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 . . .
I would love to live in a world where Annette Peacock was honored and celebrated as one of the greatest artists of our time. Sadly, the current state of affairs was captured in the title used for the re-release of one of her earlier efforts: I Belong to a World That’s Destroying Itself.
As I write this, the hands on the Doomsday clock have moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest we’ve ever been to self-destruction.
We arrived at this point because our world is now controlled by authoritarians who tear up treaties, replace fact with misinformation and prey upon a host of human fears: fear of people who are “different,” fear of change, fear of learning anything outside one’s comfort zone. Authoritarian leaders exploit those self-destructive tendencies, for the weaker we are, the stronger they get. The irony is that history tells us authoritarian leaders are as self-destructive as their followers. Self-destruction is grounded in the fear of losing control, so self-destructive leaders want to control everything and everyone, an impossible task. Eventually, karma catches up with them, but not before they make the world miserable for everyone else.
These leaders know that the human Achilles heel has been and will always be our fetish with familiarity, as manifested in the twin desires to resist change and surround ourselves with people who are “like us.” This fetish represents the height of stupidity from an evolutionary standpoint. Species who fail to adapt to changing circumstances die, period. Authoritarian leaders focus the attention of the populace on the unchangeable past, encouraging them to view life through the gauze of nostalgia—a perspective that accelerates the process of self-destruction.
Most relevant to the subject of this week’s essay is the sad truth that people hell-bent on self-destruction have no interest in the arts beyond its commercial value (see Goering, Hermann, noted art collector and authoritarian toady). The arts represent the highest form of human endeavor, the quest for originality, the search for truth/beauty. Great art makes you think, feel and question. Authoritarians don’t want people to think, feel and question, so they create distractions to keep the populace in line—distractions that represent the lowest forms of human endeavor. War. Patriotism. Demonization. Fear. Superstition.
Self-destructive dynamics wreak havoc on all of us, but they are particularly problematic for the artist. While dysfunctional societies and inhuman behavior provide the artist with plenty of interesting material (and the opportunity to enlighten the populace about their suicidal tendencies), society’s quest for conformity devalues and demeans the artistic quest for original self-expression. While some artists have been punished for the crime of original thought, the more common response is the cold indifference grounded in the self-destructive society’s lack of curiosity. John Doran’s interview with Annette Peacock for The Quietus opened by describing her as a “stone-cold original,” then succinctly explains why she continues to toil in relative obscurity:
There’s often no prize for coming first in music. The preternaturally talented composer, ear-boggling singer, intuitive multi-instrumentalist, vocal manipulation innovator and pioneering synthesizer early adopter, Annette Peacock knows this more than most. During an interview she tells me that every time she makes an album she feels like it’s the right statement for the time but it turns out never to be the right statement for the market of the time. Markets are big amorphous, slow moving bodies that perhaps don’t always respond well to mercurial outlier innovation in music. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing at the right time but then it turns out I’ve been 20 to 40 years too early”, she says laughing.
That laugh may mask some disappointment, but as you read Annette’s responses in the interview, it becomes obvious that truth and artistic freedom are “sacrosanct” to her. Every artist seeks some form of validation, but the true artist refuses to allow creation to become dependent on validation.
The twisting road that eventually led to X-Dreams defies everything you thought you learned in The Byrds’ classic “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Annette had released the album I’m the One back in 1972, an amazing, innovative record that the record-buying audience largely ignored but caught the attention of an RCA labelmate by the name of David Bowie. Bowie invited Annette to join the Aladdin Sane tour, a golden opportunity that she politely declined. Accepting the rebuff, Bowie arranged to have her sign with his management company, who placed her on the far back burner but gave her unlimited studio time she could use whenever inspiration struck. She described the recording process (if one can call it that) in a later interview with The Quietus:
The publisher provided free studio time and I began to use it. I’d brought a tape of a song ‘My Mother Never Taught Me How To Cook’ and I called Mick Ronson to overdub some guitar angst. A lot of musicians in London had heard that there were going to be sessions and just showed up. There ended up being 22 musicians in total on X-Dreams. Most of them had never played together, and all the tracks were first takes. It was very exciting.
