Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Sally Can't Dance" - Lou Reed (1974)

In 1973 Lou Reed followed up his most commercial release, Transformer, with his most ambitious album, Berlin. It was produced by Bob Ezrin, responsible for Alice Cooper’s most overambitious works School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies. Like the two Cooper albums Berlin was overly serious and full of the overbearing weight of its self-importance. Whether this is attributable to Ezrin is open to debate. It seemed like Reed really put all his chips on Berlin and boasted at the time that it was the greatest thing he ever recorded in his lengthy and outrageous career.

Berlin lacked a hit single like a baseball pitcher lacked a right arm and quickly tanked. Reed, embittered by its failure, responded to its sad fate by assembling a top-notch stadium style heavy metal band performing Velvet Underground covers. It was so simultaneously brilliant and vindictive at the same time, with the great irony being that the resulting live album Rock & Roll Animal became his great selling album, even outdoing the legendary Transformer album. The double irony was that the guitarists, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter had previously played with Alice Cooper (behind the curtain, covering for Glen Buxton).

Lou continued chasing a dollar by following up Rock & Roll Animal by recording Sally Can’t Dance, an album that showcased a more commercial Lou, something very New York and very Seventies. Although the album did respectably, many fans found it a bit of a sell-out. It was their loss, however, because I consider it one of his most decadent works.

Like a David Hockney painting, Sally Can’t Dance is a languid document of images of excess degenerating into lazy decadence. It’s far more reminiscent to my mind of the Seventies than any other work of his. I can almost remember every facet of West Hollywood in that era when I hear that album.

Sally Can’t Dance begins with Ride Sally Ride, a classic somber ballad by Reed that recalls earlier tunes like Femme Fatale, about a played-out party girl. “Sit yourself down, take off your pants, don’t you know this is a party”, Reed croons to a quiet piano and French horn. “Ooh, isn’t it nice? When your heart is made out of ice”. The song ends with a false joyous fanfare of disco horns and backup girl singers.

The next song Animal Language was a silly song about pets getting down and dirty with each other. I think Reed wrote this song just to piss off his most ardent purists by coming up with the silliest lyrics he could come up with. He succeeded with flying colors, as the gang from Creem Magazine shamed him for years for recording this silly song.

Baby Face and NY Stars are classic Reed songs about drugged out monsters walking all over each other and using everyone in their path. While Baby Face has a lazy Quaalude aura mirrored in its hypnotic electric piano riff, NY Stars counters with a furious, coked out irritability in the pounding rhythm and scratchy funk guitar. Reed sings NY Stars in a cold, vampiric voice laden with echo, “Remember, we’re very good at games”.

The second side of Sally Can’t Dance features more cold, echo Lou vocals on Kill Your Sons, his semi-autobiographic tale of being committed to Creedmore State Psychiatric Hospital by his parents. “All the drugs that we took sure were lots of fun, but when they shoot you up with thorazine and crystal smoke it makes you choke like a son of a gun”. All this institutionalized meds talk endeared Reed to William S. Burroughs. In Victor Bockris’ book With William Burroughs there are many accounts of Reed and Burroughs discussing psychotropic medications at great length.

Ennui, like Baby Face, is another bizarre cabaret ballad with Lou doing his finest crooning, but then there’s the title track Sally Can’t Dance, with its big disco horn section and girls oohing and aahing while Lou spits out hilarious lyrics like, “She was the first girl in my neighborhood to wear tie-dyed pants, LIKE SHE SHOULD. She was the first girl that I’ve ever seen that had flowers painted on her jeans”. Anyway, the punch line is that this once badass chick is now a drug-wrecked car crash. Lou goes further into East Village detail, like her rent-controlled apartment. It’s actually a very funny song.

The album ends with Billy, a great song about a childhood friend who was the model high school student and major source of envy, now returned from Vietnam with a major heroin habit. The lyrics and sharp and incredibly poignant, punctuated by Lou crooning over an acoustic guitar and a wailing saxophone. Like Sally, Billy is a study in drug-induced ruin, and who better to report on their downfall than Lou Reed.

There’s a great sense of loss and sadness to the album, inspired partially by the public’s inability to understand Reed and also by Reed’s refusal to fit in the music marketplace (he eventually conformed to every expectation made of him, but it wouldn‘t happen for another 20 years).

I think Sally Can’t Dance is a greater album than Berlin because in spite of all the decadence and ruin Reed manages to slip in enough deadpan humor all through the record – even in the tragic Billy Lou cracks, “Billy studied medicine while I studied foliage”. He couldn’t resist a joke here and there irregardless of the tragedy. I like that.

Sally Can’t Dance deserves a second look as a great Lou Reed album. Trashy, yes; funny, definitely; sad, absolutely, but also every bit as eloquent as a John Cheever short story. When a decadent rock album recalls great literature you need to give it a closer listen.


So what do you do when you see a band that looks absolutely amazing and holds tons of promise until they start playing and then you realize this might be the worst band you've ever heard? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Black Belles.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Kingdom of Blather

Just the other day I had to drop something off by the UCLA campus. So many young, beautiful people walking around. I couldn’t help but notice that all the students walking around were either talking into their cell phones or staring into them, scrolling for something, anything, oblivious to what was in front of them. It was weird, like horses with blinders on.

Did anyone even stop to look at the people and buildings around them? Were they so absorbed in their own little world did they forget to lookup and listen to the sounds of the street? The really sad part of it all is that some of these people are artists and musicians, and they’re deliberately shutting themselves off from all the sights and sounds around them. Like horses with blinders on, only horses are more observant.

You cannot produce great art if you’re blocking everything out of your sight, and likewise cannot produce great music if you’re blocking out the sounds of the street. Where are your reference points, your influences? You haven’t got any. It just won’t happen.

Summer means fun, which means more concert going than I have in a long time, tinnitus be damned. Judy Henske will be performing for the first time in years, so that’s pretty special, then there’s PJ Harvey and her ten-piece band (!), and then The Kills are playing in early September in support of their new album, Ash & Ice. They’ll be playing at The Wiltern, a theater I used to go to when they actually showed movies. I saw Willard there in 1971. I’ll also make my annual pilgrimage to Irwindale Raceway, which I go to once a year.

Summer also means a new Andy Seven book release, and this year will be no exception. I’ll provide more details in a few weeks. I’m pretty happy I’ve been able to release four books in four years without delay. I have a lot more stuff on the pipeline, so there’s no sign of my stopping anytime soon.

Next month marks my one year anniversary of being on Facebook. I’ve sold more books since getting on that site, but in all honesty I’m not much of a fan. Some of the people who have sent me friend requests are fans of my old bands from the past, so that’s pretty cool, but then there are all these strange people.

There’s that one guy from England who always posts shit about killing all Muslims and then sends me invitations to play some infantile computer game for him. What a nut. Then there’s the guy who always posts ugly psychedelic fractal images on my wall. Who cares.

And then there’s an endless line of clowns who refuse to accept that the punk era is over and there are new bands that are better than their old punk heroes. Nothing says “I’m old” more than obsessing over The Ramones or The Stooges. “We refuse to listen to dubstep; that’s not REAL music”. Yes, it is. Grow up.

Sometimes I think Facebook is like The Tower of Babel where everybody’s talking and no one’s listening, and it all crumbles into fighting because nobody can agree on anything. Suck on that, you trendy atheists.