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Sweet Jane: A Song About Life’s Transitions

Sweet Jane (1970, 1974)
Velvet Underground, albums: Loaded; Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (live)
Composed by Lou Reed (and Steve Hunter on live versions)

The intricacies of what The Velvet Underground means to Rock-N-Roll deserve book-length treatment. The surpassing song, “Sweet Jane” in its various guises serves as an emblem for the group’s large body of work (and that of Lou Reed’s as a solo artist).

A few random musings first… The Underground literally grew out of the streets of New York and the kinetic, frenetic visual arts scene of the early and mid-1960s that, once and for all, put the city in the center of the painting and sculpture world. When The Velvets became intertwined with Andy Warhol they began to take off, becoming part of his touring multi-media show called Exploding Plastic Inevitable. They were also considered to be the “house band” of Warhol’s Factory, a sort of artist’s atelier in the Renaissance tradition of masters who employed what amounted to apprentices to do the grunt work (in Warhol’s case to crank out silkscreen prints). These artists would somehow put some polish on their reputations.

Warhol married The Velvet Underground to the German hipster singer Nico and from that first collaboration issued one of Rock’s greatest albums in 1967, entitled, aptly enough, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Landmarks such as “I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Venus In Furs,” “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

John Cale, who would go on to his own spectacularly innovative solo career, was a member of the group then. It is safe to say it is one of the top ten most influential Rock albums of all time. Anyone who heard it was changed by The Velvet Underground & Nico. That powerful effect goes on right to the present moment.

However, a tip of the floppy hat has to be given to Bob Dylan’s influence on the New York music scene of the time. His Highway 61 Revisited album, especially through songs like “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Desolation Row.” It is a reminder of how avant-garde Dylan was in 1964 and 1965, once he had jettisoned his early folkways.

The Velvet Underground ladled out a strange brew of Hard Rock, Blues, Jazz, psychedelia New York style, proto-Punk, droning effects and dissonant atonal colorings. While most people recall the acid and sun drenched music of the late 1960s and early 70s as a California phenomenon – The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, CS&N – the big-ass-city hippie vision was squeezed out of the neon tube via Reed and The Underground.

By 1970, the group belonged to Reed after which he veered away from Cale’s farther out inclinations, although Reed would revisit ultra-experimental music later in his solo career.

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The most recognizable – perhaps because it so accessible – of the songs from the last Velvet Underground with Lou Reed album, Loaded, is “Sweet Jane.” In it, Reed loses none of his sardonic delivery, his snide lyrical approach or his well-crafted song structuring ability.

Most of all it is a song about not giving up as one goes through countless life transitions. Jack and Jane start out as sexually experimental young people, slide over to settled life – something less than exciting, but still by the end of the song there is a deeper search for love, tranquility and commitment – to love, to something. There is a warning – the Stutz Bearcat , the poets – that disposes us to think that other generations went through similar experiences and that struggles to stay sane, to stay “real,” are nothing new.

Standin’ on a corner
Suitcase in my hand
Jack’s in his corset, Jane is in her vest
and me I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Huh.
Riding a Stutz Bear Cat, Jim
ya know, those were different times
all the poets studied rules of verse
and those ladies they rolled their eyes
Sweet Jane
Sweet Jane
Sweet Jane

This is not to say that Reed lets them off lightly for abandoning their hotter, crazier, early days. In fact, he’s quite judgmental in the second verse, laying into the word “monies” in an acerbic, mocking tone, rolling the word around his tongue like the serpent in the garden. Nor does he let the protestors of the Vietnam War era off lightly. There is a reminder that we are all Jacks and Janes underneath it all.

Now Jack, he is a banker
and Jane, she’s a clerk
and both of them save their monies
when they get home from work
sittin’ down by the fire
Ooo, the radio does play
the classical music there, Jim
The March of the Wooden Soldiers
All you protest kids
you can hear Jack say
Sweet Jane

Behind all of this an impossibly catchy riff operates as does an ethereal lead guitar that is connected to Reed’s deep interest in the music of the Jazz saxophone, particularly as played by Ornette Coleman. The guitar is a stand-in for the sax in the studio version. of “Sweet Jane.”

The closing verse of “Sweet Jane” offers one of the more transcendental lyrics of the late Rock-N-Roll, early Rock era. 

…anyone who ever had a heart
they wouldn’t turn around and break it
and anyone who ever played a part
They wouldn’t turn around and hate it
Sweet Jane, Sweet Sweet Jane

The song is, oddly enough, a plea for sweetness and light, for love to shine through any lifestyle, any historical age.

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Noteworthy is a short intro that recollects Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” though it is more psychedelic, fractured and cut up into a jingle-jangle-morning style that pays homage to Dylan, Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield while expanding on their work.

The 1974 live version, recorded live at “The Academy Of Music,” (later called “The Palladium”) on 14th Street in New York, detonates the bomb that had been dormant inside the studio cut. It took the chemistry between Lou Reed, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner,  (guitarists par excellence), to set it off.

Hunter and Wagner render what may be the greatest Rock music intros of all time. The transition from the intro to the body of the song is a masterstroke. So stunned has the audience been that it takes a few bars too many for them to acknowledge with applause and cheers that the song coming into focus is “Sweet Jane.” It is astounding.

Summing up all previous Rock soloing and anticipating the best in Heavy Metal guitar fronting yet to come, Hunter and Wagner turn in a performance that floors the listener. Lurking inside is Hunter’s later work with Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome To My Nightmare. Wagner had already appeared as a session man on Cooper’s School’s Out. (Listen to “My Stars.”) Wagner also played later for KISS and Aerosmith.

The transition to the famous “Sweet Jane” riff is heralded by a jazzy, Zappa-flavored jam. From the moment they lay picks to strings, we hear every guitar strain imaginable: Chuck Berry; early Steely Dan; Skynyrd;  Duane Allman; The Beatles’ “The End”; Dick Dale; Clapton… they all show up as of at a reunion. And between them, Hunter and Wagner take everyone to school, K through college. They split open the mother-load of Rock’s DNA.

Vocally, Reed is in tip-top form. He removes much of the hard edge from his song and turns this rendition of “Sweet Jane” into an elegy for Jack and Jane, and an elegiac meditation upon love and what perseverance in a relationship might yield – at least theoretically.

Anyone conscious of the entire panorama of popular music will write this in on the list of Top Ten Rock classics. There is really nothing to compare in the Rock canon. Ask to have it played at your funeral. That’ll show ‘em.

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