Twenty Nine Ways of Looking at Lou Reed

Four covers by women reveal the complex art of one of music’s great geniuses.

Third Velvet Underground album back cover, Lou Reed smoking
Third Velvet Underground album, back cover (courtesy of Discogs)

Musicians playing someone else’s song have to strike a balance between respecting the original and providing their own unique perspective. Truly great artists make interesting covers possible because their work is is so rich and complex that it encourages a rainbow of alternative views.

Four covers of Lou Reed classics by women from around the world (the U.S., Taiwan, Spain, Sweden) explore paths that Reed’s compositions allowed for but didn’t follow. Rather than subverting the originals, these artists reveal the counterstatement that Reed embedded into his original statement.

After Hours

The song

The closing song on the third Velvet Underground album is among Reed’s darkest explorations. If the opener, “Candy Says,” explores the wish of transsexual Candy Darling to leave the physical world of her body and its limitations, “After Hours” depicts someone considering leaving the world altogether. It’s not so much a suicide poem as a just-say-no ode to abnegation, an acceptance (and even cherishing) of the notion that we can forfeit all the things we yearn for simply by acquiescing to eternal nothingness.

But the tune itself, and the phrasing of the vocal by VU drummer Maureen Tucker, avoid any note of apocalyptic drama (like the gothic closing tracks of Nico’s four solo albums). Tucker teeters between the hopes for a future of wine, shiny cars, someone who “will look into my eyes and say ‘Hello, you’re my very special one’ ”, and the elegant alternative of closing the door forever.

What makes “After Hours” so dark is that it doesn’t provide us with the comfort of a simple response (neither shiny pop nor gothic gloom). Two roads diverge, and Reed takes neither. If “Murder Mystery,” the maddeningly cryptic penultimate track (a rapid-fire collage of William S. Burroughs-inspired phrases and off-kilter melodies) posed a question about the indecipherability of existence, “After Hours” coyly flaunts its refusal to provide an answer to that riddle.

The cover (1)

Waxahatchee (aka Katie Crutchfield) joins up with Kevin Morby on a couple of VU covers. The laconic tweet announcing this release states “The world’s a dark place. Here’s a cover of ‘After Hours.’ ”

And dark her version is. When Crutchfield gets to the final phrase in the coda, her “One more time” sounds so weary that you’re not sure she’ll be able to finish. There’s none of Maureen Tucker’s youth-like hopefulness to provide a counterpoint to the despair, let alone a ray of light. Nico might be a little uneasy with Crutchfield’s subdued subtlety, but she’d be at home with the cover’s darkness.

The artist

Katie Crutchfield’s four Waxahatchee albums and her EP “Great Thunder” might at first blush seem to reflect the chameleon-like diversity of, say, David Bowie’s oeuvre, but there’s a central, unifying consistency to her work. The style may vary radically, but practically every song is a variation on the familiar “I-you” love poems that can be traced back to Petrarch: subjective reflections that spotlight the “I” more than the “you” or the “we.” What’s most remarkable about Waxhatchee isn’t the consistency but the the emotional variety that Crutchfield brings to these explorations of self vs. other.

Waxahatchee’s second album, “Cerulean Salt,” most clearly reveals Crutchfield’s debt to the Velvet Underground (mostly to the third VU album, though to the first two as well), but nothing in her songs (as far as I know) prepares you for her “After Hours” cover. Here, there is no “you”; the “not I” is “not being.” Stripped of the illusion of “we,” Crutchfield plunges the listener into the darkest realm of nothingness. Fortunately, the albums and EP bring us back to a modestly comforting hope for the future, even if we know that this hope will end in heartbreak and despair.

The cover (2)

If Katie Crutchfield brings out the darkness of Lou Reed’s original, the late Taiwanese pop singer Koumis highlights the hopefulness in her performance. Koumis’ original songs range between the sweet and the bittersweet. Her Lou Reed cover here seems at first blush to veer toward the sweet — a jaunty, 1920’s flapper-era revel.

But the most upbeat sections of Koumis’ performance aren’t the lightest (the hopeful phrases) but the darkest (“If you close the door, the night could last forever”). She suggests that our bleakest thoughts are an essential part of the yin-yang of life, and deserve to be celebrated as much as the moments of hope.

The artist

At the end of her own tragically short life, Koumis fought indomitably for being over not-being, continuing to write and perform as illness ravaged her body, never surrendering to despair. On her deathbed, her fans and friends gathered around to sing another Koumis cover , which she had performed many times, even in her last days — “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis.

