Good debate! I enjoyed that. It feels good to be right (ha ha). Anyway, our sparring over one angry, misunderstood musical genius got me listening to another angry, misunderstood musical genius (one of Kurt’s influences, in fact), and it inspired another entry into our Two Pals’ Perfect Album series. We’re going to play around with time and identity with this one, so please keep up…
You are Lou Reed. The 1960s are coming to a close, though for you they never really existed in the way that people like to think of them, all full of peace and love and hippy stuff. You and your band The Velvet Underground have made three albums that will be regarded as masterpieces; that will secure your place as the godfather of punk and new wave; that will forever be cited as essential influences on any rocker who prefers to rattle people’s chains than make pretty music. The 1960s are over and you are about to make your fourth and final masterpiece with the Velvet Underground, and your record label is busting your balls insisting that once — please, just once! — you make an album that might actually contain a hit.
You are me. The 1980s are coming to a close, though for you they never really existed in the way that people like to think of them, all full of optimism and a belief that prosperity and happiness will just naturally find us as long as we get a university degree. You are a worrier. You doubt yourself. You are preparing to go to university and like most people your age you listen to U2, Guns N’ Roses, Springsteen and Tom Petty; but you also listen to stranger stuff that average teens are not drawn to, like Love, Randy Newman, the Waterboys and the latest album from Lou Reed — New York, a bleak and angry song cycle about the decaying city that has always been his home. You’re not exactly a freak, but you’re attracted to darker stuff. You’re not exactly a rebel, but you have a tendency to doubt conventional wisdom.
You are Lou Reed. Your band isn’t what it used to be. Your collaborator and combatant John Cale has left, which means the Velvets’ music is now without his haunting, screeching viola. Maureen Tucker is pregnant and can’t play, which means you’ll be without her imperfect but entrancing drumming. But you have Doug Yule and Sterling Morrison and most importantly, you still have you — the angry visionary who has always driven this ground-breaking (actually, more like ground-scorching) band. And you have decided to have fun with your record label’s demand for hits. You’ve decided to make an album so loaded with hits that it will be called Loaded — and you will do it your way.
You are me. Following your slightly oddball music tastes, you’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Velvets’ first album, 1967’s Velvet Underground and Nico (the classic banana album)…
…and it is starting to obsess you. Sure, you love the Beatles, but you’re discovering the Velvets are the anti-Beatles and that makes them cool and interesting. You love the idea that in 1967, while everyone else was hitchhiking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair and grooving to Sgt. Peppers, there were four sunglass-wearing, leather-clad freaks holed up at Andy Warhol’s factory scaring the shit out of everyone with noise and dissonance and hard-boiled lyrics about heading uptown for heroin and head. You’re all for the surreal and euphemistic loveliness of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but you also seriously dig getting slammed in the face with the blunt reality of “Heroin”.
You are Lou Reed. You write and record Loaded. It opens with “Who Loves the Sun”, which is a direct retort to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. You make it sound every bit as sweet and catchy and hippy-dippy as the Beatles’ song. Both songs are freaking gorgeous, but where John and Paul said “yay for the sun!” your message is “fuck the sun”. You also include a handful of perfect classic rock tunes, including “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”; and mix it up with a few ballads (“New Age”, “I Found a Reason” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin”) so big and warm and fuzzy they’d even make Phil Specter swoon, until he realizes they’re about hobos, hookers and washed-up starlets. You even toss in “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, a boppin’, janglin’ country rock song that is presumably a nod to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, who are in the process of inventing country rock.
You do all of this for one simple reason — to show your record label and everyone else how fucking easy this is for you; to let them know you could have been making beautiful hits all along but have always found it more gratifying to assault and challenge your listeners with “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Sister Ray”.
You are me. You move on from the classic banana album to Loaded and discover it may actually be better. It’s certainly more fun. You wonder if Lou is messing with you. How could the guy behind “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also produce such straight-up rock? And cheese! Compelling cheese, but cheese all the same. It never gets cheesier than “I Found a Reason”, with its Pa Pa Pa sing-along and its ridiculous spoken word interlude:
Honey, I found a reason to keep living
And you know the reason, dear it’s you
And I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways
Hand in hand with myself
And I realized how many paths have crossed between us
You laugh at it, but you also love it. And perhaps this is what makes it the most subversive thing the Velvet Underground ever did. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick directed a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan, or Salvador Dali decided to take a stab at a Norman Rockwell scene. This is the musical equivalent: a dark, twisted genius slumming it in Happy-Land, and doing it better than just about anyone else could.
Other interesting things are happening in the late 1980s that are giving the Velvet Underground an aura of renewed relevance. Alt-country pioneers The Cowboy Junkies do a wicked cover of “Sweet Jane”. Lou is enjoying a resurgence with New York. And following Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, Lou and John Cale decide to hate each other less and work together more and make a spooky tribute album called Songs for Drella.
Meanwhile, you’re about to head off to university wondering if it’s going to do anything for you, and somehow all these things fit together in your fledgling world view, and Loaded, with just the right blend of sweet and cool, earns its place on your frequent play list.
And that’s the story of how a moody rocker in 1970 made a pop classic despite himself, and how 20 years later it was discovered by a kid who really needed to hear it. And it is the latest addition to the Two Pals’ perfect album canon: