Buttercup Song (Verse 4)

It seems those who tell you what to do
Have already done it, before they do
But it don’t even matter — uh, if’n it’s true
Because you know — damn well, you know
You’re gonna do the same thing, too

Here we get the moral of the story: Don’t trust anybody, not even yourself. It’s not what you’d call an uplifting message, but it’s an honest one. And very New York City. Remember what Lou wrote to Delmore Schwartz:

If you’re weak NY has many outlets. I can’t resist peering, probing, sometimes participating, other times going right to the edge before sidestepping.

The singer of this song keeps telling himself not to get involved, while all the time knowing that he’s going to, eventually. And then he’ll write a song about it, and the cycle will continue.

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Buttercup Song (Verse 3)

Well, then it happened
Well, I am sad to relate
While he’s eating SpaghettiOs, this girl’s – uh, Chinese plate
He drooled and he slobbered over the design
As down in his mouth dribbled three-month-old port wine
Nineteen dollars a quart, gift from his mother – oh!

When this song was recorded in 1965, SpaghettiOs (yes that is the official trademarked name) were a brand-new product. Says Wikipedia:

Ring-shaped canned pasta was introduced in 1965 by the Campbell Soup Company under the Franco-American brand, by marketing manager Donald Goerke, nicknamed “the Daddy-O of SpaghettiOs,” as a pasta dish that could be eaten without mess. Other shapes considered included cowboys, Native Americans, astronauts, stars, and sports-themed shapes.

It was a true triumph of all-American marketing ingenuity: Posit a problem that’s not really a problem (spaghetti is so messy!), put something bland in a can, add high-fructose corn syrup and a catchy slogan, and hey presto — you’ve got a license to print money.

Three-month-old port seems like the perfect pairing for SpaghettiOs, though $19 a quart seems pretty steep, especially in 1965. (His mother overpaid, I guess.) Put it all together and we get a pretty vivid, if still a little vague, picture: Our Hero drooling and slobbering, dribbling port, shoveling SpaghettiOs into his gaping maw.

I guess if I were really committed, I’d have port and SpaghettiOs tonight. Instead, I think it will be Bordeaux and leftover pizza. Close enough?

Buttercup Song (Bridge)

Oh, you should have seen it!
Oh, my God, what a sight!
A fully grown man writing poems at night
To the silly old flower blooming in the night air
As alliteration blossomed, off in his chair
To which I came attached one dusky evening
When I sat in our park, some stuffing in Spring
And déjà vu! My friend turned in dismay
And then, thank God, I heard him once more say – oh!

I call this the bridge because I’m not sure what else to call it — it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the verses, and seems to serve as some kind of connective tissue. It is spoken more than sung, and at first I thought it might be Cale’s voice rather than Reed’s; but judging by the mic placement it has to be Lou, just using some oddly posh accent that sounds like a cross between Basil Rathbone and Gore Vidal.1

So are we meant to take this as a human man literally writing poems to a flower he’s fallen in love with? Well, why not? The more I listen to this, the more I realize that it was just Lou and John goofing around — which makes the fact that I have spent months analyzing it both embarrassing and weirdly appropriate.2

I mean, what’s so bad about goofing around? Especially now that spring has finally sprung and the flowers are starting to pop up all over. I might write a poem to a flower my damn self, but I promise not to share it here.

This weekend my darling wife (Happy Birthday!) told me that if you hold a buttercup under someone’s a chin and see a yellow glow, it means they like butter. Which in practice means that everyone likes butter. I think everyone likes buttercups, too; what’s not to like? Here’s a picture of one, and that’s all for today.


Buttercup Song (Verse 2)

But he is a liar, of course he got hung up
On an androgynous small buttercup
Of staminate and pistillate flowers, did he
Which happens, by the way, when you get involved emotionally, so –

There are a few words worth exploring here, the first of which is “androgynous.” It’s a pretty familiar word now, less so perhaps in 1965; but independent of the word, androgyny itself is as old as humanity, having been more or less fashionable and/or acceptable at different places in different times.

At the dawn of the 1960s America was, I’m led to believe, pretty uptight about such things. Long hair on a man, for instance, was frowned upon. As the decade wore on, this was among the many values that began to be called into question.

