Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, November 25, 2013
Four Tet - Beautiful Rewind
(Text Records, 2013)
But no. Things change. I don’t remember what kind of circumstance I was in, when I found myself listening to Fourtet’s latest ‘platter’, maybe 5, 6, 7 years ago or something, but suddenly, I understood the nature of what I had unwittingly been participating in.
I mean, who DOES this bastard think he is? Tinkering with fragments of all these vital and exciting forms of music – techno, jazz, afro-beat, hip-hop and so on – then systematically proceeding to drain them of any HINT of anger or rebellion, normalising them to the extent that you probably did an eye-roll just hearing me mention their names in quick succession, drizzling dinky little bits of them around into these precious little confections of tasteless, background-y nothing. Just… fuck this guy, man. He’s Moby with A levels. ‘Party’ music for people who think putting on Motown Chartbusters would be beneath them. The sonic equivalent of Giles Peterson reading extracts from a book about living in a remote Peruvian village at the Barbican centre. A status quo reinforcing MURDERER of all the things that give popular music its lifesblood. Blinded with rage, I didn’t just want to cease listening to Mr. Four Tet, I wanted to smash his face into bloody pieces.
So, as you’ll appreciate it, I thought it would probably be for the best if we kept our distance after that. If Kieran stayed out of my way, I’d stay out of his... and so things have been, since then. So I don’t know what he’s been up to recently, or what progression his career has taken of late.
But, like I say, things change.
Fast forward to NOW, and the other week I heard a couple of cuts from the new Four Tet album on the radio. And I confess, I actually found them pretty compelling. Not what I was expecting at all.
Apparently the story vehind this one is that he’d been living in Woodstock in upstate New York for some reason, getting into a lot of the ‘70s hippie type New Age music that presumably accompanies life in such a locale, and he thought he’d try to make a record along those lines. A fairly trendy pursuit of recent, you might think, but the genius of it is that, for reasons equally vague and unfathomable, Hebden decided that his primary source material in this endeavour should be chopped up samples from ‘90s pirate radio recordings, Jungle-era DJ bootlegs, and that sort of thing.
The results are pretty interesting – often strange, sometimes flat-out mental, and occasionally verging on brilliance.
The rhythm tracks in particular here are assembled in a really rough, instinctive manner that seems completely antithetical to the carefully polished blandness of Four Tet’s earlier work, as tiny fragments of unidentifiable drum-beats are jammed together in monotonous, crudely chopped loops that sound like the result of some clueless kid manually splicing tapes in 1980s basement. Weird vocal fragments (“HE – HEY – HAY!”) jab in and out of the mix in a spirit of unhinged randomness, treated with cheesy reverse and digital echo effects that seem to almost push things into the realm of ‘outsider art’ – rave music made on the cheap by a teeth-grinding, arhythmic lunatic.
Such abrasive ingredients seem distinctly at odds with Hebden’s stated wish to create ‘new age’ music, but nonetheless, remainders of the record’s cosmic relaxation-based intent keep asserting themselves, with the disjuncture between form and intent leading to many bizarre and wondrous moments...
Tubular bells and random wind chime drift in over a dense mess of junglist fragments and a man repeatedly saying “good old broccoli, jus-“; R’n’B (modern definition) female cooing is reverbed up and used in the manner of a Tangerine Dream synth line; waves of ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ harp gently wash in across impenetrable pirate FM ranting; single snare hits loop like metronomic machine guns for minutes on end; Flat Eric distorted techno riffs bust into a degraded ten second loop of a DJ who appears to be having some kind of paranoid breakdown; creepy, tremoloed baby voices hum like swarming insects…
In short: I know Four Tet isn’t exactly the hippest name in inner-city, post-everything Hype Williams type electronica, but I defy you to get stuck into this one with the headphones on and tell me some of this shit is anything less than fucking NUTS.
Of course, I’ve very deliberately been concentrating on the most far-out bits of the album thus far; sad to say that at the end of the day it goes fall somewhat short of being a full scale work of mad genius that we could hail from the East London rooftops. The old conventions of smug smoothness and exploitative, chill-vibe sampling do rather reassert themselves on the second half of the album, smudging and smothering the craziness of what has come before. The two closing tracks in particular are quite dull – very much the sort of thing Peterson or someone could play without ringing many alarm bells – but on the whole, this record is so much more wild and invigorating than anything I ever expected to ever hear from Four Tet, I don’t really mind.
