Archive for Lou Reed

The Summer’s Best Record Is A Compilation of Velvet Underground Covers

Posted in Lou Reed, Music with tags , , , , , on August 15, 2017 by johnbuckley100


Over an embarrassingly long span of time, we’ve made dozens of Velvet Underground playlists.  On cassettes, Mini Disks, and various i-devices, we’ve carried an encyclopedia of music all tied to a single band.  These playlists haven’t just been collections of songs by the Velvets, or covers of Velvets songs, but also that more ethereal if no less important sub-genre of music: songs by bands that would never have existed had the Velvet Underground not summoned them from dank basements and moody bedrooms.

In fact, a little over 10 years ago in this very space, we wrote about the concept of Velvet Underground music as notional, a category that actually exists more through bands they influenced than the four-album entity that broke up in the early ’70s.  That band, the real Velvet Underground of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and, what the Hell, Doug Yule, surely existed.  They were captured on the four original albums, the wildly variable official and unofficial live albums,  plus — and crucially — 1985’s posthumous compilation album, VU, which released so many great songs heretofore only heard as covers by other bands.  But like a truffle dog in pursuit of pungent underground treasures, our life has been enriched by the search for those great bands that, long after the real Velvets were gone, channeled them, brought them to enhanced life, and in so doing created the music we most adore.

If the main highways of rock’n’roll lead back to the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan, to Motown, the blues, and Elvis, to the San Francisco bands and early metal, our favorite potholed city streets go directly to the Velvet Underground via Spiritualized and Galaxie 500, Per Ubu and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Black Ryder, Mazzy Star, and Jesus and Mary Chain.  The Velvets existed, but their progeny did so much more, and no, we won’t repeat Brian Eno’s hoary invocation of The Velvet Underground and Nico as the record that launched 1000 bands.


C) Joel Meyerowitz 1968

The Brazilian blog and record company, The Blog That Celebrates Itself, commissions bands from around the globe to participate in compilation homages to fave bands, from Echo and the Bunnymen to Spiritualized.  It was just a matter of time before they would get to the Velvet Underground.  Brace yourself.

After Hours, Velvets In Another View, which you can download from Bandcamp, has just come out and is, by some margin, the Album of the Summer.  Hearing favorite bands like Flavor Crystals play that most gorgeous of Velvets songs, “Ocean,” brings tears to the eye.  But everyone steps up, and as is the case with compilation albums, we immediately learn about bands we’d never heard of.  Thank you, The Other Kingdom, for your version of “What Goes On” — we will immediately become your biggest fan. The Tamborines’ version of “Heard Her Call My Name” will forever be on our Velvets playlists, Volume 63-102. Each of the songs here sound bright, as if the bands had money to play with.  And while Iceland’s Singapore Sling are veterans of the studio, as is proved by the pulsating version of “Sister Ray” that kicks off the album, we don’t know enough about Robsongs and Psychedelic Trips To Death and Magic Shoppe to grok whether the ace versions here of “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” “Run Run Run,” and “Heroin,” respectively, are par for their particular course, or just showcase bands getting their shot and going for it.

Maybe the only thing that really needs to be said about the grip the Velvet Underground has had on my life is that, in the final record he made with the band, Lou Reed wrote a song with these lyrics:

Jenny said, when she was just five years old
There was nothin’ happening at all
Every time she puts on the radio
There was nothin’ goin’ down at all, not at all
Then, one fine mornin’, she puts on a New York station
You know, she couldn’t believe what she heard at all
She started shakin’ to that fine, fine music
You know, her life was saved by rock’n’roll

Growing up in ear shot of NY AM radio, this was the story of our life.  While most reference to the Velvets focus on heroin, decadence, noise and squalor, to us they always were a band of uplift, of Sunday mornings and pale blue eyes. Of intelligent questions, like what goes on in other people’s minds.  Of wisdom and revelation, when you’re beginning to see the light.  And of beauty, and peace, like the drone of the cosmos in the sound of ocean waves.

The Velvets contained multitudes. After Hours, Velvets In Another View is the summer’s revelation.

