Month: October 2013

i’m a new york city man. blink your eyes and i’ll be gone.

lou ponders the plight of man and his testicles.

It feels strange to be talking about Lou Reed in the past tense. He was one of those guys I kind of figured would live forever.

As Velvet Underground geniuses go, John Cale has always been more my guy. But Lou’s music was an important part of the soundtrack to my teenage years. I have vivid memories of being scared shitless by some of the more menacing songs on The Blue Mask when I was fourteen, giggling at the audacity of the uncredited Bruce Springsteen vocal cameo on the epic “Street Hassle”, rocking out to “Vicious”, and listening to Rock and Roll Animal in Italy a few years later, taken aback by the weirdness of Lou Reed doing straight-up anthemic arena rock. There are a lot of memories of listening to Lou when I was a less hairy person. They’re all good ones.

Sure, I always thought he was a bit of a dick. And that thing he said about his shit being other people’s diamonds? Yeah…no. His bad music was really, really bad. But at least it was amusing in its badness.

I’m beginning to think a lot of the “arrogant prick” thing was a front he put up to keep certain people from getting too close or ever feeling like they really knew him. A game he played. In the last interview he ever gave, just weeks before his death, he said some really thoughtful things about what music and sound meant to him. He also couldn’t resist bullshitting the interviewer with stories of making enough money to buy his first guitar by chopping down trees on the family farm.

He grew up on Long Island. His family was Jewish. There was no farm.

I hadn’t really listened to any of Lou’s music in a long time. Just how long is “a long time”? About twelve years, in my case. I’ve been doing some visiting and revisiting in the aftermath of his passing, and it’s been pretty revelatory so far.

The VU albums are all great. That kind of goes without saying. I’ve probably said before that I thought the Velvet Underground lost some fundamental part of its soul after Lou kicked John Cale out of the band (though I’m glad the two of them would later stop hating each another long enough to write and record the great Warhol tribute Songs for Drella together). I still think that. But even without John’s manic creative spark to play off of, some of Lou’s best songs are on the third self-titled velvets album and Loaded. I wasn’t trying to be ironic when I sang “Sweet Jane” at the audition for a high school arts night. I loved that song, long before I heard the narcotic lullaby the Cowboy Junkies turned it into.

Then there’s the solo stuff, which is fascinating, and surprisingly far-reaching.

There are albums I already knew I liked a lot. Hearing them now is like spending time with old friends I haven’t seen in years. They’ve put on weight in interesting places. They’re still telling the same stories, but I’m picking up nuances I didn’t know to listen for before. And there are albums I never really listened to much at all or didn’t give their due. Some of those have knocked me off my feet.

Lou did charming sleaze (and grating sleaze, and frightening sleaze, and glammed-up sleaze) better than anyone. I don’t think any rock singer was more adept at sounding like they didn’t give a shit in such a compelling way. But when he dug deeper, his music had incisive and often sobering things to say about addiction, debasement, love, hate, and the darker side of life.

Berlin, bleak as it is, savaged as it was by a lot of moronic music critics when it first came out, may be one of Lou’s greatest and richest achievements as a writer. “The Kids” in particular is devastating. He spends most of the song singing about a woman whose children have been taken away from her, building the case against her, attacking her and spitting a litany of every questionable and irresponsible thing she’s done. Just when you’re starting to think maybe it’s all worked out for the best, he stops singing, you hear the children crying and screaming for their mother, and it’s a vicious punch to the gut.

Transformer is as great as it ever was. “Walk on the Wild Side” isn’t even the best song on the album, though it’s the one most casual fans remember Lou for. Street Hassle is just as hilarious and troubling and acidic as it ever was. “Gimme Some Good Times” is hilarious, with Lou ripping “Sweet Jane” to shreds and taking a giant crap all over the more accessible music he’d been making in the previous few years at the same time he mocks his own limited vocal range with those insane, jeering harmonies.

Those “easy-listening Lou” albums have their own charms. Coney Island Baby has some really great songs on it, chief among them the title track, which is some kind of sublime half-spoken word doo-wop.

