Why Coney Island Baby might be Lou Reed’s best album

lou-reed-coneyI didn’t notice it in any of the lists of essential listening in the month or so after Lou Reed died, but I’ve long believed in Coney Island Baby as his best solo record. No other Lou Reed album quite captures the unique mixture of sleaze, menace, and soft underbelly that this one does. If the Velvet Underground’s third album has a counterpart in the Reed solo oeuvre, it’s here.

Track listing:

  1. Crazy Feeling
  2. Charley’s Girl
  3. She’s My Best Friend
  4. Kicks
  5. A Gift
  6. Ooohhh Baby
  7. Nobody’s Business
  8. Coney Island Baby

(Nothing, by the way, is added to this by the extra tracks included in the 30th anniversary edition.)

If Metal Machine Music was Reed as avant gardeist, its follow-up Coney Island Baby is Reed as subversive. It sounds commercial, smooth, and radio-friendly, just like Transformer did, but it has the same sting in the tail. Beneath the smooth rhythm section (Bruce Yaw on bass and Michael Suchorsky on drums) and the tasteful, almost Knopfler like lead guitar (Bob Kulick) there are sly lyrics about drugs, prostitution, murder, and a variety of non gender-specific love songs. The album opens with one of these, in fact. With it’s sly first lines (which don’t quite scan), the song offers a knowing wink:

You’re the kind of person that I’ve been dreaming of
You’re the kind of person that I always wanted to love

Of course, “You’re the kind of girl” would scan so much better, but this is an album which is all about not quite fitting in. Reed goes on to sing to this person,

And you, you really are a queen
oh, such a queen, such a queen
And I know, ’cause I made the same scene

“Charley’s Girl” sounds like it ought to be a more conventional kind of, you know, heterosexual, love song, but of course it isn’t. It’s the complete opposite of that. “Charley’s Girl” is a snitch. The song has a great groove, excellent riffing, a catchy chorus, and this second verse:

It happened on New Year’s Eve
They said everybody had to leave
They had a warrant in their hand
They wanted to bust the whole band
I said if I ever see Sharon again
I’m gonna punch her face in

Oh, nice, Lou.

Track three is an old Velvet’s song, given the smooth FM radio treatment,  beefed up to an epic length with a long (and excellent) guitar coda. And if you’re not listening too closely to the lyrics, you might miss this little snippet, which neatly encapsulates Reed’s contempt for journalists:

Let’s hear one for Newspaper Joe
He caught his hand in the door
Dropped his teeth on the floor
They say, hey, now Joe
Guess that’s the way the news goes

“Kicks” takes us back to the avante garde, reminding us of The Velvet Underground (“The Gift”, perhaps, on White Light/White Heat), but also of The Beatles’ “Revolution #9”. The sound mix includes the sound of conversation, like background talk at a party, and the creepy, menacing lyrics are sung over a jazz-like groove. Hey, man, what’s your style? He sings. How do you get your adrenaline flowing? The answer is dark: how do you get your kicks? Oh, you know, by killing people.

This horror is followed with the self-deprecatingly ironic, “A Gift” (yet another nod to the Velvet Underground), on which Reed (in the throes of his passion for the transexual Rachel) is accompanied by breathy, whispered backing vocals as he sings,

Responsibility sits so hard on my shoulder                     Like a good wine, I’m better as I grow older, and now – – I’m just a gift to the women of this world 

“Ooohhh Baby” is a rocker. With such a title you might expect, once again, some kind of radio-friendly, sexy love song, but this turns out to be about a topless dancer whose father made his living breaking and entering (until he ripped off Seymour). Most of the lyric sites do a hopeless job of transcribing the lyrics. Lines such as, And everything is not swell ‘cept his hands and legs and maybe even mine, seem to have people stumped. And this:

Everybody wondered ’bout you
When you was seen in drinking some beer
You got here from Ohio and your mother said
You hookered in urea near
That’s the way it goes now…

Well, none of the lyrics web sites seem to get that “urea near” bit, almost as if people just can’t quite believe what he’s singing.

Our next-to-last track is “Nobody’s Business” and it sounds groovy enough, with its repeated refrain of “no no no no no”, but of listen carefully, and we appear to be hearing the point of view of a pimp. In summary then, we’ve got love songs to transexuals, songs about snitches who deserve to be punched in the face, a song about getting your kicks from killing people, one about a twenty dollar hooker topless dancer, and a pimp telling us to mind our own business.

Which brings us to the title track, in which Lou sings about how all he ever wanted to do was fit in, play football for the coach, and how the glory of love might see you through. It’s a gentle, lilting song, with soft backing vocals, Knopfler-style lead guitar, and an absolutely sincere lyric about how to survive in a city (and perhaps the music business).