Lou Reed’s New York Still Exists

Posted in Leica Monochrom, Lou Reed, Times Square with tags , , , on October 7, 2014 by johnbuckley100

It has been a long time since we’ve gotten to wander through Times Square on a warm autumn evening at 10:30 or so. So much has changed since Giuliani and Bloomberg have rendered the city something closer to Singapore than the dirty town we lived in in the ’70s. The pedestrian mall is filled with cops, and cartoon characters.  But even out there on the street, with the Disney characters entertaining the tourists, a slice of the New York we used to live in can still be found.  Leica Monochrom, 50mm Summilux Asph.

Times Square Beuaty 1

Philip Parfitt Is Not The Man He Used To Be

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by johnbuckley100

It may have been a heartfelt stroke of honesty, it might have been an effort to inoculate against the facile criticism he expected, but whatever it is that prompted Philip Parfitt to call his first album in 20 years I’m Not The Man I Used To Be, it certainly seems accurate.  For this album is very, very different from what Parfitt has done in his prior lives, his prior bands.

It’s no disgrace if you don’t know who he is. Parfitt’s last album came out before, oh, Oasis hit the scene. The Perfect Disaster may be best remembered now for having given Josephine Wiggs to The Breeders, but to those of us who remember the late 1980s, they gave us an enormous amount of pleasure.  Some of that pleasure, to be sure, was what a great guitarist Dan Cross proved to be, but it was Parfitt’s singing and songwriting that made The Perfect Disaster worthy of being spoken of in the same sentence with the Velvet Underground.  Here’s how we described them in 2009:

“The Perfect Disaster were an interesting, sometimes thrilling late ’80s British band headed by Parfitt, with the glorious Dan Cross on lead guitar, what had to be Mo Tucker’s illegitimate son Jon Mattock on drums and, before she left for The Breeders, Josephine Wiggs on bass and vocals. Their album Up is what got me started, especially “Time To Kill.” They had a chugging, Velvets sound, had spent plenty of time listening to the Buzzcocks and Modern Dance-era Pere Ubu, and Parfitt was a wonderfully sneering front man, limited in vocal range, but of course that made sense, since the model was Lou Reed. Heaven Scent came out in 1990, and to my ears was stronger than Up (though britcrits seem to prefer the former.) It had a little less urgency than its predecessor, but by now Parfitt’s songwriting craft had more facets and dimensions, yet was more contained. Great things seemed in store, and … poof. They disappeared.”

But then came Oedipussy, whose 1994 album Divan we called “the great lost album of post-punk British rock.”  It was more dynamic, more explicitly commercial than The Perfect Disaster, and while their (his?) lone album was incredibly different from what had come earlier, it was no less satisfying.  Two years after we posted our piece on Oedipussy, this comment suddenly appeared:

““thank you ladies and gentlemen. I am well.its very very lovely that people appreciate my work. i’ve not stopped writing or recording since Divan, just haven’t got ruond to releasing much; I am though planning to get a new album out this year 2011. there! I’ve said it! one step follows another step, even when you are walking backwards.”

It was signed, simply, “philip.”  And for three years, these two Tulip Frenzy posts have gotten steady traffic, as the world hasn’t forgotten about Philip Parfitt.

And then two weeks ago, someone tweeted us that Parfitt had a new album out, and sure enough, I’m Not The Man I Used To Be hit the iTunes store.


When you listen to the opener, “Big Sister,” it’s not Lou Reed that comes to mind so much as Nick Drake.  This is a quiet album, handcrafted before the fireplace, as rain hits the window.  It is no less the beautiful for it.  Whether or not Phil Parfitt has changed — and let us simply assume that he was writing in character when, on Up‘s closer, “Time To Kill,” he announced it was “time to pull the trigger and/time to die” — this music is lovely.  And every bit as special as anything he did in his harder rocking past.

The Perfect Disaster has gotten us through many a late evening: car rides, plane rides and the like.  I’m Not The Man I Used To Be is that next album to play on a rainy Saturday after Beck’s Morning Phase is over, you’ve just poured another cup, and the dog is snoring at your feet.  To say this is a quiet album is the finest praise.  We’re glad he’s back.


