Lou Reed – Street Hassle – 1978 – Arista

Lou Reed - Street Hassle - 1978 - Arista

I don’t often get that affected by the deaths of people I don’t personally know, unless it is some terrible mass tragedy, either caused by a natural disaster or by humanity’s endless inhumanity but in the case of Lou Reed, he was such a big influence on me over the years, it’s surprising to think that he’s gone.

Last night I was watching footage of Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico at Bataclan in ’72, the year before I was born. This morning I woke up and read the news that Lou was dead. It’s an odd feeling. Listening to Lou Reed over the years taught me a lot about writing. He was eloquent, sharp and incisive and he pared his lyrics down to the bare essentials, there wasn’t much fat in a Lou Reed song. He approached songwriting like a good journalist detailing characters in his world, relating events. You could hear echoes of everything from Bo Diddley, Raymond Chandler and 1950s doo wop though his songs.

I saw Lou perform live only once back in ’95 at a one day festival in Sydney called Alternative Nation. I’d gone primarily to see Lou, the Violent Femmes and Primus. It wasn’t a great gig but he did open with one song that he did with the Femmes, What Goes On. The Violent Femmes were obviously so influenced by Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground that it seemed appropriate they joined forces in this one performance and it would have been amazing had the sound tech remembered to switch Lou’s microphone on during that song. Thankfully I was close enough to the stage to be able to just hear his singing during it. He looked great dressed in black with his face framed by an amazing Afro. He also did a song with a couple of the girls from L7 providing backing vocals, it may have been I Love You Suzanne or Sally Can’t Dance, my memory is shaky on that one. For the rest of his set he was totally solo, just his voice and his guitar. He did one new song, Egg Cream. I was too young and ‘serious’ to realize that it was really good. I just didn’t get lighthearted songs back then. I was too po faced. Nowadays I listen to the song and I love it. Lou Reed singing about the glories of chocolate milkshakes is funny. He still managed to slip in a lyric about “knife fights and kids pissing in the streets” just for good measure. I have bad memories of Alternative Nation, it was one of my worst gig experiences ever, I got harassed, abused and even threatened all day by members of the audience for what I was wearing (and these were people who liked to think they were ‘alternative’, hadn’t they seen a frilly shirt or a velvet jacket before? Did they really think that what a total stranger was wearing was worth their abuse?) but I was very glad to see Lou.

So, onto this record… Street Hassle has to be my favourite Lou Reed album. It was the distillation of everything that the Velvet Underground was about mixed in with everything that Lou Reed as a solo artist was about. The title song is one of Lou’s most cinematic works, it’s like the darkest Martin Scorsese film you could ever imagine. There’s also a brief appearance from Bruce Springsteen towards the end of that song reciting lines like an actor more rather than like a singer. The rest of the record is great with a highly disturbing druggy undercurrent running through it all. I love the re-imagining of We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together and I really, really love Gimmie Some Good Times. I’ve covered that myself on my album Transfusion Blues. I Wanna Be Black satirizes racial stereotypes, sending them to extremes. It reminds me of a Lenny Bruce stage routine, it’s taking on the role of the person it’s satirizing i.e. of the stupid middle class college student wishing he was something else running racist stereotypes through his head. This is a difficult balancing act though and could be taken the wrong way. Dirt is probably the most venomous put down of a person I’ve ever heard on record. “You’d eat shit and say it tasted good if there was some money in it for you.” What a great line. Wait is a good song too. It’s all good. It’s all great in fact. I highly recommend this record, though it will offend probably everyone. When I first heard it it was like nothing I had ever heard before. It is dark, nasty, brutal and has the patina of glam rock glitz coating it all. The glam rock sparkle somehow further darkens the tone. It’s like this record is the dark underbelly of glam on display. It’s ugly and it’s beautiful in its way. It also quite comfortably sits alongside punk and new wave but it has a lot more attitude. Lyrically it’s gritter and harsher. The songs are played with more finesse than any punk record but that doesn’t dull their impact at all. It’s recorded in binaural sound which involves a head shaped stereo microphone that is supposed to faithfully reproduce the way that humans hear stereo sound. Lou was very, very keen on binaural sound. To my ears it sounds a helluva lot better than bloody 5.1 surround sound. I’d go binaural any day. But you have to listen with a good set of headphones. Then it really has a kick to it.