Jeez—talk about ballsy! The guys on Kind of Blue had at least played together when Miles Davis challenged them with modality, and Miles did allow multiple takes. What she didn’t mention is that the recording and mixing sessions took place over a period of four years. 99 out of 100 producers would have labeled her approach “a complete waste of valuable studio time” and filed her away in the manila folder marked “Nutcase.”
But you know what? The album is damned exciting. The number of recording glitches is much smaller than one would expect in a series of first takes, and the level of musicianship is outstanding. Despite the lengthy, choppy recording “process,” the gestalt is one of unity, of shared inspiration. X-Dreams is a remarkably engaging record, a full-on aesthetic experience that confirms Annette Peacock’s stone-cold original status.
I’ve read several reviews of X-Dreams, some okay, some bloody awful and a few that cross the line into horny male obliviousness. What none of the critics (all male, by the way) seem to notice is that pesky little “X” in the album’s title. Now, I know this is going to hurt, but just for a minute, think back to your years in secondary education and try to remember a class called “Biology.” Somewhere in those unpleasant memories of Petri dishes, microscopes and flunking the weekly quiz there might be a scrap of an engram in your brain labeled “Mendel.” Yeah, yeah—the pea plant guy. Good! Now, do you remember how those pea plants led to at least one lecture on something called “Genetics?” That’s right—X’s and Y’s! You are obviously a biology rockstar! Now, what do the X’s and Y’s mean? “Something about which kind of baby it is?” Yes, that’s right. And when the baby has two X chromosomes, what kind of baby is going to pop out of mommy?
No, not a boy. It’s sad, really. Girls have matching chromosomes X + X. That’s why girls are perfect. Boys don’t match, they’re X + Y. That’s why boys are defective and never match their socks with their shirts or their belts with their shoes. We should feel sorry for boys, and we would if they weren’t the authoritarian assholes mentioned above who are determined to send us all to early oblivion.
X-Dreams is an exploration of the dynamics in male-female relationships from a heterosexual woman’s point of view. From a lyrical standpoint, X-Dreams is a quest for understanding, an attempt to resolve the opposing drives (attraction/repulsion, love/cruelty, together/apart) that make the female-male relationship endlessly alluring and frustrating. “The idea with X-Dreams was to approach the LP as a single, like each side was one piece. Side A very hard and aggressive and Side B very romantic and kind of sweet, really,” asserted Annette, and while that may be true for the prevailing musical mood on each side, the lyrical content is consistently ambivalent, dichotomous, uncertain, unresolved . . . and beautifully truthful.
The lyrics certainly deepened my appreciation of the album, but it was the music that immediately grabbed my attention. X-Dreams is often categorized as “jazz fusion,” an ill-defined genre if there ever was one (I don’t know how anyone can listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Blood, Sweat & Tears and tell me they’re two peas in a pod). The best fusion albums combine the improvisational freedom of jazz with the libido-tingling stylings of rock and R&B, and by that definition, X-Dreams qualifies. To really pull off fusion, you need instrumentalists who combine deep knowledge and appreciation of musical foundations and who know how to “play,” both literally and figuratively. Annette managed to attract some of the best musicians on the planet, a seemingly motley crew of different styles and strengths who left their egos in the reception area and devoted themselves to the creation of great music. The credits include “name” players like Bill Bruford and Mick Ronson and superb session men like Ray Warleigh and Chris Spedding. You put top-flight musicians together with a versatile, commanding and distinctive vocalist/composer like Annette Peacock, and baby, you have a jazz-rock fusion masterpiece.
X-Dreams kicks off with “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” a low-simmer blues/funk piece that represents a statement of defiance and liberation on multiple levels. The song has no discernible structure in the traditional sense; the “verses” vary in length and form and there is nothing that even resembles a chorus. Annette’s phrasing is largely off-beat; she rarely bothers to hit the notes in the “right” places but instead goes wherever her musical and emotional instincts lead her, confident that the boys in the band will hold things together. The delivery is a combination of understated alto, soaring soprano and street talk punctuated with pregnant pauses that invariably lead to double entendres. The outcome is one of the most unusual coming-of-age stories you will ever hear—unusual because her description of growing up follows neither convention nor linearity, resulting in a story that is more true-to-life than the classic coming-of-age assertion that everyone goes through the same stages of development at roughly the same time.
