Sweet Jane (excerpt)
If this isn’t the funniest album in my collection (that would be either Pryor’s That Nigger’s Crazy or one of Dylan’s Christian albums) then it’s damn close. Lou Reed has always been funny, although the humor in his work often exists subtextually, in the margins, through some sly allusion or his own ironic posturing. But here, ranting and riffing through extended workouts of his familiar classics, Lou delivers a brilliant stand up performance. His jokes are funny, but his asides are funnier (“I quit rock ‘n roll, I couldn’t afford my lawyers”) – the mark of a great comedian. He’s bored with some of these songs anyway, and he has enough respect for his audience to know that we are too. “Would you like to know how that song got written?” he asks at the start of a thirteen minute “Walk On The Wild Side” that never makes it past the first verse. I actually prefer this version of that hoary classic, with its Christgau and Mailer insults in among Lou’s gonzo riffing and the band’s endless vamping. This is the extended Lou Reed remix, complete with director’s commentary on the origin of the song from an adaptation of Nelson Allgren’s novel along with all sorts of stray reminiscences of Warhol era characters.
None of this would work so well if the band wasn’t so great. This is Lou Reed gutter rock at its best with the familiar riffs, saxes, and the “colored girls” singing in the background. The band is right in tune with Lou, responding to every twist and turn in his rants. That chemistry makes the rants feel more organic, integral to the songs themselves. “Waiting For The Man” has been completely transformed from the skeletal Velvets garage rock to a soulful extended jam that segues into a subdued reading of “Temporary Thing” – an apt pairing that resonates deeply with his constant theme of the junkie’s plight. This version of “Satellite Of Love” is dirtier and funkier than the lushly produced original, with the band incorporating organ and sax riffs into the extended jam, and Lou reining in the tacky humor and adding some grimy guitar work of his own. “Berlin” and “Coney Island Baby” are also rendered in more potent performances, as Lou is clearly more emotionally invested in this recent material. The band is allowed to stretch out on these songs beyond the backing vamping of his stand up into more dynamic, textured arrangements and he responds with some of the most powerful vocals of his career. I was never sure if that “I want to play football for the coach” bit from “Coney Island Baby” was just a joke, but this performance feels genuine (and Lou can’t help but add some chatty biographical details – “Islip park, Massapequa park, Rockville Center…Actually, I was a pole vaulter, I went out for the sectionals at age six, that’s pathetic”). The song builds to the most rousing climax of the album, far superior to the stilted studio version. So Take No Prisoners does not mistreat its material; on the contrary, this is an emotional, inspired performance with some definitive versions of his patchy mid-70’s work.
Somehow the jive talking Lou Reed of Take No Prisoners feels more free, even artful than some of his more mannered solo turns. The great guitarist Robert Quine on his former collaborator: “His biggest weakness is that he wants to be regarded as a poet. The more conscious he is of this, the worse songs he writes.” More specifically, his lyrics are often chained to a strict rhyme scheme, so that even heartfelt albums like Magic And Loss occasionally feel constrained by lyrical convention. There is nothing conventional about Lou Reed, which might explain why some of his work sounds clunky; the rock album form cannot properly contain his sort of genius, equally literate and street. When he stretches out, as on the messy Street Hassle or the lyrically chatty New York, his work resonates more deeply, evincing that singular synthesis of high and low art. “High, low, and in between,” sang Townes Van Zandt, or “I don’t like short people or tall people, I like middle people – people from Wyoming,” as Lou mutters in his “Sweet Jane” rant. This album captures everything that’s really fun and iconoclastic about Lou Reed, bringing to the fore those moments of sly irreverence while also satirizing his own glammy solo persona. The shades and the eyeliner are off, sort of.
Take No Prisoners is much more than just a collection of comically unhinged Lou Reed raps, though it is very funny at times. He responds to one of the constant shouts of “Lou!” from the audience: “What, what do you think this is, question and answer?” Some of his vitriol toward rock criticism does feel like the petulant cries of the pampered rock star, though his rock critic rant is probably the most famous bit on the album – if Pryor had his “Wino Meets Dracula,” Lou has his “Christgau Is A Toe Fucker.” But he took his work very seriously, even through all of the humor. The erstwhile Christgau, in an uncharacteristically humble piece just after Lou’s death last year, recalled a meeting many years later in which an attempt at a handshake reconciliation was greeted with “a dead fish and a disgusted look.” I like that, not because I dislike Christgau or that I particularly admire Lou Reed’s personal skills, but because of his pure devotion to his own work. He did not tolerate critics, complainers; he barely tolerated other musicians. Sure it was a pose, but no one’s was better than Lou Reed. “What’s in style? Nothing is in style, man.” God bless Lou Reed.