From what I gather, he went for the full ‘no press / sudden self-release / pay-what-you-like download’ approach to releasing this album, perhaps suggesting that he too is feeling a bit cheesed off with his overly comfortable position in the music world. I hope so! I gather many of his fans have been rather perturbed and blindsided by it. Good, I suppose.
In fact, maybe more than anything it is the expectations associated with the Four Tet name that will stop this album finding it’s real audience. Given the sheer weirdness of some of the stuff on the first half, he might have been better off inventing some maniac Lee Perry type alter-ego to attribute it all to. He could have written a suitably fruity press release full of bone-chilling hardships and fuzzy-headed, medicated goings-on, thrown these tunes out there as the legendary lost master tapes recovered from a skip behind blah, bah blah, got some deep-digging resissue label to put it out, and the cult that would have formed, ready to testify at a moment’s notice to its unearthy beauty and cracked imagination, would have assembled INSTANTLY. With rubes like me in the front line, most likely.
I’m SURE he could’ve got away with that. But in a way, I’m glad he was honest and came straight out with it – even giving the whole thing a cover design and title that couldn’t be more blandly Four Tet-like if it tried. It gives us all a real nice surprise. Reminds us that we should never write a guy off too easily (that being something I tend to do far too often in music). I’m still not entirely sure where he’s going with all this, but…. for the first time in history, I care, and that definitely marks some kind of success.
I won't bother linking, because you can probably get this any place.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Chuck Berry –
“20 Golden Greats”
(Deja Vu, date unknown)
Basically, after dropping the needles it takes about a second for one to realise that the “Golden Greats” presented herein are not the famed studio recordings that made Mr. Berry a star, but instead some really shonky, mud-covered live recordings emanating from a time and place unknown, but, judging from the sound of the backing and recording quality, I’d guess no earlier than the 1970s.
Now, ol’ Chuck understandably gets a lot of shit for spending the majority of the career travelling the world peddling cynical, increasingly half-assed reiterations of a bunch of novelty songs he wrote over 50 years ago, but from my own jaded POV, I’ve gotta say, I think this stuff is bloody brilliant, verging on some kinda cracked, Alex Chilton/Replacements-style anti-genius in places.
Initially, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, hearing Berry lurch his way into a grinding, half-speed version of ‘Carol’, the backing group sounding like Stackwaddy being forced to play at gunpoint after a 24 hour marathon session whilst the man himself hollers like a belligerent megaphone-jerk in-between launching cack-handed, ‘is-he-actually-wearing-gloves?’ level guitar solos that certainly make me feel better about my own compromised abilities. (All that indie / underground “hey, you don’t need to learn to play guitar” stuff? Check it out - apparently Chuck’s booze-addled brain beat us all to it!)
In the end, you simply celebrate, for this is chaotic, ridiculous, beautiful stuff – pure, drunken rock n’roll slop, created for the none-more-rock n’ roll reasons of harvesting money, creating a bad atmosphere and fleecing stadiums full of white people.
“I’m CHUCK BERRY, and I couldn’t give a fuck!”, the recordings on this LP seem to announce, and the result is more punk rock than a pile of every Sex Pistols record in the entire world, and a hell of a lot more fun to listen to too.
I think we need a shiny, multi-disc remastered edition, complete with a bonus DVD so we can rejoice in the sight of the arthritic duck-walks that no doubt accompanied every one of these glorious abominations, and see the when-the-fuck-is-this-gonna-end looks on the faces of the gnarly pick up band guys that this particular night’s promoter had roped in. And an extra ‘behind the scenes’ feature in which we get to see Chuck sitting in a jacuzzi with a bottle of rye for ninety minutes, laughing his ass off.
Quick, get me the number of Deja Vu Records, based out of Italy, whom I’m sure are still legitimate international holders of the rights to these recordings, and…. oh, yeah, right, hang on a minute….
(1)A GREAT shop by the way – I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s a collector’s paradise or anything, but if you’re in the mood for buying some great, random old LPs, its shelves see the polarities of “pretty cool stuff” and “pretty reasonable prices” intersect in most pleasing fashion. Definitely a strong contender for South London’s finest record emporium: check ‘em out.