That her mother never taught her how to cook or clean tells us she wasn’t raised to be June Cleaver. As she moves to the influence of the men in the family, she leaves us with a trail of bread crumbs that hints at possible sexual abuse by either brother, father or both:
My mama never taught me how to cook
But my brother, now, my brother he taught me how to . . . eat
Daddy never taught me to s-s-suck-seed (succeed)
That’s why it’s so crazy, crazy, crazy
Daddy never taught me how to succeed
That’s why I’m so unselfish
Nice little dig at capitalism there, reinforced by her admission that she was “not good at the wheeling not much better at the dealing.” She then asserts, “But I’m a fantastic ride,” and whether that’s a comment on the validation she received from the men in the family or an embrace of her sexuality is for the listener to decide. After the equally ambiguous line, “Yeah, my daddy never taught me how to succeed but my brother taught me how to turn the other cheek,” the band slows the tempo for a few bars to give the listener time to take it all in. When the foundational beat returns, Annette shifts tone and delivery, emphasizing the recurring phrase “That’s why” in soprano to frame her explanation of how she became the woman she is.
Never had no one to believe in me
And that’s why I’m not so sentimental
Never had no one to say, “Yeah, you’re right, you’re beautiful and free, it gets me high to see you fly, to fulfill yourself, and I’m behind you, I’m there even though it’s not me that’s satisfying you and I’m not afraid that I’ll lose you to your own freedom”
That’s why I’ll never be tame
I’m not rational and secure don’t have that confident assure that I’m cosmic in the touching
Never had no one to believe in me
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
The guitar in that passage (I’m guessing it’s Ronson) expresses more tension than relief, a combination of sweetness and dissonance that mirrors both the enlightenment and the experience of a dysfunctional family. The passage ends with another downtempo shift marked by a terribly sexy guitar and the culmination of Annette’s coming of age. Free from the noise from the family of origin, Annette has arrived at a space where she is impervious to the bullshit of classic male mating ritual behavior:
And I’ve had men say, “Hey babe, your love is the greatest show on earth, and hey baby, I’m your man with the perfect plan and I’ll give you everything your heart desires, I want you, and I’ll give you everything you dream, everything you need, just let me get close to you, I want you, hey baby, I want to suck your honey, I wanna cop your conception, take your energy, absorb your vibe, preach your philosophy, I wanna become you, I want you and I want you to die so I can be you. Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love. I’m your man. Come over here and pay your landlord some dues. And hey babe that’s what I call love and that’s what I call a relationship—-now do you want to get it on?”
And I say, “Hey man, my destiny’s not to serve. I’m a woman. My destiny is to create.”
Man, I’d wish I’d written those lines. I think I could use another tat.
I’m pretty convinced that the critics who have commented on “Real and Defined Androgens” didn’t really listen to the lyrics. Here are some selected shorts from one of the more enthusiastic responses: “One of the sexiest songs ever written . . . low slung dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you . . . Peacock flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics . . .”
I won’t name the source to avoid embarrassing the poor bastard, but just calmly point out that “one of the sexiest songs ever written” describes (in excruciating detail) a guy masturbating to a porn mag:
He makes the scene . . . Vaseline
Sometimes conscious and packaged androgen
Perhaps he finds a kind of purity, preferring not to wait, her petals flowering too hot
Refusing her garden, betraying his home
And oiling his machine he works it . . . hard . . .
Rides himself to foam . . .
A magazine in the other hand betrays the airbrushed dream of perfection
A connection which demands that the soul of femininity
Supplant itself into the shell which offers itself to the fancy
But man betrays himself with the seductiveness of media . . . distortion becomes a thrill . . .
Impervious, he ponders his seed of no destiny . . .
