Thursday, August 17, 2017

Love in Need of Love Today: Greetings from Kitchener-Waterloo

The leap going on in our society has convinced me to turn my attention to my eleven-year-old blog as the main story I am trying to tell. Occasionally, I will post stories here that were originally published elsewhere. Last spring, I posted at some length about Janice Jo Lee and Alysha Brilla, two Kitchener-Waterloo musicians I first heard at the 2017 KC Folk Alliance Conference, "Forbidden Folk." Their music has been central to my year so far, and I did brief profile interviews on both of them for The People's Tribune. I'm reposting these below. 

Covering the stories of those entirely left out of the mainstream media and deepening the understanding of headline struggles through the stories of the real people fighting for our survival all over the U.S. and the world, the People's Tribune has been central to my grounded understanding of conditions in America since 1990. Check out the paper here--http://peoplestribune.org/pt-news/

If I have any artist or musician friends who would like to do a similar profile for this forum for everyday fighters' hopes, dreams, struggles and triumphs, please let me know. You can write me directly at danny.dalexand@gmail.com

Alysha Brilla's New Album Envisions a Future Founded on Love, PT, May 2017


Editor’s note: Multi-instrumentalist songwriter Alysha Brilla’s new album, Human, has the power of a unifying manifesto. Inspired by singers Selena Perez, Amy Winehouse and Bob Marley, Brilla’s vocals are, at once, fun, soulful and exciting. The music she makes is every bit as remarkable as that mix. A Canadian of Tanzanian and Indian heritage, Brilla weaves a tapestry of sounds from every reach of the African diaspora. With eclectic hip hop-flavored mixes, R&B and jazz horns vamp off Indian tabla over reggae and African rhythms, creating a sound both inviting and invigorating. Thematically, Human climbs the walls people try to build between one another (“Bigger than That”), dreams of a future founded on love (“No More Violence”) and embraces the process of change before us (“Change the World”). In an interview with the People’s Tribune’s Danny Alexander, Brilla explains her vision, a brilliant counterpoint to that of our corporately-run government and media.

PT: When I first heard you sing “Bigger Than That,” I was in awe of how you could say so much so playfully. How do you remember music shaping your perspective as a child?
Brilla: Music was a huge life source for me as a child. I was always the odd one in my family and in general, so music became a language with which I could translate my thoughts and feelings, and one that people would respond to positively. My mom sang to me, making up lyrics, and my father played guitar on occasion. I was completely fascinated.
PT: How would you describe your approach?
Brilla: Growing up near Toronto, in a mixed household, I heard a lot of different music. I have always loved rhythm. Good rhythm. Good melody. Good lyrics. A song doesn’t need to be complicated. My love for pop music is that it embraces simplicity, as does most folk music around the world. It’s music for people to sing along to, and gather. It connects us to ourselves, each other and a greater unifying force.
PT: What is the story behind your decision to write “Human,” a song about being one of 7 billion others?
Brilla: I like the idea of objectivity. I like the idea of humans having a capacity to zoom out, over ourselves, and look from a bird’s eye view. To look at where we fit in our families, societies and in the world. I think there is nothing more important at this time in history than understanding ourselves and each other. It’s our only hope.
PT: You seem to be a part of a strong, nurturing community of musicians. How did that community and/or that approach develop?
Brilla: I was welcomed by different communities, especially in K-W (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario). I have a friend and artist named Janice Lee [a wonderful musician herself] whose love for community always inspires me. Without community we feel empty.
PT: If you could change the world, what do you imagine that world might look like?
Brilla: It would look balanced because humanity would collectively be doing the work to ensure that voices formerly silenced now have a platform to express and teach us.It would be a lot greener, too. Borders wouldn’t be so strict because nationalism would be a dated value.


Without Justice There Can Be No Love, PT, June 2017

Editor's Note: Janice Jo Lee’s album, Sing Hey, begins with three deep breaths, as if she’s thinking through what she has to say before launching into a kind of slam-sung poem of tough self-talk. That opener, “All the Times You Were Silent,” kicks off a seamless and stunning mix of soulful folk, blues and hip hop about struggling to pay the bills, standing up for one’s self and fighting for justice and community. Known for her music, poetry and theatrical work in Kitchener, Ontario, Lee offered great insight into her work when she spoke with the People’s Tribune’s Danny Alexander.