Caroline Says II

The song

Lou Reed’s narrative album “Berlin” is a gripping exploration of the downward spiral of the doomed relationship between Jim and Caroline, told through the eyes of Jim, a narcissistic abuser who comforts himself after Caroline’s suicide by maintaining that “somebody else would have broken both of her arms.”

The reflective and plaintive “Caroline Says II” bookends the upbeat swagger of “Caroline Says I.” In this dark re-working of an unreleased Velvet Underground song, “Stephanie Says,” Jim tries (or pretends to try) to understand Caroline’s coldness: “All of her friends call her Alaska.” By the end of the story, though, it’s clear that Caroline’s detachment is her way of coping with Jim’s lack of feeling, not the other way around as Jim would have us believe.

The cover

In her re-vision of the song, Irene Tremblay (Aroah) frames the narrative through Caroline’s eyes (or at times from the viewpoint of a sympathetic observer). Tremblay portrays Caroline as fragile but clinging as defiantly as possible to what little dignity she has left. From this perspective, Aroah’s cover strips the psychopathic abuser of his power, without minimizing the suffering of the victim.

It’s not that Reed can’t understand Caroline, but that within the confines of Berlin’s narrative he can’t depart from Jim’s perspective. On his various live performances (like this one filmed by Julian Schnabel), Reed reveals a heartfelt empathy with Caroline that parallels Aroah’s.

The artist

On her LP’s and EP’s, Aroah (Irene Tremblay) journeys from defiant to wry to pensive to disconsolate — sometimes within a single song. The common denominator of her work is an uncompromising honesty and lack of pretense. She neither surrenders to nor pretends to triumph over despair. It is what it is. On her last album, “El Dia Despues” (2007), Aroah concludes with “Nada,” a song so bare and bleak that it makes Waxahatchee’s “After Hours” seem cheerful. Unlike Nico’s mini-epic closers, Nada’s a capella lament lasts only 50 seconds.

Heavenly Arms

The song

“Heavenly Arms,” the final track from “The Blue Mask,” is perhaps as close as Lou Reed gets to an anthem. What’s even more atypical (given Reed’s many songs that explore non-cis / non-binary genders) is the song’s seemingly straightforward heterosexuality: “Only a woman can love a man.” Lou speaks directly to his wife at the time: “Sylvia you mean so much to me.” Given the acceptance of gender fluidity over the last 30 years, the unambiguous, unapologetic heterosexuality of “Heavenly Arms” might seem to make it a difficult song to cover today. But not for El Perro del Mar.

The cover

Sometimes when someone of a different gender covers a song, they change the gender of the song’s persona (often with complex re-writes of the lyrics); sometimes they keep the original song’s identification (as though gender isn’t an issue). But when a song is so blatant about gendrifcation (“Only a woman can love a man”), how can a woman covering the song maintain that premise while singing at the same time “Sylvia you mean so much to me”? How can Sarah Assbring proclaim binary heterosexuality at the same time that she declares her love for Sylvia?

The resolution, I think, is that El Perro del Mar isn’t pretending to offer her devotion to Lou Reed’s second wife, Sylvia Morales. The object of Assbring’s affection is Reed’s song “Heavenly Arms” itself, and so she doesn’t fiddle with the lyrics, but she does use her own negative / positive perspective to enrich Reed’s seemingly upbeat song. El Perro del Mar’s vulnerable, almost frail, phrasing and her glass harmonica falsetto provide the yin to the original’s anthemic yang. And the wistful guitar chords that reverberate through the cover’s final moments aren’t despairing, but they’re hardly triumphant either. Ultimately, our fulfillment isn’t determined by our paltry categorizations but by “heavenly” forces that transcend the limits of our expectations.

The album’s title, “Love Is Not Pop,” suggests that the simple way we’d like to see the world is often far removed from the more complex mess that characterizes our existence.

The artist

The name El Perro del Mar came to [Sarah Assbring] during an ill-fated vacation in Spain; she was alone, depressed, and out of sorts when a stray dog came up to her while she sat on the beach, and the dog’s efforts to bond with her inspired her to express her feelings through songwriting. (Mark Deming, AllMusic).

Listening to a few songs by El Perro del Mar, you’ll realize you’re not in Ellie Greenwich land. The Swedish Muse of Melancholy believes that the way to escape the depths of despondency is to explore the darkness honestly, without resorting to escapism. If her last album, 2018’s “We Are History,” seems to offer fatalism as a life preserver, her new single, “Dreamers Change the World,” written in even darker times, provides not only solace but hope and comfort. Just don’t expect her to sound happy about it.

Bonus Tracks

25 more Lou Reed covers, courtesy of Paste Magazine.

Music: Discovering the lost and forgotten. Politics: Exposing injustice. Screenwriting: Emotional storytelling.

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