Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Lou Reed's Greatest Cover Song: "Tarbelly and Featherfoot" by Victoria Williams

You couldn't exactly call Lou Reed a prolific covers artist. As with a lot of folks who pride themselves on their songwriting abilities, Lou seems to have had a lot more interest in playing his own songs than in coming up with new interpretations of other people's work. That's a bit of a bummer, both because I love unorthodox covers and because Lou Reed was pretty good at them. 

But that reluctance to give his blessing to other people's work just made it all the more meaningful when Lou did digress to recording a cover. I read it as a show of the utmost respect, reserved for artists who he considered influences or equals. 

I was able to put together a playlist of what I think are all the Lou Reed covers available on Spotify. It's only nine songs long and two are different versions of the same song, but it gives a good picture of the level of artists who got his stamp of approval: Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Doc Pomus, Peter Gabriel, and the like aren't exactly lightweights. (He also performed at a couple of John Lennon tribute shows despite his publicly professed disdain for The Beatles. Hating the Beatles and loving solo John Lennon is such a Lou Reed move.)

It's a uniformly good roster of songs. Lou puts a distinctive stamp on each track, whether that means turning staples like "Peggy Sue" or "This Magic Moment" into fuzzed-up rockers or finding the introspective dirges beneath "Solsbury Hill" and "September Song." For my money, though, the greatest cover Lou Reed ever recorded is the one that's probably least known in its original incarnation. 

Victoria Williams was a well respected but not hugely famous Americana singer-songwriter in the early 1990s when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her profile was raised immensely by Sweet Relief, a 1993 tribute album organized to help pay for her medical expenses because our healthcare system was somehow even more broken then than it is now. The all-star lineup pulled in 14 superstars of alt-rock and alt-country performing covers from Williams's Happy Come Home and Swing the Statue! albums. Both of those are stellar albums but the latter is Vic's masterpiece, a sunny piece of songwriting genius with haunting glimpses of darkness lurking in its corners.

Sweet Relief, which was co-produced by Sylvia Reed, Lou's wife and manager at the time, is fantastic across the board. It definitely benefited from catching Pearl Jam at the peak of their powers, laying down an iconic version of Williams' "Crazy Mary" that propelled the album to becoming a staple of Gen X CD shelves. Unsurprisingly, though, my favorite work on Sweet Relief came from Lou Reed and his take on the inexplicable "Tarbelly and Featherfoot."

"Tarbelly and Featherfoot" is a weird song in its original incarnation, telling the story of two people who could be friends, enemies, lovers, siblings, or some combination thereof. All we know for sure about their relationship is that they're sharing the same physical space, and Featherfoot wants to leave. That's easier said than done, as Tarbelly is an immovable object whose primary interest seems to be standing in the doorway drooling. The song ends with the titular game of Swing the Statue, which sees Featherfoot flinging Tarbelly far into the distance and then ruminating on the nature of love. 

All of that oddness is right in Lou's early '90s wheelhouse, and he manages to crank it up another couple of notches. Riding on a chugging guitar riff that would fit right in on "New York" or "Magic and Loss," he transmutes Victoria's inimitably optimistic chirp into a snide drone of a vocal. It's a hugely effective shift that makes the song feel less like a confoundingly quirky fable and more like an equally inscrutable cautionary tale. You can almost hear the rueful head-shaking in Lou's delivery of "Thump thump, down the stairs he came" and "All the while, Tarrrr-belly stood in the door." He adds in some oddball specifics that just make the whole encounter all the more surreal, with Featherfoot taking the time to trim his toenails and chug a bottle of Absolut. I 100% get why Lou would choose this, of all Victoria Williams songs. It's a kindred spirit to absurdist story songs like "Last Great American Whale" or "Animal Language."

The weary New York-ness of '90s Lou Reed is diametrically opposed to the Louisiana cheer of Victoria Williams, yet their work is somehow perfectly suited for each other. He's a laconic Tarbelly, she's an energetic Featherfoot, and together they're a combination that just plain works. On an album full of stellar interpretations of some of the era's finest songs – I hold Victoria Williams as one of the greatest lyricists of her generation – "Tarbelly and Featherfoot" stands out as not just the most distinctive track, but also the one that best weds the unique sensibilities of singer and songwriter. You can hear that Lou is recording this cover not out of mere obligation or even respect, but genuine love. 

