Saturday, March 2, 2019

Let's talk about Lou Reed yelling about possums for 18 minutes

I’ve never in my life anticipated an album release more eagerly than I did Lou Reed’s Ecstasy. For starters, it was only the second album Lou had put out since I’d been old and aware enough to get excited about new albums. Of course I’d purchased Set the Twilight Reeling the day it dropped in 1996 at my local Electric Avenue store (because Best Buy bizarrely had it labeled as “You must be 18 to purchase,” presumably because it contained a song called “Sex with Your Parents”), but my self-hyping in that case was limited to reading reviews in music magazines and watching Lou make the rounds on the late night talk shows. When Ecstasy was coming out in 2000, on the other hand, I had the internet.

Unsurprisingly, Lou Reed had a sizable web presence in those nascent days of home computing. His website was updated regularly with tidbits and teasers for the forthcoming album, and I ate it all up. I listened to the primitive pre-release streams of “Paranoia Key of E” and “Modern Dance” obsessively and checked the page multiple times a day. I’m certain my then-girlfriend (and current wife), who’d long since given up on feigning enthusiasm for my Lou Reed fanboyism, was almost as eager for Ecstasy to drop as I was, just to stop my constant stream of speculation.

When it finally hit, it was, probably inevitably, everything I’d been waiting for and simultaneously also a bit of a letdown. Remember when Kid A came out and half your hipster friends were like, “It’s really good but it’s no OK Computer” and the other half were like “This makes OK Computer totally irrelevant”? It was kind of like that, except with Ecstasy vs. any number of previous Lou Reed records standing in for the two Radiohead albums and me taking both sides of the argument because I’m pretty sure I was the only 21-year-old in the year 2000 attaching Radiohead-level expectations to a new Lou Reed album.

I loved most of it right out of the gate, of course. “Paranoia Key of E” was exactly the kind of literate, grimy rock groove Lou did best. “Future Farmers of America” was a sardonic flurry of social commentary. “Baton Rouge” was the saddest, prettiest song Lou had recorded since the Velvet Underground days. On the other hand there was “White Prism,” which opens with the line “There’s a white prism with phony jism / Spread across its face” and only gets more cringey from there. And there was “Rock Minuet,” an overblown wallow in depravity and degradation that’s always struck me as Lou trying way too hard to write another “Street Hassle.” (It was also, I believe, Lou’s favorite song on the album, which makes all kinds of sense.)

And then there was “Like a Possum.”

“Like a Possum,” in which Lou Reed yells about possums and rollerbladers and “one-night fucks” for a solid 18 minutes over a churning drone of distortion that never varies. “Like a Possum,” filled with imagery of crack-smokers and used condoms and “women with the butt that hurts.” “Like a Possum,” which exemplifies every accusation of ego and pretension Lou Reed detractors had been leveling against him for 45 years.

I fucking love “Like a Possum.”



I don’t believe I’m exaggerating if I say that, much as I love Ecstasy and regard it as a minor classic in the Lou Reed pantheon, I would love it just as much if not more if it had been just  a full hour of “Like a Possum.” Lou’s opening bark of “Good morning! It’s POSSUM DAY!” should by all rights be a beloved American catchphrase. There should be theses written on the Lou’s very gradual progression from feeling “like a possum” to feeling “calm as an angel.”

Hyperbole aside, I really do regard this song as a masterpiece. It combines the aggro sonic experimentation of Metal Machine Music with the bleak cityscapes of Street Hassle, the doomed majesty of Berlin and the defiant mourning of Magic and Loss. It’s four Lou Reed masterpieces boiled down into one 18-minute, aurally challenging package.

Lyrically, it’s fairly familiar Lou Reed territory: a litany of ugly images of people doing ugly things in the ugly corners of New York City. That sort of thing was Lou’s stock in trade since the early days of The Velvet Underground, but few people ever did it better. The biggest thing setting “Like a Possum” apart on that front is the framing device. Before we get to the druggies and hustlers strolling the banks of the Hudson, we spend five minutes listening to the singer’s vision of himself as a possum, complete with “Possum whiskers, possum face, possum breath and a possum taste.”