Monday, November 04, 2013
Even More Lou-age.
So this morning (that being Sunday, but I’m not gonna do the obvious wink & nod), my previous post seems a tad over-cynical. Whilst I got bogged down tearing Lou Reed’s public persona and arguably lousy records apart, I never really managed to shift things around to all the things I like the most about his music, all the ways they’ve managed to connect with me personally over the years. A cup of coffee, a bootleg VU LP and a read of this moving post by Reed uber-fan Jeremy Richey on the Moon In The Gutter blog have all convinced me to take another pass at it.
So we’ll begin with another contradiction. All that cynicism and distance that surrounds the public perception of ‘Lou Reed’ like a block of ice, how do we match that up with the fact that so much of his music is so fucking achingly sentimental, so nostalgic, so fixated on some fleeting moment of zen-like universal comfort, in spite of all the sneering and street hassle and leather daddy hi-jinks? Because that’s the essence that keeps me coming back to him really.. the former I mean, not the latter.
Of course, I guess I still like all the shrieking dissonance and hair-raising guitar noise and decadent droning plenty too (yes, I had the “John Peel played ‘Heroin’ and everything changed forever” moment same as everyone else, even if mine was closer to 1998 than 1968… and it speaks volumes, I think, that it sounded just as ‘what the fuck is this’ jaw-dropping at the dawn of the 21st century as it did when copies of the banana album first started to sneak over to these shores). But that’s not what I feel like discussing today, I suppose.
Let’s talk about ‘Sweet Jane’ instead. I don’t know if it’s Lou Reed’s best song, or even my favourite one, but it’s the one, I think, where that moment of calm, basic-level happiness he always seemed to be striving for was first fully illuminated.
I remember ages and ages and ages ago, reading the booklet that accompanied the cheap ‘best of the Velvet Underground’ CD that I bought shortly after hearing ‘Heroin’ on the radio, the writer saying something about how Lou Reed’s lyrics always seem to reflect this obsession with the idea of things being “alright” - and indeed, that writer was really on to something I think. In song after song, it is a state of unspectacular ‘alright-ness’ that is sought out and celebrated: “..it was alright”, “it’s gonna work out right”, “..everything was alright”, “it’s gonna be alright”, on and on, like some endlessly repeating mantra. And it’s not some great, transcendent moment of happiness or revelation of love or anything that he’s after either, it’s just… things are alright. Sitting quietly at home, looking out of the window, coffee on the stove. Sitting next to your beloved over breakfast, walking out to get groceries – whatever. Things are alright. I can dig that.
At heart, this seems to be where most Lou Reed songs (all of his more upbeat numbers, anyway) are coming from. In fact, maybe this realisation even allows us to take a more sympathetic approach to his legendarily aggressive attitude toward journalists and interviewers. Imagine, the poor guy sitting there in his apartment, savouring his moment of perfect alright-ness in the morning, when suddenly there’s some whiny jerk on the phone wanting to interrogate him about his sexuality and his drug habits, and David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and why his latest album sounds like he recorded it in a dog kennel. Awful. No wonder he got a bit shirty with them. Who wouldn’t? Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone? He had nothing to say. He probably just wanted to take in the silence, or put the radio on, sit back and enjoy his breakfast.
Anyway, it is this holy ‘alright-ness’, this quiet contentment, that “Sweet Jane” is of course really about. I know that there’s an actual Jane in the lyrics (of most versions), but if you think it’s just her who’s being hymned during the chorus, well…. I hesitate to say ‘you got it wrong’, but suffice to say you have a very different understanding of the song from me. Sweet Jane, as yelled exultantly on the pre-‘Loaded’ demo version, hesitantly whispered on the ‘Live ‘69’ version, dutifully intoned on the album version, represents instead a state of mind; an ideal place to be; a totem of the kind of basic, everyday happiness and contentment that most men & women seek, most of the time. Quietness, and companionship, and the sun shining in in the morning.
The first of these, chronologically speaking, is the ‘Live ‘69’ version, when the song was still in pretty embryonic form, before all that business with Jack and Jane had come into being, and in many ways this version is all the more perfect for its simplicity. As that indelible guitar riff rolls out slow and steady, the band sounding like they’ve just been taught it and they’re following the leader to establish the feel, Reed goes straight to the heart of the matter, softly intoning the verse that ended up being the big emotional crescendo of the completed version, repeating it several times, rolling the words around his mouth like their message is still in the process of filtering down through his heart/brain: “anyone who’s ever had a heart / they wouldn’t turn around and break it”; “anyone who’s ever had a dream / anyone who’s ever played a part”.
