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.

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