“Velvet Underground” by Jonathan Richman

Just heard this song for the first time on an old episode of Penn Jillette’s podcast (“Penn’s Sunday School”), the one Penn recorded on the day it was announced Lou Reed passed away in 2013. Reed was a huge influence on Richman and this is a wonderful tribute song that not only gives high praise to the Velvet Underground and sounds like them, but allows for a completely charming “Sister Ray” cover during the middle 1/3 of this song.  This is from Richman’s 1992 album “I, Jonathan.”  If you’re not sure on who Richman is, he was the singing troubadour from the 1998 blockbuster hit comedy “There’s Something About Mary.”

Penn was very good friends with Reed for many years during the 1980s and 1990s and if you’re a fan of Reed’s, I encourage you to either stream or download the episode from the link below (Episode 89 from October 27, 2013).  There’s lots of wonderful anecdotes and stories about Reed that’s nearly two hours long.  Re: this song, Penn actually took Reed to see Richman in concert, where he performed this song, avoiding eye contact with Reed because he was such in awe of Reed.  Reed had difficulty making out one of the lyrics, which Penn explained to Reed was “America at it’s best,” meaning Reed’s first band.  Reed paused and said “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

http://pennsundayschool.com/episodes/

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Dave’s Underrated Albums … “Berlin” (1973) by Lou Reed

After years of artistic success and commercial failure, Lou Reed finally hit the commercial zeitgeist with his 1972 album “Transformer” and his controversial, but very popular song “Walk on the Wild Side.”  Given this berth, an artist can do many things.  The two most common are: going even more commercial to maximize the success they just achieved … or … using this commercial breathing room to make the artistic statement they always wanted to make, but couldn’t because it’s too “negative” or “disturbing.”  I think you can guess what Reed did.

“Berlin” is, undoubtedly, the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded.  It’s a nearly 50-minute song cycle chronicling the failed relationship between a man and a woman who suffers from severe mental illness and drug addiction.   Produced by Bob Ezrin (who hit commercial pay dirt in the early 1970s with most of Alice Cooper’s biggest commercial successes, KISS’s 1976 “Destroyer” album, and Pink Floyd’s monumental commercial blockbuster “The Wall” in 1979) “Berlin” is the ultimate musical statement about self-loathing, substance abuse, and mental illness.  It makes Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” seem like the Spice Girls.  “Berlin” is a monumentally negative statement about humanity, summed up in the lyrics of the last song “Sad Song”:

“Staring at my picture book
She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how WRONG you can be
I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”

Holy s–t! is the only statement I can muster at the summation of this album.  And weirdly enough, the two songs preceding this horrendously negative finale are seriously way more despairing.  “The Kids” chronicles about how the female protagonist’s kids were taken away due to her drug use and promiscuity, climaxing in the sounds of actual young children screaming “MOMMY!” in anguished voices during the last two minutes.  The next song, “The Bed” is about the female protagonist’s suicide.  The lyrics are not sensationalistic, but the simplistic acoustic guitar and plain singing make the lyrics more horrific:

“This is the place where she lay her head
When she went to bed at night
And this is the place our children were conceived
Candles lit the room at night
And this is the place where she cut her wrists
That odd and fateful night”

As I said earlier, this is the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded.  However, it’s a damn good one.  And it’s a lot better than many people gave it credit for at the time.  In subsequent years, Rolling Stone magazine included it in its list of “Best 500 Albums of All-Time” … despite the fact that rock writer Stephen Davis, when reviewing the album for Rolling Stone in 1973, called “Berlin”:

“Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed’s only excuse for this kind of performance (which isn’t really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin’s limp production) can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.”

Whatever.

The ultimate vindication for Reed, in my opinion, was when Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Before Night Falls,” and my personal favorite “Baquiat”) directed a beautiful feature-length concert film of Reed performing this album in its entirety in 2008, simply called “Lou Reed’s Berlin.”  It’s one of the best concert films of all-time and I can’t think of a better series of songs to deserve this treatment.

“John Cale” 1998 BBC Documentary

Here’s yet another terrific BBC documentary … this time about one of my favorite musical/cultural icons, John Cale.  People tend to think that Lou Reed was the dark lord of the Velvet Underground, but these same people often forget that once Cale left the group, the Velvets recorded the considerably more mellow self-titled 3rd album and “Loaded.”  On his own, Cale continued to record beautiful, but frequently disturbing music, as well as producing some of the most influential bands of all-time (Nico, The Stooges, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers).  A fantastic overview of one of the most under-appreciated geniuses of modern music.

“Merry-Go-Round” and “Your Love” by Lewis Reed (aka Lou Reed)

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Some damn fine doo-wop courtesy of Lewis Reed … aka Lou Reed, the Prince of Darkness … recorded in 1962. Though that “Prince of Darkness” label is a bit unfair. Lou was always a closet softie and if you don’t believe me, check out the Velvet Underground albums after John Cale left. The 3rd Velvet Underground album and “Loaded” had much mellower vibes and were filled with love songs and songs about seeking redemption. Reed definitely had a dark side, but arguably, Cale pushed him to pursue this side when he was with the Velvets and once Cale left, Reed let his sensitive flag fly. Please note that I’m not taking sides on the “dark Velvets v. light Velvets” debate. It’s a draw and everyone’s a winner as far as I’m concerned.

“The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound” (1966) dir. Andy Warhol / Paul Morrissey

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Here is some classic footage of the Velvet Underground jamming out circa 1966, courtesy of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. Considering that very little footage exists of this seminal band … and the fact that both Warhol and Morrissey thought enough to film this … makes this essential viewing. Put your shades on and groove, baby!

“Falling off the Edge of the World” – The Easybeats

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A glorious downer of a ballad from Australia’s Easybeats. This was released as a single, but failed to chart in the US. Despite its commercial failure, it’s a staple on many Easybeats’ “Best Of’s.” According to the liner notes on an Easybeats compilation I had many years ago, Lou Reed allegedly used to play this song over and over again on a jukebox somewhere in NYC.

“Sad Song” – Lou Reed

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The closing song from Lou Reed’s perversely depressing masterpiece from 1973 “Berlin.”

Key lyrics: “Staring at my picture book … She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots … She seemed very regal to me … Just goes to show how wrong you can be … I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time … Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”

Leave it to Lou to write something both uplifting and completely creepy and depressing at the same time. Apparently, this was written and recorded during a particularly bad bender on Lou’s part. Ironically, it was immediately after the huge commercial success of the “Transformer” album.

“Queen Bitch” – David Bowie

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David Bowie’s 1971 homage to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, from the classic (and eclectic) “Hunky Dory” album. One of Bowie’s best balls-to-wall rock songs and one that never fails to have me bouncing around the room.  Brilliantly used on the trailer for Jason Reitman’s painful and acidic 2011 comedy “Young Adult.”

“Sweet Jane” – Lou Reed (from the 2007 concert film “Lou Reed’s Berlin” dir. Julian Schnabel)

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I’m not going to lie to you. This has been a tough week. Between learning a good friend has passed on and the overtime I’ve put in at work, I need something that makes me feel good to be alive. Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is a song that always makes me feel better about the world … especially this kick-ass live version recorded for the 2007 film “Lou Reed’s Berlin” directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Lou was in his late 60s when he recorded this. This gives me hope and good feelings for my impending “golden years.”