PT: “Why do you focus on social justice?”
Janice Jo Lee: “When we talk about social justice, we are talking about society, which for me is made up of the relationships between people—friendships. I believe strongly in what Bell Hooks says, that without justice there can be no love. If you love me, and I love you, we must be dedicated to do the work to build bridges across our differences so that they do not become issues. This is what I write about in my music, the struggles of loving the people around you.”
PT: “And music’s role?”
Lee: “Music can transcend words because you feel music in your body, in your ears, in your head, in your heart, in your chest. There’s so much joy in music, and I think that’s necessary to prioritize as we build communities. To remember why we’re doing this. It is very celebratory.”
PT: “Many of our readers have suffered from the poisoning of their water supply, and you sing about this subject. What inspired it?”

Lee: “The song is called “Oil in the Grand.” It’s a new song.  It will be on my new album Ancestor Song. My song is directly tied to the oil spill in Michigan. There’s a pipeline that crosses the Grand River called line 9. It will be carrying diluted bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta all the way across Southern Ontario to Montreal. It crosses our watershed in Waterloo Region, the Grand River. It crosses Six Nations Treaty territory. And there has been a lot of organizing around stopping this pipeline and the reverse of its flow.”
PT: Your album begins with a kind of political toolbox, but climaxes with some gorgeous pop music, like the wonderful “40 km to Pickle Lake.” How did you see it fitting together?
Lee: My intention with the album was to put the songs I think are the most urgent at the front. Organizing, politics and education is the means, and living a fulfilled joyous wonderful life full of friendship is the ends.
“Pickle Lake” [a song Lee wrote about a time in her life when she had to walk all day to reach a store] ends with a sing-along on the oohs. I’m a folk musician. I want everyone to sing along always. It’s a love lullaby for friendship…
My art is embedded in my community. Building relationships takes time, building trust takes time. I think if we were able to communicate and not be afraid about what we feel, be patient and understanding with each other instead of suppressing our feelings, we could be so much closer.
Janice Jo Lee photo: Hannah Marie


We encourage reproduction of this article so long as you credit the source.

Copyright © 2017 People's Tribune. Visit us at http://peoplestribune.org

Final Note: Alysha Brilla has just finished recording a new album, Rooted, to be released at the end of September. Certainly more of what the world needs right now. Janice Jo Lee will also be playing the album release party.


Saturday, August 05, 2017

WoodyFest #2, To Serve The Song: Interview with Terry "Buffalo" Ware

Terry “Buffalo” Ware serves at the heart of the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (Woodyfest). He’s seemingly everywhere at once—at every venue, playing his own sets with collaborator Gregg Standridge and up on the main “Pastures of Plenty” stage behind various artists every night before leading the band in the Hootenanny for Huntington’s (Chorea, the disease that took Woody) on Sunday afternoon. The first time I visited the festival, I only hit the hootenanny, and I was blown away by the way Ware’s band seamlessly gave lift to over twenty different acts during the two hour set. My most distinct memory from that show was Ware’s presence, not drawing attention to himself but making sure everything worked as it should. I particularly remember the performance by the stunning Australian singer Audrey Auld (herself taken by cancer just four years later). She playfully called Ware “Buffy” and bragged that she alone among musicians could get away with this.

As Ware told The Oklahoman’s Brandy McDonnell, “Buffalo” actually came from a trip home to Woodward, Oklahoma during his college years. By college, Ware was already in his second rock band. He looked the part. “I had shoulder-length hair, wearing a fringe jacket, and I wore knee-high moccasins. And a friend of mine’s father saw me and said, ‘You know, you look like Buffalo Bill or something.’” His friends thought it was funny, and the razzing settled into a term of endearment and a nickname that clearly suggests something legendary about the guitarist.

That’s why Auld knew “Buffy” was mildly inappropriate. Terry “Buffalo” Ware is a musician’s musician. He’s backed everyone from Wanda Jackson to David Amram, Sam Baker, the Red Dirt Rangers and Eliza Gilkyson because all of these musicians want to play with him. He’s best known as a sideman with three greats—Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jimmy LaFave and John Fullbright. His playing makes anyone up front shine more brightly. On the four instrumental records he’s released since 2004, he dazzles in surprising, unassuming ways.

