Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (2)

Go ahead and click Play on this — I promise we’ll be done by the time it’s over:

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On June 6 I wrote,

There is no recording of Lou Reed singing Bob Dylan’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” in 1963.

And technically that is still true! But there is a tape of him doing an instrumental version with guitar and harmonica — either on purpose or because he got lost in the song and the tape cut off before he could start singing. We’ll never know.

Wait, scratch that — we might know tomorrow. Indeed do many things come to pass.

Gee Whiz

New shit has come to light, man.
—J. Lebowski

Up to this point everything this blog has covered has been in chronological order, or some close approximation thereof. But the recent release of Light in the Attic Records’ Lou Reed: Words & Music, May 1965 has thrown a kink into the timeline. In addition to the ’65 demo tapes — which Lou mailed to himself to establish copyright, then left sitting around unopened for the rest of his life — it includes a few earlier recordings also found among his effects.

The earliest of these is a 1958 rehearsal tape of Lou’s teenage band the Jades. In it they do a cover of a tune called “Gee Whiz,” released by Bob & Earl (Bobby Byrd and Earl Nelson, best known for the original “Harlem Shuffle”) that same year:

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The Jades’ go at the song is preceded by a back-and-forth between Lou and singer Phil Harris, helpfully transcribed in the liner notes:

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It’s Hard for a Girl in a World Full of Men

Finally we have arrived at the last song on Soundsville!, and it’s a bit of an outlier: a solo female vocal accompanied only by acoustic guitar. Though pretty folky in sound — it’s the album’s “campus” number — “It’s Hard for a Girl in a World Full of Men” is playful, not political, more Nancy Sinatra than Joan Baez.

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Connie Carson’s performance here is plucky and sounds sincere, but for me it conjures the image of a bunch of dudes sitting around the Pickwick studio snickering: “It’s hard for a girl, get it?” Just today, somewhat belatedly, I found this passage in Victor Bockris’s book Transformer, which paints a vivid picture of what it was like in that studio:

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I’ve Got a Tiger in My Tank/Cycle Annie

If the song “I’ve Got a Tiger in My Tank” —credited on Soundsville! to the Beachnuts — sounds like a commercial, there’s a reason for that. According to the extremely helpful web page “A pre-VU discography,” it was “originally a commercial Jerry Vance [part of the Pickwick songwriting team] made for Esso.”

“Tiger” is bouncy, chipper, a little shrill. 30 seconds would be enough.

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Pickwick also released a different mix, with much more tiger, as a single by “the Intimates.” I like this one better; the roars are a welcome distraction, adding an eccentric, Lee Perry–style touch.

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First Impression/I’m Gonna Fight

The Hi Lifes sure got around: Their three songs on Soundsville! are supposed to exemplify the sounds of Detroit and Chicago and New York. Why not just invent three different bands for the purpose, as it was all fiction anyway? I have no idea, and history does not record the conversations that went on behind closed doors at Pickwick International.

We’ve already heard the “Detroit” song, “Soul City”; side B of Soundsville! begins with “First Impression,” theoretically the “Chicago” tune, and it sounds… pretty Motown?

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Or maybe it’s more like the Impressions (as in Curtis Mayfield and), who hailed from Chattanooga, Tennessee, but later moved to Chicago. Oh, wait, the name of the song is “First Impression”; I get it now. Duh.

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You’re Driving Me Insane

If you sat down to listen to Side A of the Soundsville! LP, you would hear, first, a slice of sad faux-country. Then an upbeat if somewhat pallid soul song; a mopey surfer’s lament; and a blissed-out piece of high-harmony doo-wop.

Then, this:

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If you’d been sinking slowly into a stupor over your intoxicant of choice — not that you’d have had much time to do so, as we’re barely 10 minutes in at this point — “You’re Driving Me Insane” would certainly wake you up. Attentive readers will remember “Wild One,” with its unconvincing party atmosphere; “YDMI” is a faster and better version of the same song, noisy enough to have been successfully passed off as a Velvet Underground demo on bootlegs. It’s not the Velvets, but it is the first Pickwick song that you could reasonably include in a Lou Reed anthology.

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Wonderful World of Love

Of the four Soundsville! songs we’ve covered so far, three have been massive bummers. In his book Dirty Blvd., Aidan Levy says:

There was something off about Soundsville! — Lou cast a dark shadow on every track, even when he wasn’t singing.

But, he continues, “There was no hint of Lou on the comparatively giddy ‘Wonderful World of Love,’” which is the next song in the queue. Credited to “The Liberty Men,” “WWoL” is the album’s designated “Philadelphia” song. It’s a little vague what exactly qualifies it as such; certainly Philadelphia was one of several hotbeds of doo-wop music, but was there a specific Philly style that this song fits into, or is it just marketing?

