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.

Monday, February 27, 2017

"Carnival of Hopes," Folk Alliance, Part 3

A compilation of weekend status updates--
My first showcase at this year's Folk Alliance featured Janice Jo Lee and Alysha Brilla. It was brilliant, very participatory including some Advil-as-shaker percussion. To say the set exceeded my expectations is saying a lot because I'd spent the night before working security and staring at the two artists' beautiful posters--each promising music that mattered. What I overheard in the hall before the set raised my hopes all the more. 
A man asked one of the two, "So what kind of thing do you do?" 
One of my new heroes replied, "Social justice." 
The man said, "That's really important these days." 
She said, "It's always been important; people are just thinking about it more."
I'll be ordering their catalogues, and I'll be writing more....
Meanwhile, Janice Jo Lee-- 


As my friend (OKC's Blue Door owner) Greg Johnson pointed out on his Facebook page, many songs took on new meaning in this political climate. It so happens that much of what I've posted so far illustrates that, but there are particularly relevant specifics that will be coming to mind for weeks. One was John Fullbright' s "Fat Man," which had made such a transition from a sort of "found song" about the 19th Century "Monopoly Man" Capitalist villain into something dangerous enough Fullbright assured his audience he didn't really want to kill anyone. Ariana Gillis also pointed out her two year old "Freedom" was written about inhumanity in the age before President Trump. However, she admitted it had new power now, telling a funny story about accidentally buying an Ivanka Trump shirt for a photo shoot....Instead of wearing it, she went without one. In the Gillis's sets, the song that seemed all-but-mystifying because it was so on point was David Gillis's giddily empowering, "I'm Walking Away from a Fight." Such a foot stomping celebration of precious-but-guttering values, it was breathtaking.
This is not from the conference, but of the versions I've found on line it best captures Gillis's defiant energy from last Saturday..... https://youtu.be/fubZCdxRZvY
Bonuses of that show, Ariana shouted "Mama" and "Papa" on the off beat answering the brilliant chorus. Plus, David claims to have remembered all the lyrics, which he apparently didn't in this video. Oh well....

At the more personal end of politics, I felt very fortunate to get to know Jane Kramer, who played this song and another powerful song "Good Woman" in a Saturday night songwriter's round. I was impressed by her voice, her imagery, her melodicism and her way of enjambing a lyric to allow one meaning to hang in the air before turning it with the following phrase.
Kramer does what all my favorite artists do, she validates our most deep seated fears about ourselves and uses vulnerability as the route to honest connection. That's the story of Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson and Patsy Cline as well as Lou Reed and, yes, Mary J. Blige. And that's the story of compassion through confession that seems all but lost in today's politics. 
This is the title track of Kramer' s most recent album, which I've had on my car stereo, alternating with Ariana Gillis's new EP, since the conference. I'm not a big fan of music videos proper, but I was happy to find this because it suggests the beauties the album uncovers with the tender delicacy Kramer uses to unwrap these horses. Oh, and the line for me is, "Unfurl my fist--all you're gonna find is a fraying rope." It's certainly the linchpin for this song if not the album (I'll soon write about at some length)--clinging to hope in an era built by cynicism.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"A Small Circle of Friends," Folk Alliance Part 2

The hardest thing about this year's Folk Alliance was just how inspirational it was. Not because inspiration's a bad thing....God knows we could use more of that.... But, because, any sense of what's come before and what lies ahead insists that we shouldn't trust easy agreements.

When the world reaches the point where the two electoral parties find the future by looking backwards, it's pretty damn important that we don't forget folk music has a heritage based in the past, and its forward thinking hasn't always been assured. Some of the early "songcatchers," those wonderful folks who scoured Appalachia and the Deep South for culture that might be lost, were true visionaries of a future when classes have dissolved into fetters of the past. But some of those "songcatchers" were nationalistic, ethnocentric and not far removed from the kind of reactionaries that gave us Nazi concepts of purity. As beautiful as the Forbidden Folk conference was, I heard the term "authentic" at least once in a way that made my skin crawl.