Each of his instrumental albums uses a sort of surf and drag framework but tackles the whole of popular music. Unlike any 21st Century radio station or music “scene,” he ties 70s guitar rock to 50s dance music, ancient folk songs lace with cool jazz, a cinematic reverie called “Cloud Dancer” casually attains all the heights suggested by its name, and he follows that with the grounded Western trot of “Lonely Dreams of the Silver Sparkle.” Latin rock folds into country rock and a gorgeous closing cover of Lulu’s 1967, “To Sir With Love.” 


For all of us who increasingly wonder where our place is in today’s celebrity-driven, commodity-oriented, genre-divided and individualistic music world, the music and musicianship of Terry “Buffalo” Ware is a lifeline. I’ve certainly clung to his music over the years. For all of the reasons above, I am thankful he granted an interview for my blog.


While I’m going to focus on Man with Guitar and Amp, I want to ask you about your career as a whole. I know one thing my friends and I have talked about a great deal is your empathy as a player. Not that showing off is a bad thing, but it’s not your style. Your playing stays in service to the singer and/or the arrangement as a whole. Would you say there’s something about what drew you to the guitar that gave you that sensibility?

The first music that I remember really affecting me was the rock 'n roll on the radio in my childhood, I was born in 1950, and also what I saw and heard on American Bandstand after we got our first television set. The first record I ever bought was "Breathless" by Jerry Lee Lewis, and I ordered the "autographed" copy from Bandstand. As far as guitar music in particular, I was a big fan of Al Caiola and The Ventures. I started piano lessons at 9, even though I'd been pecking around on it since I can remember, but even though I loved the early Ventures and other guitar instrumental music like "Apache" and "Raunchy," it took seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to really light the guitar fire under me. I got my first guitar for Christmas in 1964. It was a Kay acoustic that my folks got with S&H Green Stamps. The first thing I did on it was pick out "Pipeline."

Both you and John Fullbright have a long piano history before the guitar, does that play a role here?

I know the piano background had a big impact on my guitar playing from the start because I immediately could "see" the notes. I also think with those early instrumentals and The Beatles influence, I had the importance of melody ingrained in me. I think that's the basic reason that I'm empathetic when I back up other artists. There's also two other major things that really steered me musically early on. One was an elective music theory course I took that was offered after school when I was in the 9th grade by a wonderful music teacher. The other was an intersession improvisation class I took in college during a Christmas break one year. The teacher of that course emphasized that the whole idea of improvising was that you are creating another melody. So I feel like I've always had a melodic approach to my guitar playing. I can't remember who I heard say it first, but I believe that when you play a solo it ought to be something you can sing. And as you pointed out, the most important thing is to serve the song. Without it, you don't have anything.

How would you describe the progression between your albums? Is each one simply a series of new instrumental ideas, or have you found yourself looking at the goal of each album in a slightly different way? To that point, this album doesn’t have the “reverb” in the title [the past three were Ridin’ the Reverb Range, Reverb Confidential and Reverb Babylon], which suggests it’s not part of the trilogy, yet it sounds to me like an extension. Is there a break in your mind or simply a different title idea?

The first album I did, Caffeine Dreams, was in 1979. Side 1 was vocal, side 2 was instrumental. The vocal side is pretty painful. The songs really aren't good at all. I wound up putting the tracks from the instrumental side on my second album, Buffalo Tracks, which was those songs and some other instrumentals I'd recorded on my old 4-track reel-to-reel over the years. Not long after I threw that one out I started writing and recording Riding the Reverb Range. By that time the reel-to-reel had broken down and I had a hard disc recorder. That was before I had my little studio in my converted garage, and I had the recorder set up on the coffee table in my living room. I might add that my wife, Jeannie, is very supportive, understanding and patient. I followed that album with Reverb Confidential and "Reverb Babylon. I decided three albums with "reverb" in the title was enough, and even though they weren't conceived as a trilogy I guess they are so to speak. And yeah, I'd say that each album is pretty much just a series of new ideas. I've always got a few instrumental ideas in various stages cooking.

I love “Jessie’s Eyes” (a very good quality in an album opener) because I get lost in it every time it comes on. You begin with this Thin Lizzy-type rhythm and something like a 15 note riff that defies expectations. Then, a new riff structure slows down the movement over the rhythm before building a kind of cathedral of sound. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for this?

