The Velvet Underground's "Loaded"
My last two years of high school, my best school friend was a guy I'll call Hap. He was the other longhaired guy in the class, and I'd seen him sitting on his front porch playing an acoustic guitar while I was carrying my amp to some kid's house down the street for band practice. He ran cross country, and I spent all my time riding my bike to the hipi record store in town and stealing my old man's liquor while he was away on a fellowship in Germany. We never hung out away from school, so we never drank or took drugs together. We just sat in the back of English class for two years, amusing each other by drawing cartoons and cracking wise about one thing or another.
We had a running argument regarding who was the better songwriter. I said Lou Reed; he said John Denver. I thought John Denver was lame, but Hap got a pass because when he was ten, he'd come home from school and found a note from his father on the garage door, telling him not to go inside but to go get his mother. Of course, Hap had to look in the garage, and so it was that he found his dad, hanging from the rafters.
One day our junior year -- my last because I'd talked my way into an early admissions program that was part of the state university at Albany, from which I'd ignominiously withdraw three semesters later -- we decided to bag all of our classes and hang out in the courtyard with the photographer that was shooting activity pictures for the yearbook. As a result, we're in every activity picture, listed as "Unknown" and "Unknown."
Hap and I were in one activity, a group that was supposed to bring speakers on contemporary social topics to the school. In reality, all we did was show movies and have a pizza party at the end of the year. That's how I got to see Cool Hand Luke for the first time, but we mostly showed shitty horror movies. I thought one of the three teachers who sponsored our club was cool because he'd been in the Navy, had a goatee, and smoked a pipe. Another one was a bearded, bespectacled longhair who owned the first BMW I ever saw. His cousin Danny played guitar in the Blues Project, a band I revered highly. The third was an Italo-American who'd grown up in the Bronx with Dion DiMucci, whom he claimed had been laughed out of the neighborhood for shaving his legs ("to make them fit in those pegged pants"). What I liked best about the club was it was really the only contact I had with girls, even though the ones in the club were a year or two older than me, which made a difference back then: off limits. Other than that, I was mostly too shy to talk to any, even when they approached me. Hopeless!
The last week of my last year, Hap and I were assigned to read Albee's The Zoo Story in front of our English class, as punishment for cutting up in back of the class the entire year. On the last day of school, I surprised our teacher by presenting him with a piece of free verse I'd composed the night before. If you read the first letter of every line from top to bottom, it spelled out "Don't be such a fucking wiseass." He didn't notice it at the time, and even read the thing to the class, but I imagined him looking back at it someday, reading it, realizing, and keeling over with a heart attack. I probably overestimated my importance in his universe a bit.
I lost touch with Hap after leaving school. Wherever he is today, I hope he's doing well.
I first got wind of the Velvet Underground the spring before I turned 15 via a review St. Lester wrote in Creem of Live At Max's Kansas City and Uncle Lou's first solo album. I bought used DJ copies of both records and was underimpressed by Max's but loved Lou Reed beyond all reason. Lou's solo debut has taken a lot of hits over the years, but it remains a fave of mine. Sure, the songs were mostly just the dregs of what he'd written for the Velvets, before David Bowie picked him up and reinvented him for a minute as the Frankenstein's monster of glam, but what great songs they were, and Lou would continue to pull them out through the '70s, whenever he needed a goodun to fill out an album. "I Can't Stand It" was a brutal droning rocker, the perfect album opener. Hearing "Lisa Says" and "Berlin" for the first time was like reading really good fiction that was just a little over my head. "Wild Child" remains, for my money, one of the best songs Lou has ever written, and the closing triptych of "Love Makes You Feel," "Ride Into the Sun," and "Ocean" feels transcendent.