He half-dreams her, reams her taut, rotten body
Caught at the wrists
The twisting thrusts to the rhythmic beats like the sound of a whip drowning in the waves of sensation
Abandoning himself to the abstract contact takes him closer to his senses
Further from defenses to the absolute surrender he craves
The lyrics—especially that last passage—use intensely erotic imagery to underscore the emptiness of the fantasy. There’s no contact, no closeness, no merging, just a fucking fantasy based on “abstract contact.” The music is superficially sexy, just like the airbrushed babe in the foldout.
Androgens, by the way, are mistakenly identified as “male hormones.” The truth is androgens (like testosterone) exist in both men and women. I think what Annette is driving at here is there are natural causes for triggering testosterone (real) and culturally-sanctioned catalysts (defined), and those culturally-sanctioned catalysts are the ones we need to worry about. Men are under tremendous pressure to “stand up and act like a man,” which usually translates to “be tough” or “be aggressive in your pursuits.” Because many men have been trained to view women as objects, property or pieces of ass, dehumanization is a socially-acceptable stance for the male half of the species. Jacking off to a porn mag dramatizes the dehumanization, taking it to another level entirely.
When I tell you that “Real and Defined Androgens” features a grand total of two chords alternating back and forth for eleven minutes, you might conclude that the music is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. Au contraire! The music is frigging brilliant! There are few songs that build tension as magnificently as “Real and Defined Androgens,” and the impact is similar to a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The basic pattern is F-F# and back again and again and again. Half-step moves always express tension by their very nature, but the scales in use are blues scales, adding a double serving of tension through their flatted notes. As the song progresses, the band increases the volume one decibel at a time (or so it seems); as the volume increases, the players gradually move from modest riffs and understatement to more intricate solos and counterpoints—screaming sax, thrusting power chords, bashing drums, flying piano. Occasionally the musicians play tricks with your ears by shifting the emphasis of the note in a given “chord” away from the root to the third or fifth, making the descending move sound like the elevator’s going up and the ascending move like the elevator’s going down. The ultimate act of tension creation comes from Annette herself, who remains largely cool and calm while all this drama is building up around her, keeping her flights of soprano to a bare minimum and delivering her narrative in a voice marked by detached curiosity. “Real and Defined Androgens” is pure and simply a masterpiece of musicianship and the testimony to the immense potential of improvisational musical collaboration.
Side A ends with “Dear Bela,” an expansion of the metaphor used in “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” namely, “Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love.” The depiction of male-as-vampire here is based on 18th and 19th-century tales of vampires seducing and despoiling maidens, one of the most curious inventions of the human mind. “A vampire stole my baby” is just a more imaginative display of the same emotions expressed in many rock and country songs from the mid-20th century (“Bye Bye Love” is a good intersectional example). “‘Isn’t love the greatest gift?’ the vampire thinks before he sucks the juice,'” Annette wails in the final verse, having already challenged that supposition in the chorus:
And is it love you feel at all?
Or is it the fear that makes you so mean to me baby?
Or is it the hate that gets you off?
Toxic masculinity has an infinite number of mutations.
The music is somewhere between small-combo Harlem jazz of the 1930’s and Charles Mingus, with tight harmonies (Harlem) and the integration/reinterpretation of early jazz and blues (Mingus). There is a touch of the diva in Annette’s vocal, reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s my-man-has-done-me-wrong numbers.
The music on Side B is “kind of sweet,” as Annette put it. And while it is more “romantic,” she explores her own conflicting feelings about love while not entirely ignoring the challenges presented by insecure men trying to “be real men.” In the definitely romantic “This Feel Within,” her vocal oscillates between half-whispered spoken word and melody, frequently within the same musical line. The delivery and the lyrics communicate doubt about her ability to hold such powerful feelings for a man:
Is the distance harder than this closeness closing in on me
I’m lost in your love and can’t begin to show or to hold this feel within
So I thought I might fuse the beauty that I see in you, the melody in that . . .
It’d tell you better than I could how much you mean to me
Since you play the song, chew on the heart, tell me what I really feel
I fall apart when he’s for real
The feel of the music is swank night club, with a shimmery synthesizer providing a satiny background for outstanding contributions on piano, flute and guitar. The liner notes don’t attach the players to specific songs, but whoever is playing that guitar is the guy I want in my band—the oscillating sustains melt me every time I hear them.