If we were to listen to this version without the context provided by subsequent recordings, it could perhaps be read as a pretty sad song. Could the Sweet Jane he’s addressing in the chorus have ditched him? Did SHE turn around and break it? Well if she did, Reed doesn’t sound too upset about things. It sounds like the nostalgic warmth of the happy memories are enough to keep him going, resigned to his fate as the totemic Jane of the chorus (like the verses, elucidated quietly, carefully and somewhat hesitantly here) assumes her wider, cosmic significance: Sweet Jane.
By the time the band demoed the song for ‘Loaded’, it had become longer, more complex, and a more solid lyrical narrative had begun to taken shape.(1) It some ways this is good (for the details and elaborations contain many great moments), but sometimes I feel the purity exhibited by the half-formed version had got a bit lost and confused along the way. I’d never claim I liked that version better than this one though; they’re just different, equally perfect, approaches to the same basic whatever, both equally successful in getting their point across.
So here then, on the demo version, we have Jane and Jack, though they’re a little different from the ones you may know if you’ve only listened to the eventual album version. There’s no rock n’ roll band (HUH!) here, but instead it opens with what is possibly my favourite line in any version of this song, and one that just suits Lou Reed’s voice so well:
“Standing on the corner / thinking of the best..”.
He could have just left it there really. This song, his whole career. Just so, so, just… y’know. Says it all really. But nonetheless, the show must go on. This time round, Jane is in her corset, and Jack is in his vest – which, with no hetero-normative-ness intended, I much prefer to be honest. The brief intrusion of ‘Transformer’-era gender-bending when Lou reverses the garments on the album version strikes a bit of an odd note, I’ve always thought, in the middle of a set of verses that otherwise go out of their way to celebrate a very conventional, straight-laced kind of domestic contentment.
(In a way, the verses of this song seem like Reed’s attempt to remind his audience, “hey, normal people have feelings too” – a very humane and somewhat brave gesture in the midst of all the late ‘60s ‘squares vs. hipsters’ type palaver, especially from the man who’d soon reinvent himself as the “king of the underground street freaks” or whatever.)
So, thus far then, probably my favourite version of the song’s opening verse, but sadly I think he drops the ball a little as the demo version moves on to the second verse (the only drawback of this otherwise brilliant recording). Whereas the album version introduces ‘children’ and ‘villains’ into proceedings, here Reed just assigns all of his various rose-tinted, old worldy activities (blinking eyes, studying rules of verse, fainting, blushing etc.) simply to ‘women’ and 'ladies', rather giving the impression that he’s going off on some tirade about the decline of old fashioned femininity or something. I doubt that was the intent; In actuality I think he probably just hadn’t filled out this bit of the lyrics much yet and was just filling the gaps etc., but still – could be better.
What REALLY elevates the demo version though is the gloriously raw, uproariously sloppy nature of the band’s playing here, which at a push you could even see as prefiguring the work of such paragons of DIY earnestness as The Television Personalities or Half Japanese, complete with percussion provided by what sounds like someone with zero sense of rhythm banging two saucepans together (I think we can safely assume Mo Tucker was on maternity leave by this point). All of this serves to lend things a kind of strained, raggedly emotive genius that completely overwhelms any lyrical reservations as soon as the song hits the chorus and the band bellows together, out of key and barely in time with each other: SWEEET JAAAANE!
God, it’s just so beautiful, their inhibitions seeming to vanish as the song goes on, each chorus repeat adding more gusto, more chaos until the final ones, following the big “wouldn’t turn about and break it” crescendo and the peculiar baroque bridge section (Reed did a lot of these, but they rarely worked as well as this one), just fly free, really nailing the sheer joyfulness of the song’s message. NA NA NA NA, NA NA NA.
In this version, ‘Sweet Jane’ isn’t just a chorus, or a song title, it’s a universal exclamation, something to shout from the hilltops whenever you feel that everything is alright. It’s just it man, it’s right there. With this song as a vessel, and that whoever-the-hell-it-is banging those saucepan lids, this bunch of uptight white guys really rouse the spirits and raise the soul to new heights.