I even loved the sound of the record, as thin and jangly as it was, and for which we must thank Rock Scene scribe Richard Robinson, who really wasn't a record producer at all but nonetheless was present at the creation not only of Lou Reed but of the two best Flamin' Groovies albums (which were favorably compared in print when they were new to MC5's Back In the U.S.A. and the Stones' Sticky Fingers), Hackamore Brick's One Kiss Leads To Another (which in retrospect smells like VU copyism but was in fact just the sound of other Noo Yawkers who'd grown up on doo-wop, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers), and later, Lou's Street Hassle (complete with mumbled Bruce Springsteen cameo) and David Johanson's solo debut. I can even forgive the participation of musicians from Yes and Elton John's band (not to mention Clem Cattini of Joe Meek/Kinks fame).
When I finally heard Loaded -- and it was the first Velvets studio album I heard -- it was sonically challenged in a different way than Lou Reed. Adrian Barber and Geoffrey Haslam's production made it sound like it was recorded under layers of cotton wool, a problem it shared with MC5's High Time (another Haslam production) and Slade's Play It Loud (the record I used to listen to when I was stealing my father's brandy, the way I'd steal his Pernod to listen to Loaded, the wannabe Max's backroom sophisticate that I was).
No matter. The record's cloudy sound became part of its charm. I wasn't hip at the time to the noxious band dynamics that surrounded its recording (Lou being forced to share his songwriting credits and the manager striving to convince Doug Yule that he was The Guy, overdubbing instruments like he was Paul McCartney or something), and Sterling Morrison's account of its making, while the Velvets were playing their terminal summer residency at Max's and he was working on his English degree, still sounds downright idyllic to me. (Sterl grew up in Bay Shore, a couple of towns over from me on Long Island. When I lived in Austin for a minute at the ass-end of the '70s, he was teaching a rock 'n' roll course at UT. I always said I was going to go audit it, but never did.)
The Velvet Underground and Nico remains the "important" album, but while Loaded hit me right where I lived, the debut was a shock to the system. It took awhile for me to wrap my messed-up teenage head around songs like "Venus In Furs," "Heroin," and "Black Angel's Death Song," as well as the album's abrasive, astringent sound. (After he was forced out of the Velvets, John Cale would take everything that was implicit in "I'm Waiting for the Man" and unleash it when he produced the first Stooges album.) Only with time was I able to see the beauty that resided there -- not only in the "soft songs," but in the stately drone of "All Tomorrow's Parties" especially -- and the R&B influence (the Marvin Gaye-via-Stones quote in "There She Goes Again").
White Light/White Heat was the last VU studio album I heard (by the time VU and Another View appeared, I'd lost the thread) and I didn't listen to it for 20 years after making the mistake of listening to it while "experienced" as some kind of futile gesture of independence from my best buddy from middle school, who always insisted on stacking all the Doors albums on his changer when we were in that state. It was "The Gift" that motivated me to rip the record off the player and smash it to little bits. Only in middle age did I dare to listen again to "Sister Ray" and "I Heard Her Call My Name." By that time I'd given up on trying to "play good" and had embraced making horrible noises on guitar. While there's a lot of Lou's noise guitar that I dig -- mainly from live bootlegs -- the ethereal-but-sleazy vibe of White Light/White Heat still doesn't float my boat, even though its influence is undeniable. (I still maintain, however, that Ron Asheton was a Hendrix man, the VU-Stooges-via-Nico connection notwithstanding.)
Myself, I think Cale's best work was done after his ouster from the Velvets, both as a producer (Stooges, Nico, Modern Lovers, Patti Smith) and as a solo artist. As a songwriter, I don't think he's ever surpassed Vintage Violence and Paris 1919, the early records he made with the least simpatico backing musicians. His '70s Island period, when he was in with the Roxy Music art-rock crew, was flashier but no more substantial, and introduced a penchant for theatrical mock dementia that was in full flower by the time I saw him on three different occasions at the ass-end of the '70s, backed the first two times by what might have been the worst band in New York City (my bassplayer from college, who worked at Manny's Music on 48th Street, told me that Cale was reputed to be such an asshole that nobody good would play with him) and the last time by a band that was infinitely slicker and louder, but still got their clocks cleaned by Dallas' Telefones. (True story. I also saw Joan Jett wipe the floor with Iggy once.)
