Sunday, February 28, 2021

50 years late to the VU Loaded party

Half a century down the road, I just “discovered” the music of The Velvet Underground.

My journey of discovery and redemption was sparked by a challenge from my blog partner and five-decades-long friend, Scott, a VU and Lou Reed fan long before our first meeting back in the mid-1970s. Scott and I were college roommates who continued our cohabitation as we began our post-graduation journalism careers at the same newspaper. (I was a legitimate news reporter; he wrote about sports. But that’s a discussion for another time).

Faithful readers who have followed this blog should have readily discerned a major difference between Scott and me. I tend more toward the mainstream of music while Scott dives into the abyss of the avant garde and edgy. (An intellectual sports fan; now there’s an oxymoron). We intersect at several points, though, most notably The Doors. Our Doors mutual admiration society was actually the genesis of our friendship.

It was impossible to be a roommate with Scott and not be exposed to the VU, but the hook never set despite Scott’s best efforts at reeling me into his world. I admired the song lyrics from VU frontman Lou Reed, but considered their music primitive and amateurish.

So, fast-forward to the present. Scott proposed the VU‘s Loaded album as a topic of discussion for our weekly Geezerology on YouTube presentation. The rules are simple: Neither of us knows what the other is going to say about a topic until we do the actual taping, to make the responses from each other organic, not staged. I expect Scott was anticipating a point-counterpoint discussion, much as we had with our respective takes on Bob Dylan’s 2020 release, Rough And Rowdy Ways. I disliked it; he thought it great.

But I surprised Scott, and even more so myself, by actually digging this thing. I had to have rocked him back on his heels with my opening comment that Loaded is damn near a perfect rock-and-roll album. So despite my wife’s claims to the contrary, I am not a fossilized curmudgeon -- at least not completely.

According to Scott, he picked Loaded because it is easily the most accessible of the VU’s four albums that included Reed. Some diehard VU purists, I understand, consider Loaded a sellout piece of work, that Reed bowed to pressure from record-company executives to create something they could sell to the masses. Also, they lament the absence of John Cale and Maureen Tucker from the album. Cale, an avant-garde multi-instrumentalist, had been fired by Reed after VU’s second album, and thrash drummer Tucker sat out the Loaded recording sessions due to pregnancy. Not being a diehard VU aficionado, none of that bothered me. I listened to Loaded as a standalone album with no relation in my mind to their earlier work. And I absolutely loved it. Weeks later, I still have snatches of songs stuck in my head as earworms. Get out of there, Lou.

The music on this album is not overly complicated. Reed is famous for saying, "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." While the songs are catchy, sometimes delving into pop rock and doo-wop territory, there is also some fantastic lead-guitar flourishes and some cuts that beg to have the volume knob cranked to 11. I was stunned at how much I liked this compared to the snatches of earlier VU material to which I previously had been exposed. But dig past the good vibrations of the music, and there is subterfuge at work in the lyrics. This is not a sellout album. Reed takes aim at a plethora of subjects with a sardonic wit and rock-poetry images that rival Jim Morrison's.

The album kicks off with “Who Loves The Sun,” a jouncy piece of pop music with a Monkees feel that I consider a shot across the bow of The Beatles for George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun.” Harrison’s song is hippie trippy; the VU’s quite the opposite:

“Who loves the sun
Who cares that it makes plants grow,
Who cares what it does
Since you broke my heart”

Doug Yule carries the vocals on “Who Loves The Sun,” as he does on several other cuts on the album. The sweetness of his voice is a nice contrast to that of Reed, who even at his best was not a tremendous vocalist. Credit to Reed for recognizing that and letting others give voice to his lyrics. I suspect Yule’s vocals and guitar flourishes have much to do with me liking this album.

The second and third cuts, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” are two of the VU’s most well-known songs -- and deservedly so.

