengthen the final product. Electric Ladyland has more than its fair share of virtuoso guitar performances, libido-tingling rhythms and exceptionally well-executed lead vocals (reflecting Jimi’s perfectionist streak), but the feel of the album is loose and sexy (reflecting the vibe of the period). Jimi Hendrix loved to jam; although he didn’t dabble all that much in jazz, he had the spirit of a jazz musician. And some of those folks who participated in those jams weren’t exactly incompetent layabouts. The credits include three members of Traffic (Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Dave Mason), Jack Casady, Al Kooper and The Sweet Inspirations. It seems that Chas was all about the business of recording while Hendrix was all about translating the sounds he heard in his head into an artistic statement. Given that this was his first crack at producing, Electric Ladyland may fall short of masterpiece status but it still contains some of Jimi’s greatest moments.

Hendrix allegedly told an interviewer that he knew that “. . . ‘And the Gods Made Love’ was the track most people would bitch about so he placed it first in the track order to get it out of the way. This overture of sorts has been charitably referred to as a “sound painting,” touted for its “bold, new sonic colors” (in a Rolling Stone re-do of their original thumbs down review of Electric Ladyland). There were many such “sound paintings” during the psychedelic era, and while they may have sounded “trippy” at the time (particularly when listening while stoned), most were failed attempts to create a musical equivalent of abstract expressionism (and I doubt that half of the composers had ever heard of Pollock). The sole virtue of the piece is to remind you that you’re in the ’60s now and you’ll have to tolerate a few doomed flights of fancy.

p. s. For a guy whose catalog contains some of the sexiest stuff ever captured on disk . . . well, all I can say is if that’s how the gods make love, I never want to be a goddess. Sounds like anal without the lube.

Moving on to the more traditional thematic introduction, the title track “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” has been classified as “psychedelic soul” with Curtis Mayfield as the major influence. It’s actually a rather complex composition disguised by its laid-back feel. The first page of the sheet music lists fourteen different chords, not all of which are strictly complementary to the A major scale. Demonstrating the severe limits of musical notation, the sheet claims the piece is in 4/4 time but adds the note “freely” above the verse, indicating the transcriptionists threw their hands up when faced with the obviously truncated and extended measures. Mitch Mitchell demonstrates his intuitive ability to follow Jimi’s sense of rhythm by cutting out from time to time before dropping back into the mix at just the right moment. Jimi takes over for the frequently-absent Noel Redding on bass, reminding us that Noel was chosen more for his hair than his skill with the instrument. The song celebrates the joys of fucking women, one of Jimi’s favorite pastimes, bless his heart (some sources equate “electric ladies” to “Hendrix groupies”). The use of the term “electric” in describing female sexuality always throws me off, because in my experience (electric + sex = vibrator) . . . but the adjective “electric” had a fleshier erotic/spiritual connotation in the ’60s.

Hendrix finally gets around to the ass-kicking with “Crosstown Traffic,” featuring a tandem attack of guitar and comb-and-tissue-paper that qualifies as one of the most ingeniously effective pairings in rock history. The panning of the guitar/kazoo pairing and the Dave Mason-Noel Redding background vocals is really unnecessary and becomes a bit annoying after a while, but one could argue it mirrors the dodging traffic metaphor. Hendrix is trying to unload a broad who has been hanging on too long, and when she gives him the “but I need you and only you” plea (implied by Jimi’s response), he shuts her down with a reminder that he’s not the only one who likes to tiptoe through the tulips:

I’m not the only soul who’s accused of hit and run,
Tire tracks all across your back, uh-huh, I can see you had your fun.

Jimi’s vocal here is outstanding, displaying both his feel for rhythm and his intuitive grasp of the phrasing opportunities available in stop time.

The sounds of handclapping appear towards the end of the track, an effective bridge to “Voodoo Chile,” a fifteen-minute jam. . . no, not a jam . . . here’s Jack Casady from an interview with Uncut:

It wasn’t as simple as a jam, there was a full structure to the song, so it was an extended song that you able to improvise in. We took directions through the language of playing. Jimi was able to experiment with his ability and with effects in order to create an atmosphere. ‘Voodoo Chile’ has a really eerie sound that kind of places you in a different world.

Jack and I have different perspectives; what sounds eerie to him sounds positively erotic to me (maybe there’s something to all those vampire porn movies). This is one of my favorite songs to fuck to, a designation that I think Jimi would have found validating.

