On Songs for Drella - that Lou-dominated tribute to Andy Warhol, featuring his former VU alum John Cale - Lou observes, singing of Andy, that "if art is the tip of the iceberg, I'm the part sinking below."
I had cause to compare Lou Reed to an iceberg last night, at the (packed) Lou Reed tribute at the Princeton. It seemed to come naturally: a friend of a friend confessed that she didn't know Lou Reed very well, and I replied that most people don't, never having been exposed to his most interesting work. The popular side of Lou Reed is basically the albums Transformer and New York, a couple of songs off Loaded, a couple of songs off the first VU album, and maybe one or two songs off New Sensations. Probably what Lou she knew came from those records, because even given the very limited media exposure granted Lou's music, those are the records that one is led to again and again, the records that have by far the most visibility of Lou's large and varied catalogue. Not to denigrate those discs - I have and love all of them - but they really are just the tip. The "part sinking below" is where, for me, the meat of Lou's work is found.
Of the people who DO know Lou Reed's work, there is also more than one way to enter it. You have the people who, for example - the 70's Lou fans - figure because they like Transformer, they will check out the albums adjacent to it, like Berlin and Sally Can't Dance. There are the people - the Furies' Chris Arnett, for instance - who gravitate towards Street Hassle (those of you who love that album, who saw Lou touring Rock'n Roll Heart here in Vancouver, at the Queen E. or wherever that was, can thank Chris for shouting a request for "I Wanna Be Black," which the band played, much to Chris' delight), or avant-gardists like Nathan Holiday who are primarily interested in Metal Machine Music. Contrarians sometimes cleave to Lulu, his last offering, done with Metallica backing him. It is a weirdly reviled album, by no means his least interesting (I'll give that honour to Mistrial), but I don't know what to make of people (I know two or three) who think it's the best thing he's done. I suspect them of being hyperbolic, perhaps so as to compensate for the critical and public injustice done to that record. It's a good record, unfairly dismissed, but his masterpiece?
(Digressively, I got the Facebook equivalent of a happy chuckle out of one of those Lulu people by posting that, even as a fan of that album, "you gotta wonder what Hetfield was thinking, asked to repeatedly declaim that he was the table." I've read someone observe that the whole album should be read as a meta-level sendup of Metallica, with Lou deliberately making them look like assclowns, essentially pranking them. I don't think that's true, either).
But there's no wrong way to do Lou Reed. For me, besides the obvious tip - where I love most New York and the first and, tho' it is below the waterline, the third Velvets albums (and the "VU" material, beloved to Brent Kane, who joined us at the table last night), my own favourite periods of Lou's are between 1979 and 1983 (The Bells, Growing Up in Public, The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts - a very fine run of albums indeed) and 1992 and 2000 (Magic and Loss, Set the Twilight Reeling, and Ecstasy; I group New York with these albums, as well, actually, but it is separated from them by Songs for Drella, which I only like a couple songs from). Call me a heretic, but I can mostly live without the early 70's Lou - I don't even own Sally Can't Dance, Coney Island Baby, or Rock 'n Roll Heart at the moment. I was very pleased when, seeing Lou in Tokyo, touring Ecstasy, he seemed to also share this evaluation of his work, confining the three 70's songs he played to a hurried, forced-march encore, spending most of the main set jamming out variations on songs off Ecstasy, with occasional dips into Songs for Drella, New York, New Sensations, and Set the Twilight Reeling. I would have liked to hear anything off The Blue Mask, especially the title track, which people who caught the same tour in Germany - captured on a great live CD - were treated to (Discogs identifies that as a bootleg, but you could get it at Sunrise Records; WTF?). It apparently got played in Vancouver on that tour, too! But maybe he just wanted to make sure we could all get the last train back to the suburbs?
Anyhow, if anyone got below the tip of Lou Reed at last night's tribute to him, it did not happen while I was there. Closest we got was David M. doing one of Lou's most depressing songs, "The Bed," off Berlin. But even though I left early - without even apologizing to Gnick Gnash or Ani Kyd or anyone else whose sets I missed entirely - armed with only the excuse of having had dental work done earlier that day (the anaesthetic had worn off and I wanted to get home and take a painkiller!) - I had a fine, fine time, beginning with my first ever MEAT DRAW!