It’s never clearly defined what it means to be like a possum, nor whether that’s a good or bad thing to be. Given that possums are nocturnal scavengers who tend to creep around unseen, I feel I can make a reasonable guess, but the ambiguity is part of the appeal. There’s a lot of naked juxtaposition as the song churns on, blending crass couplets (“I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck / and it won't be filled by a one-night fuck”) with picturesque exclamations (“wouldn’t it be lovely?” and “calm as an angel”) and passages of terrifying introspection (“You know me I like to dance a lot / with different selves who cancel out one another”). The contrast between these lines is never presented for the sake of irony or shock value. They’re just the stream-of-consciousness truths of a human possum living on the edge.

The most obvious knock someone could make against “Like a Possum” is that it does not, under any condition, need to be 18 minutes long. I can see people taking that position (especially regarding an album whose cover is a photo of Lou Reed masturbating), but my personal take is that, a few live renditions notwithstanding, it could not possibly be a second shorter. Lou Reed had a long history of putting out long, difficult songs, and each one served a different purpose. “Heroin” is a slow, loving build into chaos that mirrors a narcotic episode. “Sister Ray” is a frantic churn of madness that pushes the listener into an escalating frenzy. “Street Hassle” is a short story and a mini-opera told across multiple movements. “Metal Machine Music” is an endurance test of beautiful brutality.



“Like a Possum” doesn’t fall neatly under any of those umbrellas, and I’d guess it has fewer defenders than any of those songs. I say it’s the equal of all of them. Yes, it’s a droning, repetitive trudge, both lyrically and musically, but that’s exactly the point. “Like a Possum” envelops you, pulls you inside its grimy orbit. There comes a moment where you’re fully inhabiting the song, and vice versa, and you forget what it was ever like to not be listening to “Like a Possum.” Once you’ve crossed that threshold, you get it. You’re a possum. You’re calm as an angel.

I didn’t know it back in the year 2000, of course, but Ecstasy would turn out to be, in my estimation, the last true Lou Reed album. He put out three more studio albums, sure, but The Raven is a passion project that’s as much a theater piece as it is a record, Hudson River Wind Meditations is a niche side project, and Lulu is, y’know, all Metallica’d. Ecstasy was the last time Lou Reed went out and did his full-on weird, unapologetic Lou Reed thing.

Maybe that’s another key to why I love “Like a Possum” so much: it’s such a deeply, thoroughly Lou Reed thing to do. It’s a song that makes zero attempt to win you over. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ll know for sure which side you fall on within the first two minutes, and then guess what? The song is going to keep on going for another 16, and if you disliked it in minute two, you’re going to hate it by the end. And Lou doesn’t care, because it’s not for you. It’s for him and all the other possums out prowling the streets. It’s the epitome of Lou Reed in all his grimy glory.

Good night, everybody. It’s possum day.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The legend of DeWitt Lee, Arizona's mysterious homegrown double-threat

DeWitt Lee in The Legend of Jedediah Carver
DeWitt Lee in The Legend of Jedediah Carver (1976)

I'm a great fan of the output of Mill Creek Entertainment. They're the people behind those ultra-budget DVD sets you'll sometimes find in a bin at Walgreens or Menards and other places you don't generally think of as entertainment outlets, the ones with names like "50 Drive-In Classics" or "Flying Fists of Kung-Fu" or "John Wayne: Western Hero." These collections generally consist of forgotten films of bygone eras whose distribution rights can be had for cheap. While these packs almost always contain a few underrated gems, for the most part they're low-quality prints of equally low-quality movies. That being one of my favorite genres of cinema, they're tailor-made for creeps like me.

One of my favorite things to do with a Mill Creek set is to play a kind of movie roulette. I reach into the case and pull out a disc at random, pop it in my DVD player, and watch whatever comes up while I work out on my basement elliptical. That's how I came to watch Apache Blood, a 1975 film included on Mill Creek's "A Fistful of Bullets" spaghetti western collection. As it turns out, Apache Blood is not a spaghetti western at all, but rather an Old West survival story filmed in the deserts of Arizona, written by and starring a man by the name of DeWitt Lee. In the couple of weeks since I viewed Apache Blood, DeWitt Lee has occupied an ever-growing portion of my thoughts.