That song evolved from an idea I had for a shuffle type feel that I'd tried writing a couple of different times. I was revisiting it and wasn't getting anywhere with it, again. I put it aside and just started hitting a drone on my low E string and fooling around on top of it and came up with the melody of the first section. I made a rough recording of that much of it and the rest just fell into place. I think I should mention that I do all my tracking in my home studio except for the drums, which I do at The Mousetrap here in Norman. My friend, Carl Amburn who has the studio is a great engineer and he mixes all my albums too. Anyway, Michael McCarty who played drums on the album was doing the drum track. He made the comment that the groove reminded him of "Doctor My Eyes." I blurted out Jesse's Eyes! Jesse Ed Davis is one of my favorite guitarists and a huge inspiration of mine. His solo on that song is legendary.

Did you know him? [The great Native American guitarist was from Norman, Oklahoma, where Ware went to college.]

No, I never had the opportunity to meet Jesse Ed Davis. I first became aware of him and his playing when I was in college listening to the Taj Mahal albums, Taj Mahal and Giant Step. I loved those albums and I still do. The main band I was in back then also played Taj’s arrangement of  “Six Days on the Road.” Then when Jesse Ed’s solo album was released, I got it and wore it out. I did meet Roger Tillison who wrote “Rock and Roll Gypsies,” that’s on that record around that time. He was living in Norman and I first met him one afternoon after setting up for a gig at a bar called “The Bar.” 

Jim Hoke, who plays everything from King Curtis-style sax to pedal steel here, seems particularly valuable as an instrumentalist on your records. What can you tell us about him?

Jim's contributions to the album really put it over the top for me. He's, without a doubt, the best musician I've ever known. He can play just about any instrument you can think of and play it as well or better than anybody. He also has an encyclopedic musical vocabulary. I've known him since the early '70s when he lived in Oklahoma. The first time I remember seeing him play was at a little place in Norman around 1970 or 71. I really got to know him a couple of years later when he was playing drums and sax mostly with The Lienke Brothers City Band, which was a great band from OKC. Jim moved out to California for a few years and then relocated to Nashville in the early '80s. He eventually became a master session player and also has had a lot of other projects. I feel really lucky that he likes my stuff well enough to play on it.

I love the “To Sir with Love” cover. I hear you reveling in the melody, and the possibilities of how to deliver that melody for the first couple of verses, then it seems to become about this massive arrangement. How do you approach your covers?

It's all about the melody. My friend, and another of my big inspirations, the late Bugs Henderson used to do a killer instrumental version of "When a Man Loves a Woman." I've listened to it a bunch and got to see him play it a few times too and it made me want to do something similar. I knew that when I was putting Riding the Reverb Range together I wanted to do a cover of a vocal song. I was in my car one day and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" came on and halfway through the first verse I knew that was going to be the one. It's a great melody and I love Dusty Springfield too. Then with each album finding a song I love to cover has been something I intentionally do, but what I decide on has always happened when I hear something sort of out of the blue and I think it'd make for a fun song to do instrumentally.

You seem to have worked yourself to a place where you can pretty much do what you want to do musically…

Yeah, I feel like I'm in a good place right now. I've been really lucky in my career. I've had full time stints with three of the best, Ray Wylie Hubbard (two full time stints with him), Jimmy LaFave and John Fullbright. And I got to perform with John a couple of years ago on the David Letterman Show in the Ed Sullivan Theater on the stage where the Beatle lightning bolt zapped me from back in 1964. For me, it was a big deal. When we were there for the sound check, camera blocking and all that, there was some time to just go out and stand there and soak it in. I really had a reflective moment doing that. It really got to me. On top of all that, I've made some really great lifelong friends in the process of playing all that music and traveling all those miles. I'm sincerely grateful for all of it, too. 

Those three stints--Ray, Jimmy and John. Do you want to say a little about what it was/is like working with each of them? Is there something distinct you took from each of those experiences?

Working with Ray really shaped my career and set its course. Playing with him I got introduced to a lot of music I’d never known about and also met a lot of great songwriters and musicians, and a lot of them became good friends. My first full time stint with him was at the beginning of the “progressive country” movement in the early ‘70s and we were smack dab in the middle off all that.

I left Ray in early 1979 and played locally in a Norman based band, The Sensational Shoes, until I went back with him in 1986 and stayed full time with him until 1998 and saw him reinvent his career. We did a lot of touring in the states, Europe and Canada.