He starts out gently, gathering his musical thoughts or imagining how he’s going to probe the beautiful woman in his head. At this point, it’s just Jimi and his strat on a standard reverb setting, but oh my, what a gorgeous sound! After establishing the baseline slow blues rhythm with a classic riff, he gives Mitchell the signal to join in. Mitch Mitchell nearly always played harder and with greater intensity than one might expect, a noticeable feature of the Hendrix sound (hence the need for Buddy Miles on Band of Gypsys). Here it serves to inform the listening audience that “Yeah, it’s a slow blues, but it’s a slow blues drenched in hormones.” Strengthened even further by Casady’s steady bass, the beat creeps along stealthily like a Siamese cat in heat, giving Stevie Winwood a chance to test out a few licks on the organ. Hendrix delivers the first verse in an almost cautionary tone, warning any would-be squeeze that she’s not going to be humping your Average Joe. Taking Muddy Waters’ delightfully exaggerated machismo in “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the nth degree, Hendrix describes his the day of his birth as a parallel to Judgment Day, when “the moon turned a fire red.” His mother screams “the gypsy was right” and immediately drops dead. Have no fear, though—Jimi’s in good hands . . . er, paws and wings:

Well, mountain lions found me there waitin’
And set me on an eagle’s back
Well, mountain lions found me there
And set me on a eagle’s wing
(It’s the eagle’s wing, baby, what did I say?)
He took me past to the outskirts of infinity
And when he brought me back
He gave me a Venus witch’s ring
Hey, and he said “Fly on, fly on”
‘Cause I’m a voodoo chile, yeah, voodoo chile

After a very brief solo where Jimi’s notes seem to spring from the guitar and fly to the heavens, Jimi tells the babe of interest that he will indeed make love to her and assures her that “you’ll feel no pain.” Aww, come on, Jimi, not even a nipple pinch or a flick of your whip on my shapely bottom? Bummer, man! Well, he does give an explanation that might lead the lady to think, “I better not push this guy too hard, because this mother fucker has supernatural powers!

Because I’m a million miles away
And at the same time I’m right here in your picture frame

Jimi delays any further elucidation by inserting an instrumental break with guitar on the left channel and Winwood on the right. The interlude starts with both playing at maximum intensity; about a minute into the dialogue Jimi takes a step back and generously turns the lead over to Winwood, encouraging him with a heartfelt, “Yeah.” A few measures in, Winwood plays a phrase that Jimi immediately picks up on, leading to an extended call-and-response segment that validates Casady’s observation about communication through the “language of playing.” It’s an exciting passage that ends with the sound of a small crowd applauding the effort . . . and I have to say it absolutely killed me when I learned that the audience sounds were added post-performance.

Fuck. That’s the musical equivalent of canned laughter. Yes, yes, I know that they fuck around with most live albums post-production, but geez.

Jimi heaps on the sci-fi hyperbole in the next verse, claiming his “arrows are made of desire/From far away as Jupiter’s sulfur mines.” An extended instrumental passage follows, featuring the obligatory drum solo and Winwood shifting to a melody that sounds like something out of a bagpipe. We return to Earth in the final verse, where Jimi “floats in liquid gardens and Arizona new red sand.” I think the narrative (such as it is) weakens here with the loss of the phallic imagery—I want those arrows, dude! The loss is balanced by some excellent fretwork from Jack Casady as he moves between noiseless and fret-clicking slides. The grand finale features Jimi letting it all hang out (what a lovely period phrase!) with one of his more intense solos, one that inspires the rest to give it all they’ve got. “Voodoo Chile” may not be as popular as its abbreviated cousin, but it’s still a damned fine display of musicianship that calls to mind the words of Octavio Paz—“In every erotic encounter there is an invisible and ever-active participant: imagination, desire.”

Speaking of patchwork quilts, there is no better evidence to support Roger Mayer’s argument than “Little Miss Strange,” a Noel Redding offering that defines the phrase “bad fit.” It’s a lightweight pop song that has no business here or anywhere else in the known universe. In what was probably an attempt to make something out of nothing and avoid hurting Redding’s feelings, Jimi’s comparatively fiery guitar riffs wind up shining a bright light on the song’s inescapable thinness. It’s followed by the equally dreadful “Long Hot Summer Nights” with its laughably overdone background vocals and nonsensical narrative.