Sorting Through The Lou Reed Remembrances To Find The Ones That Matter

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by johnbuckley100

The good news is that the New York Times assigned the obit to someone other than Jon Pareles, so we didn’t have to read sentences like, “Many of the group’s themes — among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration — stayed in Mr. Reed’s work through his long run of solo recordings.”  Oh wait, actually, we did have to read that in the Times, because Pareles still sets the tone there, and Ben Ratliff — no matter what his natural writing style was before he got there, has to play the tune called by Jonny.  But still, out of the long day and evening, as more writers weighed in, we got to read the good and the bad.

Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, revealed he doesn’t know very much about rock’n’roll when he tweeted, “Little known fact: his early teacher was the late Delmore Schwartz.”  Uh, no.  If you listen to rock’n’roll, you know that about as well as you know that 15 minutes served up to Geico returns 15 percent savings on your auto insurance; it is like knowing that Jimi Hendrix played guitar left handed.  It is a threshold-level fact, and if you didn’t know it, for God’s sake, shut up.  And a special dunce cap is reserved for any and all who summarized Lou’s work with a reference to “Walk On The Wild Side,” his least consequential song, even if it was a novelty hit.

But still, there were some really good things posted.  Let’s give credit where it is due: the initial Rolling Stone announcement at 1:15 PM was solid.

By early evening, we had a typically terrific remembrance from The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones.  (Thank Heaven for Sasha, who almost always gets it right.)

Later in the evening, of course, we heard from Christgau, Chairman Emeritus of the department, the dean of them all.  And his piece was hilarious, recalling the time that Lou had denounced him from the stage as a “toe fucker.”

Now, we weren’t at that particular show by Lou, but we were alive and well and attending his concerts during that great Street Hassle phase in the late ’70s, when he was caustic and outrageous and sang songs like “I Wanna Be Black,” whose lyrics can’t be printed in a family blog.

Our last word on Lou here will state four things.

First, how grateful we were to be old enough to remember the Velvet Underground, not as historical antecedent, but as a real band, even if our particular entry point was Loaded.  Even if weren’t wise to the kismet of The Velvet Underground and Nico being released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandour teenage playlist included “Train Comes Around The Bend,” and we were hip to Mott The Hoople kicking off All The Young Dudes with “Sweet Jane”, creating that nexus between Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop — which would become so important to us in our late teens — in real time.  We can remember seeing that first Velvets album, with its peel off banana sticker, in the bins of a small-town record store, and passing on it to buy, with our allowance, Your Saving Grace.  But still, The Velvets lived for us, even if our obsession with them didn’t kick in until around 1977.

A-and let us proclaim how grateful we were to have been able to see Lou play with his greatest band from the early 1980s — Fernando Saunders on bass, Fred Maher on drums, and of course, Robert Quine on guitar.  While today it’s quite worthwhile to listen to all the sonically deficient but historically vital Velvets live recordings, including the tapes that Quine recorded when he was a law student following the VU around like some prehistoric Deadhead — and you should go right now to find Velvet Underground Live 1969, which was recorded before about 12 people in a club in Dallas, yes, Dallas.  But if you really want to listen to Lou live, and in his purest form, get Live In Italy.  It has both an excellent compendium of Velvets songs and songs from The Blue Mask  and Legendary Hearts, his two greatest albums, which he spent the early ’80s touring to support.

And to put it simply, and sincerely, since many have declared their favorite Lou song, let us quietly declare that ours was “Rooftop Garden,” from Legendary Hearts, which perfectly conveys two of Lou’s greatest, and most benign, influences: folk music and Brill Building pop couplets.

