Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Lou Reed is gone. It was shocking news to get via Facebook this past Sunday. My first thought was "What?!?!?! Was he sick??" My second thought was what Lou Reed do I need to listen to? For me the answer was simple and clear. Here's my little story of how Lou and his music entered my life.
I can't really remember how it happened but sometime around when I was 12 or 13 I acquired some of my Aunt Lucia's records. She was my dad's little sister and based on the stack of albums, she must have been a teenager in the seventies. Stuff like Edgar Winter (the album cover was so creepy I had to turn it over), Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, a bunch folk rock records by bands I'd never heard of at the time. Some of these records really appealed to my adolescent sensibilities but the one record that really made an impression on me was "Lou Reed Rock N Roll Animal."
Being somewhat precocious in my desire to hear and learn about new (for me, at least) music, I had heard of the Velvet Underground (an older high school kid at my church youth group persistently encouraged me to listen to the Underground and The Ramones) but I had no idea what they sounded like, and I certainly didn't know that Lou Reed had become famous as their frontman. I had no idea who Lou Reed was. All I had to go on was the picture on the cover (record artwork - yet another reason for why vinyl is the best!). Who was this really weird, blurry and androgynous guy with the creepy makeup and why did he look like someone my parents would want to keep me away from? Of course later, as I learned more about rock music from this time period, I learned that this photo of Reed was pure Glam, coke, and heroin. The makeup, the sparkles, the coked-out, gender-blurred pose. And the triple lead guitars that make this record a classic also had that coked-up, Glam Rock guitar sound. But I didn't know all that as a 13 year old. I just knew that this dude on the cover was really weird and that this record needed to be played on my sister's record player.
The record starts with an Intro (with writing credits given to one of the guitar players - Steve Hunter). Pure unadulterated rock and roll. Layered guitar lines, popping pre-prog Rickenbacker-sounding basslines. And then about halfway through the piece you can hear the crowd erupt in cheers - this is a live record, recorded at "Howard Stein's Academy of Music" in New York right before Christmas 1973 - something big must have happened on stage. My guess was that the band had started the show and then the Maestro, Reed himself had walked out to join them. Instantly, I knew that Reed must be a big deal to warrant that kind if ovation. Then the Intro kind of morphed into a chord progression that the audience knew because they started cheering immediately. This tune was called "Sweet Jane" and the crowd was ready for it. Then the singing started.
But it wasn't really singing. It was almost like talking in pitches. And the guy didn't really have a good voice but there was something really captivating about it. And that chord progression was straight up hypnotic. And straight up rocking. And there was that chorus: Reed singing "Sweet Jane" over and over again, kinda not even in tune. And the smoking, glammed-out, cocaine guitar solos in between chorus and verse. Wow! I didn't know what this song was about - who was Jane and why was she so sweet? - but this tune was on fire. Of course, soon, after reading every rock and roll book in the public library, I deduced that this song was a classic "drug song" - Sweet Jane being Mary Jane, marijuana. And then a few years later I learned that this live solo version was actually a cover of Reed's original version that he did with the Velvet Underground.
The whole "Rock N Roll" record was really enjoyable for me (some true classics on here) but the real treat for 13 year old me was this mystical song entitled simply "Heroin." Some of the lyrics to the song were written inside the album sleeve:
When the smack begins to flow
Then I really don't care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all the politicians making crazy sounds
All the dead bodies piled up in mounds
I knew it was going to be heavy but I didn't know how heavy until the needle hit the groove and the track started. After Sweet Jane, the guitars shift into Drop D tuning and Heroin starts slowly with the guitar strumming those two chords that make up the entire song. Lou starts talk-singing. He's lost but the one thing that makes sense is the needle in his vein. The music builds in intensity, and the tempo quickens as Lou is "rushing on his run," apparently feeling "like Jesus' son" (what does that even mean to a 13 year old?). Then the refrain and the thesis statement of the song "I guess I just don't know." And then, in the purposeful absence of a drumbeat, enters the guitar melody that is the centerpiece of this arrangement of Heroin (I'm guessing now that Steve Hunter wrote it). First in unison floating like some shiny liquid, the Rickenbacker bass giving the line its pulse, then the line is harmonized in thirds and an added octave. Floating upward, immune to gravity. It sounds triumphant, majestic, and free, soaring like a bird that has caught a jet stream of air and can just extend its wings and coast. That's what I did when I first heard this. I spread my arms and flew.
Then the rush ends. Another verse with Lou deciding to nullify his life. What was wrong with this guy?! Why so bleak? A build to a weird organ solo. Back to Lou fantasizing through another verse. The tempo quickens and the volume builds. Lou spits venom, and enter again the angelic, floating cocaine guitars. It's the Gibson guitar tone of the 70's rock gods. And then the quiet phase again. Her-o-in. It's his wife and it's his life. The rush is coming again. The drummer pushes the tempo, Lou shouts the lyric from the record sleeve (Jim-Jims and dead bodies) and sends Steve Hunter into a frenetic but lyrical (and at times, Duane Allman-inspired?) guitar solo. The song hits its rock and roll two chord peak. The heroin is in his blood and Lou doesn't care. And just as the peak needs a release, we get the floating guitars again, but this time they're hitting their highest intensity. It's freaking euphoric. It was two chords and the truth. And my mind was fucking blown.
Side B of the record is great too, but Sweet Jane and Heroin make one of the best sides of a record in 70's rock and roll, if not all of rock and roll. I wore this album out! The mystery of his self-inflicted, fuck-it-all addiction, the creepy, goth/androgynous Lou on the covers, the freedom of flying through the euphoric sound of the guitars. That was the shit for me. And it came at a great time for me. I was already escaping into music and this record was what I needed to fly around my room.
I'm always grateful for records like this. Records that helped me through my childhood. They still work their magic for me today - good rock and roll should always make you feel young and free. Of course, later I got into the Velvet Underground and learned to love the original Heroin and Sweet Jane. And I got into other Lou Reed solo albums, including "Lou Reed Live" which came from that same 1973 concert that "Rock N Roll Animal" produced. But that first album of Lou's that I heard and loved is the one I seem to go back to the most. It seems crazy to me that Lou is dead. Only 71. But liver disease was the unfortunate result of all the smack Lou shot into his veins. Thanks, Aunt Luci for the records. And thanks, Lou Reed for being a Rock N Roll Animal.