Monday, September 15, 2008

The Greatest Performance of the Greatest Rock Song Of All Time

Lou Reed--"Sweet Jane (live)" (mp3)

Imagine it’s 1974. I know you probably can’t, but try. You are a junior in high school, spread out on a loveseat in your basement, your dark, cool basement. It is your abode­--pool table, refrigerator, minimal furniture, except that loveseat, where you do your homework.

Oh, yeah, and the stereo is down there. It’s where you listen to music. Back then, of course, the bigger the better, so you have a stack of stereo components and four speakers and quadraphonic sound, supposedly, though it’s never really worked, though, still, it’s four speakers and you get a lot of sound anyway.

You’re listening to the radio, probably WDVE in Pittsburgh. FM back then, at least the rock stations, is full of impossibly deep-voiced men (and women) who, in the FM sensibility of the day, say less, rather than more, and string together long sets of music with few commercial interruptions. The commercials are all about "head shops" and a place called Heads Together Underground Mall in Squirrel Hill that has midnight sales where you can get three albums for $9.99, by far the best deal in the city.

And then the DJ says in his understated, laconic way, “Here’s a little Lou Reed.” You know Lou Reed as the “Take A Walk On The Wild Side” guy, a song you kind of like, but you don't really get it. You are definitely not cool enough to know anything about the Velvet Underground. No one is. Rather than being a band with amazing cult status, they are simply a band that no one listened to or heard of. One of your friends stole their “Live at Max’s Kansas City” album, but for naught, since no one ever took it out of the wrapping.

And then the guitars kick in, two of them, playing different, but perfectly-complementary parts­high, soaring, and melodic­an extended interplay that is in no way a duel. Instead, it’s like encountering two gods instead of one. The bass playing is just as good. It keeps going on and on, and you stare at the green lights of your amplifier, all that you can see in the darkness, wondering what this is and where it is coming from. Then the guitars make the transition from soloing to chording and you recognize the chord progression. Wait, isn’t that “Sweet Jane?” Didn’t Mott The Hoople do that? The crowd starts to cheer, and almost as an afterthought to the greatest song introduction you’ve ever heard in your life, Lou Reed steps up to the mike and sings, “Standin’ on a corner/ Suitcase in my hand…..”

It’s a good thing that all of Lou’s live album, Rock and Roll Animal, rocks so hard, because otherwise you never would have figured out that whole androgynous rock thing. Your brother had a bunch of Bowie, and you arrived at that slowly, maybe a little too late, because Lou had actually played Pittsburgh on the tour that produced Rock and Roll Animal, but he played at an ice rink on the far side of town with little promotion. Ironically, 4 years later, your parents would own that ice rink, now reconfigured as tennis courts, as part of a racquet club they opened, and one night late, after everyone was gone, you and your friend Scott would take your guitars and amps out to the center of those courts and jam as loud and as well as you could, trying to awaken the ghosts of Lou Reed and company, who had once played there.

No comments: