Lou Reed in 1972 was in that awkward in between stage that lay between being a darling of the Factory and the music underground avant guarde scene as front man of the Velvet Underground, and the fully fledged Lou Reed, Death Dwarf, neon meth butterfly and sardonic chronicler of life, love, the gutter, addiction and redemption, that we all came to love as an artist in his own right. As influential as he was with the Velvet Underground, he didn’t come into his own until Transformer, and the later great Reed albums, like Berlin and New York.
I am always on the look out for the great Lou Reed live performances. He could be very variable in the immediate post Velvets years. At his best he was the rock and roll animal. At his worst, he was chaotic and strung out. A languid, laid back Waiting for the Man, practically nodding out it is so horizontal, let me know early on that this was one of the better of the Animal performances. Lou is in a playful mood, he toys with the songs, with his dramatic performance, with his own voice. This is no frenetic jerk off of a performance. “He is all dressed in black – like me!” Reed intones seriously, taking the audience along with him, wrapped in a thousand New York city used cottons, and blackened spoon wailing solos, just biting along the edges of rock and roll. Reed always existed perilously close to the edge of flat out ‘butt rock’ as I like to call it, sometimes he tips over into Chuck Berry-isms, but most of the time here, he keeps things just the right side of Johnny B Goode. The melody line in Waiting for the Man veers almost into Heroin‘s infamous tinkle nursery rhyme-like jingle. The song floats along to the end, you ‘know yer uncle Lou is feeling good, he gonna work it on out’….that little cute nod to his own legend never fails to make me want to rush the stage, and perform some kinda ritualistic appreciation of his genius. Lou is the consummate entertainer. The perfect junkie zero/hero. The man we were waiting for all along.
Heroin he points out started off as a song which made the Velvets into outcasts – no advertisements for his band were allowed, and it was banned. By this point Lou was able to play it on the radio, and the song had turned into an anthem even for those who had never ‘tried for the kingdom’. This version, dubbed by Lou as a rock and roll version, lifts the pace from a sweet jane nod, into a full on rush and nod, push and plunge experience. This song is the closest anyone can come to understanding the smack experience without ‘putting the spike into a vein’. Fuck Keef and his muscling dope, the sheer pornography of Heroin cannot be underestimated. Lou intimately describes flagging – pulling back to see that plume of blood shooting up the ‘dropper’s neck’, knowing you are safe and ‘in’ and ready to go go go, baby, to go to the land of nod. Lou is feeling it tonight and we all know it. He is in expressive and dramatic mood, performing the songs, getting into their drag disguise clothes and right under their skin. “Baby, you’re so vicious”, he scolds, and it is true. We want to watch the self destruction on the stage. We want to get down with “Doc and Sally, cooking for the Down Five”, we want the tenderness of Lou telling us about ‘a mainer’ to his vein, and the center of his head, and how he is better off than dead, because lets face it, thankfully, most of us don’t go there, have no desire to and have never done it. And those of us that have, hear and feel those exclamations right from the rumble of the bass to the gulp of air Lou takes before he carries on his rush and roll. Lou might ‘guess that (he) just don’t know’….but then Lou was never a pretender. Lou lived it. Lou came back to report from the brownstones and the gutters and the mainlines and lived to tell the tale.
Heroin melts into the most perfectly beautiful version of Berlin, a gorgeous ode to a kind of love, that is not ‘better than others’, just different. Taller. Shaved legs. A certain neighborhood paradise girl look. This is high burlesque of the most gorgeous order, statuesque and fragile. Berlin the album was a way in the future, but hearing this taster of the genius to come, at the time must have been breathtaking: this was the future, this was where he was going, and it was both the melted lard of a life of debauchery and also an assertation that ‘the glory of love’ is the be all and the end all of everything that has ever and will ever matter. Love is love, honey, ‘it was paradise’. Lou sounds engaged, passionate and heavenly. This is what lays at the end of the smack and meth rainbow if you are Lou Reed and can use the fuel for good instead of a fucked up banal evil, or a sad quick descent into a small quiet death.
From Berlin, into another track from Transformer, “Im So Free”, a twisted number which tumbles along indeed freely and joyously. This is happy, street hassle-y, high energy joy. “Yes I am mother’s nature’s son!” Lou exclaims, and we are forced to believe him. After an early life not accepted as who he was, forced into electroshock therapy by homophobic parents, Lou has blossomed. New York set Lou free. Lou set himself free. Lou set me free. I was a freak, a wierd child who had lived a life of abuse as a child, and Lou provided my roadmap to self acceptance and freedom. This version is better than the album version, far more carefree, and less careful, with the most wild and helter skeltering lead guitar. Freedom in four chords.
It leads onto another track from his new-at-the-time album, Transformer, Satellite of Love. The craze at the time, led by Bowie, of everything space and alien, had got to Lou. The delightfully childish ‘bong bong bong’ where he sings along with the guitar, emphasize the childlike almost psychedelic simplicity of ‘I love to watch things on TV’. From the playground rhyme of “I’ve been told that you’ve been bold with Harry Mark and John’, or winken blinken and nod, like it was in early versions, to the again free and abandoned outro, the song is a success. This might be the happiest I have ever heard Reed be in any live performance. The grouch is superseded by an obvious intense happiness, a contentment with what he is doing, when he is doing and with whom he is doing it with!
Walk on the Wild Side, jogs along. Lou never does this song badly. The audience claps and hurrahs for the line “even when he was giving head” could warm even my cold heart. Freedom. Joy. Expression. Between all of this, as Lou said in an earlier song, “lies a lifetime”. These are words to live by for the gutter and the street, just as Kerouac wrote words for the road, and Dylan wrote for the hungry soul. This is Lou at his sexiest, most self confident best. A Lou who is comfortable in his own skin, even if it is only for the hour of this show. I have this little lie I tell myself, that Lou is speaking right to me, “Hey Jackie, take a walk on the wild side”…and in my mind’s eye I can see that sardonic little smile and think, hey Lou….you know what…I think you are right. Bong Bong Bong. Satellite of love, Louie. Looking at the parade of photos, seeing Lou all dark eyed and curly haired, innocent and knowing, alive and free, for a moment, back there in time, perhaps everything was all right, even if it was only for a while in 1972.
White Heat White Light, one of my favorite Velvet’s songs, with it’s off key deadpan backing vocals, that Lou does for himself with the rest of the Velvet’s missing, is hugely pleasurable. That white heat white light of speed, pure amped up power and fury pushes the song along. It remains the coolest uncool song ever.
What a night for those who were there! “It sure was funky”…..Sure, Lou, sure…anything you say….Bring it down……As Lou says thank you, and the audio fades out, I am left wondering what is left of the evening that I have yet to hear. That is what is special about Reed’s backpages – his extreme creativity never leaves the listener feeling cheated. Pure poetry in perpetual motion.