So the challenge of the conference, in many ways, was to steer the social justice elements of folk toward the present and the future, with a long memory of the warts-and-all past. I wasn't everywhere, and I had other work during some of the political sessions, but I heard the saving vision of the conference most clearly at the censorship panel. It was at that panel--featuring Si Kahn, Moddi, Dave Marsh and Lynne Margolis--that the challenges were most clearly expressed--we needed to remember who wasn't in the room, we needed to remember the media's ongoing complicity in a blackout on any point of view that truly challenges the system, and we needed to prod one another to speak out and sing out with a bravery that's never been called on before.

My strong sense of alienation--even among "my people"--musicians and writers--was galvanized by that last idea. I rarely feel safe talking about my politics. I'm not some stereotype of the past, but I am a new kind of communist, someone who is convinced we have no choice for the future that doesn't reject fascist control of unneeded labor and instead fight for a cooperative society that struggles against the global apocalypse upon us.

So my insecurity means I find myself apologizing to a folk musician from my hometown when he asks about my blog because "I've only written about politics lately," knowing full well that my blog displays my politics most nakedly, even, at times, most naively, but always most bravely. I find myself thinking about a number of new and old friends at the conference who perhaps don't know my motivations are as radical as they are.

Don't get me wrong. I think art is, first and foremost, an intuitive and highly personal means of communication. But, that said, I think art past the age of patronage and value-based labor has to find some way to raise awareness of the human sacrifice that lies behind the nightly news. In simple terms, I trust that a great lonely love song can speak to the greatest political challenges that face us.

That's a long way around to say the tribute show that most spoke to me was a tribute to Phil Ochs, the only one of the three artists celebrated (unlike Woody and Pete) who I didn't know at all a decade ago.

The show was run by Zachary Stevenson, an actor/musician who previously made his place doing a one-man show dedicated to Buddy Holly. But inhabiting Phil Ochs is another matter, and Stevenson did it at least as convincingly as Warren Beatty captured John Reed. At this show, he sang a devastating "I Ain't Marching Anymore" alongside beautiful covers by Tom Paxton and Joe Jencks. This was wonderful music, and it made me realize how close Ochs' anger and frustration (especially with sympathetic people) parallels and validates my own feelings. As a college teacher, I dialogue openly and learn from people of every political stripe. That's not too hard, and it's very satisfying. But, that said, I come close to losing my head talking to people who sympathize with my opinions but so half-step the issues that I feel self-censorship is my main mode of discourse.

This isn't to say I'm right and they're wrong. It's to say how I feel honestly. If there was a value to the 2017 Forbidden Folk Alliance that was unique to this conference, it was the call to be unabashedly honest, or at the very least strategically honest. My strategic honesty stayed very much in check, and that disturbed me more than anything. We're talking about ourselves like we are of and among the visionaries who can save the humanity of humanity and we're not all that honest with each other. At least I wasn't, and I think most people who really know me know it doesn't take much to get me to open up.

So maybe that's why SONiA Disappear Fear's version of Och's "Small Circle of Friends" hit me as hard as anything at that conference. While I have deep-seated bonds with brothers and sisters across the nation and across the world, I yearn for a small circle of friends  less alienating than Ochs' portrait, and I've never had that, really. I feel lucky to be welcome in any clique that will have me, don't get me wrong, but I always feel like that Ochs character, knowing that I'm rationalizing cries from across the fucking street in order to hang onto the social connections that I've got.

My future has got to be different. These posts are meant to accelerate that change.

I'm posting another version of SONiA doing this song in order to speed that right along. This was close to how she did it when I heard her, and I knew nothing else but that I was going to have to write about this performance immediately after the conference. Again, if you read my other post, I'm working my way through a lot of things....

The other revelation of this performance was that the punk and the New Wave that I grew up with stemmed from this 60s folk movement. I mean, I knew Joe Strummer was a leftist busker and that some of my 60s friends were even turned off of punk and New Wave because of the folkie influences. Still, when I heard Disappear Fear do Phil Ochs and sound like Elvis Costello collaborating with Nick Lowe, some scales fell from my eyes.