One of the tours we did was a songwriter tour in early 1998 with Kevin Welch and Jimmy LaFave. Randy Glines was playing bass with Jimmy and he and I backed all three of them. Ray and Jimmy were both being booked by Val Denn. Jimmy didn’t have a regular guitar player at the time and not long after that he was making a run to do some shows in Florida and asked if I could do it. I could and did. For a few months I wound up playing with both Ray and Jimmy. I’d do a tour with one of them, get home for a few days and then go out and do the exact same tour with the other. After a while, Ray started doing quite a few solo shows and I joined up with Jimmy full time.

The great pleasure of playing with Jimmy was getting to hear him sing. He truly had a distinctive voice both in texture and in his phrasing, not to mention a great range. He also let the band stretch out and I got to play with some really good players in his band. And as it'd been with Ray, I met a lot of great songwriters through Jimmy.

I left Jimmy in April of 2000 and instead of trying to find a full time gig with somebody, I decided to freelance. I worked semi-regularly with a band out of Dallas, Macon Greyson and also semi-regularly with a local singer, Camille Harp. I was also backing up a lot of artists at The Blue Door in OKC. Some of them were friends of mine and some were people I didn't know. Greg Johnson, who owns the place, would tell people about me and if they wanted a guitar player to back them up when they played there he'd arrange for me to be that guy. Between shows there with Ray and Jimmy and backing up other folks, I'm pretty sure I've been on that stage more than anyone.

I started teaching guitar in a local teaching studio in mid 2004. I enjoyed it, but by the time I turned 60 in 2010 I was getting pretty burned out. I kept teaching, but quit taking on new students. Not long before that, I started doing some shows with John Fullbright.

The first I became aware of him was at the Woody Guthrie Festival a couple of years before that. People were talking about this young kid from Okemah hanging around the campgrounds who was really good. It was Greg Johnson who suggested to John that he might ask me to back him up on some shows.

I started playing with John quite a bit and traveling some with him. Then I started traveling with him a bit more. Then we recorded the From the Ground Up record and I started touring with him a whole lot. I was down to about a dozen students and had been shuffling my schedule around my work with John. It didn't show any signs of slowing down. I'd been wanting to quit teaching altogether, so that gave me my reason.

Working with John is great. His writing and musicianship is at a really high level and it's been some of the most enjoyable and fulfilling music I've ever played. Through my playing with John, as with Ray and Jimmy, I've been lucky to play some great gigs and meet even more great songwriters and musicians. I guess that's what I've really taken away with my time with all three of them and I think that it's helped me become a better musician along the way. I'm still working on it though. You never stop learning.

What’s next?

I'm always working on something or another. I've got an instrumental project I've been working on. So far it's a bit more stripped down than the previous ones, but we'll see what happens. I've also been working on a vocal project that I think I'll eventually get out. It's stuff that I've written and that I've co-written with my partner, Gregg Standridge. We've been writing together for about 8 years or so and did an album together, Everybody's Got One. [Editor’s note: a beautiful record, by the way, reviewed in my year end list….Not on the album, check out their new protest single, "Can't Stand Still" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5HyFbuqd88 ]

I also play my piano quite a bit these days. I write on it and just for my own amusement like sitting and playing standards; looking for different ways to voice the chords. I even    took a piano lesson fairly recently with Louise Goldberg, who is just a great player and can play those tunes as good as anybody, looking at that kind of thing.

I made a decision this past fall that I wanted to take an extended break from touring, not just with John, but with anybody. I'd just like to not be in a lot of motion for a while. I'm still playing quite a bit, but I'm not going very far to do it. I haven't played a gig since September that I couldn't get back to my house after it was over. I'm producing an album for [Tulsa artist] Susan Herndon that we've been working on and are taking our time with, and I've got another possible production coming up in the fall. Over the last couple of years quite a few folks have told me I should write a memoir. I've written down some things and have a vague outline, so I may pursue that. I'm not sure the world needs another one.  I plan to keep writing more of my own music as much as I can, instrumentally and otherwise. Actually, I don't have choice in that matter.

Special thanks to Vicki Farmer for all the wonderful photos!