Apache Blood is not one of the aforementioned underrated gems. It's a cheaply made, thoroughly familiar, verrrrrry slow-moving story of a white tracker who gets mauled by a bear, left for dead by his Army buddies, and hunted across the desert by a vengeance-minded Apache warrior. (It's apparently taken from the same source material as The Revenant, which I haven't seen because I devote my time to watching things like Apache Blood.) The only notable name in the cast other than Lee is Ray Danton, a solid character actor who flirted with leading-man status in the early '60s. Here he's tasked with a non-speaking and racially problematic role as the titular Apache. Unsurprisingly, Danton retired from acting after this film and moved into a steady career as a TV director.

DeWitt Lee rises from his grave in Apache Blood (1975)
DeWitt Lee rises from his grave in Apache Blood (1975)

Even though it's decidedly not a very good film, Apache Blood is just the kind of regionally produced, shoestring-budgeted, handmade project that I hold dear. This was clearly a labor of love, a notion that was reinforced when I did a little research and found that DeWitt Lee followed it up with a 1976 film called The Legend of Jedediah Carver that seemed to have a near-identical plot. Lee, it seems, really wanted to tell the story of a dude barely surviving in the desert.

The Legend of Jedediah Carver is even more obscure than Apache Blood (TMDB didn't even have a listing for it until I created one), but I was able to track it down on YouTube. As it turns out, it's pretty close to a scene-for-scene remake with a new cast, save for Lee in the title role. The most noticeable differences are a larger (though still scanty) budget and DeWitt Lee replacing Vern Piehl in the director's chair. It isn't saying a whole lot, but Lee proves a much more technically skilled director than the barely competent Piehl. Jedediah Carver is decidedly the better-made film, but its (very) comparative slickness makes it slightly less engaging for a trash cinema lover such as myself.

Having dug this far, I was more or less compelled to keep the ball rolling by watching Ransom Money, a 1970 thriller that is the only other film credit I've found for DeWitt Lee. It's the only one of the three where Lee wears just one hat, making his directorial debut while neither writing nor acting. It's also the most star-powered of his three features, with aging Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford headlining as a legendary and grumpy detective called in to investigate the kidnapping of a wealthy widow's young son from the Grand Canyon. Future Maytag man and WKRP star Gordon Jump plays the Phoenix detective heading up the search, which is complicated by the kidnapper's godlike command of cutting edge technology.

The dynamic duo of Gordon Jump and Broderick Crawford in Ransom Money (1970)
Gordon Jump and Broderick Crawford in Ransom Money (1970)
Ransom Money is quite watchable but pretty dumb, and the tiny bit of information I've found about it online suggests that it was a bit of a bummer for DeWitt Lee. One unsubstantiated anecdote claims that Broderick Crawford was so displeased with his experience on the shoot that he quit mid-filming. (That would explain why his character is abruptly killed off in an off-screen car accident late in the movie.) Still, Lee comes off as a competent director with a good feel for his Southwestern surroundings. Lord knows I've come across plenty of far worse directors with far better-known bodies of work.

With Ransom Money, I'd reached the end of the DeWitt Lee filmography, at least according to every database I've been able to find. I did, however, unearth a different branch of his trail.

Turns out film wasn't DeWitt Lee's only artistic avenue. He released at least two Country-Western singles in the 1960s. The first, from 1960, features a blatant but quite enjoyable knock-off of "16 Tons" called "Poor Man," backed with a goofy little party tune called "How Nice." Lee's second single, from 1967, goes a little more straitlaced with the mournful cowboy ballad "Six White Horses" (not to be confused with Tommy Cash's 1970 hit of the same name) backed with a folk-tinged number called "Call Me Mister Blue." None of these songs is groundbreaking stuff, but they're all solid, workmanlike entries in the '60s country canon.



These singles are clearly the work of the same DeWitt Lee. I can tell this not only because they were released on Arizona-based labels and maintain a similar fascination with Western themes, but also because "How Nice" pops up on a car radio in Ransom Money. As a great fan of low-budget directors slipping plugs for their other work into their movies, I gotta love that hustle.

Beyond those three films and two singles, the legend of DeWitt Lee seems to be enveloped in total obscurity. Did he retire from filmmaking after Jedediah Carver? Did he do more creative work under a different name? Is he still living? Still obsessed with desert survival stories? Did he see The Revenant? I don't have answers to any of these questions, and I may never.

