In any event, your humble author has travelled to the ends of the Earth (well, YouTube) to find some of the most noteworthy versions of the song written by Lou Reed and popularized by the Velvet Underground. This first installment presents versions by the Velvet Underground and selections from Lou Reed's 40-odd years as a solo artist. Installment two will be devoted to notable cover versions. Stay tuned.
It's all subjective, mind you. If you'd like to nominate a version of Sweet Jane to be added to the list, feel free to leave a comment.
(Dates listed are the dates of performances/recordings, not release dates. )
Lou Reed Lectures on Sweet Jane (2008)
You’d think that 40 years after the fact Lou Reed would had gotten tired of playing "Sweet Jane", something he must have done at least hundreds of times. But even later in life he still found the time to explain to Elvis Costello and the audience of Costello’s short-lived TV show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..., how the song was structured, while demonstrating his points on an acoustic guitar.
1969: The Velvet Underground Live (1969)
The genesis of "Sweet Jane" is not completely clear but it began appearing in the Velvet Underground’s live shows as early as late 1969. Which is when the version immortalized on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live was recorded. Although the album itself didn’t see the light of day until a half decade later. It's a downright laconic version of the song that contains the infamous bridge that fell by the wayside in many later versions. Cowboy Junkies fans will find it all quite familiar.
The Velvet Underground - Loaded (1970)
Founding Velvet member John Cale had moved on by the time of Loaded, the group's fourth album, but three-fourths of the group were still on board, including Lou Reed, who proceeded to give the world a song called "Sweet Jane". The version contained here, the first to be loosed on the world at large, is considerably more lively than the hypnotic version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live.
Lou Reed - Rock and Roll Animal (1973)
This version was recorded in late 1973 and released the following year on Rock and Roll Animal, the first of a pair of live albums that rolled out during Lou Reed's RCA years. The album opens with a heavy guitar duet by Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who work their way through a lengthy instrumental piece that gives way to a radically reconstructed version of "Sweet Jane".
Lou Reed - Live in Paris (1974)
A half a year later or so and "Sweet Jane" had undergone another transformation, though perhaps not as radical as some others. A few members of the Rock and Roll Animal band were on hand for this version but Hunter and Wagner had moved on. It's less heavy than Rock and Roll Animal and even waxes a bit funky at times, with emphasis on the organ in parts. Watch for the moves from the bleached-blonde Lou Reed, who looks like he's about to break into some James Brown at any moment.
Lou Reed - Live in New York (1977)
Probably my favorite of all the non-cover versions. It was recorded at New York's Bottom Line about a year before the version that's next on the list, the one that made onto an actual live bonafide album release. Heavy, heavy and heavy, but in a slightly different manner than Rock and Roll Animal, and there's even some judicious use of a saxophone.
Lou Reed - Live: Take No Prisoners (1978)
Lou Reed's double live album from his Arista years is something of a mixed bag. The band is great and so are the performances, mostly of classic Lou Reed songs and a few newer ones. The downside is his tendency to derail several of the songs with lengthy spoken asides that are somewhere between monologue and standup comedy. Which is the case with the version of "Sweet Jane" immortalized therein. If it weren't for those asides - which are quite witty, it should be said - it could have been one of the greatest versions of the song ever.
Lou Reed - Acoustic Version on Spanish TV (1998?)
"I do Lou Reed better than anyone" -Lou Reed