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Buttercup Song (Verse 1)

Well I’ve got this friend, and – I’ll tell ya, man – he’s real hip
An anthropologite, baby, that is his business
But never once – wooh! – does he ever blow his cool
Because he always follows this wondrous golden rule

So first of all, what is an “anthropologite”? The top search results for that word are the women’s clothing retailer Anthropologie, a “Demisexual grunge-emo chick” on Tumblr, and a hotel in Belgium. Presumably it’s a play on “anthropologist,” but are we meant to take that literally?

If I had to guess — and I guess I do — I’d say that this is a reference to Lou Reed’s old mentor and role model Delmore Schwartz. We’ve previously discussed Delmore here and here; he was a writer, which is a sort of anthropologist, and had an outsize influence on young Lewis. They stayed in touch after Lou left Syracuse; in early 1965, roughly around the time the Reed/Cale demo was recorded, Lou wrote a letter that said:

If you’re weak NY has many outlets. I can’t resist peering, probing, sometimes participating, other times going right to the edge before sidestepping. Finding viciousness in yourself and that fantastic killer urge and worse yet having the opportunity presented before you is certainly interesting.

Lou’s gradual ascent to rock stardom roughly coincided with Delmore’s descent into the abyss. In July 1966, shortly after the Velvet Underground recorded their debut album, Schwartz would die of a heart attack, alone in a room in the Chelsea Hotel. His body would not be discovered for two days.

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Buttercup Song

One goal for this week was to sit down and listen to John Cale’s new album, Mercy,in honor of his 81st birthday. (He was born on March 9, 1942, exactly one week after Lou Reed.) I guess on some level I felt like I was doing him a favor, expending some of my vauable attention on whatever the old man’s doing now. Then I put it on and started clicking around for the reviews; the first one I found, on Pitchfork, started like this:

When an icon returns after a lengthy absence, it’s tempting to feel a kind of condescending compassion. My god, one might think, he’s still doing it at 80. And when he returns in the enviable company of bright young(er) things, it’s tempting to feel cynical: Look who’s trying to stay current. Spare all that for John Cale. He who, in co-founding the Velvet Underground, built the bridge between European art music and American rock’n’roll with his inimitable viola drone; who managed to corral early iterations of the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, and Nico into the studio and keep them there long enough to capture on tape all their world-changing energies; who introduced Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Jeff Buckley, and after him, vicariously, to a deluge of lessor idol tryouts; who has himself released more than three dozen albums of chamber pop, post-punk, post-rock, and beyond, on his own and in collaboration with fellow icons, arguably more famous than him (frenemies Lou Reed and Brian Eno, gurus like La Monte Young), whom he often shows up — John Cale doesn’t need your charity.

Correct on every count! Cale has always done things his own way, and Mercy is no different. It’s slow-moving, abstract, atmospheric, mysterious. I don’t know what I think of it and probably won’t for a while, if ever. But it really doesn’t matter what I think — what matters is that the octogenarian provocateur is still trying new things. Long may it be so.

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Too Late

Today is the 81st anniversary of the birth of Lewis Allen Reed, and also (not coincidentally) the first birthday of this blog.3I think it’s gone pretty well so far, but there is room for improvement. Now that I have a sense of the size and speed of the project, I realize that it may well take me the rest of my days, or longer, to complete. Which is fine! One should always have an uncompleted project of some kind; it gives you a reason to keep living.

Anyway, we are currently in 1965 in blog time. The timeline gets a bit jumbled here because we are talking about the period when Lou Reed and John Cale first started hanging out together while listening to music recorded slightly later, when they’d had some time to start developing the musical chemistry that would give rise to the VU and to the 30,000 bands that followed in its wake.

Had this blog been started even a bit earlier, we would not have had access to the 1965 demo that Reed and Cale recorded as a two-man band. After making the tape Reed mailed it to himself in order to establish what’s known as a “poor man’s copyright”; it then sat unopened among his possessions for more than 50 years. Only years after his death, as his archives were being catalogued for an exhibit at the New York Public Library, was it heard again.

Subsequently it was given the full modern treatment: digitally remastered; streamed on Spotify and YouTube; released on high-quality vinyl, a CD with a fancy pointillist cover, and even 8-track, the fashionably retro medium of the moment. This is a bit at odds with music that is so resolutely primitive — just voices, acoustic guitar, and a bit of harmonica.