Regardless, I'm glad that I've been able to delve into his work over the past month. (Heck, at this point I may be the world's leading authority on the DeWitt Lee canon.) While it's true that I wouldn't recommend his movies to 99% of my social circle, and his music is probably of interest to Classic Country heads only, I cherish both bodies of work. I'm endlessly impressed with artists working outside of the system with modest means who manage to get their visions realized. Whatever your take on their quality, DeWitt Lee made three feature films and at least four songs on his home turf, and they're all still in some form of circulation today. That's something on which to hang one's hat.  I'm thrilled that I could bear witness to that legacy. I live for this kind of thing.


Monday, January 14, 2019

A requiem for "Spontaneanation," Paul F. Tompkins' podcast utopia

I started today the same way I have nearly every Monday for the past five years or so, by opening up my podcast app and downloading the new episodes of Comedy Bang Bang and Spontaneanation. Next week will be the last time I’ll be able to say that, because next week Paul F. Tompkins is bringing Spontaneanation to an end. I am more than melancholy about this prospect.

I first got into comedy podcasts via the same route I presume most people take: via an undemanding day job involving plenty of mindless tasks and downtime. I started out listening to the audio of old Dr. Katz episodes on YouTube, which led me to dig into the guest comedians’ other material, which led me to some of Paul F. Tompkins’ stand-up sets, which led me to Paul F. Tompkins playing characters on Comedy Bang Bang. I don’t recall exactly what my first PFT clip was — knowing my own clickbait parameters, it was probably one of his bits as Ice-T or John C. Reilly — but I was sold pretty much immediately.


Discovering Comedy Bang Bang was easily the most important development in my comedy education at least since the debut of Arrested Development, and probably reaching farther back than that. Scott Aukerman’s dizzy blend of casual conversation, bone-deep irony, and untethered improv rewired my brain and tickled funny bones I never even knew I had. It was nothing short of a religious experience for me.


Other than Aukerman himself, no performer played a bigger role in my conversion than Paul F. Tompkins. An effortless and seemingly tireless improviser, PFT has spent much of the last decade building a reputation as the podcast comedian. He’s been on everybody’s show, from reliable chart-toppers to relative obscurities. He’s both a ubiquitous presence and one of the industry’s best gets — I’ve heard a number of hosts mention that his appearances are far and away their highest-rated episodes.


Over the past nine years PFT has been the most frequent guest on Comedy Bang Bang, usually playing a character ranging from a playfully snobbish take on Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to a buttoned-up rendition of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger to my personal favorite, a sad-sack “soup-bubble artist” named Big Chunky Bubbles. No one is a more reliably hilarious guest, even on a show that regularly features certifiable improv geniuses like Andy Daly, Lauren Lapkus, Brendon Small, and an inexhaustible list of other names that make comedy nerds swoon.


When Tompkins launched his very own improv podcast in the Spring of 2015, then, I was giddy with anticipation. I was too late to the table for his beloved previous venture, The Pod F. Tompcast, but I was a great fan of his work hosting the English-major catnip Dead Authors Podcast. My anticipation for Spontaneanation was probably unreasonably high, but the show wound up meeting and even exceeding my expectations.


Unlike his previous podcast, which involved a great deal of editing and post-production, Tompkins devised Spontaneanation explicitly as a “free-form conversation” — several of them, actually — that would flow naturally into a long-form improv scene at the end of the show. A standard episode opens with a brief, improvised monologue, often touching on pet Tompkins topics (tompics?) like linguistic oddities, weird chapters in history, or the nefarious secret lives of birds. Next up is a one-on-one conversation with a special guest about a topic suggested by the previous episode’s guest, followed by short interviews with the week’s roster of improvisers (usually a three-person crew but ranging from one to six). The final 20 minutes or so is a continuous long-form improv scene that usually draws on topics discussed in the interview segments. And it’s all scored on piano by Mr. Eban Schletter, a fantastic composer and musical improviser whose ability to pick up a verbal cue and shift into an allusive tune is astonishing.


It’s a pretty simple format, elevated by the uniquely charming presence of Paul F. Tompkins. Beyond being one of his era’s most gifted comedians, the man is a natural interviewer who seems to be genuinely liked by nearly everyone who comes into his orbit. His interview subjects are mostly comedians, but can encompass anyone from writers to wrestlers to musicians like Robyn Hitchcock, Aimee Mann, and Open Mike Eagle. PFT guides each interview with the deft touch of a journalist, intuitively sussing out the most interesting avenues to follow and keeping his guests candid and comfortable. Even when the intro question doesn’t resonate with a particular guest, Tompkins can almost always steer the conversation into fruitful territory. (The most notable and hilarious exception being a young spelling bee champion who would not be coaxed into anything beyond monosyllables.)