My impressions of gambling have much to do with childhood experiences of bingo and casinos (on my Mom's side of things) and the racetrack and assorted keno tables (on my father's). With the possible exception of keno, none of these forms of gambling seem exactly pro-social. The bingo hall is a place of growling tension, where everyone gets more and more focused on getting that last number, the B-15 you've been waiting for that will win you the big prize, and they keep calling N's and O's and I's, and with each ball that pops up that is NOT B-15, you are getting angrier and angrier, dabbing more and more forcefully, until finally the caller says, "Under the N, 32" and someone four tables over shouts "Bingo" and EVERYONE IN THE ROOM gives a little growl of resentment and defeat; only the winner is happy. Ditto the vibe at Exhibition Park when my Dad would take me there as a kid, where the tension would ratchet up in a very short time as the horses rounded the Clubhouse stretch, people clutching their tickets and straining to see until, GAAHHH, they lost, and they tore up their tickets in disgust, a growl of resentment and despair rising up from their throats... Gamblers are not happy people, it seems. Even casinos, for all the friendly bleeps and bloops of the slot machines, lock the players in one-on-one relationships with the game in front of them, focused only on their own winnings. Little socializing occurs. Before he died in 2009, when my father sat at the keno tables at Nooksack, sick with cancer but still determined to have fun, he would sip a beer and sometimes socialize with fellow keno players, leaving the ladies to enjoy the slots on their own, but that was about my only experience of "friendly," pro-social gambling, and I was too busy losing money of my own (actually of my father's, usually!) at the slot machines myself to participate.
The meat draw blew the slightly more social vibe of keno tables away, though. The Lion's Club guys set out their bags of meat and a big tumbler for the tickets on a folding table at the front of the room, and one of them went out into the crowd to sell tickets. Having had a bit of edible cannabis earlier in the evening - since I can't drink alcohol, it's become my occasional intoxicant of choice - I was feeling mellow and happy and inclined to support whatever the hell the guy was doing, but - with sports on the TV and bar chatter all around me - it was only after I'd bought 20 tickets off him that I asked, "What did I just buy into, anyhow?" (A bar patron would later tell me how amused he was to hear me ask this). Thus did I find out that I was entered in a meat draw. It's been decades since I had a row of tickets to check for anything, and it took me a minute, once the draw commenced, to understand how to lay them out so I could compare the numbers they called to my own. What was remarkable was that when someone won one of the draws, everyone cheered for them. Sometimes people even knew the names of regulars: "Good on ya, Bill," and an old guy in a baseball cap with a goofy grin on his face shuffles up to the front with his ticket held proudly ahead of him in his hand to claim his meat. He raises the bag to the crowd and everyone cheers. There's a slightly besotted sense of irony to this, you feel - people are conscious of the absurdity of the whole thing, and taking pleasure in that too - "Look, Bill won meat!" - but it's still a pretty friendly vibe, and when I won a draw - the only winner to emerge without meat, as my prize was merely tickets to the NEXT meat draw - it did feel truly fun to make my way up to the front to the whoops and applause of the crowd.
Just as well I didn't win; I would have had to leave even earlier than I did to get the meat home.
If I only won tickets, which in turn proved losers, I had actual meat to console me: I'd arrived early to get a good seat and have dinner, and so I settled into the Friday special of steak and French fries. The steak, to be honest, was a bit tough - there was a vein of gristle that was hard for me to negotiate, given my weakened, rebuilt tongue - and had me thinking that I should have gone with the beef dip - and the fries were only average; but gravy helped; and best of all, I discovered a de-alcoholized beer I like. I had joked with the waitress - her fashion sense put her somewhere on a gradient between Ghost World and Tank Girl - about my being a recovering cancer patient, forbidden any alcohol: "But I really want a beer; do you have a de-alcoholized beer that doesn't taste like it has been peed through a skunk?" She recommended Phillips, and I went with the Pilsner, and go'r blimey, friends, it tasted just like a real beer. It had a Corona-like vibe, so I asked for lime, and felt, gulping it thirstily, a comfort and familiarity that no previous de-alcoholized beer has brought me. It is entirely possible that it has simply been too long (fall of 2021?) since I've had a real beer, and have lost perspective, but I was definitely having a few "Are you sure this is de-alcoholized" moments, so yummy was it. I made it through four of them in the evening, though, and did not have my intoxication increase, which it would have, had they been real. Shockk of the SLIP~ons, the Spitfires, and Mongoose would later comment on Facebook that he had had a dry February and sampled a few de-alked beers and "Phillips was the best one."
And Eddy D. clearly is no stranger to meat draws; when the Lulus, scheduled to open at 8:30, rolled in around 9:15, the first thing Eddy declaimed to the room, before even getting onstage, was "Did I miss the meat draw?" Ha, ha. That late roll in of the Lulus, also involving Ed Hurrell, Tony Lee and Lisafurr Lloyd, forced a last minute re-arrangement of performers (David M., who was supposed to do "Sweet Jane" with Finn Leahy, had to go on first so he could get to his nightshift job, meaning that we got to hear both David and Finn, also perhaps absent when festivities commenced, do that song separately).