And even when he was at his laziest, he was capable of twisting the knife when he wanted to. Sally Can’t Dance is one of his sleaziest, least loved (but most commercially successful) albums. It’s one of the only Lou Reed records you could conceivably throw on at a party without derailing the evening. He sounds like he’s phoning it in for the most part. And yet, buried on this bizarre and often bloodless album are “Kill Your Sons”, a horrifying recounting of the electroshock treatments he was forced to endure as a younger man (his parents’ way of trying to “cure” his bisexuality), and “Billy”, one of the most moving things he ever wrote, where he somehow becomes Bob Dylan for about five minutes.

The Blue Mask and Ecstasy have always been two of my favourites, full of songs where Lou is just being Lou, albeit with a new maturity in his swagger. Well…most of the time, anyway. There are a lot of people who can’t get through the eighteen-minute-long “Like a Possum”. Me, I always got a kick out of the sludgy guitar heroics and Lou screaming, “I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck! It won’t be filled by a one-night fuck!”

He could do something like that, or sing about sucking nipples and shooting junk, and then turn around and make an album like Magic and Loss — a startling meditation on mortality. That sort of thing can be a difficult slog too if you’re not up for it emotionally, but “Dreamin'” is another one of his most affecting songs. “If I close my eyes,” he sings to a departed friend, “I see your face, and i’m not without you.”

And there’s the knife again.

There are a lot of great Lou Reed songs they never play on the radio — the poetic and pretty “NYC Man” off of the underrated Set the Twilight Reeling, intense and unsettling workouts like “The Blue Mask” and “Waves of Fear”, airy and dreamy moments like “Open House”, the shambolic and caustic “Dirt”, the bluesy and simple and just-right “Paranoia Key of E”. But the song I keep coming back to right now is one Lou didn’t even write himself.

Listen to the great Drifters version of “This Magic Moment”. Then listen to what Lou did to it in 1995 for a Doc Pomus tribute album. It’s pretty daring to take that great orchestral ballad and turn it into a stripped-down rockabilly shuffle, but Lou pulls it off. What’s more, he inhabits the song. He makes it his own.

Lou’s passing doesn’t sting for me in the same way Alex Chilton’s did, or as much as John Cale’s will, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sorry he’s gone. He left a lot of good music. I don’t think I’m brave enough yet to tackle the album he recorded with Metallica. But even if it is as bad as everyone says it is, that he would be crazy enough to even take on such a project, knowing a lot of people were going to call it a piece of shit without ever listening to it, does a neat job of summing up the kind of artist he was.

i know you could have been more than a memory.

If you followed this blog back when I used to update it every few days (I now call that “the maniacal period”), you may remember a dude named Steven leaving a comment on a post in 2010 or 2011, saying some very nice things. Steven and James O-L are brothers. They’re also in a great local band called James O-L and the villains. They’re also two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They’re also both capable of growing some great beards.

I made a bet with myself to see how many times I could start a sentence with the words “they’re also” before my left eye started twitching. I only made it to three. Shame on me.

Unexpected things have a way of materializing out of nowhere. To wit: I just finished recording an album with Steven, and it should get an official release (and an official CD release show) sometime before the end of the year. Tire Swing Co. is the band name. Steven wrote and sang the songs, James came by to lend some tasty electric guitar and bass to the opening song, Kaitlyn Kelly sang some gorgeous harmonies on two songs, and I did my one-man-band-of-session-musicians thing — something I haven’t done outside of my own music since OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES back in 2010.

Steven has a really interesting, unique voice. I like interesting, unique voices. If Nick Cave was more serene and laid-back, and less tremulous, he might sound a little like Steven. On Travis’s album, our vocal ranges are similar enough that if you don’t read the liner notes you might assume he’s singing all the harmonies himself. In this case there’s much more of a contrast, and I had a lot of fun playing with it. Out of the seventeen songs on the album, there’s only one that doesn’t have me singing on it somewhere in the background, and that’s because it’s an instrumental and no one’s singing on it anywhere. Unless you consider a banjo to be a voice.

Hey — some people do.