I used to harbor the standard artistic fantasy of what I would say on stage when I accepted my first Oscar. A few years ago I changed focus to what question I’d ask the following guest when I appeared on Spontaneanation, along with how I’d answer each week’s new question. Those questions have ranged from the benign (“What kind of small business would you like to own?”) to the evocative (“Does everyone deserve to be heard?”) to the barely coherent (“What about baseball?”) and every one has given me plenty to think about. However unlikely, I always harbored a hope that I’d accomplish something noteworthy enough to find myself sitting across the table from PFT, providing fodder for some of the world’s finest improvisers.


I’ve always been the type who identifies too much with my choices of entertainment, thinking about characters from books and TV shows almost like real friends. Podcasts take that delusion to a different level. There’s a specific intimacy that comes with inviting a familiar group of voices directly into your ear canals on a weekly basis. That makes me genuinely distraught at the thought of losing my weekly appointment with not just Paul F. Tompkins, but also his cast of recurring improvisers.


Some I was already acquainted with from their other podcast and comedy work (Matt Gourley, Marc Evan Jackson, Sarah Burns, Craig Cackowski, Erinn Hayes, Eugene Cordero, Chris Tallman, Mark McConville, Gary Anthony Williams). Some were new commodities with whom I became quickly infatuated (Amanda Lund, Maria Blasucci, Coleen Smith, Carl Tart, Tim Baltz, Tawny Newsom, Jean Villepique, Chris Grace. Little Janet Varney!). Throughout the show’s run, and in the last couple of years especially, PFT has shown a strong dedication to providing a forum for comedians of color, LGBTQ* performers, artists with disabilities, and anyone else who’s traditionally underrepresented in the comedy arena. I’m going to miss every one of them.


It isn’t as though I’m going to be hurting for entertainment in the absence of Spontaneanation. I currently have at least a dozen comedy podcasts in my weekly rotation, many with deep archives that I haven’t worked my way through yet. I have complex emotional relationships with each of them, but there are times when I'm simply not mentally ready to dig into the gonzo experimentation of improv4humans, the arch irony of Hollywood Handbook, even the infectious optimism of Off Book. That's a big reason why Spontaneanation has occupied a particular place in my heart f
or the past four years.

More than any other podcast, this one has been a stabilizing presence for me, a true hangout show that comforts me in times of trouble. It’s definitely not a show that avoids dark comedy or adult themes, but it’s by and large a friendly, welcoming kind of comedy that I can wrap myself up in like an audio blanket. It’s the show I turn to during traumas and bouts of depression, when I need an hour or so away from the demands of the real world.


On election night of 2016, for instance, my brain wouldn’t allow me more than a couple hours of terror-sleep. Everything seemed soured and grim. I couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t listen to music, couldn’t even fix myself a drink. I got out of bed at 3am, opened my podcast app and loaded up four hours’ worth of back episodes. I spent the morning before my family woke up cleaning the house obsessively as I immersed myself in the only nation that seemed to make sense anymore: a place called Spontaneanation.


I’m excited to see what Paul F. Tompkins does next, but I’ll be feeling this gap for a while. Thanks for all the good times, Paul, and semper in praesenti to you and yours.



Monday, December 24, 2018

Please welcome "Christmas with Dennis," your new favorite holiday tradition




I’m going to state with confidence that Dennis Awe isn’t part of your annual Christmas tradition. If you’re in the demographic that’s likely to read this blog, you probably have no idea who Dennis Awe even is. My friends, I’m here to rectify both of those situations.

See, earlier this week I stumbled upon a 1988 video release entitled Christmas with Dennis, and my take on holiday entertainment will never be quite the same again. Christmas with Dennis is a thing of wonder, a weird, hypnotic product both endearingly handmade and impressively professional. I’ll warn you right now: the words and images I’m going to share with you here are going to make you think I’m celebrating this film ironically, but I assure you I am not. I love Christmas with Dennis from the bottom of my heart.
This is Dennis, and he will make your season bright.