Even having had some time to absorb them, it remains weird to hear these folky versions of Lou’s songs, especially given John’s professed hatred for folk music. You get an idea of a different direction they could have gone in, one which might have been more commercially successful but much less innovative and influential. Imagining Reed and Cale as a folk duo à la Simon and Garfunkel seems like a stretch, but a smart producer probably could have smoothed over their rough edges and moved some product.

“Too Late,” for instance, is a charming tune. The Dylan influence is palpable, and the rhythm of the words recalls “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” (I see that “Hard Rain” was written all the way back in 1962… man… Dylan was way ahead of everybody, wasn’t he?) Reed and Cale have fun with the call-and-response vocal, just goofing around; they were not yet Too Cool for that sort of thing. There’s even whistling, ferchrissakes.

Of course there will be more to say — about Lou and John, about the demos, and about the “Caught Among the Twisted Stars” exhibit, which I caught this week in NYC. But for today it is… you guessed it… too late.

Men of Good Fortune (1)

The Primitives were short-lived, but Lou Reed and John Cale had found something in each other.2Reed was looking to escape the factory atmosphere of Pickwick and play the gritty songs he was writing, which Terry Philips wanted nothing to do with. Cale was looking to move beyond the abstract and unprofitable world of the avant-garde. It was a match made in… New York City. Says Cale:

There were certain characters I had in mind all along who I thought would be able to succeed in New York. In Lou Reed I found one of those characters. To me, he was the kind of person who would survive in New York, and I wanted to learn from him. You might even say that learning was what I really wanted to do, more than achieve.

And Reed:

We got together and started playing my songs for fun. It was like we were made for each other. He was from the other world of music and fitted me perfectly. He would fit things he played right into my world, it was so natural.

But though they seem to have immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits, their partnership took a while to develop. Here’s Cale again:

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Why Don’t You Smile

John Cale was profiled in The New York Times last Sunday. Creeping up on his 81st birthday, Cale has a new album out, may Jah bless and keep him. The article is well-written and does a better job than I could of summarizing his career. Here’s a link; if you’re stymied by the paywall, buzz me and I’ll gift it to you. (One of the benefits of having relatively few readers is that I can offer this kind of personalized service.)

Back in late 1964, Cale found himself rehearsing with Lou Reed and the Primitives in advance of a brief tour slated for early 65. Terry Philips had planned for them to lip-sync to “The Ostrich,” though I think they ended up playing it live; but even if they doubled or tripled or quadrupled its two-and-a-half minute length, they were going to need other material to fill out the set.

It doesn’t appear that they learned “Sneaky Pete,” though they could easily have folded it into “The Ostrich” and no one would have been the wiser. Nor does it seem that they played “The Fuck Around Blues,” much as I’d love say they did. A song list from a December 3, 1964 rehearsal looks like this:

  1. Won’t You Smile (1st take)
  2. The Ostrich (1st take)
  3. The Ostrich (2nd take)
  4. Won’t You Smile (2nd take)
  5. Johnny Won’t Surf Anymore
  6. Teardrops in the Sand
  7. Sad Lonely Orphan Boy
  8. Shame, Shame, Shame
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Sneaky Pete

It occurs to me that “The Ostrich” must have sold a fair number of copies somewhere along the line, because when I looked for one a while back it was not hard to find. I think I paid $10 plus a few dollars shipping. In addition to the original 1964 release, there appear to have been several reissues around that same time, which means either that it was a minor hit somewhere, or that Terry Philips was stubbornly trying to make it one. Discogs also lists a 2012 reissue of dubious provenance on the (snicker) “Dickwick” label.

Anyone who bothered to flip over the record would have heard “Sneaky Pete,” which is pretty much more of the same. One gets the sense that after recording “The Ostrich,” they realized that they needed a B-side, and threw one together on the spot. The D-tuned guitar is more audible here, and for a few seconds at the beginning we get a driving drone that’s a sneak preview of the Velvet Underground sound. But the vocals are wince-inducing and the lyrics are largely incomprehensible, which is possibly just as well.

Frankly I am not inclined to spend more time analyzing “Sneaky Pete” than they did making it. Instead, I’ll punt for now and we’ll pick up next time with the first song Lou Reed and John Cale wrote together.