Are the mid-Seventies the late Sixties in weird disguise? Can Gatorade really be the fountain of youth? Or is there something in the air these days that transforms the tired blood of certain seemingly played out, erstwhile All-Pantheon quarterbacks into something so fresh and vital that new notice must be taken? First Bob Dylan and then Neil Young bounce from the Big Sleep of years of self-imposed benchwarming to launch the Big Comeback, suddenly connecting on a series of breathtaking touchdown passes that make Lynn Swanns of us all. The Vets are on the move. The logical, computerized defenses of the Seventies, apparently unprepared for idiosyncratic acts of individual heroism — one cannot stay sharp by playing against the homogenized, formulaic offenses of the Los Angeles Eagles or Britain’s bland Elton Long Johns every week — can only watch openmouthed as point (Blood on the Tracks, Desire) after personalized point (Tonight’s the Night, Zuma) goes up on the scoreboard. Even the Band kicks a field goal (Northern Lights — Southern Cross). A few seconds remain, and the game is tied. But the Vets have a secret weapon: a once brilliant broken field runner now deemed so aesthetically confused that his recent efforts have often been laughed at or pitied. From the very end of the bench comes Old Number Nada, the Babylon Zombie, the Bionic Metal Machine, that Coney Island Baby himself — Lou Reed.
And Reed looks good — cocky, clear-eyed, confident. In the huddle, calling the old-fashioned Glory of Love play, he even sounds like Knute Rockne: “I’m gonna send this one out for Lou and Rachel/And all the kids and P.S. 192/Man, I swear I’d give the whole thing up for you.” The result is a career-capping touchdown scored so honestly and directly that almost no one can believe it. After the game, Reed will tell everyone who will listen:
You know, man, when I was a young man in high school
You believe it or not, I wanted to play football for the coach
And all those older guys, they said that he was mean and cruel
But you know I wanted to play football for the coach
‘Cause you know someday, man, you gotta stand up straight unless you’re gonna fall
Then you’re gonna die
And the straightest dude I ever knew was standing right by me all the time
So I hadda play football for the coach
I wanted to play football for the coach.
Those who would see in our hero’s uncharacteristic, upbeat sincerity further proof of an even greater degree of perversity because he now allows his usual ominous, street-creep image to slide toward something not unlike everyday humanity — well, they will probably want to deflate the venerable football metaphor, too. But they had better be careful. You think Reed doesn’t know the game? In his introduction to “Waiting for My Man” (!) on 1969 Velvet Underground Live, he admonishes a Texas audience for allowing the Dallas football team to pile up the score: “We saw your Cowboys today, and they never let Philadelphia even have the ball for a minute. You know, it was 42 to 7 by the half. It was ridiculous. I mean, you should give the other guy just a little chance — in football anyway.” If the Velvets — well-known for the violent, hypnotic, dope-trance staccato power of their playing and the seedy subway vision of Reed’s lyrics — can enjoy gridiron drama in the heart of ten-gallon-hat country, surely anything is possible. And why not?
There is a more “serious,” nonsporting connection between 1969 Velvet Underground Live and Lou Reed’s newest and best solo album, however. To capture the correct mood — exactly what has been missing from most of his RCA records — for Coney Island Baby, the artist has forsaken his recent daze for the days of 1969 and Loaded to reclaim the warmth of some of the songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” particularly) he loved to sing. Such a move does not imply that Reed was then or is now a moony sentimental fool — 1969, Loaded and Coney Island Baby are all extremely tough LPs. But it does infer that since he left the Underground (in more ways than one), too much of his work has been a cheap, sensationalized self-parody of the more freakish side of his persona. Those who admire the contrived outrageousness of the simple, speed-crazed Monster may be more than a little nonplused by the ambiguity and extra dimension — call it ironic, friendly reality — its creator has added to almost every song on the new album. Coney Island Baby in no way whitewashes the warp and woof of the quintessential Reed, but a balance has been restored, and one can understand the new “monster,” once again take him seriously.
For the eight superb songs on Coney Island Baby, Reed assembled the best band he has performed with since the Velvet Underground. Michael Suchorsky’s versatile, controlled drumming is especially praiseworthy, and Reed himself has even managed to rekindle his intense, individualistic guitar playing of the late Sixties. Better yet, he has shelved his recent FM-DJ vocal style in favor of confident, expressive singing. The songs themselves — as structured and melodic as any Reed has written — are timeless, terrific rock & roll, and the strength of the genre is accentuated by the simplicity and logic of crisp, tactile production (by Reed and Godfrey Diamond) and careful, resourceful arrangements which emphasize both electric and acoustic guitars and inventive background vocals.
As Stephen Demorest has pointed out, much of this record is about integrity, with the singer setting down coherent moral confrontations — “Hey, man, what’s your style?/How do you get your kicks for living?” — from the outlaw code that provides him with his own brand of respect. Lou Reed seems more than willing to put his unorthodox lifestyle on the line any time anyone wants to call him on it, but there is no malice in his challenge,
If you want to see me
Well, honey, you know that I’m not around
But if you want to feel me
Why don’t you just turn around?
I’m by the window where the light is,
and often considerable regret (“You know it sure hurts to be that way . . . /You know it sure hurts to be that kind of fella”).
“Crazy Feeling” — that hook! those bells! — is a great song about the flash of recognition that links one late-night cruiser to another, while “Charley’s Girl,” “Nobody’s Business” and “Ooohhh Baby” effectively limn women who are treacherous, loyal or down on their luck. “A Gift” — “I’m just a gift to the women of this world/Responsibility sits so hard on my shoulder/Like a good wine, I’m better as I grow older” — is a playful brag, more affectionate than offensive.
The three longer songs, all of which build in a manner highly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground (Reed uses repetition so well), tackle the major themes of friendship, intimidation and taking stock of one’s life and doing something about it. “She’s My Best Friend” is a comfortable song about loyalty and trust. “Kicks” flips the coin and buttonholes the uneasy listener in the middle of an aural party — complete with small talk and insidious sound effects — so unblinkingly evil that when the narrator speaks of killing (“Better than sex … the final thing to do”), you can see the blood running down someone’s neck. “Coney Island Baby” is the album’s masterpiece, an anthem about courage, loss and the high price an outsider pays for his way of living. When Lou Reed talks about “want[ing] to play football for the coach” and “giv[ing] the whole thing up for you,” he is expressing the profound dream of the damned — and his loss is given greater intensity because both he and we know that such wishes were impossible from the very beginning. So we reaccept it. And it hurts all over again.
You can play on my team any day, Lou.