A bespectacled man in a frilly, sequined suit exuberantly plays Christmas standards on an electric organ in a faux-living room. The camera occasionally zooms, fades, and/or very slowly dissolves to the dozens of mildly tacky Christmas decorations surrounding him. A toy train circles listlessly in the background. Dennis beams and gyrates and legit kills it on the keys. It is all mesmerizing.

There are puppets in this.

Then 17 minutes in Dennis starts bantering with a stuffed monster puppet and the world explodes. The monster sings a duet. A stuffed yeti wobbles around a rug. Dennis's sister DyAnne drops by in an equally sequined cocktail dress to play a couple of numbers. We watch her feet working the pedals for what seems a very long time. There is an indescribable appearance by Frosty the Snowman. In the final 30 seconds we get some even less describable special effects. It's a downright psychedelic experience.

There is a lot to unpack in this and every frame of this film.

Do not think for one moment that I'm being ironic when I say this is one of my favorite things I've seen all year. I sat down to this movie thinking, "Oh, this'll be an interesting little thing to have on in the background while I do other things" and then stayed riveted to my screen for 70 minutes. My jaw physically dropped more than once watching this.


A classic double-Dennis-exposure.

Strange stuff happens in Christmas with Dennis and it's beautiful. You'd think you can maybe skip ahead during some of Dennis's organ solos (95% of the film is Dennis's organ solos) but you can't because you will miss something remarkable, be it a slow fade to a vaguely discernible field of snow, a slow zoom on a Bing Crosby ornament as White Christmas fades out, DyAnne flashing you a soul-stealing wink the moment you least expect it, or one of the many nightmarish half-dissolves superimposing Dennis's hands over Dennis's face.

DyAnne has got your number.

And it all works because Dennis who still performs and maintains an active web presenceand his crew mean every breath of it. You can call it outsider art if you want, but it's unmistakably a professional production. There's not a flubbed note nor a missed cue to be found, because this is what Dennis does. This is what Dennis is. This film exists at the crossroads where unbridled schmaltz turns the corner into aching sincerity. You can laugh at Christmas with Dennis if you need to. Dennis won't care. Dennis is here to entertain.


Dennis is the realest shit you will ever see on screen.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Here are 13 songs about Lou Reed

Luke Haines' "Lou Reed Lou Reed"
Considering how many artists have been influenced by Lou Reed over the past five decades, it’s somewhat surprising that there haven’t been a couple of hundred songs written about the guy. Still, quite a few musicians have paid homage to, taken potshots at, or otherwise name-checked Mr. Reed over the years. For my annual Lou Reed’s birthday offering, I’ve compiled a smattering of the most interesting (which doesn’t necessarily mean “best”) songs about Lou.




Luke Haines - “Lou Reed Lou Reed”
A snide shard of New Wave attitude, this cut from veteran British weirdo Haines’s stellar 2014 New York in the ‘70s album actually feels like something Lou would have given his seal of approval. The big hook is Haines chanting “Lou Reed, Lou Reed” over and over while backed by droning synthesizers, a bouncy guitar line, and a drum beat Maureen Tucker would write off as too primitive. It’s fun as hell. (I recommend watching the music video, incidentally. It’s delightfully silly.)


LoveyDove - “Lou Reed (Don’t Leave)”
Gosh, this one’s pretty. L.A. duo LoveyDove pays tribute with a plaintive yet rocked-up dirge for a departed hero, delivered with gutsy indie rock sincerity by singer Azalia Snail and fading out with a driving chorus of “Walk on the Wild Side” doot-de-doots. I especially like that their a-Lou-sions dig for slightly deeper cuts like “Crazy Feeling,” “Coney Island Baby,” and “Rock & Roll Heart.” I mean, sure, I’d be even more impressed if a band was to shout out, say, “Like a Possum” or “What Becomes a Legend Most,” but I’ll take this any day.


The Hot Buttered Elves - “Lou Reed Xmas”
I’m inclined to appreciate a novelty rock band that took their name from a Letterman Top Ten List and traffics exclusively in off-center Christmas songs. Plus, they’re from Philadelphia, so I assume they're friends with The Dead Milkmen. Here they cast Lou Reed as a slightly edgy Santa Claus “handing out gifts and breaking laws.” It’s actually rather a plaintive, lovely song that also sketches portraits of a goth girl who volunteers at the children’s hospital and a homeless guy who still respects a sprig of mistletoe. They’re folks who’d be right at home in a Lou Reed song, and that’s about as fine a tribute as you could ask for.