Eddy D. chats with Seana Gnaw (say it) formerly of Pocket Caligula
I have little to say about the actual music. David did a fine cover of "Sweet Jane," modelling it on the Mott the Hoople version, he explained to me - the best version there is, he thinks; and enjoyed the perversity of playing "The Bed," which he chose specifically because of how wrong it was for a night such as this. People mostly talked through it; even I was distracted by trying to get photographs. But there were people who knew who he was - his old friend Brent was pleasantly surprised to learn David was playing, and David was amused to have a fan ask him to autograph a coaster after his short set.
The second band, Rose Asleep, seemed young enough that they probably got ID'd on the way in. They did songs from Loaded and the first VU album, announcing that they didn't really know Lou Reed's work well, but were very happy to be exposed to it for the purposes of playing the show ("They should have more young people on the bill," David observed of them; a fine sentiment). One of the songs they did off Loaded - "Cool It Down" - was a bit of a deep dive, I suppose; at least it wasn't "Sweet Jane" or "Rock 'n Roll."
The Lulus actually went on third and proved themselves, somewhat unsurprisingly, to be 70's guys, taking on bangin' crowd-pleasers like "I'm So Free," "Hangin' Round," and "Vicious," with the high point for me being Ed's background vocals on the first of those songs. These are, as you might gather, not my favourite Lou Reed songs, but they were definitely the Lou songs most likely to find an appreciative audience in the Princeton. They were energetically (if somewhat loosely) delivered, punctuated with Eddy's urging to donate to the SPCA ("for the puppies!") and indeed, fit the vibe of the Lulu's quite well, in a way that few of those later Lou songs might not do (tho' I'd be charmed to hear Eddy D's take on "Sex with Your Parents," say, or perhaps "Average Guy")
Update: In a previous version of this blogpost, I had observed that I thought Eddy had incorrectly rendered "you must think I'm some kind of gay blade" as "gay parade." But in fact, he informs me now on Facebook, he had deliberately changed the lyric (which is fair enough, I guess, since I don't even know what a gay blade is!). He also gave his blessing to me to post this video of the song in question. "Why not? That's what Lou would do."
I had previously stayed away from past Lou Reed tributes out of distaste for some of the past actions of organizer and emcee Scott Beadle - a fine graphic designer, a workable drummer, and clearly a man of taste, musically speaking, but given in the name of political righteousness to occasionally turning against members of the Vancouver music scene, whether campaigning on social media against burlesque performers playing the first Bowie Ball (not that burlesque actually happened that night, as I recall - it's just that Betty Bathory was involved, I think) or dragging rather old dirt on members of Slow into the light on Facebook, probably hastening the demise of that reunion, if not directly causing it, and unfairly stressing out members of the band. My own feeling is that you don't publicly crucify others for stuff you have no direct involvement in, you don't hold grudges against people for things that happened years ago, and you generally try to support fellow musicians on the scene, especially (re: the Bowie Ball) if it is an event that you are involved in. Plus who the hell identifies as a Communist these days? In the long run, I'd rather see Slow or any of Betty's bands (Daddy Issues plays March 10th) than Pill Squad, so I have stayed away for the last few years from anything Scott has had a hand in; he'd drawn his own lines in the sand and I've been happy these last few years not to cross them.
...But there's no denying that Scott made a fine, dapper host, and that overall, the Lou Reed tribute night was a roaring success; I gathered from stuff I overheard that the 2022 edition was the fullest the Princeton had ever been, but I wouldn't be surprised if 2023 outstripped that. I was glad to have a friendly moment with Scott, because my own principles (not getting too upset about things that don't directly effect me, not holding on to old grudges, and supporting the music scene wherever possible) made it uncomfortable to hold a grudge. Still, I left early - knowing I was freeing a seat for someone made it easier to leave, as did the beardo hipster kid discreetly vaping in the seat beside me (I fucking hate this, as a cancer survivor, but what can you do, it seems to be pretty commonplace now to take a discreet puff). Mostly I just wanted my pain meds and my bed. I left two songs into Finn Leahy's performance, and thus missed out on hearing whoever might have delved deeper than the tip of Lou Reed's catalogue (I gather Sparky Spurr did a bluegrass reading of "Waves of Fear," which would have been great... maybe next year?).
My last stop on the way out was the merch table, where I bought the most, uh, "homemade-looking" t-shirt I have ever bought. But I've wanted a Lou Reed t-shirt for awhile (but not a Transformer one); proceeds were going to the SPCA (and I had not donated anything yet, having no idea where the container for doing so was); and most importantly, it was my size (and only $15). So why not?
The highlights of the night, to be honest, were the meat draw, finding a near beer I like, and the convivial, community vibe of the Princeton; it was a very pleasant Friday evening. Chatting with my friends between songs was pretty great, too.