Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are the point in rock n roll where rock becomes alternative. Really it’s simply because their sound, attitude and lyrical themes were so far removed from the rock music that was popular at the time. Sure, they were playing guitars and drums, but everything else about the group seemed to come out of a universe entirely removed from anything that rock radio offered at the time.
The story of the Velvet Underground is part of folklore by now. A group combining rock with serious minded art and sound experimentation to create a brilliant and, at the time, entirely unique body of work. Also quite famous to the story is that while the group never enjoyed much commercial success, they helped inspire the formation of a larger number of other bands. They effectively planted the seeds for punk rock and art rock, which in itself sounds unfathomable if you consider some of the bands representing those genres. Generations of artists that followed them imitate them in one way or another. But just as with Dylan, where so much of his work is part of the collective consciousness, Velvet Underground has been copied so much that many of the groups doing it now, may not even be aware of this.
Sweet Jane is one of the Velvet Undeground’s most famous songs, not least of all because of the great melody and classic verse-chorus-verse song structure. It appeared on Loaded, the last Velvet Underground album to feature singer, guitarist and main songwriter Lou Reed. The original studio album featured a more polished production then their first three previous records. This works in the advantage of the more upbeat, almost anthemic, Loud Reed penned song. Beyond the catchy tune there is, as would be expected, a great dose of Reed’s witty and twisted lyrics:
“Standin’ on a corner,
Suitcase in my hand.
Jack’s in his corset, Jane she’s in her vest,
Me, babe, I’m in a rock n’ roll band“
Sweet Jane is one of the songs that Lou Reed consistently played live throughout his excellent solo career. Sometimes he played it similar to the record, sometimes he let lead guitars solo all over it and sometimes he brutally messed the song up. And it’s the last of these that make some of the best Lou Reed live recordings. Witty and possessing sharp humor, Lou Reed brings out the misanthropic side of his personality out on an audience that seems to be equally enjoying this and feeling insulted by Lou all at the same time. This version is from the live album Live:Take no prisoners from 1978 and it’s as punk rock as it can get. Disclaimer: none of the songs on this record have Lou Reed performing the songs remotely as on the initial studio recordings. This is not a bad thing here.
Reed starts bu quoting W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” He then quips: “Now, you figure out where I am”. The band then launches into the song with the singer luring the audience into the familiar lyrics and usually leading them astray. In that way, it’s an extremely powerful version. The ending of the song has Reed baiting everyone towards the final chorus, that provides a great relief after the confrontational last 10 minutes.
As Lou Reed states on this record “I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it”. And even though throughout the record, it’s debatable whether he even wants to be there or not and whether he genuinely hates his audience, it’s this honest passion that makes it a great rock record. This is not a live performance with the singer urging the crowd to raise their hands to the heavens or clap in time. Reed tells the audience to “shut up” and takes pride in challenging their expectations: “What’s wrong with cheap dirty jokes? I never said I was tasteful”.
It’s Lou Reed doing a comedy routine while seeming genuinely angry to have to play up to the legendary status he already had by that point. He jokes about Barbara Streisand, adds dirty jokes to the existent lyrics and comments on Patti Smith. “Fuck Radio Ethiopia,man. I’m Radio Brooklyn.” Funniest of all is that Lou Reed throughout the song sings the lyrics as if he wants to get through with doing the song as quickly as possible, while making the performance of it last for 10 minutes. As he says “It’s not that I don’t want to play your favorites, but there are so many favorites to choose from”. He is as confrontational as any band being deemed punk rock at the time, while more clever and intense then most.
The song was covered by different artists, the most notable version being that by the Cowboy Junkies. It has also amassed many accolades such as being named as one of the greatest guitar tracks by the magazine Guitar World. And if you want to enjoy another great version of the song, granted more focus and with Lou Reed singing it pretty straight, there is the live version from the Rock n’ roll animal live album. This one feature some remarkable dueling lead guitars. For those that want a place to start listening to Lou Reed, this may be the best introduction.