Often of recent, I’ve felt like turning to my own beloved and shouting, SWEEEET JANE!! She’s not much into the Velvets though, so it would probably just freak her out. If you’ve read up to this point though, I guess you must be into the Velvets. You know what I’m saying. You know it’s not all about heroin and sneering and Andy Warhol. We can do the secret handshake, and can leave this post right here because what else is there to say about music you love this much.
(1) The demo version is available on CD 2 of the “Fully Loaded” special edition of ‘Loaded’ – an absolutely essential document for all Velvets fans, by the way. I mean, I love the original album too, but I think about 75% of the demo tracks are so, so much better than their album equivalents, and there’s a bunch of other great stuff too, and, and...
Sunday, November 03, 2013
A Posthumous Reed Ramble
Come on in, pour yourself a drink!
Let us assume that you’re a guest in my wood-panelled Victorian study, and that I have already helped myself to much refreshment from the crystal decanter. After an initial show of friendship, I’m basically going to talk at you indefinitely in a semi-aggressive fashion whilst you sit there uncomfortably and try to find a non-rude way to make an exit. Is that acceptable? Well afraid it’ll have to be. If you don’t like it you, can start your own weblog.
(I will, by the way, be speaking in the voice of Andre Morell, if that helps you make your mind up either way.)
I know I’ll be upsetting any solo Lou partisans who happen to be reading right off the bat here, but for me, The Velvet Underground is all.
And even if Lou took all the songwriting money, I definitely prefer to see the band’s achievements as a group effort. As such, I think it's notable that ALL of the VU recordings sound spontaneous and passionate, whereas pretty much all solo Lou Reed stuff sounds like carefully groomed moments of "rock n' roll" spontaneity being performed by actors under laboratory conditions. I could never really get into that. Lots of "oh, well, theoretically I suppose this is quite a good song, but..." moments whenever I've tried, in between the frequent bouts of “by god, I’m turning this off right now”.
That said though, recent adventures in learning to love the collected works of such contrary buggers as Alex Chilton and John Cale have reminded me that, when you’re in it for the long game, there’s more to the appreciation of a record than immediate aural pleasure and basic emotional connection. And surely, no one more so than Lou Reed managed to exemplify that (very ‘70s) idea of using whole decades’ worth of mass-produced vinyl and fan-produced cash to sketch out some kind of grand, conflicted, ever-changing statement about something that nobody ever quite seemed to ‘get’, but that keeps the die-hards fascinated & guessing, and the detractors shrugging and suffering, to this day.
So yes, a proper excavation of the Reed back catalogue has long been on my ‘long-list’ of things to get around to, now that I’ve reached that point in life where I can buy 2nd hand LPs with impunity and sit around laughing at the drum sound and so on, free from concerns of contemporary relevance or financial stability. But I haven’t done it yet. Which is pretty damned inconvenient for the purposes of writing a conventional obituary.
It’s funny actually - when the news filtered through last Sunday night, perhaps my third or fourth thought was “well that's one tough fucking obit that a few hundred journalists are going have to file by the morning”.
For years the whole “Lou Reed is an arsehole” meme has been a running joke in the music world, and it is an idea that I very much abided by through my (ahem) youth, maintaining a strict “Velvets = BRILLIANT / Solo Lou = GHASTLY” policy with a stubbornness that precluded any hope of flexibility. I once even drew a cartoon (subsequently lost) of Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker trapping Lou’s soul in a magic crystal on the night that he left the VU.
But these days, now that I find myself feeling rather more sympathetic toward the intentions of these – how you say? – “grumpy old bastards who waste our time making difficult, unlovable records”, I don’t know if the “Lou’s an asshole” approach holds much water to be honest. Certainly, it’s at the very least an uncharitable simplification of his character: for every anecdote you read about him being a dick to someone or making a really bad decision, there's another story about him being incredibly kind and eloquent, and so on.
And I’m certainly not here to try to whitewash him for all the occasions on which he undoubtedly did act like a prime arsehole, but…I dunno… I guess on reflection I tend to see him more as someone who was always pushing awkwardly towards some kind of... *something* that nobody except him ever quite managed to see, both in terms of his music and his personal conduct. Kind of tragic in a sense, I suppose. Millionaire rock star who never managed to make anyone 'understand' – boo hoo hoo, etc.
