Tag Archives: Velvet Underground

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!

Lou Reed – Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (Remastered Version) – Classic Music Review

rock n roll animal.c

Oh, yeah.

Okay, let’s deal with the elephants in the room and get them out of the way.

Elephant #1: Lou Reed was probably the worst singer ever.

Lou Reed approached each note like the rookie trapeze artist who is absolutely terrified he’s going to miss the wire. When the intro has faded and he gets ready to make his first tentative step into the scale, you can almost feel the tension on the recording. “Come on, Lou!” you want to shout, but you hold back for fear of blowing any chance he’s got. So you remain silent and pray that for once in his fucking life he’ll realize that the band has given him a big hint by playing in a specific key and that there are only a few choices available to him in terms of note selection. Those last nanoseconds before he attempts to sing are often excruciating. “Come on, Lou! You can do it!”

No, he couldn’t. Blew it every fucking time.

What’s amazing is this voice-sensitive reviewer nearly always forgives Lou Reed’s complete lack of vocal ability. There was something about Lou Reed that made me like the guy, no matter how many times he wobbled on a note, no matter how many melodies he left for dead. It may be because he was completely hopeless that I wind up giving him a pass. What’s the point of dwelling on such an obvious flaw if the guy has compensatory strengths? Lou Reed was not only a great songwriter, but also had a fabulous sense of compositional structure. His musical themes are often strong and memorable, qualities that compensated for his technical deficiencies. His lyrics were always memorable, sometimes gelling into real poetry.

Elephant #2: When people talk about Lou Reed, they often mention his status as a founding member of the Velvet Underground in hushed tones of reverence. I have to believe that the people who elevate the Velvet Underground to sacred status have never actually bothered to listen to their records, and I would love to interrogate them under a bright light. Which Velvet Underground are you referring to? The Warhol-produced original line-up with the racist female singer who sounded like a zombie from an Ed Wood flick? Or the post-Warhol boys-will-be-boys cacophony conjured up by the duo of John Cale and Lou Reed? The post-Cale folk-rock group? The “lost album,” VU? The more mainstream-ish band you hear on Loaded? Some good things did come out of the various incarnations of the Velvet Underground, which is why people refer to them with that overused adjective “influential.” From my perspective, their value has nothing to do with the quality of their music but to the timing of their arrival on the music scene. The primary virtue of The Velvet Underground is that they weren’t fucking hippies, which in 1967 was a pretty bold statement. At their best, they had a naturalist, anti-idealist grittiness that provided a balance to all that love, peace and happiness crap.

My original intention was to review The Essential Lou Reed, a collection of songs hand-picked by the artist himself. After starting my research on that sprawling production, I realized that to do the album justice would require more time and effort than I could spare at this point in my life. Instead, I chose his most popular work, the one that first comes to mind when people think of Lou Reed; the one that makes people smile. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal has another virtue: whether it’s the excitement of the live venue or all those distorted guitars flying through the air, Lou Reed’s vocals are more confident and energetic. You still will have a hard time picking out a melody, which makes a sing-along rather difficult, but the music sounds fab anyway. It’s great rock ‘n’ roll, and in his heart, Lou Reed was first and foremost a rock ‘n’ roller—not in a strict musical sense, but in his attitude of tender toughness and his essential rebelliousness.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal couldn’t have come at a better time for Lou Reed. Critical reception of Berlin proved to be disappointing (though the same review mills now pronounce the album a masterpiece), and he was still recovering from the funk resulting from his brief partnership with Bowie. He was desperate to escape the Transformer image and reassert the unglamorous, genuine guy inside. After collecting a talented group of once-and-future contributors to the strange phenomenon known as Alice Cooper, he made the decision to have the band record a live performance at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music on East 14th Street on December 21, 1973.

I’ve always wondered what Lou Reed was feeling as he waited offstage during the introduction to “Sweet Jane.” As he listened to Steve Hunter’s extended composition featuring a duet of soaring early 70’s guitars, did he wonder, “What the fuck was I thinking?” or “Damn, how am I going to follow this?” Hunter’s arrangement is a wonder, a blend of sweetness and raw power with marvelous interplay between the two lead guitars and bass. It’s an absolute delight to listen to Hunter and fellow lead guitarist Dick Wagner on a good set of headphones, with Wagner on one side and Hunter on the other, for you can really hear how they support and contrast each other. If I were Lou Reed, I might have packed up and gone home—these guys were good. But wait—here comes the crescendo! The power chords and high-fret riffs tell us that it’s all building up to a marvelous climax, and when it finally comes, in the form of one of the greatest rock riffs ever written—the syncopated chords of “Sweet Jane”—Lou Reed must have woken up from his trance and said, “Hey, I fucking wrote that! Yeah, this is my music!”

And he walks on stage. And the crowd bursts into applause. And I get the chills every fucking time.

Picking up on the crowd’s energy, Lou steps up to the mike and delivers a cheeky, sassy vocal that tells you he’s feeling it. Meanwhile, the band doesn’t let up at all, delivering raw power in every strum and thrust. What the crowd is hearing is so completely different from the acoustic-harmonic version on Loaded that they may not have recognized the song at first. This Jane rocks like a bitch in heat, energizing what at first glance feels like a nostalgic recollection of an idealized past but is in truth an urgent plea for us to recognize that life can be beautiful right fucking now if we stop all the trash-talking bullshit and treat each other with a sense of common decency:

Some people like to go out dancing
And other people, (like us) they gotta work
And there’s always some evil mothers
They’ll tell you life is full of dirt.
And the women never really faint,
And the villans always blink their eyes.
And the children are the only ones who blush.
‘Cause life is just to die.
But, anyone who has a heart
Wouldn’t want to turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played the part
He wouldn’t want to turn around and fake it

People! It’s not cool to worship death! Life is worth every fucking minute, even when it’s raining shit on you!