If you were at Cale's show at Mother Blues on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas, I was the asshole that yelled for "I'm Waiting for the Man" all night. At the Palladium on Northwest Highway, we brought the Fort Worth cop that used to work security in my store. He loved it. Afterward, he took us off-roading in his Jeep and I lost my wallet. It was only slightly disconcerting that the sleek, slightly sinister stud of the Velvets daze had matured into a fat, middle-aged guy in leather pants. While singing "Heartbreak Hotel," the one-time avant-gardist would wrap a guitar cord around his neck and howl like a banshee.
In the '90s, I saw a more sedate Cale, accompanied by David Soldier's String Quartet, at Caravan of Dreams on the same tour where he refused to get off the bus in Denton because the venue couldn't pay his guarantee, and a local muso was arrested for standing outside, yelling, "Lou would have played!" (Which was patent horseshit.) Incidentally, Soldier is the composer responsible for "The Most Wanted Song" and "The Most Unwanted Song" that you might have seen on the intarweb. But I digress.
Even before they met Warhol, the Cale-era Velvets stood at the crossroads where everything that was avant-garde met pop culture detritus. Cale was a familiar of Copland, Cage, LaMonte Young, and Terry Riley; Reed stood with one foot planted in highbrow literary aspiration via his college exposure to Delmore Schwartz and the other in lowest-common-denominator pandering via the time he spent as a Pickwick Records tunesmith. Andy's sponsorship was the icing on the cake. His firing, followed by Cale's, marked the emergence of Lou Reed as a mature artist.
From The Velvet Underground to today, it's been pretty much a straight line. Uncle Lou's refined his craft since '69, but he hasn't shown us any new tricks. (Metal Machine Music was "I Heard Her Call My Name" taken to the most ridiculous extreme.) I disagree with some of the common consensus faves like The Blue Mask. While by '82 it was a relief to hear noisy electric guitars again -- thank you, Mr. Quine -- on a Lou Reed record, rather than studio pro sterility, some of the songs ("Women," "Heavenly Arms") were just trying too hard. If the third Velvets album seemed too subdued on first hearing, it's held up over time on the quiet strength of the songs. I hear the same quality in the songs on the first solo album, Legendary Hearts, and the trifecta of New York-Songs for Drella-Magic and Loss. In the fullness of time, I think the preternaturally fluid bassist Fernando Saunders has proved to be Lou's ideal accompanist. The fact that he can play with John Zorn and Metallica in his 70s just proves that he's a contrary cuss.
As geeked as I am on vinyl, my preferred method of listening to Loaded today is on CD -- specifically, on Rhino's 2CD Fully Loaded Edition. I'm not a big fan of CD-era maximalism; like movie outtakes, most CD bonus tracks only serve to validate the choices of the people that programmed the original albums. While it's interesting to know that the original words to the Stooges' "Loose" were "I took a ride on a red hot wiener / Yes I'm riding on a big hot dog," it's not, um, essential. Kinda like knowing that the original words to the Velvets' "New Age" were "It seems to be my fancy / To make it with Frank and Nancy." (There are, however, exceptions: Whoever thought of combining Howlin' Wolf's "rocking chair album" and Moanin' in the Moonlight on a single CD, f'rinstance, was some kind of goddamn genius.)
Fully Loaded Edition gives you a whole alternate version of the album on a separate disc, rather than putting all the takes of the same song together (the Achilles heel in Sony's complete Robert Johnson recordings and the Rhino's Stooges Funhouse box). Additionally, it restores material that was snipped out of the original released versions of "Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll, and "New Age." That gambit has actually worked to the detriment of some albums on CD (I'm thinking in particular of FZ's Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh), but in the case of Loaded, any real VU fan has heard innumerable live versions of, say, "Sweet Jane" with the "Heavenly wine and roses" bridge, so its inclusion doesn't screw up the flow of the song in your head. And being a fan of Uncle Lou's solo debut, I find the inclusion of Velvet studio versions of half a dozen songs that later showed up on that album, as well as two from Berlin and one from Transformer, a very desirable addition.