“Too Much in the Skies” explores the expectation-defying experience of an intimate relationship with a creative type. True creatives have no tangible connection with time or convention, so you can’t expect such a person to meet you at the corner espresso stand Wednesday at 12:30 . . . or show up on time for your flight to Vegas . . . or return your phone calls within a week. When a true creative is in the zone, there is nothing you can do to shake them out of it—the guilt trips you throw their way bounce off like their auras are made of plexiglass. According to the wisdom found on dating sites, creatives make terrible partners because they are inherently unreliable and deceptive.
Annette struggles with those stereotypical projections but is also capable of perceiving the potential advantages:
My love has a soul of a poet
I’m losing control and I know it
My dreams have come true, I won’t change him
One change might undo or estrange him
His promise is all he can promise . . .
And all I need do is to love him and let it be me whom he’s dreaming
This is sweet, romantic and perfectly pragmatic. How can you truly love someone if you can’t allow them to be who they are? The music is soft funk emphasizing piano, bass and faintly Latin drums; the chord pattern is similar to something you might hear in mid-period Steely Dan. Annette’s vocal alternates between breathiness and her gorgeous deep tones, eschewing the occasional bursts of soprano. At first listen, this is about as close as Annette gets to “adult pop,” but the nine-syllable lines she sings defy standard meter (and no, they’re not anapestic trimeter). In any case, the result is the most purely beautiful song on the album.
Annette’s version of Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” is a complete reconstruction that bears little resemblance to the Elvis original and the “rhythmic insistence” of the stutter-step boogie-woogie beat featuring Bill Black on double bass and the “bop-bops” of The Jordanaires. The beat here is still syncopated but smoother, and the rhythm takes several turns away from the main beat as the song progresses. The Elvis version featured the classic major, minor and seventh chords used in 99% of rock songs; the reconstruction substitutes major seventh and minor seventh chords for the expected fourths and fifths. The melody undergoes a complete overhaul, in part due to the change in chord structure but primarily because Annette follows her emotional and musical instincts to leap octaves or tone it down to a low-register whisper-in-the-ear sex kitten purr. The arrangement features an outstanding growling sax solo tinged with greater jazz sensibilities, and Mick Ronson (confirmed) absolutely kills it in the fade with a solo designed to put even a celibate in the mood to get down and dirty.
The words are pretty much the same with two important differences. Annette dispenses with the “let’s walk to the preacher” verse; when I try to imagine her delivering that verse in the context of the album, it just doesn’t ring true. All the other lyrics remain intact but take on a completely different meaning when sung by a woman, particularly in the context of a record that (in part) explores the cruelty of the male half of the species. When Elvis sang “don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” he only had to fear rejection, not getting the shit beaten out of him. Though it sounds like Annette is having the time of her life with this piece, the sentiments of “Dear Bela” linger in the background. Intentional or not, the effect is rather chilling.
X-Dreams closes appropriately with a song called “Questions.” We all go into relationships with baggage, largely in the form of insecurities. When that special someone assures us that they will love us forever, we may experience momentary relief but those insecurities ensure the relief is of a transient nature. Annette refers to “the silent past to which I’m bound still holding me,” likely the many disappointments she has experienced (that we’ve all experienced). The questions she poses, though, cast doubt on not only the partner’s ability to “be true,” but her own depth of commitment:
If I could love you more than I do
What could I give you to make me true?
If you believed me
What would you say?
How would you leave me?
What would I be?
The song is in the form of a waltz, giving the music a cast of romantic nostalgia. Annette’s “sweet” tone glides beautifully through the expansive melody, and the last sound we hear is the fade of that lovely voice.
The fact that much of Annette Peacock’s work over a period of nearly forty years is hard to come by is a crime against humanity. Her oeuvre is expansive and diverse, and I’ve never been bored by an Annette Peacock album. Some are exciting, some are deep and some (like An Acrobat’s Heart) a perfect complement to a grey Sunday afternoon. X-Dreams is definitely one of her best, a tour de force that represents two qualities we could use in bulk during this self-destructive phase: artistic integrity and creative spontaneity.