It’s the Fourth of July, the fireworks are still going strong, the air is thick with smoke and humidity, and I’m thinking about Lou Reed.
This evening I watched a movie called “Fear Street Part One: 1994.” It’s a very fun movie if you like horror movies in the vein of Scream. The soundtrack is loaded with 90’s songs, from Cypress Hill to White Zombie. The music is front-loaded in the film and comes at you in rapid-fire cuts, but despite that, one jumped out at me. I recognized the lyrics but not the version. The song was “Sweet Jane,” originally by the Velvet Underground and in the movie by the Cowboy Junkies.
The Cowboy Junkies were one of those 90’s bands I was aware of. I even had an album but never really got into it. I think I liked their name more than their actual music. After the film finished up, I hopped onto Spotify to give their version a spin. It’s slower than most of them, more based on the version from 1969, the live album, although it doesn’t sound as much like “Crimson and Clover.” It’s got a drugged-out bluesy vibe, which felt a bit counter to the movie. In thinking about it, I’d guess it was in there as a kind of homage to Natural Born Killers, in which it also appears.
I dug it. It’s something I don’t think I would have especially enjoyed when it was first released, but my tastes have evolved, if not changed, since 1987. Or 1994 when the Natural Born Killers soundtrack came out. It’s eventually going to lead me down a Cowboy Junkies rabbit hole, but not tonight.
As I’m writing this, I’ve listened to a bunch of different versions of Sweet Jane. It’s a song that I’ve loved since I first heard it, although I honestly can’t say which version that was. The Velvet Underground was a blind spot for me until probably 10 or 15 years ago when I picked up “The Velvet Underground and Nico” during one of my periodic attempts to fill in holes in my musical education. Before that, all I really knew of Lou Reed was “Walk on the Wild Side.”
I knew the anecdote about no one listening to the Velvets, but how everyone who did started a band. I knew the famous song titles and had probably heard a lot of the songs over the years without really knowing it. I knew “White Light/White Heat” more from Bowie, for instance, or from a reference in “Almost Famous.” It’s funny how such a prominent musician and band can live on the periphery without really breaking through into your consciousness.
“Walk on the Wild Side” was the exception. Everyone knows that song. When you listened to as much “Classic rock” as I did when I was younger, it was impossible to avoid, although I was probably older than I should be when I realized what it was all about. I remember a friend’s mom driving me and a buddy somewhere in maybe sophomore year of high school and the song coming on. I made a comment about not knowing what the song was about, and my friend’s mom responded, “I don’t think Lou Reed even knew what it was about,” which was enough for me at the time. I’m only realizing as I write this that she knew; she just didn’t want to explain it to us at that moment. I can’t say I blame her.
Despite all that, I didn’t get into either Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground until Hollis Brown came along. I’ve written about them before, so I’ll skip the history there, but suffice to say that after listening to their record “Hollis Brown get Loaded,” it fully clicked what I was missing out on. The movie “Adventureland” didn’t hurt either, using Lou Reed as a key plot point and plenty of songs on the soundtrack.
You never know what’s going to get you down a different musical path.
The funny part of listening to “Hollis Brown Get Loaded” is that I recognized a lot of the songs. Same when I bought “Transformer,” “Rock and Roll Animal,” and a few others. Despite never really realizing it, these songs were a part of my ambient soundtrack; I just never paid enough attention.
Through all this, the song I most come back to is “Sweet Jane.” A surreal take on the rock-star life, according to Lou Reed; for me, it feels like a lesson in living life when you can. Lou Reed writing a song about stopping and smelling the roses seems weird to me, and I imagine it might have been a somewhat cynical enterprise for him. I read a comment that it was his attempt to write a hit for the Velvets. That may certainly be true, although I’d guess a lot of “Loaded” fits that bill.
“Sweet Jane” is one of those rock songs that feels perfect to me. Despite all the different covers, some fast like Mott The Hoople’s, or slow like the Cowboy Junkies, the song transcends. I’ve listened to a bunch of different ones as I write this, and honestly, none of them have been bad. That’s such a wild thing to me. How good can a song be that it’s almost impossible to make it sound bad? No matter who is playing it, that main riff just explodes into space in a pure beam of rock and roll. There’s real magic in that.
I’m tempted to rank versions, but as I listen, that just seems silly. For me, my go-to will always be Hollis Brown. There’s just something about a throwback rock and roll band from New York doing such justice to one of the Gods of the New York scene. Sometimes it’ll be the lonesome, echoey Arturo Jimenes take, which feels like it should live in an empty bar somewhere near the end of the line. Brownsville Station’s version takes a timeless song and plants it firmly in 1973, giving it the texture and feel of the time. I get in the mood for the super sounds of the ’70s, pretty much anytime I watch Dazed and Confused, and this version gets me where I’m going.
From the man himself, I probably listen to the version from Rock and Roll Animal more than the original from Loaded. Sometimes I just like that live sound; it’s so kinetic and visceral on that album.
After tonight I’ll add the Cowboy Junkies to the list. It’s a pretty big list, but that’s ok. Cover songs can be dull and pointless, but sometimes they end up being part of an ongoing conversation down through the years about how we listen and how we hear, and what really gets us going. Like the song says, anyone who ever played a part, they wouldn’t turn around and hate it. Neither will I.