And of course the most important thing is the portrait of the clique group-minding it's way out of every responsibility, making me think of the current blind rush to the Democrats as well as my own sense of an elephant always in the living room. I thank Phil Ochs by way of SONiA Disappear Fear for all of this.


Also, a great version by Ochs--


Monday, February 20, 2017

My Sixth Folk Alliance International, Part 1, "Bigger Than That"

My Sixth Folk Alliance International Down.....like each one, a set of entirely new experiences (and, yes, comfortingly familiar ones). But unforgettable things! I have at least a dozen stories I want to write now why Americans diminish music as some concept of entertainment removed from art. I can't write it all at once. I can maybe list people and moments I know I would write about.

One would be Nora Guthrie getting everyone on their feet and hand signaling cues to a "This Land Is Your Land" ("no trespassing" verse and all) led by Jimmy LaFave and Betty Soo. 

Another is hearing Si Kahn's call to "generate mountains of material to be censored," and Moddi's horror at the BBC wanting to cover his anthology of censored songs but not to allow him to discuss sex, violence, drugs, religion or anything actually censored by the BBC, and Dave Marsh's call for us to educate one another and, if we're serious, we reach out and never stop reaching.
I would write about a ferocious political set by Bruce Sudano that made me want to find everything he's ever written but also has me hungering for the latest release in a five decade career. For that matter, I'd have to talk about how and why Bobby Rush held the second most crowded ballroom I visited absolutely riveted.
I could blog about this feeling the Oklahoma Room just got taken to heights even the regulars hadn't quite found here (or maybe the best time in the Okie Room is the most recent)....anyway, thanks to Susan Herndon, Jacob Tovar, Chris Lee Becker, Kayln Fay, Jesse Aycock, Lauren Barth, Travis Linville, Carter Sampson, the Annie Oakleys, Wink Burcham, Paul Benjamin, Ellis Paul, and Trout Fishing in America, the Oklahoma Room was a life saver.
Then I'd have to tell what it was like hearing David Gillis and daughter Ariana Gillis give a back to back set that only amplified my sense of how important they both are, as a team and separately. And that's something to compare anyone, nevermind a dad, to Ms. Gillis, who is simply-put one of the most striking artists I've ever seen and would ever hope to see.

In that sense, she's a lot like John Fullbright, who was never better Friday night, proving once again to stand apart from and unite the crowd like nobody else...nevermind that he did this playing almost entirely new material and confronting the politics of the moment like only he can at this moment in his career, the show a revelation.
I was thrilled to learn that Jane Kramer, a great new friend I'd made from Asheville, North Carolina turned out to be an artist who could not only hold a room riveted but take all of us to our most vulnerable spaces willingly, and to the feeling of love for humankind that sets the concept of "folk" apart from so many exclusive musical genres.
I can write about how I heard Michael Fracasso as fired as ever after the release of his stunning new album Here Come the Savages.
I was taken away by the Bean Project's ability to find a place where folk and bluegrass had a pop baby that may just be reincarnated Burt Bacharach.
I was reassured about everything I find most important in art by Eliza Gilkyson, Rod Picott, Ayllu, Bobby Rush, SONiA Disappear Fear, Billy Bragg (even though I had to miss his actual set--he was literally in the air)....and then there was Jimmy, Jimmy, always the great Oklahoman Jimmy LaFave, bringing home great songwriting in ways even Woody and Dylan couldn't manage.
If you look at what's above you see over 30 pieces of the conference that could lead me to write about distinctly different and equally important ideas.
Meanwhile, I should end this status by mentioning the first songwriter circle, a sort of duo, of artists Alysha Brilla and Janice Jo Lee, who together may have made the most overtly political music of the conference. Jo Lee finding a way to get a room to sing about water poisoning, Brilla offering a kind of child-like clarity (much like Woodrow Wilson Guthrie) with her track "Bigger Than That" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks8n2NZnhwY)
I start fighting my way to write with this recommend. I'll be going back through everything above, over and over again.

It's never been more important to learn.

"Bigger Than That" written/arranged by Alysha Brilla Shot at my apartment/studio. With these amazingly talented folks: Tabla: Sarah Thawer Bass: Maxwell Roac...