By Tim Powis
My Lou Top 10—well, not exactly. That would include “Sweet Jane” (the final, Loaded version), “Heroin,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” the usual stuff. Ho hum. Here’s a more idiosyncratic or at least, I hope, less obvious selection.
1. “Foggy Notion” – Some time around 1980 I bought a bootleg single of this unreleased Velvet Underground song, from 1969, and loved it immediately. Five or so years later it turned up on the posthumous VU album. The lyrics are so throwaway Lou didn’t bother to include them in Pass Thru Fire—or maybe he just forgot; Lou was a master of throwaway lyrics and there are plenty of those in the book. But what a groove, like “Sister Ray” reimagined as a song for dancing, purged of all the noise and depravity, years before Jonathan Richman did much the same thing in “Roadrunner.”
2. “Hey Mr. Rain” – There are two versions of this song on Another View, the 1986 sequel to VU. I prefer the longer, slightly faster and more urgent Version 2. Another tossed off lyric (in PTF it’s printed backwards, so you have to read it in a mirror), possibly about drugs (“I been working baby oh so hard,” sings Lou, “staring up at the sky”). But what a drone, thanks especially to the most effective viola violation John Cale recorded during his time in the band. Also well worth hearing: drummer Moe Tucker’s 1986 version, with Jad Fair (of Half Japanese) singing.
3. “What Goes On” – The live 1969 version, considerably longer and more intense than the studio version on The Velvet Underground. I don’t think I’m the first person to suggest that this is the quintessential VU song, or performance of a song.
4. Lou Reed — Lou’s first solo album was either overlooked or faintly praised upon its release in 1972. Most of the songs are Velvet Underground leftovers recorded with an English studio band that included two members of Yes (yes, Yes). The production is dry and clunky, and the opener, “I Can’t Stand It,” pales next to the VU version that surfaced 13 years later on VU. I really like the album anyway. “Going Down,” “I Love You” and “Love Makes You Feel” are among Lou’s most affecting ballads, and “Wild Child” is one of those great Lou songs, like “Run Run Run” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” that deal with a different character in each verse. “Berlin,” a cockeyed cocktail-lounge number, was recycled the following year, in truncated form, as the title song of Lou’s most depressing album.
5. Metal Machine Music – Several years after it came out, in his “Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise,” Lester Bangs accurately described this 1975 anomaly as “a two-record, hour-long set of shrieking feedback run through various pieces of high-tech equipment.” (“Sounded great in midwestern suburbs,” concluded Lester, “but kinda unnecessary in NYC.”) MMM came with a warning sticker (wish I’d kept that) glued to the shrink wrap, to the effect of: this is not what most people would consider a typical Lou Reed album, so caveat emptor. “No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself,” boasted Lou in his blustery, amphetamine-crazed liner note. Maybe so, although long ago I managed to endure two sides in a single sitting.
And it even proved useful once. As a freshman at York University, I took a Humanities course called (no kidding) “Parables of Reality.” Towards the end of the spring semester we were assigned a multi-media project and encouraged to let our imaginations run wild. Partnerships were permitted, so my classmate Art and I joined forces. Art’s dad owned a plumbing company, thanks to which we (well, mostly Art) were able to rig up a circulating pump that drove water, dyed with various shades of food-colouring, through several feet of clear plastic tubing which we arranged to dangle convolutedly over and around a tall, foil-covered box. Hidden inside this makeshift pedestal was a tape recorder containing a tape Art had made of my copy of Metal Machine Music. On show-and-tell day we presented the contraption to our tutorial group. When it was fully activated, tape recorder included, I read aloud a sort of mock-cryptic meditation I’d written about our hydro-acoustic gizmo. Richard, the presiding tutorial assistant, was amused and seemed suitably impressed. After he offered his comments I turned the “music” back on, and within seconds he said, “Okay, that’s enough.”
6. Anatomically Surreal Lou – Usually pegged as a straightforward, “grittily realistic” lyricist, which he sometimes was, on occasion Lou also displayed a willfully nonsensical side often involving body parts, e.g., (in “Andy’s Chest”) “The funny thing is what happened to her nose/It grew until it reached all of her toes/Now when people say her feet smell they mean her nose”—a distant relation, possibly, of that old joke: “My dog has no nose.” “How does it smell?” “Terrible.”
Then there’s the subcategory of dental (or dentural?) surrealism: “I wore my teeth in my hands/So I could mess the hair of the night” (“Beginning to See the Light”); “Jackie was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes/And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose” (“Hangin’ Round”). And “Let’s hear one for Newspaper Joe/He caught his hand in the door/Dropped his teeth on the floor/They said, ‘Hey now Joe, guess that’s the way the news goes’” (“She’s My Best Friend’).
7. First time ever I saw Lou in concert (Massey Hall 1973) – This was the tour that gave us the live Rock n Roll Animal album. The concert began with five guys—two guitarists, a drummer, a bassist and a keyboard player—launching into an unfamiliar instrumental. Pretty impressive, but who were they? There’d been no introduction. Was this Lou’s band or an opening act? After a few minutes, they played a little transitional fanfare and started bashing out the riff to “Sweet Jane.” Out strutted Lou, in his leather-glam finery, to wild applause.
8. “Ennui” – A waltz-time cabaret-ish croon buried on side two of Sally Can’t Dance. It does indeed exude ennui, spilling over into cynical despair. “Pick up the pieces that make up your life/Maybe someday you’ll have a wife” Lou tenderly sings, before spitting out the punchline: “And then alimony.”
9. The Jim/Jimmy Enigma — Lou liked to drop names in his songs, and sometimes (Harry, Caroline) those names appeared in more than one song, but by my count Jim(my) is the winner. Do all these Jims refer to the same person or did Lou just like the sound of the name?
–“Heroin” – “…all the Jim-Jims in this town”
–“Sister Ray” — “Whip it on me Jim!”
–“Sweet Jane” (prototype) – “Waiting for Jimmy down by the alley”
–“Sweet Jane” (Loaded version) – “Ridin’ in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim”; “The radio does play/A little classical music there, Jim”
–“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ “ — “Say a word for Jimmy Brown”
–“Oh, Jim” – “Oh, Jim, how could you treat me this way”
–“Baby Face” – “Jim, living with you’s not such fun”
–“She’s My Best Friend” – “Here’s to Mulberry Jane/She made Jim when she came” (this is according to Pass Thru Fire; I always thought Lou sang “She made jam when she came,’ which makes more sense, especially given the next line: “Somebody cut off her feet, now Jelly rolls in the street.”)
10. Pass Thru Fire – I don’t look at the book very often. Reed’s lyrics, like those of most songwriters, work best set to music. But I cherish it nonetheless, since Lou—the man who sang “Down for you is up”—did sign it for me, with thanks, upside down.