(And whilst we’re on the subject, how did he even manage to become a millionaire rock star in the first place? I mean, I suppose the singles off ‘Transformer’ must have done fairly brisk business, and sales of the VU albums must have snowballed since their reissue in the ‘80s, but nonetheless - he’s never really been a big unit shifter, has he? He’s never had a ‘hit’, outside of college radio / indie land. In fact, can you think of ANYONE who’s managed to assume the position of an “I can do whatever the hell I like” major label-backed legacy artist on the basis of such little quantifiable commercial success..? That in itself must count as some kind of an achievement… ‘fake it ‘till you make it’, perhaps?)
I guess he was just a bit of a complicated, mixed up guy really… as were all the members of the Velvet Underground, come to think of it.(1) In fact, read an interview with each of them in turn and it's amazing that they managed to work together for so long without killing each other. But then presumably that clash of personalities is what helped make their output so astonishingly bold and varied.
For, brace yourself for Ultimate Cliché here, but one of the things that makes the Velvet Underground so continuously fascinating is that they were a band built from the start upon a foundation of total, overlapping contradiction:
Often held up as progenitors of punk, in ‘White Light, White Heat’ they recorded the most certifiably PUNK album of all time. Yet they also represent the birth of the strain of self-aware, collegiate art-rock (later indie) music that by-passed the atavistic guts of ‘punk’ altogether when it began to take off via their disciples in the later ‘70s and ‘80s. (In stark contrast to just about every other mid’60s rock group, three quarters of the classic VU line-up had a background in post-grad academic study, a fact that showed through in their aesthetic presentation as well as their lyrical & musical pretentions – “kinda faraway / kinda dignified”, quoth Jonathan Richman).
Frequently pigeonholed by lazy copywriters as a band defined by their cynicism, ‘coldness’ and embrace of decadent, taboo subject matter (an instant cliché aided by the shades, turtlenecks and grim demeanour of their Warhol-era publicity), The Velvet Underground simultaneously produced some of the most off-handedly honest, humane and open-hearted music of their era - not to mention the most conventionally melodically beautiful. And this isn’t the Cale-era / Yule-era dichotomy it’s often assumed to be either: it’s right there from the word go with ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, whilst the departure of Cale and his supposed avant garde tendencies led straight on to the band laying down some of the most extended droning and shrieking of their career (cf: circa ’69 live versions of ‘Run Run Run’ and ‘What Goes On’, not to mention total weirdness like ‘The Murder Mystery’), whilst Cale himself went straight on to make a really boring country-rock album! (Post-Warhol, the Velvets also spent quite a long time wearing flares and floral-patterned shirts, growing unruly hair and grinning at the camera, if anyone bothered to notice.)
Sometimes pegged (justifiably) as marking the point at which rock music shook off the stigma of merely imitating black music and became an identifiably ‘white’ form for the first time (remember the stories about Lou keeping a dollar jar to fine anyone who played a blues lick in rehearsal?), Lou and Sterling Morrison both still somehow managed to talk up their background in dirty, no-good r’n’b clubs, unashamedly playing choppy, urban 12-bar boogie during the height of psychedelia, and pledging eternal allegiance to Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker whilst sneering at Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa.
I mean, how the hell did that work, even on a practical level..?! Who knows, but you certainly can’t argue with the results.
And I guess it was this spirit of beautiful, explanation-defying contradiction – which seemed so effortless and instinctive when the Velvets did it – that Lou tried to cling to through his solo career, with what I think we can safely classify as “mixed results”.
I was joking earlier with the magic crystal / soul extraction thing, but nonetheless, I think some big part of Reed’s world definitely changed forever after that night at Max’s Kansa City in 1970, when he threw in the VU towel. And as ever with Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, there’s mystery hovering around the whole issue, never quite giving us an answer. Sterl recalled that he knew something was up, because Lou suddenly wanted to introduce everyone to his parents - they being strict and straight-laced upstate New York upper-middle-class types from whom he had been long estranged.(2) As I recall, the rumour goes that after that, Reed spent a year or so keeping a low profile back at the family home, as mom and pop tried to medicate him back to ‘normality’, to the extent that he was on the verge of packing it in and getting a job in a lawyer’s office.