My favourite Lou Reed works – Street Hassle, New York, Set the Twilight Reeling, Magic and Loss, Coney Island Baby and The Velvet Underground’s self titled third album plus their album White Light / White Heat are all perfect. In his approach to his art Lou was uncompromising.

If you can, check out Blue in the Face, the 1995 sequel to Smoke. Lou has an hilarious small role in it. He’s the best thing in that movie. He also gave a spot on performance in a cameo as a slimy record producer in Paul Simon’s 1980 film One Trick Pony (one of the two or three best films I’ve ever seen about music).

My thoughts go to Lou Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson. They must have been an interesting couple, a surprising but seemingly perfect pairing. In my mind Lou was indestructable but death happens to everyone I guess.

Goodbye Lou.

Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind – 1997 – Columbia

Bob Dylan - Time Out of Mind - 1997 - Columbia

This was the last Dylan album I bought on vinyl. I remember at the time there was a buzz around it before it was released. Odd rumours about how Dylan had almost died of a heart condition and that the record was his response to his growing sense of mortality. Greil Marcus wrote a glowing piece of criticism before it was released. I was sitting at a computer terminal in the Chifley Library at the Australian National University when I read this article. My jaw sort of dropped. I thought gee, this is great news. I actually think that part of the marketing success of Time Out of Mind was that people were just getting to grips with the internet. Stories and information were easier to spread, the grapevine had just become digital and had spread its tendrils everywhere. Everyone who was into Bob wanted to hear this record. I printed out the Griel Marcus piece and mailed it through the regular post to a friend of mine in Sydney (as I said, people were just starting to get to grips with digital communication).

When it came out I bought a copy from Impact Records. For years Impact Records was the best record shop in Canberra. They were a little pricey, especially if you were buying imports, but they had a lot of stuff and they were the only store in Canberra with LPs. Everywhere else only had CDs by that time. My copy was reduced in price as the cover had been slightly damaged during transport. There were a few thin, deep scratches on the front. It was a double album. On one of the inner sleeves there’s a great black and white photo of Dylan in a bar. This photo isn’t in the CD copies.

Side One opens with Love Sick, a minor key blues that is Leonard Cohenesque though the production (by Daniel Lanois) is much better than on any Leonard Cohen album. It’s got a dark, brooding loneliness to it that is compelling. As soon as I heard that first song with Dylan’s flanged, echoed vocals and Jim Dickinson’s stately paced and spooky organ I knew the rest of the album would be great. I wasn’t dissappointed. In many ways Time Out of Mind is like a 1990s continuation of Blonde on Blonde. It’s a work that feels like echoes and images richocheting around the inside of a perpetually insomniac skull. “My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired and the clouds are weeping.” This is a record steeped in the blues but it also anticipates 21st century sensibilities. I like that there’s the sound of the room that the musicians played in, there’s space in the playing and there’s good use of microphone spill. There’s life in these recordings. It’s like the music and recording techniques from the 1950s just kept developing without being totally derailed by the sensibilities of 1970s and 80s. Time Out of Mind really helped propel that old/new sound that a lot of bands are into these days, that sonic warmth that comes from working with old equipment and utilizing old techniques (most importantly actually playing live in the studio, or doing most of the instruments live). It’s a good thing that it’s helped influence this trend.

This double album was on high rotation in my house for the first couple of weeks that I had it. I’ve listened to this a lot over the years. I never tire of it and every listen feels like I’m digging deeper and deeper into that sound. Time out of Mind doesn’t age. It almost sits outside of time.