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I don’t know and I don’t think it’s really worth taking the time to find out, as it’s entirely possible that Lou Reed had no involvement in “Wonderful World of Love,” even though his name is on it. That is not the case with the next song we’ll explore.

Teardrop in the Sand/Johnny Won’t Surf No More

The second track on Soundsville! is “Soul City,” which we have already heard as performed by girl group the Foxes. For the album it is redone in a blue-eyed-soul stylee by “The Hi-Lifes.” Again it makes the destination sound pretty appealing, but I figure that once you got there you’d find a Potemkin village with tumbleweeds blowing through the rutted streets — not unlike modern-day Detroit.

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It is followed by the song that is supposed to represent the West Coast in the collection. Credited to “the Hollywoods,” this is clearly Southern California–oriented; the San Francisco Sound was not yet a thing.

Sunny harmonies notwithstanding, “Teardrop in the Sand” is a heartbroken surfer’s lament. He’s standing on the shore watching his ex-girl frolic, too depressed to even pick up his board. “There’s no more fun in surfing,” he wails.

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This seems like a pretty jaded, New York view of California. “You’d get your heart stomped on there too,” is the message, “and life would suck just as much. Bah humbug!”

“Teardrop” has a companion piece on the B side of the album written from the girl’s perspective. “Johnny won’t surf no more, and I’m the one to blame,” she says. It’s intimated that Johnny is dead, so maybe it’s not exactly the same story, but close enough.

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“Johnny” is supposed to be the album’s “Surfing” song, which is splitting hairs if you ask me. But it’s got a nice groove and I like the way Jeannie Larimore bends the vowel at the end of every line. This is my favorite of the Soundsville! songs so far, and it’s not impossible to imagine Nico singing it. I’m going to go do that right now while enjoying a tasty beverage; we shall reconvene at a later date.

Don’t Turn My World Upside Down

The most ambitious project Lou Reed was involved with during his time at Pickwick International was a concept album called Soundsville! Its 11 songs are supposed to represent 11 different styles of music divided by geography (New York, Philadelphia, England, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, and “the West Coast”) as well as lifestyle (Surfing, Hot Rod, Motorcycle, and Campus).

It’s a sham, though. All the songs were written by the Philips/Reed/Vance/Sims team and recorded by the label’s in-house musicians. Author Aidan Levy calls Soundsville! a “budget record par excellence,” a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. But it’s pretty successful on its own terms; if they don’t convincingly sound like 11 different bands, they at least manage to produce a thoroughly disorienting listening experience.

The first song is the “Nashville” one and is credited to the J Brothers, a frequent pseudonym for the revolving-door Pickwick crew. (Does the “J” stand for “joint”? It’d be cooler if it did.) A melancholy shuffle, it seems an odd choice for leadoff track; someone expecting a rock’n’roll record might have ripped it off the turntable and hurled it across the room. And I’m no country expert, but to my ear it sounds more Texas than Nashville.

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It sounds a little unfinished, too; room was left for a guitar solo that never materializes. But what do you want for $1.98? That was the list price for the album, anyway; I paid 20 bucks for it, but we’ll get our money’s worth over the next few weeks.

Love Can Make You Cry

Because I am a little slow on the uptake, I did not notice at first that the song “Maybe Tomorrow” — which is credited to “Ronnie Dickerson” on the Pickwick compilation LP — is the same one that had been released on a 45 under Robertha Williams’ name. That would seem to clinch it that they were one and the same. Why the subterfuge? Who knows — the ways of the Long Plastic Hallway are arcane and impenetrable. You can be sure that, one way or another, it made or saved the company some money.

That leaves one Dickerson song we haven’t covered, “Love Can Make You Cry.” I should take a moment here to thank “Clare Onions,” whose YouTube channel has helpfully posted many of these songs, absolving me of the responsibility of tracking down the LP.1I think she likes this music more than I do. I mean, it’s fine; this song is atmospheric, the lead vocal performance is solid, and the brassy backup singer tries again to mount a coup, coming on like Frankie Valli (or is it Frankie Lymon?) in the choruses.

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But I must admit I’m antsy to get on to the real stuff. And I bet Lou was too. Getting a regular paycheck is nice — precious few people in the music business ever do — but he knew there was more to life than cranking out quickie pop songs for second-tier artists. “While I was doing that, I was doing my own stuff and trying to get by,” he said later, “but the material I was doing, people wouldn’t go near me with it at the time.”

Even so, as time went on, Terry Philips (Lou’s boss) started to get a smidgen of leeway from his boss (Cy Leslie) to experiment a little bit as long as the bottom line remained solid. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.