Sunday, July 23, 2017

WoodyFest #1, Grown-Up Anger

  It’s times like this when I know why I keep a blog. When I had regular writing gigs (which became a soul-killing complication for me after 25 years), I kept regular writing rhythms, telling one little story at a time. Now….I have these explosions of inspiration that lead to a burst of ideas, and then I can go back to the fiction and political analysis I’m working on the rest of the time.


Last week, I went down to Okemah, Oklahoma to see a group of old friends and to finally experience Woody Fest, which previously I’d only encountered during its end hootenanny. I couldn’t stay the whole time, but what I experienced--with my brother James McGraw, Blue Door owner Greg Johnson, singers and players Michael Fracasso, Chris Buhalis, Marie Burns, Sarah Lee Guthrie, the Red Dirt Rangers, Terry Ware, Gregg Standridge, Ronnie Elliott, Kevin Welch, Dustin Welch, writers Bill Glahn, Daniel Wolff, Dave Marsh and Barry Ollman, encountering the important new book about the “deportees," Tim T. Hernandez's, All They Will Call You, and sharing the excitement with so many others—is fodder for dozens of blogs. I’m resisting the urge to attempt a comprehensive one and focusing on one thing at a time.

First up, a review I wrote at Amazon.com regarding Daniel Wolff’s new book, Grown-Up Anger

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Velvet Underground and the Making of Lou Reed


45 years ago this month, Lou Reed released his first solo album. A couple of years ago, I wrote this article about the latest box set of material surrounding 1969's The Velvet Underground, an album I suggest forecasts Reed's solo career. DA

Lester Bangs’ Rolling Stone review of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous 1969 album asked the question that seems to stand for most of the discussion that came after: “How do you define a group like this, who moved from ‘Heroin’ to ‘Jesus’ in two short years?” Even if he didn’t know what would soon be part of the conventional wisdom (John Cale had left the band, taking a great deal of noise with him), what follows is a smart review that paints a useful picture. Bangs notes the increasing focus on lyricism, spirituality and the Byrds influences that were, indeed, working to soften the band’s touch. He also oversimplifies in ways most discussion still oversimplifies not just the story of The Velvet Underground but the real issue here, Lou Reed as an artist.
It’s great fun but not particularly accurate when Bangs notes that the album’s new sense of compassion is alarming from Reed, “the malevolent Burroughsian Death Dwarf who had previously never written a complimentary song about anybody.” Two things here. First, nothing on The Velvet Underground can be reduced to “complimentary.” In “Some Kind of Love,” Marguerite is called a “bore” but “not without your charm.” So, there’s that. The great love song here, “Pale Blue Eyes,” continuously returns to the summation, “Mostly you just make me mad.” Reed's character also implies his lover’s strange and less than self-aware about the sins she shares with the singer. By contrast, the first album’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is pure love letter. For that matter, all of the World of Warhol characters on the first side of that debut are only interesting because of the compassion in the songwriting. Never mind that the grief in album closer “European Son” and the second album’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and “I Heard Her Call My Name” are a polar distance from insulting.
All of that said, Bangs is capturing a true contrast in tone. Just as there is truth in the ongoing assumptions that, with Cale gone, Reed was now pursuing shades of pop more accessible than the music on the first two albums. Of the Velvets initial collaborators, it is Reed who could and did write the lyric, “her life was saved by rock and roll,” a statement without a trace of irony. For all of his literary aspirations (and pretensions), Lou Reed believed in rock and roll.
So the real irony of The Velvet Underground album is that, left to his own devices (new bassist Doug Yule, original rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker have all spoken frankly about deferring to Cale and Reed when it came to the general direction of the band), Reed made what may be the least conventional of The Velvet Underground albums. The bulk of the more commercial material recorded alongside this work in 1969 (available in the new 67-cut Super Deluxe Velvet Underground set) was shelved until its release after Reed’s departure on 1970’s Loaded and 1985’s V.U. 
Of the three albums the original band crafted together, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico is the most conventionally structured—a sunny morning opener followed by fast rocker, mid-tempo rocker, fast rocker and trippy meditation (Side A) then a weirder second side softened by a couple of very catchy pop songs. It’s the seedy precursor to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1968’s White Light/White Heat is certainly the most aggressive modernist experiment—droning noise from start to finish—but in some ways that simply underscores John Cale’s longstanding relationship with the avant garde (in 1963 classical composer Aaron Copeland helped bring him to the United States and John Cage worked with him on an 18 hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations”). Today, it’s the one that sounds the most artsy and punk.  
Reed’s post-Cale album is not so easily placed in musical history. It starts ragged, in the middle of a conversation, with the sort of quiet number that might be an interlude on another album, and culminates in a lyrical puzzle followed by a borderline-suicidal lullaby. It’s decidedly not a pop album or a punk album or even a Byrds album. What it does sound like, though, is a Lou Reed album, a genre unto itself that presupposes almost nothing about structure or style.