The one time I got to see Lou Reed perform live, he had Victoria Williams as his opening act. I've written before about my complicated memories of that concert, including how Vic more or less stole the show. It was a pairing that shouldn't have worked – the gulf between the buoyant uplift of something like Victoria's "Frying Pan" and the grime of Lou's "Rock Minuet" should be too much to bridge. Somehow, though, their yin and yang formed a perfect circle every time they collaborated. That kind of sympatico pairing is a rare thing to see, and it's why "Tarbelly and Featherfoot" holds a place of singular esteem in both of their catalogs. "You can't get love without giving it away" indeed.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A polite round of applause: on The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Low, sickness, fire, expectations, and a year without music

Low performs at Hook & Ladder in Minneapolis
The members of Low perform Velvet Underground songs, October 12, 2019

In October of 2019 I went with my friend Matt to see the members of Low play a one-night-only set of Velvet Underground covers, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Velvets' lone Minneapolis concert. The show was at Hook & Ladder, a former fire station converted into a pleasantly shabby performance venue just off Lake Street in Minneapolis. For that night at least, it carried exactly the right dingy vibe to suit a faux Velvet Underground concert by my favorite active live band.

It was, predictably, a transcendent experience. (I've never seen Alan Sparhawk provide anything but, and I've seen a lot of Alan Sparhawk performances.) I can't think of many bands more capable than Low of recreating the austere yet ragged intensity of the Velvets without veering into parody, or worse yet, handling the material overly reverently. While the four Velvet Underground albums are legitimate holy texts for music lovers, playing them as such would rob the songs of the dangerous energy that makes them vital.

Low got it just right, lurching through the hits and the deep cuts with equal ferocity. They brought out the reliably amazing local violinist Gaelynn Lea to handle the John Cale string arrangements. They did a live rendition of "Lady Godiva's Operation," for pete's sake. Who plays "Lady Godiva's Operation" live? Alan Sparhawk even managed to exude some of the aloof-cool wit of a young Lou Reed, although there's no hiding the fact that Alan is a nicer guy than Lou by magnitudes.

It was, in short, about as perfect a live Velvet Underground experience as a person could have hoped to see in late 2019. There was no way of knowing then that we were just a few months away from live music ceasing to exist for a year and counting. That the Hook & Ladder would narrowly avoid the righteous flames that would swallow the block across the street later that summer. That I'd soon be sitting on my porch watching Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker put on their brave faces as they tried to make the best of streaming live sets in a musical landscape where artist and audience are forever separated by screens.

I've thought a lot this year about what live music truly means to me. Turns out it's a lot! And as much as I've grudgingly come to accept that not going out to see shows won't physically kill me, I also haven't stopped staring wistfully out the window of my home office in the direction of Turf Club. It's a genuine pain, and the closest I've been able to come to empathizing with the folks who've been agitating to go back to their in-person church services. They're still wrong, of course, but I understand the pain of being physically cut off from your houses of worship. The amounts I would pay to see Low play a Velvet Underground cover show right now could be best described as "unreasonable."

I've been listening a lot lately to The Complete Matrix Tapes, a sprawling box set covering two nights' worth of live Velvet Underground performances from 1969. As with any four-disc collection of live music, it has its hits and its misses, but in my book it's much heavier on the former. The undeniable highlight of the collection is a jittery rendition of "Sister Ray." That song is a 17-and-a-half minute masterpiece of churning squalor in its album version, and here it gets to blossom into a 37-minute epic that never comes close to wearing out its welcome. It's just an impeccable piece of work, starting with a slow chug of gentle Moe Tucker beats and meandering guitar and almost-whispered Lou Reed vocals, all steadily building to a frantic-yet-controlled swell that climaxes with Moe pounding out gunshots on her kit as Lou deadpans couplets about Cecil and his new piece and an electric organ gurgles menacingly. It's a thing of glory, a document of a band at the height of its powers pushing the envelope anywhere they can cram it. And, as I mentioned, it goes on for a full 37 minutes.

It's a common music nerd trope to fantasize about what concerts you would choose if you had a chance to go see any band in history. While I love too much music to ever give you a definitive answer, that performance of "Sister Ray" is absolutely near the top of my list. As joyous and visceral as it was to watch a band I cherish recreate the Velvet Underground experience in 2019, being front and center in 1969 watching the genuine article mess with people's heads for 37 minutes sounds like legitimate bliss. Even now, listening on a pair of cheap Panasonic earbuds as I write this, this extended "Sister Ray" is tearing my head apart. I have to imagine witnessing it live would reduce me to tears at the very least.