Finally, Lou Reed’s passing seems in some ways like a dress rehearsal for that inevitable day when Dylan dies.  The floodgates of foolishness will open on that sad day in the future, as all the wrong songs get quoted on Twitter, and it will take a few authoritative voices to weigh in and set the genuine historical record straight — Mikal Gilmore, Jonathan Cott, Jann Wenner.  Lou Reed’s death yesterday, though, was the first of the real giants of our shared rock’n’roll past dying at a ripe old age, which 71 really is.  This is not like John Lennon being assassinated or the 27-year old Hendrix succumbing to pills or even the 50-year old Joe Strummer dying of a heart attack.  This was a precursor to all the obits yet to come, of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and Mick and Keith and Charlie.  And so long as we have voices like Sasha Frere-Jones, and we pray, a nonagenarian Bob Christgau to wash away the idiocy of what we’ve grown to expect from the Pareles-era Times and Twitter, everything’s going to be alright.  We’re going to have a real good time together, remembering the greats for what they were, and what they meant to us.

On The Sad News Of Lou Reed’s Passing

Posted in Music with tags , on October 27, 2013 by johnbuckley100

So Rolling Stone is reporting that Lou Reed has died.  It is a sad moment for rock’n’roll, not unexpected, but a shock nonetheless.  Any worthy assessment of both the best songwriters, and most important figures, in the history of rock’n’roll would put Lou Reed in the same small group that would include Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones.

It’s not just that the Velvet Underground was a great band.  It’s that they live on in the form of our next two dozen favorite bands; that is, while the Velvets broke up 40 years ago, as we wrote six years ago, many of our favorite bands today completely channel the sound Lou and company created.

In the days ahead, much will be written about Reed’s greatness.  If you really want to cut through it all, just go listen to The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts.  You don’t even have to go back to the Velvets.  Just play those two albums, which came out back-to-back in the early 1980s, chronicling Lou’s state of mind when he found himself sober, and an adult, and an artist of the first rank.  And now both Lou and his guitarist on those albums, Bob Quine, are gone.  Though truth be told, if in 1973, you’d said that Lou would live to 2013, few would have believed you.

Sad, sad news today.

45 Years Later, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” Gets Its Due

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on November 1, 2012 by johnbuckley100

It makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that even in its expensive 6-disk repackaging, the 45th anniversary edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico arrived with snafus.  We’re not talking about the delay in delivery to our home, as UPS dug its way out of the post-Sandy mess.  (And we really are trying to stay away from thinking that there is a connection between the release of this most epochal document produced by New York’s Downtown and the tidal flooding and blackout conditions that hit there literally the day this box set was released…)

The problem is: this most snakebit of iconic albums — recorded quickly in a studio in a condemned building, its original release delayed over a critical 11-month period between ’66 and ’67, and then upon release withdrawn from circulation because the label wouldn’t pay up for the rights to a single photograph on the back cover — has now gotten the full’n’reverential treatment, costing as much ($81.00) as the rent Lou Reed and John Cale likely paid for their apartment on the Lower East Side when they made the bloody thing.  And yet Polydor seems to have forgotten to register the songs with the Gracenote online database.  Thus last night, when we dropped the first cd into our iMac, no song titles registered.  Perfect. Its six discs now sit in our computer as unidentified files.

Recorded in April 1966 but unreleased until late winter ’67, it took years for the first Velvets album to reach its full effect, a sleeper cell that didn’t start doing real damage until nearly ten years later.  The ur-document of ’70s punk rock, the album that earlier knocked Bowie’s trajectory wonderfully off kilter, from singing Anthony Newley-esque show tunes to ultimately becoming Ziggy Stardust… that inspired artists as disparate as Brian Eno and Jonathan Richmond… that provided the context in which thinking American punk bands like Pere Ubu could develop, The Velvet Underground & Nico was the counterculture to the counterculture, a harsh and black-clad concoction from Lower Manhattan served to a tiny sliver of the world while San Francisco, LA and London were sipping electric Kool-Aid and happily marveling at technicolor landscapes.

Of course it ended up being released the same week as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to which it served as some reverse image: apogee of darkened New York streets while the Beatles, living now on vast country estates, turned the world on to a dramatically rosier reality.  The Velvet Underground & Nico was a monochromatic production out of step with what was bubbling up in rock music.  Whether it had come out in ’66 or not, this album would have been out of step with its West Coast counterparts, making the seeming misalignment betweenTimothy Leary and Ken Kesey, previously dramatized as an East-West conflict, seem like just an ego trip.  The Velvets weren’t just off the bus, as proper New Yorkers they didn’t even know how to drive.

