The 90s was the decade of record stores stocked with CDs, and a staple in all these stores (Specs, Tower, Sam Goody, and Peaches — where I spent three years) was a cutout bin of $5.99 reject discs of unknown provenance. Lou Reed discs were always legion in these bins. I suspect because the “serious” music fans who were buyers for the stores and controlled the distribution networks in the late 80s and early 90s were all Reed fans and created an overinflated demand. Also, Lou Reed released a lot of albums in the 70s and 80s, and apparently the idea that there would be a fair number of completists of this body of work was uncontroversial.
Well, I was a self-professed Velvet Underground fanatic, and so for awhile I was snatching these up on a regular basis. (I learned my lesson after a half dozen or so purchases of mediocre Lou Reed product.) But there is a diamond in that particular rough — 1976’s Coney Island Baby.
The greatness of the particular album is not attributed to any guise of genius. It’s the obvious result of the drug-induced indifference that we now recognize fueling so many 70s albums by the Rolling Stones et al. Lou Reed, backed up by a roster of session musicians who were competent but not particularly hip to his vision or musical past, puts in no more effort than anyone would have expected (note: he was averaging two albums a year during this period). Yet in all this indifference, a sort of accidental magic happened. The music is easy-rocking, almost country, with modest flourishes of weirdness at the margins. Imagine a drug-addled and burned out Reed trying to get these rut-stuck musicians to engage in the experimentation of the Velvets (imagine, also, the talk that producer Godfrey Diamond must have gotten from RCA before the sessions, this being the followup to Metal Machine Music, and even Lou was explicity asked to “go make a rock album”). So Reed got the eccentric specifics he requested — washes of cymbal here, accelerating tempo there — but the basic tracks are straight down the middle.
The songwriting is something else alltogether. There, Reed did exactly what he pleased. And boy were the muses smiling on him. Every single song on this album, on closer listen, reveals something profoundly fucked up. Let’s just quickly run them down:
- Crazy Feeling: Lou, hanging out in a bar, spots a queen, and sings in loving admiration/desire for him/her, concluding the chorus, “and I know ‘cause I’ve made the same scene,” punctuated (as though nothing were more natural) by a riff played on synth church-bells. (The other lead instrument is a pedal steel.)
- Charley’s Girl: A gently-swaying slow-boogie number (with some truly bodacious cowbell). Lyrics primarily based on life on the road. Oh, right: the band is habitually smoking pot, until the drummer’s girlfriend calls in the cops; at the song’s apex, Lou casually threatens, “If I ever see Sharon again, I’m going to punch her lights in.”
- She’s My Best Friend: A song from the Velvets period, slowed down and relaxed in typical solo-Lou fashion. Fun lyric: “If you want to see me, well, honey, you know that I’m not around / But if you want to hear me, just turn around I’m by the window.”
- Kicks: The Big Experiment Song on the album, replete with accelerating tempo, random speech overdub collage, 6+ minute length, and lyrics set at a drug/sex/violence party. But the menace of the vocals is balanced by the soothing ride-cymbal and acoustic guitar rhythm, even as Reed builds himself up to a medium-rare froth, near-convincingly slurring, “then you kill them now now … ‘cause I need some kicks.”
- A Gift: The funniest song on the album (“I’m just a gift to the women of this world,” “like a good wine I’m better as I get older”), featuring the band on beautifully whispered backing vocals and a haunting electric piano refrain.
- Ooohhh Baby: A honkey-tonk mess about a topless dancers, police snitches, addicts, whores, and the horror of getting old when you’re known for your glamor.
- Nobody’s Business: An honest effort to make a throw-away track, derailed by a platonic strung-out vibe and the lyric “if you start treating me nice hey now baby, I’m gonna have to raise your price .”
- Coney Island Baby: On the magical final track, Reed somehow gets this random group of musicians to follow his lead the way the Velvets did on many of their longer songs (albeit still in the country-rock vein). The song starts with a spoken intro, builds to several escalating crescendos, as Reed reminisces about high school football (?!), self-doubt, self-discovery, his coach, “the glory of love,” and the Coney Island boardwalk, culminating with a shout-out to his trans-gendered lover Rachel. But in an achingly beautiful sort of way.