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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Essential Sweet Jane I - V.U. & Lou Reed

You could argue that "Sweet Jane" is one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. I would. Never mind that Rolling Stone, in their infinite lack of wisdom, ranked it at 342 on their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Which puts it one just behind such timeless efforts as Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and a few notches down from Queen's "We Will Rock You".

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


Sunday, September 13, 2015

King Arthur - 2004

King Arthur
Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley
2004

For epic portrayals of the Arthurian legend it's going to be pretty hard to outdo King Arthur, a 2004 movie that may have outdone what's arguably its most epic predecessor - John Boorman's monumental 1982 movie, Excalibur. For me King Arthur hasn't lost anything even though this was at least the fourth or fifth time I've seen it.

The notion of taking Arthur's story and turning it on its ear is hardly a new idea. One of my favorites is a series of about a half dozen or so books by Jack Whyte in which he strips out all of the magical and fantastic elements and leaves the reader with a perfectly serviceable version of the legend. Which is essentially what King Arthur attempts to do.

After a brief opening scene with a young Lancelot leaving home to fight for Rome, we jump forward about fifteen years. The Knights of the Round Table, those that are left, are all Sarmatian (from the region that's now Iran) warriors who are required to spend fifteen years in service to the Romans. If you do the math then you'll realize that it's time for them to fly the coop. But there's a twist, as a bishop Germanus explains to their commander - a Roman named Arthur.

As the Romans are pulling out of Britain, a great Saxon horde is massing to come down out of the north and lay the land to waste. The scenes of the Saxons on the move are pretty ominous stuff, with their war drums, thousands of marching feet (or so it would seem) and eerie chanting. Turns out there's a prominent Roman family living near Hadrian's wall that needs to be rescued. The weaselly bishop informs Arthur that his men cannot have their walking papers until they complete the mission. Though they carp and moan and know that it's nearly a suicide mission, they are a band of brothers, after all, and grudgingly agree to this one last foray. Any resemblance to The Dirty Dozen or The Wild Bunch may or may not have been intentional.

The knights arrive at the Roman outpost not long before the Saxons and make haste in evacuating it, including a number of people found in a grim dungeon of sorts, one of whom is a Woad named Guinevere. Woads in this movie are just another name for the real-world Picts, a painted warrior people who lived north of the wall and wasted no opportunity to harass their neighbors to the south.

As the Saxons move southward it becomes obvious to Arthur that he should put aside his feelings about the woads and accept their offer of an alliance. But not before the small band of knights must face off against a splinter force of Saxons on a frozen lake in a scene that might remind some viewers of the battle of Thermopylae. It's strictly over the top action movie stuff, this scene, but it does keep you clinging to the edge of your seat.

Against all odds, the crew makes it back from their mission almost intact and are given their walking papers after all. They start walking but when they see that their old leader Arthur is apparently going to try to take on the Saxons singlehandedly, they naturally have to rally round him one last time. And I'll say right here that battle scenes in this type of movie have a tendency to be rather dull, but this one was the rare exception. You can almost guess how it turns out but getting to that point's a lot more gripping that in most action flicks.

Given that it's essentially just an epic buddy movie, King Arthur relies pretty heavy on this small band of warriors. There are six of them, plus their leader and they are a fairly diverse group. I have to say I didn't care much for Clive Owen's Arthur, who's prone to speaking in great oratorical flourishes throughout and not much else. As for Lancelot, he just seems to be bewildered most of the time. Gawain and Galahad just don't seem to get all that much to do.

Which leaves it to the other three to carry most of the group scenes. There's Ray Winston as Bors, the hard-drinking, hard-loving family man who says exactly what's on his mind. There's Ray Stevenson as Dagonet, a fierce burly fighter who turns out to have something of a heart of gold and who saves the day in the frozen lake scene. And then there's Meds Mikkelsen as Tristan, the silent, mystical type with a trained raven and a decidedly offbeat way of looking at the world.

Also worthy of note, Keira Knightley as the kick-ass Woad warrior woman - though it's a bit of a stretch to imagine someone so slight whupping big beefy Saxons in hand to hand combat. There's little or no magic or supernatural stuff to speak of here, though Merlin, the Woad leader, is said to be a magician, of sorts. Also worthy of a considerable accolade is Stella SkarsgÄrd as Cerdic, the muttering leader of the Saxons, who, though he's starting to get up there in years, doesn't take any mess from anyone.

Which is about all I've got to say for this one, except for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Little Green Men, Couriers of Chaos, and Miners on Uranus

Things
Edited by Ivan Howard
Belmont (157 pages, $0.50, February 1964)

Belmont Books, publisher of this anthology, apparently thrived throughout the Sixties. Early on it looks like many of their books leaned toward horror, with SF being sprinkled into the mix more as time went on. Things presents itself more as horror (the subtitle is Stories of Terror and Shock by six SCIENCE-FICTION greats) but there’s not much horror content. It’s a short volume that collects six fairly uninspired novelettes and short stories first published in SF magazines in the early Fifties.

Read more at Black Gate.

A Brief Guide to Space Race Documentaries, Part II

I’ve written two articles at this site about movies and documentaries that deal primarily with the Space Race years, which I define as 1957 (Sputnik) to 1969 (first Moon landing):

I thought I’d exhausted the supply of space race documentaries worth mentioning, but alas, I recently ran across two more.

Both are worth noting for the simple fact that they solve two problems I often see with this type of documentary. One is the tendency to cram too much into too little time, which means it’s hard to go into any kind of depth in one specific area. The other is the tendency to rely on footage that’s rather familiar.

Read more at Black Gate.