But here's a curious thing: when "Sister Ray" finally ends after the Velvets have spent one-39th of a day playing it, the crowd doesn't erupt in applause. They don't sit in stunned silence or start shouting angry insults either. They do something much more baffling than any of those options: they clap politely.

Now, I understand that it was 1969 and those were different times, but I've heard more than enough concert recordings of the era to know that uproarious applause was definitely an option. If the San Franciscans watching that show had been sufficiently moved by the previous 37 minutes, they would have screamed and hollered and demanded more. But they weren't. They watched one of history's greatest musical combos destroy the parameters of what a live song could or should be, and their reaction was to give them a nice hand.

Obviously the folks attending that show back in 1969 didn't know they were bearing witness to history, that the band they put down a few bucks to go see would eventually stand alongside the defining artists of their era. They were just out to see that hip New York band who palled around with Andy Warhol. A good portion of that crowd probably went out to the venue that night not knowing quite what to expect and were therefore unprepared to watch 37 minutes of repetitive improvisation. I would guess many of them didn't know quite how to react to what they saw on stage, and a good number of them were likely bored or unimpressed by it. In that light, a tepid round of applause makes a bit more sense.

When I go out to see a buzzed-about newer act, I evaluate their shows in a similar context. I don't go in expecting to be blown away the way I would with, for instance, a Low show, where I have a deep knowledge of the band's musical catalog and years of seeing them slay live on which to base my expectations. That mindset can either elevate or detract from my show-going experience.

For instance, I regard King Tuff at Turf Club as one of the best live shows I've seen in recent years, but I know that's partly because I started dipping into his music only a week or so before seeing him play and came in not knowing quite what to expect. On the other side of the coin, I was mildly disappointed seeing Wolf Alice, largely because I'd spent the weeks leading up to the show watching footage of the band playing electrifying sets at massive outdoor festivals, and that specific energy is hard to translate to a weeknight indoor set at First Avenue.

The crowning example of this phenomenon for me is the sole time I was able to see Lou Reed live. If you're bothering to read this, you likely already know that Lou is my all-time musical guidepost, an artist whose work grabbed me by the soul as a young teenager and has twined through my life at every stage. I would not exist as you know me today without Lou Reed. Obviously, that equates to some unreasonably lofty expectations for a live performance.

I couldn't have been more hyped when I got to see Lou play the Orpheum in Minneapolis on his Ecstasy tour in 2000, even though I had fairly lousy seats in the balcony (I was 21 and working in a sandwich shop at the time, so affording tickets at all was an indulgence). In hindsight, I realize that the evening could only have gone two ways: either Lou would nail me to the wall with a life-changing performance, or I'd come away mildly disappointed but glad to have had the experience. Of course it turned out to be the latter. It was a good show and I remember it clearly, but it didn't transform my soul or open the doors of perception. Lou played the hits and the new album, bantered minimally, and got the job done. I couldn't reasonably have asked for more from him, no matter how much I wanted to. When the show was over, I applauded politely.

(On the other hand, Lou's opener that night was Victoria Williams, another artist I revere but didn't place nearly as high an expectation upon, and she absolutely killed it with a warm and witty and genial show that made me feel like I was just hanging out in her backyard.)

So where am I going with this ramble? I'm not entirely sure. This most uncertain of years has had a way of shifting my focus, making things that once seemed like hard truths more malleable than I would've thought possible. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is how much a year without the succor of live music has made me reflect on exactly what that experience means to me. Seeing how quickly something that means so much to my personal identity and well-being can simply disappear, seeing the institutions I love the most shuttered by sickness, seeing Turf Club looted and flooded, the Hexagon Bar gutted by flames, Hook & Ladder and the Schooner Tavern narrowly avoiding the same fates, watching the artists I love reduced to streaming awkward sets from their living rooms and closets and empty nightclubs…

