The last five-star piece, from two weeks ago, was about the Cowboy Junkies. They covered Sweet Jane on their excellent The Trinity Sessions album, and Lou Reed was quoted as saying that their version was definitive. He’s wrong; his own take on this 1974 live set is at another level entirely. So is much of the record. If you had to name the greatest live rock record of all time, well you couldn’t, but if you had to name the top five, this would be one: it shows how hard rock ought to be played. There are some problems: it’s kind of bombastic in places, and it does glamorize the use of addictive narcotics; but let’s not be picky. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Lou’s done a lot of good work over the years, and hasn’t stopped. I’m not old or hip enough to have been a Velvet Underground fan, and I don’t have his twenty-first century Ecstasy; but from last decade, Magic and Loss and (especially) the Reed/Cale collaboration Songs for Drella are really very good.
Lou’s arc from Drug-Driven Sex God to older-but-wiser New York Poet Laureate (no, not really, I don’t even know if they have one) has been remarkably graceful.
The Music · When I decided to write this, I wondered why I only had two of the songs on my computer; then remembered that I’d snagged them off Napster because that was easier than ripping CDs, back in the day. What I have are Intro/Sweet Jane and White Light/White Heat; but I look at the track listing and I think I’d probably have clicked that fifth iTunes star on a couple more. I’m definitely going to have to reload this one off the disc.
Let’s see: the band is tight as any famous-name classical string quartet, the guitars are orchestrated and played well; Lou’s vocals are wasted-sounding, which is appropriate, but the phrasing and timing is right up there. And the songs, those songs are jam-packed full of wonderful melodies and lyrics that get their hooks into your brain and won’t let go.
Well, OK, on the other side of the coin, yes, it’s heavy pompous Seventies glam/arena rock, and two of the songs are totally about getting high, and the guitar-playing isn’t very innovative (it’s very good, just not very innovative) and Heroin in particular hasn’t worn all that well. But still, this is really extra-fine music.
Over at Amazon, there’s a savage Editorial Review by one Douglas Wolk, saying “the album’s hard to like now”. Well, I think that if you never actually liked heavy guitar-based glam rock, that would be true. But within the context of that genre, this is a gem.
Sampling It · Don’t bother. If you like hard rock (very hard rock) built around good songs and good playing, just go buy it; otherwise not. I see there’s a re-issue with two new tracks.