In 1998 I got to see Dylan live with his band. Me and my girlfriend bought tickets to a show at the newly opened Wollongong Entertainment Centre because I figured that it would be easier to get better seats there than Sydney (all the seats in all the venues were the same price so it was first in first served and I didn’t think many people would travel to Wollongong to see the show but a lot would travel to Sydney.) My hunch worked, we got third row seats. Patti Smith was the opening act. She only played a short 45 minute set but she was incredible. Dylan played for ages, encore after encore. His grey Beatles style jacket was soaked in sweat. He was in fine form and so was the band. I loved that they did so many songs from this record and I loved that they did so many of his older songs differently to what they were like on the records. I heard a couple in front of me complaining that he wasn’t playing his hits. He was, every second song at least. They just weren’t recognizing them which was amusing. Dylan only spoke to the audience once. “This is my first show in years, I’ve just gotten out of rehab.” A joke. The same couple in front of me thought he was serious “Did you just hear that? This is his first show in years.” They hadn’t heard of the Never Ending Tour he was on I guess. Actor Jack Thompson was in the audience, he was standing right at the edge of the stage watching and singing along. He knew all the words including the words for folk songs that Dylan hadn’t recorded like Roving Gambler. I loved hearing Hattie Carroll live. It was good seeing Jack singing along. I walked up to Jack and said hello and I said that I loved his work or something stupid like that. I do love his work but why walk up to him during a show and tell him that? I went back to my seat. I’d smuggled a camera into the venue (this was back in the days when no one had mobile phones and those that did didn’t have cameras on them so it was still possible for security to control camera use). The camera I brought was a small, el cheapo instamatic, I didn’t want to take chances with a bigger, more obvious SLR. I’d covered any shiny bits with black tape so that it wouldn’t be easy to spot by security. The guy sitting next to me had his camera confiscated during the show. I was lucky I guess. I got several good shots. (Later on when I developed the negaties in the darkroom I push processed them since I guessed that they would probably be underexposed as the instamatic only took photos at a 125th of a second. The photos were as grainy as hell.)

After the show was over and people were leaving I walked up to Jack Thompson again and I apologized for interupting him during the show. “It’s alright mate” he said. He was a little drunk. I spoke to his brother a bit and then me and my girlfriend said our goodbyes and went back to her sister’s house where we were staying for the night.

Great record, great gig, great memories.

Threepenny Opera – 1976 – Columbia Records

Threepenny Opera - 1976 - Columbia Records

This record was my first good introduction to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. It was a full cast recording of a production by the New York Shakespeare Festival which, contrary to its name, as well as Shakespeare has presented the works of many writers over the years including Brecht, Sam Shepard, Anton Chekov, Samuel Beckett and Euripides. This production starred Raul Julia as Macheath or Mack the Knife. The translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett isn’t watered down. It is harsh and at times offensive. Obscenities fly thick and fast and the disturbing aspects of the main character, Mack the Knife, are retained. Over the years some versions of the song Mack the Knife have made him a loveable rogue when originally the character was capable of any act of violence and depravity. There’s nothing pleasant or loveable about him (in this translation mention is made of him starting a “ghastly fire in Soho” that killed seven children and of sexually assaulting a child). In a way I view Threepenny Opera as a precurser to A Clockwork Orange. In both works the main characters are vile but we are coaxed into identifying with them, we’re in many ways made to feel complicit in their actions which has the effect of making us more revulsed by them and it forces us an an audience or listener to think about the wider implications of those actions and of a society which created such vile individuals. In both the Threepenny Opera and in A Clockwork Orange the society that has created these protagonists is portrayed as even more disturbing. Macheath’s crimes cannot compare to the industrialized slaughter and colonialism of the military “The troops live under / The cannons’ thunder / From Sind to Cooch Behar / Moving from place to place / When they come face to face / With a different breed of fellow / Whose skins are black or yellow / They quick as winking chop them into beefsteak tartare”. Macheath, Mr Peachum and his army of beggars are just a microcosm of the wider culture which is seen as currupt. Humanity, we are told in one of the songs, is kept alive through bestial acts – “what keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions / Are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed / Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance / In keeping its humanity repressed.”

It is odd that the song Mack the Knife became so watered down so much over time that it was almost a novelty song. I love Louis Armstrong and I even love his version but it’s all wrong. It misses the point. The other direction that portrayals of Brecht’s work have gone in lately is that they embrace the violence and the darkness, celebrating those aspects, sort of like an exploitation flick would. In these versions Brecht’s work becomes violence chic. Darkness is apparently cool these days though it feels just as empty when it’s approached in this manner as when it’s approached as a novelty song. When it’s stripped of all context it becomes meaningless. The whole point of The Threepenny Opera is that the dehumanization and commodification of individuals through societal conventions and norms breeds characters like Macheath who thrive in such a society. In many ways Brecht’s work is a critique of capitalism as he saw it and of the structures that he viewed as enforcing it and protecting it. This production didn’t water down Brecht’s vision nor did it make the mistake of celebrating its darker aspects. I don’t speak nor do I understand German but I have read and seen as many different translations of The Threepenny Opera as I have been able to and I feel that of all the versions in English that I know this has the most focus and the most punch. This production makes Brecht’s intentions and his arguements clear. I love this record. It is great.