Animal Electricity - “Lou Reed”
This cool, gothy cut from little-known Denver psych-rock combo Animal Electricity is a damn fine memorial tune, name-checking a handful of Lou’s early songs (“I have a perfect day / I have my own sweet Jane”) on the way to a haunting climax of “They say Lou Reed is dead / October 27 / But we are not certain / We can still hear him sing.” They’re the one band on this list that you’re least likely to have heard before (I sure never heard of them before I started researching this post) and I’d advocate for changing that.


Television Personalities - “You, Me, and Lou Reed”
Perpetually self-destructive British post-punk legends Television Personalities pay tribute, I think, to one of their influences in a way with which Lou could really get on board: by being dicks to a dude who’s earned it. The lyrics mock a wannabe scenester who “ain’t no Roger McGuinn” and claims to have been born during Hendrix’s set at Monterrey. Even as frontman Dan Treacy taunts the poser for telling tall tales about hanging with the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones, he reassures the guy that “I dig your scene, baby, you know what I mean? You, me and Lou Reed.” It’s a “Dirt”-style scalding takedown that would do Lou proud.


Korea Campfire - “Lou Reed Says”
It’s a mighty clever concept, really. Take Lou Reed’s oft-quoted thesis statement - “Rock and roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream… The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?” - set it to a White Light/White Heat era Velvets-style arrangement, and presto! You’ve got yourself a Mermaid Avenue for the nihilist hipster set. Swedish art-rock collective Korea Campfire really nails something with this grimy yet catchy as hell bit of imitative flattery.


Pixies - “I’ve Been Tired”
In which Frank Black discovers that “I wanna be a singer like Lou Reed” is actually a pretty good pick-up line, and one that may lead directly to a “real left-winger” sticking her tongue in your ear and whispering, “I like Lou Reed.” Of course, given that his intended doesn’t walk out of the joint as soon as he starts making wisecracks about “losing my penis to a whore with disease,” it’s possible that she’s not setting the bar super high.


Violent Femmes - “Death Drugs”
Buried on the Femmes’ barely released, massively undervalued* Rock!!! album, “Death Drugs” is a raging little heroin ditty that finds the narrator in the market for long-sleeved shirts because “I gotta hide the marks where I stick the works.” In a brazen appeal to authority, he cites “Bobby Dylan and Louie Reed / You never see them in short sleeves.” Of course, the fella’s a little off base on a couple of points: Lou spent most of his last three decades on Earth in tank tops, and while he did indeed write the definitive heroin anthem, by most accounts amphetamines were his go-to during his druggie days. *Undervalued to the extent that I can’t find any recording of this song online to share with you. Come by my place some time and I’ll play you the CD.

Eli Braden - “Nobody Bought the Lou Reed/Metallica Album”
Eli Braden is a comedy musician and, I’ll acknowledge, not my cup of tea. His stuff used to turn up on the old Comedy Death Ray podcast from time to time, back when Scott Aukerman still played comedy songs on the show. I’m not inclined to give much credit to this fish-in-a-barrel takedown of the much-maligned Lulu album, but I’ll give the guy props for a lyrical structure that sort of mirrors Lou Reed’s own “Rock and Roll.” I’m still gonna say this is pretty lame, though.


David Bowie - “Queen Bitch”
It seems very Bowie that his purported tribute to Lou Reed sounds suspiciously like an attempt to outdo Lou at his own game - and rather a successful one at that. Whether or not the titular bitch is really a Lou stand-in, Bowie’s vision of New York City’s glamorously sleazy mean streets is full of Reedian imagery that arguably outstrips the originator. “If she says she can do it, she can do it” indeed.


Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - “Andy’s Babies”
English singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole wants us to understand that he’s got no beef with Andy Warhol himself - he’s “fine,” and “a saint.” All the Warhol acolytes and wannabes slouching around the mid-’80s art scene, though - Lloyd’s had about enough of those babies. Noted Warhol protegee Lou Reed enters the scene in the last verse, when Cole gripes that “It’s 8 in the morning / Still you can’t get no sleep / On account of ‘Perfect Day’ / And all this ‘White Light/White Heat’ / Aw, isn’t that sweet?” There’s no accounting for fans, of course, and Lou emerges unscathed from what’s an underrated gem of ‘80s indie pop.