But I think if we take Bangs’ original question and tackled it from a different angle, we might make more sense of the progression. How do you define a band that can follow “Heroin” with “Jesus” at all? I don’t find it a remarkable achievement that there’s a space of two years between that noisy drug reverie and that delicately sung prayer. The achievement is the effort to go deep—first, into the drug experience itself and, second, into the intimacy of a call for spiritual help. In fact, they fit well together, “Jesus” nicely suiting what one of Reed’s favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe, once called “the after-dream of a reveler on opium—the bitter lapsing into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.” After that high in “Heroin” when Reed calls out, “I feel just like Jesus’s son,” a come-to-Jesus is no doubt on the way.

And not a literal come-to-Jesus because, unlike Bob Dylan, Lou Reed made no famous conversions away from Judaism. This is simply a prayer, in American vernacular, as is the whole of The Velvet Underground, at the very least a plea for hope. In an exploding counterculture based upon new technologies and mass media, Lou Reed appeals for legitimate understanding, acceptance and intimacy.

The quietest of moments are its hallmark, beginning at the prayerful volume of pillow talk. Lou Reed’s “Closet Mix” of this album went on the original LP, which emphasizes subtleties of breath only possible with lips close to the ear. On album opener “Candy Says,” Reed uses Doug Yule’s considerably sweeter voice to convey the quiet fears of the woman in the song. Much is made of the fact that the Candy in the song is trans-gendered Candy Darling, an actress and writer on the Warhol scene (and that certainly explains the emphasis in the lyric). But the song’s concerns are as universal as self loathing, and that’s what makes it work, regardless of the listener’s familiarity with Warhol’s Factory.
Over the most delicate guitar, bass and brushes, Candy confesses that she hates her body. She doubts and fears the choices she has to make, so she distracts herself every way she can. She confesses these things to the listener with the heartbreaking dream of a question: “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?”
Chugging rhythm guitars and propulsive drums offer the rock and roll response on “What Goes On.” Lou Reed’s sandpaper vocal plays all the characters in this dialogue that reads like a rough draft for the next album’s more narrative “Rock and Roll.” One speaker asks “What’s going on in your mind?” and the other answers, “I think that I am upside down.” The music insists upon the refrain that concludes each movement, “You know it will be alright.” As the Velvet Underground always did so well, the band makes the main argument--pushing forward with the urgency of the rhythm, the wild energy of the soloing guitar and the serene certainty of organ making sure that this moment is worth living to help guarantee the next.