Raul Julia also starred in a 1989 film production of the Threepenny Opera called Mack the Knife. I haven’t seen all of it but what I have seen didn’t thrill me much. The songs, translated by Marc Blitzstein, Menahem Golan and Dov Seltzer lost some of their sting and it doesn’t have a great look to it. The dance numbers are over the top, out of place, annoying and distracting. The 1931 film by Pabst, though hated by Brecht, is remarkable and well worth checking out. It is one of the best things I have ever seen.

Les Paul and Mary Ford – Bye Bye Blues! – 1952 – Capitol

Les Paul and Mary Ford - Bye Bye Blues! - 1952 - Capitol

Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford were a huge success back in the 1950s. They sold millions, they had 16 top ten hits in the space of four years and they also had a televison show, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home. Their sound was pretty new and unique for the time involving multi-tracked vocals from Mary and plenty of echo on Paul’s multi-tracked electric guitars. Les Paul, who is still a well known name for his solid body electric guitars, was an innovator who was one of the first to work with overdubbing, multi-tracking and tape echo. He was also a great player. The back cover of this record proclaims “a dazzling cascade of notes… a sparkling combination of phantom guitars… the blend of a gentle voice with its own reflection… these are the hallmarks of music by Les Paul and Mary Ford.” It’s a good record. When you listen you get the feeling that the techniques are new because there’s a sense of novelty and a little bit of excitement that someone could be singing their own harmonies. I like their renditions of Frankie and Johnnie, and St Louis Blues. It’s all fairly laid back and relaxed, well played, well sung and nicely produced. It’s easy on the ear and good for winding down after a long day.

This album is a 10 inch EP, a little smaller than the regular 12 inch LP. I’ve only got about 30 10 inch records. The problem with 10 inch records is that often there’s more surface noise than with a 12 inch since the grooves are closer together and the volume of the music can’t be as loud. Also, for some reason the 10 inch records I own seem to be made of more brittle material than LPs. What is nice about them is that the artwork still looks great and the they are more convenient to carry than full size LPs.

Anyway, back to Les and Mary, they had a messy divorce back in 1963 which put an end to their musical collaboration. Mary Ford kept making music, sometimes with her sisters, and she died in 1977. Les Paul kept performing and recording until his death in 2009 at the age of 94. Their contribution to musical history was significant.

Ric Ocasek – Beatitude – 1982 – Geffen

Ric Ocasek - Beatitude - 1982 - Geffen

Back in the 80s I liked the Cars’ sound so naturally I checked out co-lead singer Ric Ocasek’s solo career. Beatitude was his first solo album. It has a synth-pop veneer with some dark undercurrents. There’s a weird, queasy feeling to the record. The cover image sums it up, sort of a cool, hazy, late night day-glo urban decay.

One of the great things about Ocasek has always been his vocal delivery, dry, laconic and with a perfect sense of timing. There’s an obvious Lou Reed influence to his vocal inflections but on this album the instrumentation around his vocals is totally different to Lou’s.

I don’t know that listeners now would be able to hear how out of place the sounds and feelings in this album were at the time. This record was produced by Ocasek. There are various other musicians on it including Greg Hawkes from the Cars but it feels very solitary and alone, it almost feels like a demo. It has a similar sound to the Cars but it’s more stripped down, austere and artificial. There’s a menthol like coldness even when it is light and airy but the coldness suits the songs. The whole album has a unified sound and a good sense of movement from song to song. This record sounds so plastic, rigid and sterile but the thing is that it works and that’s always the litmus test for any album.

In 2005 Ric Ocasek recorded Nexterday and though it was a far more guitar driven album somehow it felt like a return to the same solitary, neon glow world that Beatitude inhabited. Now he’s returned to the Cars and they’ve recorded a new album. It’s almost like the process of recording Beatitude was Ric’s first tentative steps away from the band and Nexterday in some strange way charted his first steps back to it.