Brian Eno once famously said that “only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but they all started bands.”  According to the liner notes, he was a bit off on that — by 1969, it had sold nearly 60,000 copies — but he sure was right about its limited impact on the mass culture contrasted against its complete influence on a later generation of musicians.  Without the Velvet Underground, there would have been no Modern Lovers, nor Talking Heads.  So many of the bands we love — from the Brian Jonestown Massacre to Galaxie 500/Luna, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to the Feelies, from Roxy Music to Spiritualized, Spaceman 3 to Pere Ubu — were direct musical descendants of the VU, a completely logical claim can be made that, in terms of the influence they were to have, the Velvet Underground were every bit the equals of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Dylan.  And it all started with this album.

How Lou Reed, a street-smart poet steeped in a Brill Building pop sensibility, could have combined forces with the suave and classically trained John Cale, and then been directed by Andy Warhol to install Nico, a model born in pre-war Cologne, as the band’s resident chanteuse, is one of those pop music myths rivaled only by stories of John meeting Paul, Mick running into Keith on the bus, and now Gonzalez’s records finding their way to South Africa.

An argument can be made that it was really only after John Cale left  that what today we recognize as “the Velvets sound” came into being.  For arguably it was the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album — without Cale, but with the guitar-dominant songs like “What Goes On” — that we hear echoed in our favorite bands. Much later, after the Velvets had been rediscovered by both British and New York punks, came the motherlode of accidentally rediscovered tapes, packaged and released in ’84 as VU.  Among the bands we like, it was perhaps the most influential album of the 1980s, at least until the Pixies arrived, because it unearthed legendary songs that weirdly had the power of locking in a VU sound that studio albums only implied. The various live albums, crudely recorded as they were, offered tantalizing hints as to what the Velvets were really all about, but VU delivered, not so much rock as a Rosetta Stone.  By then, apart for 15 years, Cale and Reed had guaranteed their status as masters, following a series of incredible solo albums, and in a way, we’d come to think of Velvets as mere antecedents to the more important oeuvre of the two founders.  VU reflated the Velvets mythos with a set of jaw-droppingly great Lou Reed songs — from “I Can’t Stand It” to “Foggy Notion” — and every band I knew instantly wanted to sound like that.

There is no argument it was this first album that created the context for the band’s steady influence, still powerful 45 years on.  It’s funny in a way, now that gay marriage is accepted by a majority of Americans, and a popular sitcom like Modern Family makes jokes about sadomasochism, to think about just how radical it was for a band to have recorded, in 1966,  a song like “Venus In Furs,” with its whiff of the tawdry from dirty French novels.

There hasn’t been a concomitant acceptance of the album’s more shocking context, which was the elevation of heroin.  It must have been so confusing to the audience at the rock ballroom in Ohio where, in 1966, the show included on Disks 5 and 6 was recorded, to hear not just “Waiting For The Man,” but “Heroin,” with Cale’s viola mimicking the feeling that Reed’s lyrics described.  Most of the audience had probably just started smoking pot, a few of the more adventuresome having tried LSD.  And here were these weirdos from New York singing about blood in the dropper before the heroin hits their veins.  We’re grateful that sexual mores have changed since ’66, even as we wonder how many victims there were among those who took the signal from this album that it was darkly glamorous to try smack.  The Velvet Underground & Nico was a far more revolutionary — and dangerous — document than anything that came out of San Francisco, London, or LA that year. And even as we praise it, and admire it for pushing musical boundaries, we’re glad that its glamorization of heroin had a more limited cultural impact.

The Velvets, to our knowledge, have shown up in fictionalized form in two movies.  We see Andy Warhol’s Exploding Fantastic Inevitable in “I Shot Andy Warhol,” and we think we remember a scene where Jim Morrison sees the Velvets play during their stint at the Dom in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.  The Doors may have been the only contemporary band to have truly embraced what these East Coast hipsters were up to in ’67.  Theirs was a music of mystery and violence, with no rosy eyed hippie bullshit.  And of course it makes sense, under the circumstances, that Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose.

