Lou Reed Set Free 1942-2013

Big Star 007

It’s hard for me to put into words how much Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground meant to my musical upbringing. After being initially referred to their third album by an early R.E.M. interview in Creem Magazine, I was intrigued by the deference that one of my favorite contemporary bands gave the Velvet Underground. Soon after, Rolling Stone alerted me to the fact that the VUs albums were being reissued on vinyl and they had ALL received five stars. I didn’t need any further prompting and made my way through each record as soon as my allowance would allow.

As a somewhat limited high-school rhythm guitarist, the VU’s combination of folk chords, modern poetry and chaos was manna from heaven for a kid raised on the Beatles and comic books. Soon, my small-town ears were deflowered by Reed’s junky-poem-cum-audio bomb, Heroin:

I have made the big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death  

a SEVEN-MINUTE screed that shattered any remnants of Mayberry that lingered in my child-soul.  The Velvet Underground & Nico’s combination of the luminescent beauty of Sunday Morning, followed by the bounciest song about scoring dope you’re ever gonna hear,  I’m Waiting For My Man, was so revolutionary, only The Beatles had worked such extremes credibly and made it all sound a part of the same whole.

Here, for the first time, were songs (and guitar chords) that I could play myself that would sound reasonably similar to the recordings. With the addition of a loud amplifier and a few friends playing along, I was ready to use the aesthetic learned from Lou in most every musical situation I would encounter.

Later, when my record-collecting gene was more firmly developed, I found earlier Lou Reed records, made while he was an indentured songwriter for hire with Pickwick Records that had all of the hallmarks of the VU sound. They are incredible to hear, starting with the record that brought Lou together with John Cale, The Ostrich by the bespoke group, The Primitives.

Lou’s aesthetic came through loud and clear for many of these early tracks, including You’re Driving Me Insane by The Roughnecks:

And Cycle Annie by The Beachnuts :

Years later, in 1993, I quit a job I wouldn’t miss and left the U.S. to play guitar on the streets of Europe with a friend. After the decision, but prior to departure I found out through my old friend, Rolling Stone, that the Velvet Underground were reuniting in Paris for a few shows. I did everything I could in the pre-Internet era to secure tickets and ended up seeing the best show of my life.

Waiting outside the Olympia Theater for what seemed like days, we were lucky enough to be close to the front of the line, which guaranteed that we’d be in the front row! After an interminable wait, Venus in Furs erupted from the stage. The sub-Hades thump of Mo Tucker’s floor tom mixed with John Cale’s demotic viola drone announced they were back.

An unexpected treat was watching Sterling Morrison play the guitar parts that I’d been trying to figure out for years and realizing that (as with The Beatles) they weren’t that difficult when you understood the voicings.

But it was Lou who commanded the night. Changing his lyrical phrasing so frequently  we sometimes had trouble singing along with songs so familiar they could have been siblings. Perhaps it’s just as well – Lou’s reticence to be placed under glass is well documented and I can only image how difficult it must have been to live up to such an early influential catalogue.

I’ve since watched the video of that night, released a few years later, and it pales in comparison to memory. Though, of course, I experienced a high seeing the show again, especially as I’m in the video at about 3:27, right after Lou says “bleeeed for me”.

The sweetest moment of the night came when Mo Tucker came down from her drums and sang the early out-take, I’m Sticking With You…

When I learned that Lou had passed I realized that, though by all accounts a gigantic malcontent, his soul was wide enough  to embrace the chaos and beauty of the world. This is how I’ll remember Lou Reed.

Gram Parsons’ Hidden Discography

gram nudie

Early on, in a pattern that would often emerge in his life, Gram Parsons was attacking the music biz from any angle possible, from sideman, to songwriter, to hip best friend of various celebs and musicians. From his early attempts at writing and recording to his later penchant for ‘sitting in’, Gram has quite a record for appearing on other people’s records. Yet, for a man with a well-documented, some would say ‘over-healthy’, desire for fame, Parsons appearances as a musical sideman are perplexingly ghostly. If his name appears, you can lay odds it will be for an ethereal organ, guitar, or piano part that adds weight to the proceedings without calling attention.

The first noticeable songwriting attempt was counter-culture hero Peter Fonda’s 1968 cover of November Nights. The song, released on Hugh Masekela’s Chisa Records, isn’t one of Gram’s more fully developed efforts, but Fonda gives it his best, despite a limited vocal range. Oddly Masekela, who produced the track and was one of the more accomplished trumpet players of the time, plays a fairly anodyne part that limps its way through the song.

A more successful outing came with Steve Young’s sublime (and bizarrely out of print) 1969 album, Rock Salt & Nails. Young’s debut record announced the Texas singer/songwriter ‘s soulful gift and holds up as one of the better ‘lost’ albums of the late Sixties. Gram happened to be recording The Flying Burrito BrothersGilded Palaces of Sin at the same studio, liked what he heard, and stopped over to play organ on a version of the Otis Redding soul classic That’s How Strong My Love Is (originally recorded by the deep south soul master O.V. Wright , the song lends itself surprisingly well to this loose country soul treatment. Clearly a meeting of minds…

Gram is well known for having been a fan of Fred Neil, the Florida troubadour with the best bass/baritone in folk. He had already covered Neil’s Other Side of this Life, one in a group of early demos that were posthumously released under the title Another Side Of This Life.

During Gram’s downtime after the Burrito’s second record, Burrito Deluxe, he and Neil recorded a wonderfully lugubrious version of the William Bell track You Don’t Miss Your Water. Gram had already staked his  claim on the song with The Byrds for their iconic album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. However, in this version everything slows down to live in Neil’s molasses world. This is also one of the few instances when Gram (here billed as ‘Graham Parsons’) shows off his chops, playing wonderfully laconic piano, and singing distinctly tart backing vox.

During that same break, after Burrito Deluxe, Gram contributed to Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot . The extent of his participation isn’t fully known, though it’s easy to picture Parsons’ and Duane Allman feeling right at home and slapping their laps along to this rousing version of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad (as Bonnie Bramlett later recalled).

Perhaps the oddest contribution in this ‘alternate discography’ was Gram’s inclusion on a country-rock Christmas tune by the made-to-order group, The Christmas Spirit. The Turtles’ record label White Whale released this one-off single, Christmas Is My Time of Year backed with Will You Still Believe in Me.  In such heady company as that of Clarence White and Linda Ronstadt, Gram and The Christmas Spirit deliver a truly whacked out pair of Country Rock tunes.

The flip side is a more sedate affair with Ronstadt possibly on backing vocals.

Another interesting anomaly occurs on Johnny RiversSlim Slo Slider record. Among versions of songs by Van Morrison, John Fogerty and Tony Joe White, Rivers cut an unrecorded Parsons’ song called Apple Tree.  A wistful, fairly slight, tune likely influenced by Gram’s childhood as the scion of a wealthy orchard family.

On that same album, Rivers does a cover — the first ever — of Gram’s Brass Buttons and it is surprisingly affecting.

I hope you enjoyed this trawl through Gram’s more shadowy archives.