Instantly recognizable for its opening guitar riff, “Sweet Jane” is Reed’s observations about the roles of male and female, old vs new, straight vs freaky from his position in a rock-and-roll band:

“Standin’ on a corner -- 
Suitcase in my hand.
Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest,
And me, I’m in a roc-and-roll band. Huh!”

In what I believe to be a semi-autobiographical reminiscence, “Rock ‘n’ Roll" is a tribute to the uplifting power of music. Five-year-old Jenny, “one fine morning she puts on a New York station/You know she couldn’t believe what she heard at all.” It was “fine, fine music” and “her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.” The music is her salvation because now “it was alright.”

While the VU might have been directed to produce some hits, Reed didn’t shy away from taboo subjects, including prostitution in the up-tempo piano pop of “Cool It Down.” The narrator is out on the corner (seems to be a popular site for Reed) looking for Miss Linda Lee “because she’s got the power to love me by the hour.”

“New Age” captivated me right from the beginning with its opening lines: “Can I have your autograph?/He said to the fat blond actress.” Despite its snarky opening, "New Age" is, in its own strange way, actually a beautiful ballad and love song, a fanboy’s ode to the actress he idolized and fantasized about as a youth. He still loves her despite her losing her celluloid beauty:

“You’re over the hill right now
And you’re looking for love
I’ll come runnin’ to you, honey,
When you want me.”

With a reference to actor Robert Mitchum in the lyrics, my assumption is that the song is about actress Shelley Winters, a once-stunning beauty who starred with Mitchum in the eerie thriller Night Of The Hunter.

“Head Held High” is a barn-burner that deserves to be played at full volume. At face value, the song could be an homage to Norman Vincent Peale’s Power Of Positive Thinking, rising above those who try to hold you back and to be yourself no matter what:

“Ever since I was a baby on my mama’s knee
Oh, I just listened to what everybody told me
Oh, yes I did
But still the answer was to become a dancer
And hold your head up high.”

With the reference to becoming a dancer, did Reed pen an early anthem to gay rights? That perception works only if we automatically think of male dancers as gay, which in 2021 is admittedly a homophobic interpretation but would not have been perceived that way in 1970.

“Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” a honky-yonk country-rock tune replete with twangy guitar, is the weakest song on the album. I’m not certain why it even exists unless Reed had some foreknowledge of the country-rock genre that would dominate radio airwaves in the '70s and wanted to plant a flag early. It doesn’t work for me, and I skip it, going straight to “I Found A Reason,” a 1950s-style slow ballad that could have been lifted from the works of Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. It’s sickeningly sweet, but it works. Close your eyes and imagine close-dancing with your girl at the high-school sock hop.

“Train Round The Bend” is a blues burner with tremolo guitar work running through it. With Canned Heat and countless other bands yearning to go up the country, Reed does an Eva Gabor Green Acres rant of get me the hell back to the city. “I’m sick of the trees/Take me to the city.” But Reed may also have a double meaning. Is “Trying to be a farmer/But nothing that I planted ever seems to grow” a lament that despite all his efforts, success in the world of rock music is eluding him?

The album closes with the hymn-like “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” a catchy, lush song with country-style guitar that this time works beautifully. The melody, though, flows over a current of sadness and regrets. The song profiles a group of down-on-their-luck disparate characters who grabbed for the brass ring but fell short. Joana and Polly are thrown out into the street, Jimmy doesn’t even have a shirt on his back, and Ginger’s shoes are stolen. Is this, perhaps, a statement on the false promises of alternate lifestyles in 1960s New York?

So, Scotty, thanks, buddy. I owe you one.

Postscript: So, the question now is: Do I stop here, content to be a summer-sunshine VU listener, or do I hack my way through the jungle looking for the VU’s hidden city of gold? Honestly, I don’t know. There are risks either way. Standing pat means I may be missing out on a unique aural experience that takes me out of my safe lane. But, if I dig into the VU’s more esoteric material and I like it, will my appreciation for the mainstream charm of Loaded dissipate? What to do? I suspect that at some point I will delve into the VU’s first three albums. If I survive the journey, I will let you know what I find.

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