The Velvet Underground & Nico caught a band so far ahead of its time — so out of step with even the hippest quadrants of its moment — that it took more than a decade before New York bands like Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Talking Heads would consolidate the gains Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Mo Tucker made in a scuzzy studio in a two-day session.  Rock music had no infrastructure to support the Velvet Underground.  There was no Pitchfork keeping its ear to the ground and alerting the cognoscenti to the next big’n’obscure thing.  There was no FM radio to make sure college towns heard what was happening in precincts far removed.  Instead, there was AM radio in search of hits, and even as Lou Reed could churn songs out, few were the DJs or A&R men eager to play songs about shooting heroin or licking someone’s boot while the whip comes down.

Here we have the original album (Disk 1), its mono version (2), Nico’s Chelsea Girls in its entirety (3), rehearsal tapes and early recordings (4), and the aforementioned live sets.  Yes, an expensive release for true obsessives.  We deem it well justified, given how glorious this music is, how much it can still blow the mind.  Now if the record label could only get the tracks entered into the proper data base, so our iMac would recognize them as not Xs and Os, but as the incendiary songs that they still are.

UPDATE: As of Friday, November 2nd, the database has updated, and all six CDs have been identified inside my iMac.

On Spiritualized’s “Sweet Heart Sweet Light”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on April 16, 2012 by johnbuckley100

Tomorrow, after an impressive campaign to reintroduce Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized to an audience that may never have heard of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the album Sweet Heart Sweet Light at last will be released.  Thankfully, we were able to listen to the epic opener, “Hey Jane,” beginning in March, and NPR has been continuing its public service by allowing us to stream Sweet Heart Sweet Light in its entirety for the past week. Interviews and profiles of Pierce have flowed like altar wine.  The album has been so well publicized it arrives devoid of mystery, but because it is Spiritualized, and because according to most rock’n’roll playbooks, Pierce should have been dead long ago — and also, to be sure, because the music is so good — we still have the transubstantiation of mere bits, bytes and musical notes into something miraculous and fine.

Calling an album Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Spiritualized seems allergic to commas in album titles) and leading off with a song called “Hey Jane” lets you know exactly in front of which God Jason Pierce genuflects.  If they’d called the album White Light White Heat and the song “Sweet Jane,” would it have been any clearer? We wouldn’t ordinarily think of the Velvet Underground, and particularly Lou Reed, in spiritual terms.  But then there are those lines in “Heroin,” which probably inspired Pierce all the way back in his Spaceman 3 days: “When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son…”  No matter how many times he invokes Jesus — and Pierce has walked with Jesus, at least in his lyrics, for some 20 years, and does so repeatedly on Sweet Heart Sweet Light — we don’t actually think of him in spiritual terms, no matter what his band is called.

We think of Pierce as a heroin surviver who has made transcendent music, inspired by the Velvets and Lou to a degree that makes Dean Wareham or Anton Newcombe seem like casual fans. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, we have long since concluded that Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was the great album of the 1990s, even as it was overshadowed by other albums from the exceptional vintage year of 1997 (OK Computer, Strangers Almanac.)  Longtime readers of Tulip Frenzy may find it puzzling that we think of Spiritualized the way we do, as we’ve been critical of anything that smacks, if you’ll pardon the expression, of heroin chic.  But some years ago we clarified that we view Jason Pierce as nothing so much as an anti-heroin morality play.  His greatest work was essentially all about heroin, not to glamorize it, though yeah, sure, it offers ecstasy and all that, but as much to deal honestly with its aftereffects. Space rock it may be called, but Pierce has always been exceptionally honest, not exploiting his having breakfast right off of a mirror so much as matter-of-factly offering it as a glimpse of his life.   The consequences of heroin have predictably, and we have to say satisfyingly (to someone who despises heroin chic) been borne out over these past many years; the boilerplate about Pierce is all about his near-death experiences, the lingering damage — shot liver, double pneumonia — of a body ravaged by having lived too hard, which is a euphemism for saying he loved putting powder in his nose and his arm.  We are sad this is the case, thrilled by the music, thrilled he’s still alive, admire him for his honesty.  We are relieved, on some level, that he has paid a price, but one that — based on the evidence at hand: a new record, and a great one at that — has not been too dear.  We know that the benefit of this ecstasy and agony, this yin and yang, has been simply incredible rock’n’roll music: dense, sui generis even as it has been dipped, like a celebrant in baptismal water, in the deep pools of the Velvet Underground.