“Some Kind of Love” is the third conversation in a row—on the regular mix with a wonderful dialogue between Morrison’s and Reed’s guitars, on “The Closet Mix” with only Reed’s searching notes to make the point. Marguerita’s explains to Tom the impossibility of her fidelity, and Tom tells her that her adventurousness shows a certain lack of creativity. Though they never come to any long term agreement, the couple uses the argument for foreplay, and the sensuality of the guitar, the cowbell, and Reed’s lip biting vocal all suggest that’ll be all right for the time being.
Still, what follows is the remorse of lost love. If “Pale Blue Eyes” isn’t the most beautiful song Lou Reed ever wrote, it belongs in that conversation. And it is a conversation, if only a conversation with a memory. The instrumentation is quiet and simple—sparkling guitar over chorded organ punctuated by regular flicks of tambourine. Again, the feeling is as universal as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” mourning a relationship and celebrating its beauty at the same time. No line captures the infinite moments of romantic love better than this refrain, “linger on, your pale blue eyes.” 
“Jesus” follows those memories as a scene of quiet desperation. Two notes bounce back and forth on guitar against light chording while Reed and Yule sing with a quiet reverence that won’t wake the neighbors. It’s a prayer for new footing and “my proper place.” Of course, this song might be placed almost anywhere in the Velvet Underground line up because the characters Reed sings about tend to not know where they fit in, a modernist theme if ever there was one--at the end of this side-long effort to communicate that which doesn’t fit into polite conversation. Like so many writers before him, Reed believed that the secret self and the social self were at war, that society was designed to run on lies. “Jesus” is a prayer for a more compassionate world, where all these fears and lies can be brought out in the open.
Another chugging rocker (the Velvet Underground’s specialty, though this one’s decidedly acoustic), “Beginning to See the Light,” suggests old time gospel redemption.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the group sung refrain here comes closest to actually sounding like the country-rock Byrds, who all but created roots-rock incorporating old time gospel elements into a counterculture world view.
What is interesting about that refrain is the way it sums up the social mask The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed would wear so frequently it led to their exotic oversimplification—“Here we go again, playing the fool again/Here we go again, acting hard again.” And there is an irony here that complicates the song considerably. Though this song is about some level of self- acceptance—“I met myself in a dream, and I just want to tell you everything was all right"—it’s also about the light shining on ugly truths. That “Jesus” prayer does not typically get answered, and at the end of the song, the singer’s left asking over and over again, “How does it feel to be loved?”
“I’m Set Free” takes the concept of redemption down another dark hallway. Tucker’s tom toms herald the significance of the hippie declaration of the title. But the kicker is that the singer’s liberation has come through some form of death. He’s let go of past dreams, he’s had a vision of his himself as a decapitated fool, and he’s now “set free to find a new illusion.”

The rollicking little country rocker that follows, “The Story of My Life,” is a return to the conversation format of the album’s first side. A character named Billy (we know today was a Factory photographer, but again, such trivia matters little) says that the concept of “wrong and right” are meaningless. If he’s learned nothing else, he’s learned that. It’s a nihilistic perspective that’s made to not sound cynical. And maybe in the context of an album about society’s tendency to silence differences, it can rightfully be heard as modestly liberated.

Reed then closes with a couple of different kinds of statements of support for the Velvet Underground itself. On “The Murder Mystery,” Sterling Morrison reads a poem in one channel while Lou Reed reads its sister poem in the right channel. Reed’s voice moves deliberately, like the bass; Morrison’s runs fast, alongside the guitar. The verses feature urgent guitar runs and drum punctuation followed by meandering organ and guitar refrains on which Doug Yule and Maureen Tucker sing short verses. You can actually follow each poem by turning the balance fully to one side or another, or you can listen to the whole as a piece of music with largely unintelligible lyrics. One side contemplates the romantic dead ends of political adventurism while the other side contemplates the futile compulsions of poetry itself. In the context of this album, though, the song’s the very definition of making space for what can’t be easily understood—a test of the ears that grows more colorful and dynamic with each listen.

Brokenness, alienation and experimentation, these are the aesthetics of modernism and the themes of this album, but the whole of this album is invested in a fundamental belief in music offering a way to put together the pieces and make new kinds of connections. And if modernism had dominated the “high arts” at least since World War I, it’s telling that Reed reaches back to Tin Pan Alley pop for the final number, “After Hours,” featuring Maureen Tucker with a vocal all-but-child-like in its innocence. There’s an equivalence made here. Next to the grand experiment of “The Murder Mystery,” this ditty of a song breaks all walls down with a simplicity that goes right for the heart. At a key point, Tucker sings over an acoustic guitar that may as well be a uke, “Oh, someday I know, someone will look into my eyes and will say….” The guitar drops out, and she continues in echoed a capella, “Hello, you’re my very special one.” As gentle a moment as it is, it’s liable to make a listener smile and tear over at the same time, all the more poignant because this woman sounds like she wants to give up (or hide away forever), repeating her desire to “never have to see the day again.” She’s the character in every one of these songs, beat up by life but still, in prayers and stolen moments of love, hoping for something better.
What makes The Velvet Underground, at its heart, the first Lou Reed album, is an intimacy inextricably tied to his character that Reed was only fully able to explore when he was freed from the push pull of his relationship with Cale. That intimacy came with a mix of vulnerability and realism Reed no doubt saw as essential to gaining anything like truth through rock and roll. And what made Lou Reed great was that he believed in the power of the music—“despite all the amputation….you could dance to a rock and roll station. And it was all right.” More than anything on the band’s first two albums, The Velvet Underground shows the logic behind this signature understanding.