Sweet Jane (1974)
The intricacies of what The Velvet Underground means to Rock-N-Roll deserve book-length treatment. The surpassing song “Sweet Jane” in its various guises serves as an emblem for the group’s large body of work (and that of Lou Reed’s as a solo artist).
Live at The Academy of Music, New York, 1974
A few random musings first… The Underground literally grew out of the streets of New York and the kinetic, frenetic visual arts scene of the early and mid-1960s that, once and for all, put the city in the center of the painting and sculpture world. When The Velvets became intertwined with Andy Warhol they began to take off, becoming part of his touring multi-media show called Exploding Plastic Inevitable. They were also considered to be the “house band” of Warhol’s Factory, a sort of artist’s atelier in the Renaissance tradition of masters who employed what amounted to apprentices to do the grunt work (in Warhol’s case to crank out silkscreen prints). These artists would somehow put some polish on their reputations.
Warhol married The Velvet Underground to the German hipster singer Nico and from that first collaboration issued one of Rock’s greatest albums in 1967, entitled, aptly enough, The Velvet Underground & Nico with landmark songs such as “I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Venus In Furs,” “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
John Cale, who would go on to his own spectacularly innovative solo career, was a member of the group then. It is safe to say it is one of the top ten most influential Rock albums of all time. Anyone who heard it was changed by The Velvet Underground & Nico. That powerful effect goes on right to the present moment.
However, a tip of the floppy hat has to be given to Bob Dylan’s influence on the New York music scene of the time. His Highway 61 Revisited album, especially through songs like “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Desolation Row.” It is a reminder of how avant-garde Dylan was in 1964 and 1965 once he had jettisoned his early folkways.
The Velvet Underground ladled out a strange brew of Hard Rock, Blues, Jazz, psychedelia New York style, proto-Punk, droning effects and dissonant atonal colorings. While most people, (with an assist from mass media insipidness), recall the acid-and-sun drenched music of the late 1960s and early 70s as a California phenomenon – The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, CSN&Y – the big-ass-city hippie vision was squeezed out of the neon tube via Reed and The Underground.
By 1970, the group belonged to Reed after which he veered away from Cale’s farther out inclinations, although Reed would revisit ultra-experimental music later in his solo career.
Perhaps because it’s so anthemic, the most recognizable of the songs from the last Velvet Underground with Lou Reed album in 1971, Loaded, is “Sweet Jane.” In it, Reed loses none of his sardonic delivery, his snide phrasing approach or his well-crafted song structuring ability.
Most of all it is a song about not giving up as one goes through countless life trans- itions. Jack and Jane start out as sexually experimental young people, slide over to settled life – something less than exciting, but still by the end of the song there is a deeper search for tranquility and commitment – to love, to preserve something. There is a warning – the Stutz Bearcat reference, the poets – that disposes us to think that other generations went through similar experiences and that struggles to stay sane, to stay “real,” are nothing new.
Standin’ on a corner
Suitcase in my hand
Jack’s in his corset, Jane is in her vest
and me I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Huh.
Riding a Stutz Bear Cat, Jim
ya know, those were different times
all the poets studied rules of verse
and those ladies they rolled their eyes
This is not to say that Reed lets them off lightly for abandoning their hotter, crazier, early days. In fact, he’s quite judgmental in the second verse, laying into the word “monies” in an acerbic, mocking tone, rolling the word around his tongue like the serpent in the garden. Nor does he let the protestors of the Vietnam War era off lightly. There is a reminder that we are all Jacks and Janes underneath it all.
Now Jack, he is a banker
and Jane, she’s a clerk
and both of them save their monies
when they get home from work
sittin’ down by the fire
Ooo, the radio does play
the classical music there, Jim
The March of the Wooden Soldiers
All you protest kids
you can hear Jack say
Behind all of this an impossibly catchy riff operates as does an ethereal lead guitar that is connected to Reed’s deep interest in the music of the Jazz saxophone, particularly as played by Ornette Coleman. The guitar is a stand-in for the sax in the studio version of “Sweet Jane.”
The closing verse of “Sweet Jane” offers one of the more transcendental lyrics of the late Rock-N-Roll, early Rock era.
…anyone who ever had a heart
they wouldn’t turn around and break it
and anyone who ever played a part
They wouldn’t turn around and hate it
Sweet Jane, Sweet Sweet Jane
The song is, oddly enough, a plea for sweetness and light, for love to shine through any lifestyle in any historical age. Noteworthy in the studio version with The Velvets is a short intro that recollects Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” though it is more psychedelic, fractured and cut up into a jingle-jangle-morning style that pays homage to Dylan, Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield while expanding on their work.
“Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground
Mott The Hoople take a shot at “Sweet Jane”
The 1974 live version of “Sweet Jane,” recorded at “The Academy Of Music,” (later called “The Palladium”) on 14th Street in New York, detonates the bomb that had been dormant inside the studio cut. It took the chemistry between Lou Reed, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, (guitarists par excellence), to set it off.
Hunter and Wagner render what may be the greatest Rock music intro of all time. The transition from it into the body of the song is a masterstroke. So stunned was the audience at the intensity that it takes a few bars too many for its members to acknowledge with applause and cheers that the song coming into focus is “Sweet Jane.” It is an astounding moment in live music.
Summing up all previous Rock soloing and anticipating the best in Heavy Metal guitar fronting yet to come, Hunter and Wagner turn in a performance that floors the listener. Lurking inside is Hunter’s later work with Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome To My Nightmare. Wagner had already appeared as a session man on Cooper’s School’s Out. (“Listen to “My Stars.”) Wagner also played later for KISS and Aerosmith.
The transition to the famous “Sweet Jane” riff is heralded by a jazzy, Zappa-flavored jam. From the moment they lay picks to strings, we hear every guitar strain imaginable: Chuck Berry; early Steely Dan; Skynyrd; Duane Allman; The Beatles’; Dick Dale; Clapton… they all show up as if at a reunion of the invisible but audible. And between them, Hunter and Wagner take everyone to school, K through college. They split open the mother-load of Rock’s DNA.
Vocally, Reed is in tip-top form. He removes much of the hard edge from his song and turns this rendition of “Sweet Jane” into an elegy for Jack and Jane, a meditation upon love and what perseverance in a relationship might yield – at least theoretically.
Anyone conscious of the entire panorama of popular music will write this in on the list of Top Ten Rock classics. There is really nothing to compare in the Rock canon. Ask to have it played at your funeral. That’ll show ‘em.
Farewell, Lou Reed.
And farewell again to the New York Academy of Music (The Palladium).
- “Sweet Jane” exists in a score of edited and re-worked renditions. The song was heavily spliced and hacked up to make it more appealing for radio airing. So, what is the “original” track and what is altered is pretty fuzzy-wuzzy. Find the longest studio version you can.
- The 1974 “Academy Of Music” performance on the album Rock N Roll Animal is the definitive one.