Sweet Heart Sweet Light is variously thrilling, beautiful, a little sappy, uplifting. It is a glorious rock’n’roll album, exciting and pretty in turns.  Pierce’s affinity for taking minimal numbers of chords and drenching them in maximalist orchestration —  not just strings and horns, but wicked guitar feedback and blues harp, trilling piano and gospel choruses — is back, fifteen years after Ladies and Gentlemen. Spiritualized’s music is, at times, so over the top, and also so simple: R&B informed by the Brill Building’s lessons taught to young Lou Reed.  “There She Goes Again” meets “Heroin.”  We find spirituality in the ecstasy that comes from music, not music that comes from Ecstasy.   For us, Spiritualized’s cup runneth over.  We are so glad that Pierce has survived to deliver something this pleasing, both to his old audience and, potentially, given the amazing run of media coverage these last few weeks, to new ones.

Whether Pierce’s current recovery from liver failure, and the regimen that is keeping him from drink’n’drugs, is long lasting or not, we rejoice — yeah, that’s the word — at his clear-eyed current state.  One day at a time.  Easy does it.  But easy as some of the new album may be on the ears — and it is; he has succeeded in creating a pop album — it gets to that same place, that thrilling dangerous place, that Lou Reed and the Velvets also brought us to.  “Street Hassle” may hide within Pierce’s music like a Nina in an old Al Hirschfeld cartoon — it’s always there someplace, from Spaceman 3 to Spiritualized — and he pays it full reverence.  On this one, to use Lou’s words, Pierce is “going for the kingdom if I can.” But it’s not at the end of a plunger, syringe and needle.  Not high, on liver medicine not blurring drugs, Sweet Heart Sweet Light comes from something deeper, and more beautiful still —  from Jason Pierce’s emmense creativity and the deep wellspring of talent within.

The Alejandro Escovedo Trio Is Heavier Than Motorhead

Posted in Music with tags , , , on November 10, 2008 by johnbuckley100

The protean Alejandro Escovedo formed his act into a power trio last night at the Birchmere.  Maybe when we say power trio you think of Cream, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, or everybody’s favorite, Beck, Bogert and Appice.  And yeah, this amalgam was just as thundering, only it was just Al on acoustic, Dave Pulkingham on the same, and Susan Voelz, as always, on the fiddle.

It’s been a winter tradition in these here parts for Alejandro to show up with cellos and Ms. Voelz and Mr. Pulkingham, taking all these erstwhile rockers out for a chamber-music spin.  (Warmer parts of the year, at least since Al regained his health, are dedicated to him touring with his rock band.  Though Alejandro Escovedo manages his personnel they way Bob Dole managed his presidential campaigns, which is to say, when he can’t figure which team to ride — the rockers or the stringed quartet — he just makes them all work together.  For Alejandro, a successful approach.  For Dole, not so much.  And it is, of course –Alejandro’s rock bands every bit as much as Dole’s campaigns — a spectacle: the cellos choogling, Victor Munoz walloping the skins, one, no two, no three electric guitars fighting for air.)  But then last year at about this time he dropped one cellist and came to the Barns at Wolf Trip as a foursome. And then last night it was just the three of them, and damn if they didn’t put out just as much of a sonic hum, though without the cello for ballast, the whole thing seemed to ride higher on the waves.

“Drop a penny in the Indian Ocean,” he sang in the opener, the stunning “Way It Goes,” from 1992’s Thirteen Years, and quickly gone were any doubts about whether Al, playing in just a threesome, would be giving something up.  “Everybody Loves Me” was as great as it is on Room Of Songs, but that version’s performed by a five piece orchestra, and this version had just the three, so they tripled their effort and expended a precisely identical thermal reading.  Lots of songs from Real Animal, which does appear to have been something of a breakthrough, and not just artistically.  We got to hear about the “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” and yeah, it rocked.  And then there was the version of “Deer Head On The Wall,” with its opening interlude out of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” quickly shifting into a song that sounds okay on The Boxing Mirror, really good when he has the whole rock band cranked up, but last night, with just the three of them, damn near levitated the roof into the Reagan Airport flight path.

