The Impossible, Perfect Appeal of Lou Reed and “Sweet Jane”

You’ve got to love Lou Reed.

Well, chances are, either you love Lou Reed, or you can’t stand Lou Reed. So if you listen to him at all, you probably love him.

Either you appreciate his mortician-flat, monotone delivery, or it grates on your very last nerve. Either you embrace his wildly creative stories focused on drugs, urban decay and sexual exploration, or you just wish he would say what was on his mind without obfuscation and symbology.

Whatever side of the Lou Reed fence you find yourself on, it is hard to deny his brilliance. First coming to fame as part of the wildly influential band The Velvet Underground in the late 1960’s, Reed quickly found fame as a primary creative force behind the group, as well as writing and performing on some of their most important tracks.

“Sweet Jane” was released in 1970 on Loaded, the band’s fourth and final studio release. The song starts with an intro of several electric guitars, playing simultaneous rhythm and lead in at what first seems like a sonic cesspool, sounding something like a carousel calliope. It is a precise, random mish-mosh of pretty, yet dissonant sounds. And then it stops. And then we hear the now familiar riff that starts the song.

I would argue that Lou Reed could not sing. His voice was distinctive, comparable maybe to Leonard Cohen on a bad day. He was able to stay on a key, and he could hit notes “next door” to one another, but he was certainly not able to stretch to particularly high or low registers. He grabbed your ear though, and he was never to be confused with anyone else.

“Standin’ on a corner, suitcase in my hand
Jack’s in his car, says to Jane, who’s in her vest,
And me, I’m in a rock n’ roll band.
Ridin’ in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim
You know, those were different times
All the poets studied rows of verse,
And those the ladies rolled their eyes

Sweet Jane is code for heroin, and the song is about communities of people living different lifestyles, all in search of something. In search of the thing. Artists living lives of poetry and music. People working in banks and businesses, stuck in the confines of schedules and rules.

“Now, Jack, he is a banker, and Jane, she is a clerk
And the both of them are saving up their moneys
And when they come home from work
Sittin’ by the fire, the radio does play
The classical music there, Jim
The march of the wooden soldiers
All you protest kids
You can hear Jack say, get ready, ah”

Whether the lives are lives of creativity and freedom, or they are lives of routine and process, everyone sings towards Sweet Jane. This is what they want. This is why they connect with the people they connect with. This is why they work as hard as they do. The bridge suggests the lengths to which they will go.

“And, everyone who ever had a heart, oh
That wouldn’t turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part, whoa
And wouldn’t turn around and hate it.”

“Sweet Jane” is a catchy song. Its intro riff, which repeats throughout the song, is instantly toe tapping and we can’t help but to sing along with the chorus.

“Sweet Jane” is also an impossibly dark song about the lure of heroin, and the lengths that people will go to get that high that can’t be found elsewhere. I imagine the hazy calliope that opens the song sounds like heroin feels.

“Heavenly wine and roses
Seem to whisper to her when he smiles
Heavenly wine and roses
Seem to whisper to her, hey when she smiles”

Sweet Jane.

“Sweet Jane”
Written by Lou Reed
Performed by The Velvet Underground
Released August, 1973

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