I’ve really only recorded something other than my own music twice in the last decade. Both were projects that kind of fell into my lap. Whatever is responsible for my musical lap-visitors, it has some good taste. There isn’t one song on the hour-long Tire Swing Co. album that feels like filler to me. This is stuff I would want to listen to even if I didn’t have the chance to play on it. For weeks, I couldn’t even pick a favourite song to pull out for one of those “hey, here’s what I’ve been working on” moments, because seven or eight immediately came to mind and whittling them down was like trying to amputate my legs with plastic child-proof scissors.

What can I tell you without telling too much before the album comes out? Steven played my 1951 Gibson LG2 throughout, and I was reminded what a fantastic recording guitar that thing is. I played a lot of my newer Martin OOO-15. I liked the way the different tones of those two axes played off of each another. The funky old Teisco wormed its way into a few songs. So did my long-neglected Epiphone Casino, which has been getting a little more love these days. I dropped my Kay Thin Twin into standard tuning for James when he was over, and I really like the clean sounds he got out of it. There’s even some ukulele in one song.

I think the whole thing sounds like a unified, organic piece of work, but at the same time there’s a lot of variety, and a lot of different sonic things happening, whether it’s a bit of delay coming in at the end of a piano solo, or the African drums gluing a song together in the most unexpected way. That last one was Steven’s idea, and the sound works so well, in the last song I ever would have thought to use it, it’s insane. Sometimes I forget how useful it can be to have so many random noise-makers like that hanging around.

I was given a lot of creative leeway when we were recording. That was both a great compliment and a little unnerving. It’s a great feeling when someone trusts your creative judgement enough to say, “Here’s a song. Do whatever you like with it.” At the same time, you want to contribute whatever ideas you might have without derailing the songs or making it sound like they’re yours, so your musical brain has to pull out some different dance moves than the ones it might normally reach for.

I’m still not sure I could call myself a proper producer, but I had a lot of fun arranging songs that were not my own. I think I only really went off the deep end once. There was one song I had a whole mess of ideas for, so I ran with them, and when I stopped running I looked up and saw that I’d kind of altered the whole shape of the thing. Luckily Steven was happy with what I did, and that song’s on the album.

The song is called “The Maple Tree”, and it’s up there at the top of the post. Anything that sounds like a synthesizer is a Fender Strat played with a lot of reverb and manual volume swells. I couldn’t tell you where that guitar solo at the end came from. It was another one of those things that just happened, without any premeditation. I feel like it’s one of the best guitar solos I’ve played in my life. At the very least, it’s high on the list of my own personal favourite guitar moments. And it wouldn’t exist without the great song Steven wrote inspiring me to find that sequence of notes somewhere in the part of my brain that speaks to my fingers.

As for the video footage, it’s from some public domain silent kids’ film from 1960 called The Sky. I don’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it was either horribly edited or the version I found is incomplete. There are long stretches of nothing but black screen breaking up the images of actual things. Nothing really happens onscreen, but I thought the imagery of sea and sky and dawn and dusk suited the music. I chopped it up, rearranged it, got rid of the kid (sorry kid), messed with the speed of some bits, and tried to assemble it all in a way that made emotional if not rational sense. There’s a gritty bit at the end of the smokestack footage, and I didn’t catch it until the video had already been rendered, but whaddayagonnado?

In keeping with the recent theme of talking about live shows after they’ve happened instead of before, I should tell you we played a Tire Swing Co. gig at Taloola just a week ago. Here’s the super cool poster Greg Maxwell made:

There was a good turnout, and people seemed to like what they heard. For me, it was fun to get the chance to do something different in a live setting. Most of the time, when I’m doing the sideman thing, I’m playing piano and that’s about it. This time I played no piano at all. It was all lead acoustic guitar, except for a few times when I picked up a ukulele or a banjo or a melodica. I’m probably always going to be a little more comfortable sitting at something that has black and white teeth, but I like the challenge of not having that to fall back on. And I enjoyed how Steven and I were both able to break out our vintage Gibson acoustics and let them chatter at each other like siblings meeting for the first time.

Maybe next time I’ll say something here before a show happens, not after. We’ll see.

More about the album as it inches closer to a proper release.