Lou’s vocal on “Sweet Jane” is one of his strongest, but I think he outdoes himself on “Heroin.” I’ll take this version over the original on The Velvet Underground & Nico album because of the vast difference in Lou’s phrasing. On the original, Lou basically recites the words; in the live version the words stand out more because Lou emphasizes specific words and phrases to dramatize the meaning. These two lines say it all (emphasis in bold):

‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein

With the emphasis, you visualize the spike—not the needle, but a more durable and painful implement crashing through the skin. Now you get the impression that the heroin addict is punishing himself through the act of seeking pleasure, and the nature of his sin was revealed by the emphasis on the word “man.” Women often forget that in the crazy strictures of gender identity that while the male half of the species may be in the dominant position in our societies, the weight of expectations that come with masculinity are as metaphorically heavy as the cross Christ had to bear. In other words, where inequality exists, we all suffer. The addict seeks a world free of the pain of those expectations and from the ugliness of the world itself:

Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town
And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
And everybody puttin’ everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds
‘Cause when the smack begins to flow
Then I really don’t care anymore
Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
Then thank God that I’m as good as dead
Then thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care

Lou’s message is a hard one for many people to swallow: if you want to cure the addict, cure society first. Even though some will bemoan the thirteen-minute length of the live version, I love it because it gives the musicians time to develop the supporting musical themes. Lou Reed was a master of memorable motifs, and the dominant motif in “Heroin” is exceptionally strong.

Omitted from the original release of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal were three songs from Berlin, most likely because the record company didn’t want to have anything to do with a record that American critics universally condemned (The Brits rather liked it, by the way). The critics fell into line by 2000, and the songs appear on the remastered version. Berlin was a hard look at the life of the underclass and the ugliness of drug addiction, domestic violence, state-sponsored child abduction, suicide—a lot of subjects that people would rather avoid. “How Do You Think It Feels?” is about the highs and lows of addiction, with the title phrase becoming both a cry of joy in the high and the pathetic dependency in the crash. Lou Reed had a powerful sense of empathy for life’s losers, describing the complexities of their interactions in disturbing detail:

How do you think it feels
To feel like a wolf and foxy
How do you think it feels
To always make love by proxy?

When making love becomes an out-of-body experience, you have to know things are seriously fucked up. Drummer Pentti Glan has a great turn on the drums here, synthesizing relaxed rolls with a good strong beat, and Dick Wagner gives us a few heat-inspired licks in the empty spaces.

The couple depicted in Berlin have a mutually-assured-destructive relationship, and in “Caroline Says I,” the male half recites the abuse he receives from his better half—a German dominatrix who revels in crushing his masculinity. The theme of drugs to compensate for masculine insecurity is the same as in “Heroin,” and for that reason alone I wish Lou would have opted for “Caroline Says II,” where Caroline becomes the victim of abuse and coldly decides she’s had enough. In any case, both of these Berlin performances certainly pleased the crowd, despite the consumer warnings from Rolling Stone.

“White Light White Heat” moves us from heroin to speed, but from a lyrical standpoint this song is no match for “Heroin” or “How Do You Think It Feels?” From a musical standpoint, it’s a great rock ‘n roll song that sounds like it’s driven by a carload of amphetamines. Prakash John’s bass really keeps this song moving, and at this point in the festivities, Lou Reed has lost any sense of vocal self-consciousness, delivering a high-energy, cocky vocal. The lead guitar solo goes to Steve Hunter on this one, and he’s as amped up as the rest, finally hitting his peak on the blistering solo that ends the song. Whew!

The third song from Berlin appears in the form of “Lady Day,” which in this context serves as sort of a breather between “White Light White Heat” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The song is appropriately on the dark side, though the analogy between Billie Holiday and the character described in Berlin is more of a hint than a clear link. This is probably Lou’s most passionate vocal on the album, as he sounds like he’s desperately trying to save the girl from a dead-end life of decadence and despair.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll” ends the album, an expectation-defying song from Loaded. The expectation emanating from the title is that this will be a butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners all-out bash, but the song opens as a so-so, mid-tempo rocker that I find somewhat disappointing. I’m always ready for more, I guess, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” doesn’t get there until after the too-lengthy instrumental section centered around wah-wah pedaled guitar chords, when finally—at last!—the guitars get good and nasty and the energy goes way up. The lyrics are a compact retelling of the cause-and-effect of the rock revolution in the consumer-driven ’50s:

Jenny said, when she was just five years old
You know there’s nothin’ happening at all
Two TV sets, two Cadillac cars
Ahhh, hey, ain’t help me nothin’ at all
Not at all

One fine morning, she heard on a New York station
She couldn’t believe what she heard at all
Not at all

Despite the amputation
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station
It was all right
It was all right
Oh, now here she comes now-now

The lyrics served as a good reminder of the origins of rock ‘n’ roll at a time when it was drifting far from its roots. The song itself eventually reconnects with those roots, and rescued by a powerhouse ending, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” serves as a strong closer for a great live album.

I hate having to leave Lou Reed having looked at just a snippet of his work, as I think his catalogue is certainly worthy of a full scholarly study. Still, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is a great place to start because the Velvet Underground songs sound much better here and the cuts from Berlin give the listener motivation to give the work the attention it deserves. While Lou Reed adopted many personas and explored various approaches to music, his work was always grounded in the sublime cry for the freedom we know as rock ‘n’ roll. Vocal deficiencies aside, Lou Reed’s career clearly established him as the keeper of the flame.

We could really use another Lou Reed right now.

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