It all makes the relativism of what is and isn't worthy of vigorous applause melt away, at least temporarily. I know I'm far too much of a crank and a critic to ever say that I'm going to follow Warren Zevon's advice and enjoy every sandwich once the music venues open back up. I'm sure it won't take long for me to fall right back into my usual practice of grousing about set lists and bad crowds and sound mixes. But I can say without reservation that whenever I do get the privilege of setting foot inside Turf Club once again, it won't matter who is on stage or what kind of show they put on. I am going to cheer as loud and long and earnestly as I would after watching the Velvet Underground reel off 37 minutes of "Sister Ray" on a Thursday night in 1969. I'm going to cheer as if my life depended on it, because damn it, a good portion of it does.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Let's check in on "Sick of You," Lou Reed's most prophetic protest song

Lou Reed's New York

One of the bigger challenges with writing a protest song is that there aren’t many genres that age more poorly. Write in broad enough strokes to make your song evergreen and you risk making it feel trite and generic. Include too many time-stamped specifics and you risk tying it so tightly to its era and issues that future generations will view it only as nostalgia or history. Sure, there are plenty of examples of timeless protest tunes, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. For every blistering snapshot of angst and injustice like Neil Young’s “Ohio” there are a dozen clunky reminders of bygone zeitgeist like Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President.”

That brings us to New York, simultaneously one of the most beloved and the most dated albums in the Lou Reed canon. Released in 1989, it’s intentionally a work very much of its time and place. While it isn’t quite a concept album, it is an inextricably interwoven tapestry of songs about Lou Reed’s home city as it was in the final throes of its grimy, pre-Giuliani existence. 

As such, a lot of the album is so deeply nested in the specifics of 1989 as to be borderline indecipherable to modern audiences who have no idea who, say, Jimmy Swaggart or Kurt Waldheim were. That’s part of the charm for music fans with a sense of history — you don’t need to be a Nixon scholar to appreciate Gil-Scott Heron slipping a song into John Mitchell’s suggestion box, or be well-versed in fringe political cults to dig Bob Dylan lashing out at the John Birch Society — but it can also be a little daunting for the casual observer.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at “Sick of You,” one of the most reference-heavy tracks from New York. As a grotesque protest song that sprays scattershot digs at an array of New York politicians and public figures of the late 1980s, “Sick of You” should hold up fairly terribly. And yet, via some twisted act of fate or bad karma, it stands as a largely relevant, and even prescient, work of cultural observation that’s almost as pertinent today as it was three decades ago. Not all of it holds up to a modern audience, and in fact some of it was fairly inscrutable even at the time, but hell, what oracle doesn’t forecast a few hazy futures every now and then?

Verse one
I was up in the morning with the TV blaring
brush my teeth, sitting watching the news
All the beaches were closed, the ocean was a Red Sea
but there was no one there to part it in two
There was no fresh salad because there's hypos in the cabbage
Staten Island disappeared at noon
And they say the Midwest is in great distress
and NASA blew up the moon
The ozone layer has no ozone anymore
and you're gonna leave me for the guy next door
I'm sick of you

Right off the bat, we’re hit with some grim environmental observations. Water-based environmentalism is a running thread throughout New York, popping up in “Romeo Had Juliette,” “Last Great American Whale,” and “Hold On” as well. Red tides and mass fish die-offs certainly haven’t tapered off in the past 30 years, so we can count this as pretty timeless. 

Somewhat less so: the reference to Moses, which in 1989 would almost certainly have doubled as a dig at late NRA figurehead Charlton Heston. Not that Heston’s legacy has aged the least bit well, but he’s not at the forefront of many people’s thoughts nowadays.

Tainted food is as big a concern as it has been for decades, with the current administration gutting the FDA’s oversight of the industry. And of course genetically modified food products remain a hot-button issue on both ends of the spectrum, especially as Midwestern farmers face multiple levels of distress. The ozone layer, on the other hand, wound up going down as one of the bigger success stories of ‘90s environmentalism. As for NASA blowing up the moon, it’s hard to say what that’s all about, but perhaps we can withhold a verdict until Space Force is up and running.

Verse two
They arrested the Mayor for an illegal favor
sold the Empire State to Japan
And Oliver North married William Secord
and gave birth to a little Teheran
And the Ayatollah bought a nuclear warhead
if he dies he wants to go out in style
And there's nothing to eat that don't carry the stink
of some human waste dumped in the Nile
Well one thing is certainly true
no one here knows what to do
I'm sick of you

Here we start off dated with a slap at longtime mayor Ed Koch (who was never, it should be noted, arrested for anything of the sort), and a reference to America’s brief but intense fear of/fascination with a supposed Japanese takeover via technological innovation and savvy business practices. 