We get back on the rails with Jimi’s cover of Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll).” King was a pretty fair guitar picker himself, but Hendrix at hyperspeed is unbeatable—he plays this sucker at warp, handling both rhythm and lead and never missing a beat or a note. We really could have done without Mitch Mitchell here, who has a hard time keeping up (maybe that’s why they shoved his contribution to the back north forty of the mix). And apparently, fifty takes wasn’t enough for “Gypsy Eyes,” as the finished product lacks any tangible groove that makes you wanna shake your moneymaker.

Side 2 ends on a high note with “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” cited often as the song where Hendrix first used a wah-wah pedal. The song is overloaded with effects, making for a somewhat muddy sound, but the sincere anguish in Jimi’s voice as he contemplates the lonely life of the itinerant musician is quite compelling. His extraordinary level of engagement with music came with a heavy price—separation from normal time, the space where most live their lives and build relationships.

The morning is dead
And the day is, too
There’s nothing left here to meet me
But the velvet moon
All my loneliness I have felt today
It’s like a little more than enough
To make a man throw himself away
And I continue
To burn the midnight lamp

The song is certainly one of his most creative compositions and its complexity made for a challenging recording process. Unsatisfactory attempts were made during the recording of Axis: Bold As Love and the final version recorded months later took another thirty takes. Picking out a few notes on the harpsichord gave the song the necessary melancholy cast, and the addition of the gospel-like chorus courtesy of The Sweet Inspirations heightens the sense of internal struggle. What really blows me away is the chord structure, especially the stunning shift from the classic complementary F-Dm pair to a B minor-E major combination, a sequence that defies common practice but turns out to be the perfect choice to describe Jimi’s feeling that he’s unmoored from it all.

Side 3 opens with “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” a song that makes me laugh because it touches on something I had to un-learn in order to survive the years I spent in Seattle. Though the story about the song’s origin refers to a rained-out concert in Miami, that experience probably reminded Jimi of his childhood in the great, perpetually wet Pacific Northwest. In California, a little sprinkle ruins everyone’s day (except during droughts) and people grumpily stay inside bitching about the lousy weather messing up their barbecues or day at the beach. On my first rainy day stroll down the main drag in Queen Anne, I noticed that I was the only person using an umbrella. “What the fuck is the matter with these people?” I wondered. But I learned pretty quickly that a.) the rain isn’t going to kill you and b.) if you let something as harmless as falling water ruin your day, you’re going to go insane during the 6-8 months of continuous soaking. Next spring I joined the company softball team and we nearly always played in the rain—the one time the umpire tried to call a game, both sides howled in protest, screaming at the bastard as we followed his sissy ass to his car. In the meteorological reality of Seattle, Jimi’s advice is not only practical but a mental health PSA:

Rainy day, dream away
Let the sun take a holiday
Flowers bathe and see the children play
Lay back and groove on a rainy day

The song’s groove mirrors that advice in its laid-back comfortable beat, setting the stage for some marvelous back-and-forth between Jimi and saxman Freddie Smith.

“1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” can certainly befuddle the listener with its spacey soundscape and fanciful lyrics. I suggest looking at the song as a progressive rock version of “Apeman.” Both songs are escape fantasies, but while the more terrestrial Mr. Davies just wants to get the hell away from this crazy place and its crazy people, the more ethereal Mr. Hendrix sees escape into the sea as evolutionary progress. Obviously, Jimi had no way of knowing that the sea would become a dumping ground for plastics, but it’s equally obvious that he idealized the oceanic milieu, imagining a sort of underwater Olympics and marveling how “starfish and giant foams greet us with a smile.” Uh, what about the sharks, Jimi? And if he’s so confident he and his squeeze can survive underwater without scuba gear, why does he take the time for one last fuck they stroll into the deep?

While we can laugh at his proposed escape route, there’s no denying the angst and anger Jimi feels about the form of insanity known as war:

Oh say, can you see it’s really such a mess
Every inch of Earth is a fighting nest
Giant pencil and lipstick tube shaped things,
Continue to rain and cause screaming pain

“Oh say, can you see . . . ” Where have I heard that before? Something to do with baseball . . .

I think the most interesting aspect of the song is its progressive style. With Jimi’s grounding in blues and R&B, he might have changed the trajectory of progressive rock by keeping it grounded in its origins. So many possibilities . . . then again, the brief and completely uninteresting “Moon, Turn the Tides . . . Gently, Gently Away” also raises the possibility that had he gone progressive he would have bombed. Listening to someone fiddle around with spacey sounds while turning the panning knob isn’t progressive, it’s boring.