Maybe a few people can tell anecdotes that mention Johnny Thunders showing up — it’s a pretty good name to drop — and it is possible there are others who, like Alejandro, will always mention Joe Strummer at their concerts (I don’t think I’ve ever heard him forget him, which tells you just about all you need to know.)  Anyone can play a Stones cover.  But who other than Alejandro Escovedo would take his trio into the crowd and play “Evening Gown,” from Mick Jagger’s best solo album?  Who else would even admit he listens to Mick Jagger’s solo albums?

The man is a national treasure.  Thank Heaven he is healthy and well.  And coming back to DC next weekend to play a show before a hundred people in the Mansion on O Street.  Special as last night was, could this upcoming show top it?

Notional Velvet Underground: What The Late Show In Heaven Sounds Like

Posted in Music with tags , , , on November 1, 2008 by johnbuckley100

There are times when I listen to a song and it makes me think of the Velvet Underground.  Brian Jonestown Massacre.  Luna. Mazzy Star.  Jesus and Mary Chain.  You get that, right?  The Feelies, Modern Lovers.  That case is easy to make.  And then I’ll listen to a song like the version of Dylan’s “Most of The Time” that’s on the 3rd CD of Tell Tale Signs and it makes me think, swear to God, of the VU.  And then I go and listen to the Velvets themselves and they don’t sound anything like my notional Velvet Underground.  What is that?

There was a story going around in 1969 about the groupie in LA who would sleep with guys and say, “Well, he’s good, but he’s not Mick Jagger.”  And then she slept with The Mick and her take was, “Well, he’s good, but he’s not Mick Jagger.”  Myth and reality.  But in this case, the question is: was there ever a reality to the Velvet Underground?   Eno’s line that only 1000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but they all formed bands is, of course, on some level true. And not all the bands sounded like the Velvets, but they’re all connected, in some way, at some level.  But what does it actually mean to sound like the Velvet Underground?  

For me the quintessential VU sound came on the 3rd album, with songs like “What Goes On” and the delicate “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Beginning To See The Light.”  There’s a residue of folk and Motown and Farfisa organ-based garage rock.  And to me, this sound shows up everywhere from Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets” to the Talking Heads’ “The Good Thing.”  

Is it Sterling Morrison’s guitar sound?  That’s a lot of it.  That and the simple, propulsive drumming of Moe Tucker, the organ overlay.  Sterling Morrision’s echoes can be heard in everything from Luna (not just when he sat in with them) to William Reid of JAMC to the BJM for sure.  But how to account for the fact that when I put together a Velvets-sounding playlist, I put on it bands like the Warlocks, who are of a completely different school, who were beamed to Earth from a whole different constellation?

Here’s the playing order (bands, not songs) of my Velvets playlist: Pere Ubu, Modern Lovers, BJM, JAMC, Warlocks, Luna, The Darkside, Mazzy Star, Dylan, Neko Case, The Stems, Galaxie 500,The Feelies, Van Morrison.  Not a lot in common between them all, but they all plug in, in the songs contained therein, to the Velvets amp.  Who am I missing?

Another thing that’s weird: Lou Reed has a very distinctive song structure, or at least the solo artist Lou did.  And yet few, if any of the bands referenced sound like Lou.  It’s almost like the Velvets sound of mental myth is Lou-less.  Weird.

All I know is that, having never seen the Velvet Underground, but having seen the three fictional film versions — in The Doors, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Factory Girl — I have some sense of what the late show in Heaven sounds like.  Angus McLeish may sit in on drums for a song or two.  Peter Laughner will be there on guitar.  Mark Smith will curse and spit on stage.  Dean Wareham waits his turn near the amps.  And we’ll have a real good time together.

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