Then it’s on to Reagan-era hatchetman Oliver North, loathed by the left as a traitor and lionized by the right as a patriot. Of all the players mentioned in “Sick of You,” North would seem one of the least likely to have maintained relevance for all these years, but there he is, still riling up the base as a right-wing radio host with an abundance of abhorrent opinions. Why exactly Lou married him off to William Secord, founder of a NYC gallery of 19th-century dog paintings (!) and probably the album’s most hyper-specific name-check, is anybody’s guess. Even that reference, though, is infused with some unexpected modern-day resonance thanks to Laurie Anderson’s gorgeous film Heart of a Dog, which uses the deaths of her beloved pet dog and her husband Lou Reed as a framework for examining the meanings of art, spirituality, and life itself.

Speaking of folks with unexpected staying power, the Ayatollah may have changed but the issue of Iranian nuclear capability sure hasn’t gone away. In fact, those particular sabers are currently rattling almost as loudly as they were back in New York times. And going back to water pollution, the Nile remains plenty troubled.

Verse three
The radio said there were 400 dead
in some small town in Arkansas
Some whacked-out trucker
drove into a nuclear reactor
and killed everybody he saw
Now he's on Morton Downey
and he's glowing and shining
doctors say this is a medical advance
They say the bad makes the good
and there's something to be learned 
in every human experience
Well I know one thing that really is true
This here's a zoo and the keeper ain't you
And I'm sick of it 
I'm sick of you

It’s been a while since we had a good old-fashioned nuclear accident, but the success of Chernobyl last year shows that it’s not that far removed from our collective consciousness. Whacked-out people using trucks for homicidal purposes, on the other hand, are considerably more prevalent now than they were in 1989. 

Morton Downey has been dead for years and is about as 1989 as a reference gets, but he’s arguably one of the founding fathers of the current age of online journalism. Downey would have thrived in the age of clickbait. It’s not hard to imagine any number of YouTubers fighting it out to give a forum to a radioactive mass murderer, nor is it tough to picture the establishment scrambling to explain to us why this is in fact a good thing for us on the whole. Yet again, Lou traffics in universals.

Verse four
They ordained the Trumps
and then he got the mumps
and died being treated at Mt. Sinai
And my best friend Bill
died from a poison pill
some wired doctor prescribed for stress
My arms and legs are shrunk
the food all has lumps
They discovered some animal no one's ever seen
It was a inside trader eating a rubber tire
after running over Rudy Giuliani
They say the president's dead
but no one can find his head
It's been missing now for weeks
But no one noticed it
he has seemed so fit
and I'm sick of it

OK, now we’re in the thick of it. Donald Trump was a big deal back in 1989 and has gone on to some notable personal successes in the subsequent decades. Neither he nor his then-wife Ivanna has, to my knowledge, thus far been ordained by any sanctioned religious body. There has, however, been the occasional suggestion that his partisans have come to regard him with a certain deity-ish dedication — some manner of “chosen one,” if you will. As for the mumps business, Lou seems to have missed the boat on this point, although it should be noted that this piece is being written on the cusp of a pandemic.

Speaking of epidemics, that doctor-prescribed poison pill Lou mentions? I'll refer you to your local opioid task force.

Moving right along, remember inside traders? They were all the rage in 1989 but Martha Stewart effectively killed the brand back in ‘04. But about that guy said trader ran over — at the time of “Sick of You,” Rudy was a flashy U.S. Attorney who’d presided over some high profile cases, including a celebrated Mafia takedown. He was also in the process of running for mayor of New York City, a job he’d ultimately lose to David Dinkins. But folks, Rudy casts a mighty long shadow. He eventually recast himself as the destroyer of much of the seedy New York weirdness that Lou Reed chronicled so love/hatingly. He is currently tasked with helping the president find his head, and is plainly doing a bang-up job of it.  

So what do we make of all of this Lou Reed prognostication 30 years on? And what would Lou himself think about the ongoing relevance of New York in the post-Dinkins/Giuliani/Bloomberg/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama/Jeter/9-11/Sandy/Lou Reed era? 

Only Lou’s wandering ghost can say for sure, but I’m going to guess he’d be sick of it.

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 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.