Monday, July 28, 2008

STL #74: Loaded

The first Album of the month (TM).

The story behind the title of The Velvet Underground's final album Loaded is that their new record company were pressuring them to find commercial success, to make an album "loaded with hits." They record is tight, and is more commercially-oriented than the previous three efforts, but asking the Velvets to make a hit record is like putting a chef to work in MacDonald's. People of taste will hear about it, but don't expect it to change your business. The injunction to produce a hit became a buried theme of the album's 10 songs, which subtly parody hits and popular formats, and critique the machinery that makes hits and the audience that consume them. At least, I think that's right, but let's run down the track list and think about it.

"Who Loves the Sun" kicks things off with a dour rebuttal to the "Here Comes the Sun"-worshiping flower children. While it's a lovely, hummable love song that shoulda/coulda been a hit, it also sets up a nihilistic counterpart to the frame of popular rock in the late sixties. It's a great start to a great album, but nothing compared to the next two tracks.

Lou Reed delivers a wonderful, swaggering vocal in "Sweet Jane," punctuated with asides to us and Jim ("just watch me now") and arriving at something like bliss in the end. Like a lot of songs on the album, it suggests a story more than tells one. It describes a dynamic between the singer of a rock and roll band to two peoples who got to work but live a bohemian, intellectual life in a bubble separated from the rest of their city.

In "Rock and Roll," we find another, another Jane (the lyrics online say Jennie, but I hear "Janey") finds another refuge, but not in bohemianism but in the New York station that plays a revolutionary thing called, rock and roll. That for a moment transcendence and redemption could be heard on the airwaves must have been an astonishing thing, but to the Velvets this didn't happen in the free-form FM of the sixties, but in the racially integrating inchoate rock and roll of 10 years earlier. I guess that WLOVE in the following "Cool It Down" alludes to call letters of a radio station too, but it's the kind of love you can "rent by the hour" from Miss Linda Lee, not the love of the Aquarian age.

This is an album 'loaded' with characters like five of the second and third songs. Reed and Doug Yule casually mention names of the people who populate the songs, though one of the most memorable characters is the Fat Blonde Actress of "New Age." These peoples, from Jack and Sweet Jane to Linda Lee to the actress, populate a Weird Urban America that is at once part of but separate from the late 60s, just as the music is sometimes rock and roll but often also involved with other popular music, from the ballad of "New Age" to the country of "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" to the doo-wop of "I Found Someone." It's always the case, as in "Sweet Jane," that "those were different times"; in fact, these are different times. These are different people too--different even from themselves. Many of these songs are about the private lives of people who wear masks in public, whether as a bank clerk or as an actress or cowboy.

"Head Held High" suggests what's under those masks: "But, just like I figured, they're always disfigured." This song also hearkens back to the wild rock of the 50's, complete with exortions to "do the dog." "Train Round the Bend," another rave-up, includes a wryly humorous description of the train "Takin me away from the country/I'm sick of the trees." The rock and roll playing on Janey's radio isn't the self-indulgent concept rock mocked by the Velvets and Frank Zappa, but an older more deeply rooted version. This wasn't necessarily the best recipe for making a hit in 1970 though.

The highlight of the album for me, after many listenings, is the last cut, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'." Without being too grandiose about it, it a requiem for the living: "Say a word" for Jimmy Brown, for Ginger Brown, for Polly May and Joanne Love who all walk the streets with "nothing at all." The last word, of the album, of the real Velvets career, is a beautiful, poignant Nothing that lasts, in its full version, a good seven and a half minutes. The album went to number zero with a bullet--it never charted.

Loaded was the first album of the month in a new listening club that J and I have started (and are the only members of). It's purpose is to draw our attention to an album that is important to us and that we want to know better. The album of the month of August is the Minute Men's Double Nickels on the Dime, which I will write about in a month or so.