Doug Yule was recruited to the lineup after Cale's ouster at the behest of manager Steve Sesnick, whose Boston Tea Party became the VU's base of operations after they dumped Warhol. He played bass and organ onstage, and sang in a nondescript angelic choirboy sort of voice. Since the Velvets never had more than a week to record an album until Loaded and Lou's voice, at its best never the strongest of instruments, was invariably trashed from live gigs whenever they made it into the studio, this last was seen as quite an asset. If nothing else, Doug could sing the "soft songs" formerly assigned to Nico, the ones that Antony Hegarty sings onstage now. He got to sing the first and last songs on Loaded. On "Who Loves the Sun," which opens the album, the "Pa-pa-pa-pa" chorus sounds like something from the soundtrack of a mid-'60s French movie.
I got to interview him once. He was learning how to play violin with his son. He seemed like a nice man.
To my teenage self, "Sweet Jane" represented a vision of what it would be like to be a 30something New Yorker, in the same way as the songs on Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends seemed to encapsulate what it'd feel like to be a 20-year-old college student.
"Sweet Jane" is debatably Lou Reed's most famous song. There have been a million cover versions, the earliest probably being Brownsville Station's on their 1973 album Yeah! -- on which they were ahead of their time in covering not only Uncle Lou, but also reggae (Jimmy Cliff) and garage grunt (the Balloon Farm, Terry Knight & the Pack) on a good-timey rockaroll album. Cub Koda modified the lyrics to remove any hint of sexual ambiguity ("Jane is in her corset / Me I'm in a rock 'n' roll band"), just as the latter-day, county fair-appearing Question Mark and the Mysterians play a "family friendly" version of the Stooges' "Loose" ("I'll rock you / I'll roll you / 'Cause I'm loose"). Wha-wha. Still a great version, though, and an underrated record. (Thanks, Geoff!)
Mott the Hoople did a throwaway version to announce their big Bowie-produced glam-rock move. Eons later, the Cowboy Junkies walked through a somnambulist version. My favorite "cover" remains the one from Uncle Lou's live Rock and Roll Animal LP, for Steve Hunter's bombastic intro. (More about him later.) Back when Twisted Sister were still playing the Long Island bar circuit, billed as "Twisted Sister -- They're No Ladies, Mister," they used to play a set of glam covers before coming out in drag to play their 'riginals. A highlight of their first set was the, um, "Sweet Jane" singalong. But the first song I heard with the "Sweet Jane" chord progressiprettyon was actually Alice Cooper's "Be My Lover," an indication of my state of sophistication before stumbling onto Lou and the Velvets.
On the early version that's included on the second disc of Fully Loaded Edition, Steve Sesnick proves definitively that you can have too much cowbell.
"Rock & Roll" is the perfect description of its subject matter, and what it can mean to someone of a certain age to whom it can become...everything. I lived it. If you're still reading this, maybe you did, too.
The Velvets' is not, however, my favorite version. That honor belongs to Detroit, a band fronted by Mitch Ryder of "Jenny Take A Ride" fame, who released one album in 1971 on Paramount (same label that had a hit with Commander Cody's "Hot Rod Lincoln" around the same time) and sank without a trace. Besides its leather-lunged frontman, Detroit's assets included Johnny "Bee" Badanjek, the fireball drummer from Mitch's Detroit Wheels, and Steve "Decatur Gator" Hunter, a lead guitarist in the Mick Taylor Get Your Ya-Ya's Out mold, who'd go on to do studio work, in tandem with Motor City homeboy Dick Wagner, for Bob Ezrin on numerous Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel albums.
By Mitch's own account, Detroit was a drug-and-anger-fueled caravan of bad behavior, but their album is a classic of early '70s R&B-based biker rock, and when I was learning how to play, there must have been a law that said every idiot band on Long Island had to play their version of "Rock & Roll." I was in a couple of 'em. Even Uncle Lou is reputed to have said "That's the way that song was meant to be played." You can see Hunter with Lou on the Julian Schnabel-directed Berlin concert DVD. Still plays a red SG.