We find Jimi “Still Raining, Still Dreaming . . . ” in the opening track to Side 4, a funkier take on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” that confirms Jimi would have been better off had he cut the filler and made Electric Ladyland a single album. Confirming the wisdom of that perspective, “House Burning Down” could definitely have used a re-think. The core message to rioters (“Try to learn instead of burn”) is solid, and his intent to make the guitar sound like it was on fire is pretty much realized, but the arrangement is so choppy that the players never really find their groove.

But just when you think you’ve had enough, Jimi comes through with the piece that is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest covers ever, “All Along the Watchtower.” His perfectionist streak was on full display during the recording process, tweaking and re-recording the song for months, telling Eddie Kramer again and again, “I think I hear it a little bit differently.” The solo deservedly earns the lion’s share of attention, but I’m also drawn to Dave Mason’s haunting 12-string chords in deep background and Jimi’s commanding lead vocal. If I could name one artist who should have done an entire album of Dylan covers, it would be Jimi Hendrix. Based on the limited evidence (this one, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a scrap of “Drifter’s Escape), he seemed to connect well with Dylan’s style and certainly had no problem imbuing symbolist lyrics with passion.

You can find numerous how-to videos on how to play Jimi’s solo on “All Along the Watchtower” on the net, and in the process, you’ll learn a great deal about rising and declining bends. Many of the notes you hear (particularly in the intro) are bends, and you’ll never come close to duplicating Jimi’s performance without them. So, instead of “hitting the note” by putting your finger on say, the fifteenth fret, you approximate the note by bending the shit out of the string from the thirteenth fret. That’s a rising bend; to reverse it you start from the bent position on thirteen and ease it back down to stasis. As I’m giving you these instructions, I’m reminded of the Monty Python bit, “How to Do It,” and the segment on learning how to play the flute: “Well, you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.” It ain’t that simple.

Technique is obviously important, what makes a great guitar solo has more to do with feel . . . with fascination . . . with the self-expressive urge. It’s also important to remember that Hendrix was not only self-taught, but his self-teaching involved unusual challenges. His dad wouldn’t (or couldn’t) buy him a guitar, so he first learned on a one-string ukelele he found in the trash. He was left-handed and played right-handed guitars turned upside-down and restrung for left-hand playing. These factors mean that Jimi Hendrix approached music from a completely different paradigm than the typical musician, one built on ingenuity, improvisation, determination and an obsessive fascination with stringed instruments. So while I encourage guitarists to learn the solo, don’t be disappointed if you don’t sound like Jimi Hendrix. No one can and no one ever will.

To emphasize that point, Joe Satriani didn’t think “All Along the Watchtower” was Jimi’s greatest guitar moment, choosing his guitar work on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” as the wannabe guitar master’s holy grail: “It’s just the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity.” I never do “greatest” anything, but I don’t disagree with Satriani. The combination lead-rhythm guitar on this piece is absolutely mesmerizing, pure guitar power that stimulates hips and hormones. Initially recorded as an improv piece for an ABC documentary, it only took eight takes in the studio to satisfy Jimi’s always lofty expectations and turned out to be his first and only #1 single in the UK. Had he lived longer, perhaps Jimi could have learned something from this experience . . . something like “exactitude does not always equal perfection.” There have been a billion covers of the song, but my favorite remains the delightfully energetic performance by Angélique Kidjo on Oremi.

Taken as a whole, Electric Ladyland probably doesn’t qualify as a masterpiece and has probably earned that status because of his early death. Band of Gypsys clearly shows that he was in a transition period when he died; the clues on that album regarding future direction suggest he might have explored funk and R&B in more depth . . . then again, that might have been a natural result of playing with musicians who leaned in those directions. You run into too many ifs when speculating on Hendrix’s future to have any confidence in the prediction. If he would have gone progressive . . . if he would have made that recording with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and started exploring jazz . . . if he would have attempted to further refine his modern interpretation of the blues form . . . if he could have sworn off drugs and alcohol . . .

We’ll never know. One thing is certain: we can all be thankful that Jimi Hendrix never suffered a day of classical training. He was a true original, and his greatest legacy is his rare and beautiful originality.

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