The Fugs – Fugs 4, Rounders Score – 1975 – ESP Disk

The Fugs - Fugs 4, Rounders Score - 1975 - ESP Disk

From its glorious abstract cover art painted by Jezebel, a chimpanzee from the Portland Zoo, to the feverish, outrageously anarchic songs on the record, this is a joy.
This album is a wild romp of sex, drugs, anti-war sentiment and glorious satire.

This is a compilation. The material was recorded in 1966 and this record was released in 1975. Six of the recordings on side one were previously unreleased. It is a Fugs record but Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel who play on this album were also the two members of the Holy Modal Rounders, hence the title.

The album opens with the totally silly and deliberately juvenile Boobs A Lot, a song that both satirizes a high school football jock’s boob obsession whilst simultaneously revelling in the same obsession. The song is infectious and amusing. It is a good opener.

The Fugs were great at pushing past what was considered decent and then at times pushing past what was considered indecent into the obscene. They didn’t take themselves too seriously even when they were being serious. They were hilarious, prurient, absurd, thought provoking and teetering on the edge of lunacy most of the time. It was great stuff.

My favourite tracks on this are C.I.A. Man, Defeated, Slum Goddess and the beautiful Morning, Morning (which Richie Havens covered on his Mixed Bag album). If you’ve seen Burn After Reading and sat through the credits you’ll have heard his harshly satirical song C.I.A. Man which features on this record, though in a much earlier recording. Kill for Peace is good too.

I can’t remember for certain where I bought this album but I think it was from my friend Cody who used to have a record stall at Gorman House Markets in Canberra. I could be wrong. I never realized how scarce it was until I thought I’d lost it moving house and tried to find a copy online. It wasn’t available anywhere. Eventually I found my copy. That was a relief. It’s a record that means a lot to me.

Peter La Farge – On the Warpath – 1965 – Folkways

Peter La Farge - On  the Warpath - 1965 - Folkways

I was initially aware of Peter La Farge from listening to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cover his songs and from reading about him in biographies on those two artists. The first recordings I heard of his were this album and As Long As the Grass Shall Grow which I bought when I was about 19 years old from Yesterday and Today Records, a shop that was in Parramatta which specialized in country records but also had some folk, blues and 60s psycedelia. They were both on one CD released by Bear Family Records.

There was a precision to Peter’s writing that I liked immediately, the songs were so well crafted. There was also something in his voice I could immediately relate to and that I have never heard before or since. Listening to Peter taught me a lot as a singer. I liked his rough hewn playing style too.

It took me about 18 years to get a copy of this on vinyl. Peter La Farge records aren’t exactly easy to find in Australia. In all my years of trawling through second hand record shops, op shops and specialty record stores I only ever found one album on of his on vinyl (a reissue of ‘Sings Women Blues’ on Verve) at Yesterday and Today Records back in the 90s and one album that had a track of his (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow on An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music, Folkways) at Discovery Records in Hornsby, again back in the 90s. In both of those instances I didn’t have the money to buy them at the time so I just looked at the covers and had a read of the song titles and wished I could afford them and in both instances I went back a couple of days later to buy them when I had the money but they were sold already. It’s funny when I can remember exactly where I saw records that I didn’t even get to buy.

Ebay has altered my record buying habits lately and I now mainly shop online. I found this album there. It took about three weeks to ship to me and I was so happy to see that the cover was in mint condition and that the record had hardly been played. This is probably my favourite album cover. The photograph by David Gahr and the design by Ronald Clyne is striking. It hits the right balance of anger, defiance and pride. Like all Folkways LPs it is cheaply manufactured but it is designed really well and it comes with a nice booklet packed with notes, lyrics and musical notation of the songs.

This was the final album from Peter La Farge. He made five albums in five years. His first was on CBS and the rest were on Folkways. They are all good. He was an actor, a playwright, a rodeo rider, artist and a Korean war veteran. He committed suicide in October 1965. He was 34 years old. He packed a lot into a short life.

If you want to hear his recordings, four of his albums are available from Smithsonian Folkways and if you want to find out more about Peter, film maker Sandra Hale Schulman has made a documentary about him, The Ballad of Peter La Farge and she’s written a biography Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter La Farge.