The drumming on Loaded pretty much sucks Midas mufflers. Keypunch operator turned primitive thumper Mo Tucker sat out the sessions, waiting to have her first baby, and the slack was picked up by Yule's brother Billy and somebody (probably from Long Island) named Tommy Castanaro. All the stickwork is pretty reminiscent of a guy I knew in junior high school, whom I always still think of as "The Happy Drummer." Tony liked the fill from Stevie Wonder's "Uptight" so much that he played it on every fast song. You won't hear that fill on Loaded, but you will hear lots of Long Island garage band drums. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
In later years, Mo Tucker evidently became a Tea Party sympathizer, causing at least one longtime friend of mine to call for her death on Facebook. I don't share his opinion; I can disagree with people's politics and still accept their essential humanity. I got to interview Mo once and thought she was a real nice lady. The Christmas card she sent that year resides in a place of honor with my James Williamson bobblehead and correspondence from Leni Sinclair.
Loaded features more animated vocalismo from Uncle Lou than any other Velvets album. Whether that was the result of having more time in the studio or Sesnick telling him he had to be more exciting, one can only guess. He certainly sounds more like a "rock 'n' roll singer" on songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Cool It Down" than anywhere else in the VU catalog. I always used to think of "Cool It Down" as the low point of Side One, but now it just seems like Lou having fun with his R&B roots, the way he did on "There She Goes Again," the way he would on Side Two's "I Found A Reason."
"New Age" was about as far psychosexually from where I was at as anything I could imagine when I was 15 -- sort of a rock Sunset Boulevard. As such, it fascinated me more than any other song on the record. It was really weird a few years later when teenage New Wave diva Rachel Sweet covered it. On Fully Loaded Edition, you get a "long version" on one disc and a "full-length version" on the other, and I'll be damned if I can tell the difference between 'em.
"Head Held High" sounds like what you'd get if you tried to write a song based on the jam in the middle of "There She Goes Again," or the instrumental break in the Who's "Substitute." It takes the vocal dynamism I referred to a minute ago to yet another level, before it reaches its apex on "Train Round the Bend," after which Lou probably needed to rest his voice for a week (instead of going to play two sets at Max's). It's my favorite song on the album. This is the one place on the album where the shitty drumming kind of works.
Once, a few years ago, Nicholas Girgenti and I were both so desperate to be in a band that we were actually going to try to sing, and I attempted to do so on "Head Held High." Thankfully, we never made it out of my front room.
"Lonesome Cowboy Bill" is my least favorite song on the album, but if you ever wanted to know whether Lou Reed could write a song about a cowboy -- well, it's here.
"I Found A Reason" is a tongue-in-cheek doo-wop ballad. I memorized the spoken part and used to recite it for Hap the same way I'd done with Mothers of Invention songs and Firesign Theater routines for my best friend from junior high school. On Fully Loaded Edition, there's a Dylanesque demo version that's okay but doesn't have the same incandescent vibe. The lush backing vocals on the released version add a lot.
"Train Round the Bend" is Lou kicking back on the "gettin' it together out in the country" conceit that overtook rock 'n' rollers in the early '70s (for which I blame John Wesley Harding). Its pulsing rhythm was originally inspired by an amplifier's tremelo effect -- hear the version on the live Praise Ye the Lord bootleg. Lou's over-the-top vocal and the fuzzed-out feedback guitar obbligato (which might actually be played by Yule) make the track.
"Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" is the closing valedictory, like the Stones' "Salt of the Earth" or "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Doug sings it and somebody (Sterl?) extemporizes a lot on lead. There's an earlier version where Lou provides a wilder vocal, but somehow, Doug just sounds right singing this one.
In '98, when I was on DUI probation, my attorney, who was also a musician, advised me to join any band so I could get it in my conditions that I was allowed to travel out of county to play. (My judge was also a muso; my attorney used to run sound for Hizzoner's bluegrass band. Welcome to Fort Worth, Texas.) So I joined a rocked-up country band that used to play VFW halls and dumps in Weatherford and Mineral Wells. There was some Marshall Tucker Band song we used to play on which I amused myself by playing the obbligato from "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" instead of the lead part off the record. Simple pleasures for simple minds.