Somewhat ironically, I first heard the Velvet Underground – arguably the most New Yorky of all New York bands ever – while sequestered as a college student out in the verdant environs of rural Ohio. They were introduced to me by my friend Jay (a scholarly music-head who'd also turned me onto the Stooges, Berlin-era Bowie and Discipline-era King Crimson). Up until that point, all I really knew about Lou Reed was "Walk on the Wild Side" and the strikingly banal "I Love You Suzanne." But upon hearing the title track of the Velvets' second album, White Light/White Heat – with its sudden, off-kilter intro and chunky, insistent bass line that careens right off the rails towards the end of the song – I was instantly captivated. Hearing their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was a revelation. I loved the notion that the stridently black-clad Velvets were playing radically discordant music with pronouncedly "adult themes" while the rest of the world was grooving to the brightly-colored psychedelic pop of Sgt. Peppers. They were the original Punks.
After immersing myself in the Velvet Underground's catalog in college, I figured it was time to give Lou Reed's solo material more of a chance. His body of work, of course, is dense and varied. Just because you happen to dig one Lou Reed album (the universally feted Transformer, for example), there's absolutely no reason in the world that you'll like the one after that (Berlin, arguably the most depressing album ever recorded). To his credit, Lou's penchant for reinvention is irrepressible (see also Bowie, Zappa, etc.) While he admirably doesn't care what anyone else thinks, Reed usually sacrifices consistency for experimentation. I tried to keep up, but tapered off after a while.
Recently, I returned to Reed's infamous live album from 1978, Take No Prisoners. Part stand-up comedy routine, part vitriolic screed, part coked-up babble, part rock show, Take No Prisoners may not find the man at his artistic peak, but it's still pretty entertaining -- if not only for Lou's contentious banter (see also Metallic K.O. by ye olde Stooges for more of same). Recorded at the since-vanished Bottom Line, the double-disc is a captivating glimpse into the manic mindset of Lou at the time.
I've always been somewhat let down by Lou's live recordings -- notably this one's predecessor from 1974, the slavishly overrated Rock N' Roll Animal, wherein Lou plays to the middle by making some of his theretofore incendiary Velvet Underground material sound like wanky Derek & the Dominoes jams with the help of some truly masturbatory session slicksters. It's almost as if Reed is musically apologizing for the raw abrasion of the early Velvets material by re-styling them as accessible stadium rock. "Heroin," for one example, doesn't need the injection (pardon the horrible pun) of a muscular guitar riff. The song was hauntingly sparse, endearingly flawed and perfect as it was. Here's an instance when reinvention is a bad thing.
Take No Prisoners isn't quite as satin-baseball-jackety as Rock N' Roll Animal, but there's a lot of truly extraneous backing music going on (get rid of that sax player for cryin' out loud -- you sound like Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band!) It's still fairly dated-sounding. Lou's vocals throughout the record are slavishly overwrought. Seems like his distinctive sing-speak voice drops an octave or two when onstage. To nitpick further, it sounds like he's deliberately altering the cadence of his vocal delivery to purposely contrast with the studio recordings in attempt to make them more melodic, when his flat, drowsy delivery on the originals was what made them so distinctive. To my ears, Lou's better when he isn't trying so hard.
When the Velvet Underground fleetingly reformed for a truly unlikely reunion tour in the early 90's, I was thrilled at the prospect. The resulting live album (released in three different editions – single disc, double-disc and deluxe double-disc in a shiny, black bubble-pack, complete with banana stickers), was certainly interesting, but amply proved that you really can't go home again. The recording is nice and clear, and everyone sounds in top form, but Lou's vocal delivery still drags down a couple of tracks (I cannot listen that album's rendition of "Venus in Furs" without frowning). Again, as a document of the historic event -- leant extra poignancy by the death of guitarist Sterling Morrison shortly after its release, firmly putting the kibosh on any further reunions -- it's essential listening, but ultimately it sounds like just what it is – a reunion tour album. The Velvet Underground are officially gone for good.
Lou Reed, meanwhile, is still going. I've seen him on the streets of New York at least twice. About a decade back, I walked by him while he was strolling up 7th Avenue out of Times Square. Last summer, I saw him walking with a gaggle of dudes all dressed up in Tai Chi wear -- Lou included -- on Astor Place. On neither occasion did I accost him (although I have a worrying track record of doing that). While arguably being the coolest man alive, Reed's reputation as a hot-headed crank is somewhat legendary. I doubt he'd take too kindly to my assessment of his work either, as – clearly – what the fuck do I know? In any case, here's the opening cut from the afore-mentioned Take No Prisoners, Lou's 1978 take on "Sweet Jane."
Incidentally, both of the venues that played host to Lou Reed on Take No Prisoners and Rock N' Roll Animal are gone, subsumed by widening sprawl of New York University. The building that formerly housed the Bottom Line (where I was lucky enough to see artists like Jim Carroll and Gavin Friday) is now a glum administrative facility of some kind. 14th Street's Academy of Music (which later morphed into the concert hall called the Palladium and further still into the big 80's nightclub Palladium) was knocked down and a soulless dormitory was built in its place. In the footprint where I was lucky enough to see Devo, Judas Priest and Public Image Ltd. perform (three different shows, mind you), snot-nosed NYU students now laize about listening to My Chemical Romance while texting each other.