The Dictators - “Two Tub Man”
Well, here’s a swaggering punk tune that opens with old-school pro wrestling taunts and goes on to trace its drunken hero’s unhinged stroll through the city streets. Among his non-sequiturial boasts: “I got Jackie Onassis in my pants,” “I think Joe Franklin’s real flash,” and “I think Lou Reed is a creep.” The fact that this song likely wouldn’t exist without Lou Reed’s influence is probably not lost on the Dictators, even if their DNA leans a little more to the Iggy Pop side.


The Little Willies - “Lou Reed”
Here is a song from Norah Jones’s alt-country side project about a band driving through West Texas at dusk and spotting Lou Reed in a field tipping cows. When they call him out, his very Lou-ish response is, “Go screw.” It’s pretty dumb.



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A brief note on Lisa Spoonauer, 'Clerks,' and lightning in bottles


Lisa Spoonauer died today. She played Caitlin Bree in Clerks and then moved on to what sounds like a quiet, normal life with her family. Not many people would know her by name, but for those of us of a certain age, she was part of something genuinely momentous.

I've encountered quite a few younger film folks who are baffled that Clerks is regarded as any kind of classic, and I sorta get where they're coming from. Everything that seemed so radical about it at the time was quickly copied and compromised by both the mainstream and indie film industries (I worked for a sizable film festival in the late '90s and roughly one out of every three short film submissions we got was a blatant attempt at Kevin Smithery). I can definitely see how someone coming to it after growing up with all of its progeny, not to mention a working knowledge of post-success Kevin Smith, would be underwhelmed by watching shaky actors make dirty jokes in a convenience store for an hour and a half.

But man, when Clerks first hit video stores, I sure as hell had never seen anything like it. There were probably other filmmakers doing more with even less than Kevin Smith had, but their movies weren't on the shelf at my small-town Wisconsin video shop. Watching it for the first time was one of those "Oh, you can do that?" epiphany moments that means a ton to the folks who experienced it but seldom translates across generational lines.

All that is to say that Lisa Spoonauer played a vital role in something truly special to a generation of people, even if it seems to have been a footnote in her real life. That's a better legacy than just about anybody can hope for.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Tonight I saw Patti Smith play "Horses"


When she hit the peak of "Birdland" I started crying. I cried several more times throughout the night. I've never cried like that at a concert.

She sang "Birdland." She sang "Land." She sang "Gloria" and "Kimberly" and "Dancing Barefoot."

She sang "When Doves Cry."

She listed loved ones she has lost over the years at the end of "Elegie" and asked us to do the same. I whispered two names and cried again.

She had us sing "Happy Birthday" to John Cale over her smartphone.

She thanked women everywhere and told the women of the world to misbehave in peace and screamed, "I am woman, hear me fucking roar!" as she shredded a noise-guitar solo. She apologized for working on International Women's Day but said Horses is beyond gender.

She played "Citizen Ship" for what she said was the first time in decades and forgot the words and joked about her Stockholm performance and had to start over and then came blazing back until the crowd was on its feet as she recited the inscription from the Statue of Liberty.

She did a Chris Farley impression.

She tore the strings off her guitar one by one and threw them to the crowd.

She introduced the band and reminded us that Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty have been with her from the beginning, and the other guitarist is her son.

When she started the preamble to "Land" the room was so intense that I squeezed my hands together until my knuckles were white. She turned the poetry break into an angry yelp of freedom led by Johnny and his jacket full of knives.

She and Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan traded vocals on "My Generation" and then it built into a frenzy while Patti told us how her generation believed in love and revolution and that they could make the world a better place, and then she said, "Look what it got us: Donald Trump." But then she shouted, "But Donald Trump is 70 fucking years old! BUT SO AM I!" and assured us that she wasn't going anywhere and that she wasn't going to stop misbehaving peacefully and that she was going to live as long as she fucking possibly could.

She waved to the balcony and it felt like she really meant it.

When the band kicked in on "Gloria" and she belted the first, "Do you know how to Pony?" a wave swept through the auditorium and we were awash in an aura of the kind of intensity with which one occupies a room only a precious few times over the span of one's life and when she said rock and roll was our greatest weapon we believed it as surely as if she'd struck us down on the road to Damascus.