And all your two-bit friends
have gone and ripped you off
They’re talking behind your back saying, man
you are never going to be a human being
And you start thinking again
About all those things that you’ve done
And who it was and who it was
And all the different things you made every different scene
Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer
And just remember, different people have peculiar tastes
And the
Glory of love, the glory of love
The glory of love, might see you through

And with his sentimental side completely exposed, Reed finishes the album with a spoken dedication:

I’d like to send this one out for Lou and Rachel
and all the kids and P.S. 192…
Man, I’d swear, I’d give the whole thing up for you

And there it is. A smooth-sounding, beautifully produced record featuring superb session players, and some of Lou Reed’s sneakiest, darkest, and most sentimental songwriting.

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternate history

1969: The Velvet Underground Live
The Velvet Underground Live at Woodstock, 1969 (Photo credit: thejcgerm)

It was said that when the Velvet Underground played Woodstock in the summer of 1969, that only the front 10,000 members of the audience could actually hear — but that a good 1000 of them were inspired to form bands of their own. The Velvets’ viscerally exciting set included the 11 rhythm-guitar-driven minutes of “What Goes On” as well as the just-written “Sweet Jane” and the haunting “Pale Blue Eyes”, all three of which found their way into the 3-hour Woodstock movie that followed. Following their set, a lot of the other bands present reassessed their entire approach.

Then it was that the Velvet Underground became a globally recognised b(r)and and their stripped-down approach to rock music completely transformed the early 70s music scene. Millions more people saw the film of Woodstock than were ever there. When “Pale Blue Eyes” turned up on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy and became a hit single, it sealed the deal. “Pale Blue Eyes” reached #6 in the Billboard singles charts, and #2 in the Adult Contemporary chart. In Britain, it reached the top ten, but more importantly, became a staple of radio play. In the mid-2000s, according to industry figures, it had been broadcast more than 6.5 million times. In their celebration of 100 Years of Film, the American Film Institute placed it at #20 in their list of the “top 100 movie songs”.

The Velvets hastily recorded Loaded to capitalise on the success, and had further hit singles with the re-written “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ’n’ Roll”. Meanwhile, the late 60s Blues Revival died away, and a score of 4-piece guitar bands assaulted the charts with their “no solos”  or “punk” philosophy. When Eric Clapton imitated Reed’s chopping rhythm guitar solo on his minor hit “Layla”, it cemented Reed’s reputation as the musician’s musician.

Three more Velvet Underground albums followed, with former band member and avant-gardist John Cale sniping from the side-lines, before the tensions in the band resulted in Lou Reed’s first solo album, Coney Island Baby in 1975. The increasingly erratic Reed then toured the world for three years, with an ever-growing and ever-changing roster of musicians. This culminated in the infamous Live at Budokan set of 1978. Although only ever available as a Japanese import, enough people heard Reed’s on-stage meltdown for his conversion to Christianity the following year to seem less surprising. As harrowing as it was to hear, the stream of abuse directed towards the front two rows of the audience on Live at Budokan were leavened with sublime musical moments, as Reed “deconstructed the myth” and reimagined some of his best-known songs as soul, and indeed gospel numbers.

Meanwhile, Sterling Morrison and Doug Yule reunited with Cale to release the concept album Rashomon in 1978 (Mo Tucker refused to work with the others without Reed). That the title was borrowed from a classic of Japanese cinema was taken by many to be a sly dig at Reed’s problems. The multi-stranded musical narrative was no easy listen, but seemed to confirm that it was Reed who produced all the Velvets’ most commercial material, a notion that had been in some dispute.

Reed had considerable commercial success with his gospel material, which included the massive hit, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” from the openly autobiographical album Growing Up in Public. “Angel” was a #1 in the US gospel charts as well as a #5 in the Billboard singles chart. Other tracks on Growing Up in Public, like “Teach the Gifted Children”, with its neat segue into Al Green’s “Take Me To the River”, became live staples for Reed in the 1990s and 2000s.

The inevitable Velvet Underground reunion took place to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Woodstock in 1989, though Cale wasn’t invited. The event met with mixed reviews, and the subsequent world tour divided opinion. One school of thought insisted that if you were charging high ticket prices, you owed it to the fans to deliver versions of the hits as close to the original as possible. The other argued that the unpredictability of the concerts proved that the Velvet Underground was still relevant. Their last appearance together, in 2005, was indeed a run-through of their best-known hits, which some saw as a sell-out. But that 15-minute Superbowl half-time show gained them a whole generation of new fans. If just a small percentage of the massive global audience were encouraged to seek out their original Woodstock set, or the 1968 self-titled album, it was probably worth selling out.

When asked in later years about that first Woodstock appearance and how they’d come up with that incredibly fast rhythm guitar style, Reed would say, “We were on speed.” He may have slowed down in his last few years, but the affection felt by his legions of fans held fast until the end.