The Velvets' last album is generally seen as their least. It suffers dubious production and lacks drummer Moe Tucker, due to her pregnancy; Lou Reed left the band before its release and, as he'd later complain, his songs were hacked down (notably "Sweet Jane" and "New Age") and his intended sequencing re-shuffled. Loaded was a last-ditch effort to connect with a mass audience, something the first three Velvets albums failed spectacularly to do — and it met the same fate. Yet hindsight reveals, like so much in Reed's career, an album full of greatness, beneath its consensual role-playing and market-minded mishegas. This final chapter in the vault-scraping Velvets reissue series, a handsome six-CD set, reaffirms it.
Though Reed would rework the songs throughout his career, no case needs to be made for Loaded's dual-chambered heart, "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" — arguably the greatest one-two punch in his catalog. Both songs' brilliant bones gleam in the multiple versions here. In a gentler, cowbell-driven early take on the former, the narrator's suitcase has yet to appear in his hand, and the kids are still apparently cisgender — Jack in a vest, Jane in a corset. On Live At Max's Kansas City, the low-fi LP document of the band's last stand, also included here, the song's sparklingly psychedelic guitar intro sounds like the Grateful Dead ramping into "Uncle John's Band." The lean demo of "Rock & Roll" (a title it took fabulous brass balls to use), with a more delicate breakdown and a churning rhythm jam supplanting the wanky guitar solo, suggests a more tender musical coming-of-age tale. Like Dylan, Reed played endlessly with lyrics, arrangements and phrasing, always aware of how meaning changes with delivery.
The quieter songs stand out among the generous disc of demos and outtakes. An early version of "Oh! Sweet Nuthin," with a high, lonesome guitar melody prefiguring the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't Ya See," rides a trance-out throb that anticipates a generation of shoegazers. "Ocean" does, too. It's one of Reed's most hauntingly beautiful songs, drawn in two takes here — one of which may or may not feature organ by ousted VU co-founder John Cale; stories differ — both cut prior to the studio version that wound up on Reed's solo debut. Most surprising is the torqued "Satellite of Love" demo, where instead of "Harry, Mark and John," per Transformer, the narrator's paramour has apparently been hooking up with "Wynken, Blynken and Nod," per the 19th century lullaby poem. Like much of Reed's best writing, it teeters between the scandalous and the sentimental, packed with pop cultural nutrients.
Elsewhere, Reed is doing a late-Sixties version of his early-Sixties, post-college job for Pickwick Records — copying marketable styles and putting simple twists on them. Check the "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" harmonies on "Who Loves The Sun," which rhymes "showers" with "flowers." Echoes of San Francisco psychedelia, with which the Velvets competed during their legendary stand at the Matrix club (see the forthcoming Complete Matrix Tapes), are everywhere. "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" bites the Wild West mythos of the Quicksilver and the Dead with tongue in tobacco-chawing cheek. "Head Held High" echoes The Who's hard-rock muscle for its own design. "I Found A Reason" works Beach Boys and doo-wop vocal tropes through a sarcasm recalling the Velvets' labelmate Frank Zappa. Reed didn't need to like an act to lift and repurpose its better ideas.
Like Dylan's latest Bootleg Series release, this edition of Loaded, with typically on-point notes by Patti Smith wingman Lenny Kaye (who reviewed the original 1970 release for Rolling Stone way back when) shows an artist inventing himself on a grand scale. In later years, Reed would speak about "Lou Reed" as a character, and to be sure, the market-courting concept of Loaded included the idea that Reed develop his "rock star" persona. Sure enough, in the rock & roll animal of "Rock & Roll" and the sprechgesang enunciation and interstitial asides of "Sweet Jane" — the jaded "all you protest kids," the "just watch me now!" that seems to have blueprinted Jonathan Richman's entire vocal approach, the "huh!" that sounds like Jean Paul Belmondo staring down the camera in Godard's Breathless — you can hear that "Lou Reed" guy being born. He was one helluva character.