We can laugh about it now maybe, but for any original fans keeping the faith at the time, this plus ‘Squeeze’ must have signalled a rather depressing march into the wilderness. Bowie stepped in with a guiding hand, and the rest is history that we don’t need to plough through here I suppose….
But in its own way, that weird, thoroughly forgotten first album already highlights everything that Lou had lost and (according to my current opinion at least) never really regained.
I know I was going on about it earlier, but what was really lacking was the sense of spontaneity. Lou Reed was, intermittently, one of the most sublime rock/pop lyricists who ever lived. But his gift always worked best when encountered in an elusive, unpredictable context. And whilst sadly it took no time at all for Solo Lou to become the kind of guy who liked to see his words dried in ink, preserved forever as nuggets of rather underwhelming ‘genius’ for the faithful to pore over, VU Lou was a very different dude. Wonderful things seem to pour from his croaking gob throughout the duration of the Velvets recording career, floating off into the ether never to be heard again, and if there are bits on the studio albums where he sounds like he’s making this shit up as he goes along, that’s because he probably WAS.
One of the great joys of excavating the VU’s demos and live recordings is in hearing the way that the content and delivery of his songs developed and changed and changed again, never really reaching any ‘complete’ version as he went from irreverence to piety and back again at the flip of a coin, his capacity for lyrical improvisation often bordering on the extraordinary.(4)
As a more earnest young fellow, I used to get a bit pissed off with various 'placeholder' lyrics that seem to survive on many of the VU’s not-released-at-the-time recordings – my assumption always being that these were just some nonsense and bad taste joke stuff that Lou knocked out as a guide track, meaning to replace them with something more refined at a later date. But now I think I understand that such improvisation was the basis of his whole approach to song-writing (or at least, the best, least preppy parts of his songwriting) – an approach in which the actual content of the verses very much came last, in which the song’s title and emotional ‘feel’ were instead very much the key component, slowly subliminating the accompanying verbiage over a matter of months or even years.
True, the undercurrent of cheery sexual violence that mars the otherwise incomparably brilliant ‘Foggy Notion’ still grates (presumably the work of the same heeeelarious Lou Reed who deadpanned through ‘I Wanna Be Black’ many years later), but whatever, I can live with it. And I certainly don’t have to force a grin for the nonsense verses on ‘She’s My Best Friend’, which provide a black horse pick for one of my favourite Reed lyrics ever:
“Here’s to Newspaper Joe / knocked his teeth on the floor / caught his hand in the door / I guess that’s the way the news goes”.
Edward Lear eat your heart out. Cracks me up every time.
The thing about stuff like this though is that it only works once – do it today, and then throw it away. I was quite depressed when I once listened to an (extremely bad) version of ‘..Best Friend’ that Reed re-recorded in 1976-ish, to hear all that silly old rubbish still there, in exactly the same place, as if Lou had listened back to the old recording, scratched his chin and thought “hmm, yes, that is rather amusing”, grimly carving it for all time into the Official Lou Reed Book of Beautiful Poetry (I bet they keep a copy in a glass case at the ‘Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame’), the rancid icing on the lumbering, digital funk hash that his band of the day were busy making of the breezy, strummin’ bubblegum of the Velvets original.
I want to stay positive though, so let’s back straight back to the ‘60s and slam the door.
I was meaning to continue with an emotional trawl through the various extant versions of one of my favourite Reed numbers, ‘Sweet Jane’, but it is now the weekend. And I promised myself I’d post this at the weekend, so… you’ll have to excuse me gentlemen, I’m not quite feeling myself this evening, and, I….
Nurse! Nurse! Come quickly!
THIS MAY BE CONTINUED.
(1) Well except Doug Yule I suppose. He just seems like a nice bloke who wanted to play some tunes.
(2) And enough with that “bard of Manhattan” jive by the way – like just about all the most successful New York art/glam/punk types, Lou moved in from elsewhere, moneyed and educated in advance.
(3) I think it’s kind of a great cover actually, but total WTF in the context of a Lou Reed album.
(4) Although we’re obviously just talking Reed here, you can of course check out ‘Temptation Inside Your Heart’ for a demonstration of how brilliantly the VU’s collective spontaneity and irreverence toward their own work functioned – hopefully it speaks for itself.
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