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.

The Ostrich

Every Lou Reed biography I have tells the story of “The Ostrich” differently, but my favorite version is the one in Victor Bockris’s Transformer:

One day in January 1965, Lou, who had not let hepatitis slow him down, had ingested a copious quantity of drugs. As he felt the rush of creativity coming on, he leafed through Eugenia Sheperd’s [sic] column in a local tabloid and came across an item about ostrich feathers being the latest fashion craze. Flinging down the paper and grabbing his guitar with the manic pent-up humor that fueled so much of his work, Lou spontaneously created a new would-be dance craze.

Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd. helpfully shares some actual text from the Eugenia Sheppard column in question:

Look at all the ostrich that was floating around Paris…. Those stiff, beautiful brocades are strictly for sitting. Even some of the crepes, unless they’re very bias, tend to go dead on a dance floor. As for the skinny, wool evening dresses, they’re so chic, but after 10 hard minutes on the dance floor, the girls just have to give up.

It’s a typical act of Reedian perversity to base your “dance craze” — following in the lucrative wake of the Twist, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, and 997 more — on outfits that made it hard to dance. And then to build the music for it around a guitar with all the strings tuned to a D. Said Lou:

I did that because I saw a guy named Jerry Vance [a fellow Pickwick songwriter] do that. Jerry Vance was not an advanced avant-garde guy. He was just screwing around. And he didn’t realize what he had, but I did.

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W & X, Y, Z Blues/Lou’s 12-Bar Instrumental

For those of you keeping track at home, there were five home recordings from 1963–64 on the sloppily titled Lou Reed: Words & Music, May 1965 compilation: the two Dylan “covers” (“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”); “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”; and two blues fragments.

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We don’t associate Lou with blues — in fact I think the Velvet Underground had a rule against playing blues progressions — but anyone who picks up a guitar plays the blues at one time or another, even if only by accident. These two pieces demonstrate that a) Lou did in fact play the blues, and that b) he was not suited to it.

So cross that one off the list. Folksinger, no. Bluesman, no. What on Earth would he be?

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

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Why, one has to wonder, did Lou Reed record himself doing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” sometime in 1963 or 1964? Maybe he was applying for a job as a camp counselor, I dunno. In any case I set out to educate myself about this song, which I associate with campfires and “Kumbaya.” Turns out there’s more to it than that.1Wikipedia sez:

“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” (also called “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore,” “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” or “Michael, Row That Gospel Boat”) is a traditional African-American spiritual first noted during the American Civil War at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The best-known recording was released in 1960 by the U.S. folk band The Highwaymen; that version briefly reached number-one hit status as a single.

It was sung by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade. Charles Pickard Ware was an abolitionist and Harvard graduate who had come to supervise the plantations on St. Helena Island from 1862 to 1865, and he wrote down the song in music notation as he heard the freedmen sing it. Ware’s cousin William Francis Allen reported in 1863 that the former slaves sang the song as they rowed him in a boat across Station Creek.

The song was first published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States by Allen, Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Folk musician and educator Tony Saletan rediscovered it in 1954 in a library copy of that book. The song is cataloged as Roud Folk Song Index No. 11975.

Interesting that it’s is actually a spiritual when the best-known versions are, to put it politely, extremely Caucasian. The Highwaymen’s version is pretty heavy on the mayo:

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Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

The most surprising thing about the Lou Reed: Words & Music, May 1965 compilation — which again, for the record, also includes tapes from 1958 and 1963–64 — is how folky it is. Even the demos recorded with John Cale have a lot more granola in them than we associate with Lou. The voice is familiar, many of the songs are ones we know, but the sensibility is very different.

I guess it just goes to show you how much a young artist can change in a short time. You might roughly equate this period of Lou’s career to David Bowie’s 1968, when he played the Beckenham Arts Lab and formed a folk trio called Feathers (which later became a duo when David’s girlfriend dumped him). It is necessary, sometimes, to try on many faces before you find one that feels right. But then, when it happens, it happens fast.

Also like Bowie, once Lou evolved out of his folk period, he tried to pretend like it never happened. He threw away his harmonica (or maybe just stashed it in the back of a closet at his parents’ house), put on those wraparound shades, and became the iceman we know. But even this short fragment speaks volumes about influence Dylan had on him:

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In that minute-twelve I looked up the birthdates, and it turns out Dylan (5/24/41) is not even a year older than Reed (3/2/42). He just did a lot more a lot sooner — maybe because he dropped out of college and went pro instead.

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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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