The Basement Vapes, Volume 10: Definitely Maybe—Jeff Beck Is Rock’s Greatest Interpreter

OK, Boomers! MAGNET’s Mitch Myers dives deep under the covers with guitarist Jeff Beck while Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright, Charlie Mingus and Pavarotti get totally wired

Let’s face it: Rock music and the electric guitar both peaked way back in the 20th century. Still, rock remains a viakble art form, and there are plenty of folks capable of playing great guitar. Naturally, there are going to be those next level musicians who continue to defy convention—gifted players who push forward and make everything sound new again, reminding us that there are no real limits except in your own imagination. Take Jeff Beck, because there’s nobody like him. He’s a guitar virtuoso who’s been performing for more than a half century and could well be rock music’s greatest instrumental interpreter. 

Make no mistake, Jeff Beck has written and performed plenty of groundbreaking original material in his epic career, but his ability to definitively interpret other people’s music is no less creative a skill. A versatile interpreter in the truest sense, JB resonates with his chosen tunes, their histories and their composers. The strength of an interpretation is found within artists’ capacities on their instruments—and the vision to claim a song and make it their own. That’s where Jeff Beck lives. 

As recounted in excellent Showtime documentary, Jeff Beck: Still On The Run, the British-born lad became enamored with Les Paul’s guitar wizardry in the 1950s. He also was friendly with Jimmy Page when they were teenagers, and the fledgling guitarists were obsessed with reproducing the sounds of sharp American sidemen like James Burton with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley’s guy Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup from Gene Vincent’s band, the Blue Caps. Beck and Page were kindred spirits, discovering the electric guitar as well as the potential within themselves, and they would impact each other in the years to come.

In 1963, a young British band named the Yardbirds got together and was swept up in the white rhythm ‘n’ blues explosion alongside groups like the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things and Animals. Making records and enjoying some success reworking old blues material with lead guitarist Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds endeavored to become more commercial and hit the pop charts with the song “For Your Love.” Blues purist Clapton exited soon after, and in 1965, Beck joined the band on his friend Page’s recommendation. The Yardbirds were already on the rise, but the infusion of Beck’s visionary style led to a real burst of creativity. His unique approach pushed well beyond the blues, and they blossomed into a bona-fide psychedelic rock ensemble. 

The Yardbirds toured relentlessly the short time Beck was a member, including a trip to America, where they recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis. He stayed with the group for less than two years, but his impact was profound. Leading an evolution in rock guitar utilizing bends, swells, reverb, distortion and Eastern tonalities, Beck plastered his innovations all over original, cutting-edge Yardbirds classics like “Heart Full Of Soul,” “Over Under Sideways Down” and “Shapes Of Things.” While Clapton was pursuing the supercharged blues thing with his group Cream, Beck had already invented a new psychedelic guitar vocabulary with the Yardbirds. 

This all was part of the first big wave of British rock, and there were pressures within the band. Pressures led to changes, which resulted in Page joining the Yardbirds. For a brief time, the two guitarists performed together, but frustrated and unhappy, Beck quit during an American tour in 1966. Even before he left the band, JB had already recorded his first instrumental cover as a solo artist. Well, kind of a cover. Page wrote “Beck’s Bolero” with a little help from Beck, but the clarion call was based on Ravel’s “Bolero,” which premiered in 1928. Fronting the ad hoc studio group that spawned Led Zeppelin, Beck was joined by Page on electric 12-string, the Who’s Keith Moon on drums, future Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins. Not bad for starters.

Jeff BeckBeck’s Bolero” (1966)

In 1968, JB assembled the Jeff Beck Group, a heavy new band with singer Rod Stewart. Their first album, Truth (credited only to Beck), was a revelatory hard-rock recording. It was a guitarist’s tour de force—and Stewart’s debut was impressive—but the record was devoid of original material. Truth shared similarities with Led Zeppelin’s first LP in approach and execution by stealing old blues tunes and electrifying two Willie Dixon’s classics, “You Shook Me” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” They did a sharp updates of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things,” Jerome Kern’s “Ol Man River” and folk singer Bonnie Dobson’s nuclear protest “Morning Dew.” Beck even performed a solo-acoustic rendering of British ballad “Greensleeves,” which dates back to the late 16th Century

Follow-up Beck-Ola (from the following year and credited to the Jeff Beck Group) added keyboardist Hopkins and showed the group stretching out on original material and instrumentals, with two covers associated with Elvis Presley: “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock.” The music was exciting, and things were moving forward, but once again Beck quit during an American tour, this time just weeks before the band was scheduled to play Woodstock. Still, those first two albums were essential late-’60s prototypes of bluesy hard rock, and they furthered Beck’s reputation as one of the leading lights on the electric guitar. 

The next edition of the Jeff Beck Group was jazzier and more soulful with singer Bobby Tench, and they made a progressive pair of rock records to usher in the new decade. 1971’s Rough And Ready contained all original material, but 1972’s Jeff Beck Group was produced by Steve Cropper in Memphis and revealed Beck’s growing interest in soul music. They did striking covers of Dylan’s “Tonight I’m Staying Here With You,” Don Nix’s blues anthem “Going Down” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Got To Have A Song.” “Definitely Maybe” (Beck’s own instrumental composition) contained three interlocking guitar melodies, while his interpretation of “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” (by Motown songwriters Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Brian Holland) was originally performed by Stevie Wonder’s future wife, Syreeta.

Rita WrightI Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” (1968)

Rita “Syreeta” Wright recorded “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” in 1968. She was a Motown office worker at the time, but they let her take a crack at a tune that was ready-made for Diana Ross & The Supremes. Released on Motown subsidiary Gordy, Syreeta nailed it, exceeding versions that followed by Dusty Springfield and even Miss Ross herself. Beck’s rendition is on a totally different level, evoking Wright’s unique vocal performance and the song’s grand dynamic structure. Beyond his affinity for the music of Syreeta and Stevie Wonder, Beck’s showcase-driven instrumental work signaled an even larger musical turning point.

The Jeff Beck Group I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” (1972)

Beck was deep into Motown and actually played on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. Wonder also wrote “Superstition” for JB, which appeared on 1973’s Beck, Bogert & Appice alongside two more Nix covers and Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud.” That power-trio album was something of a hard-rock anomaly, but it did set the stage for his next pair of groundbreaking recordings, 1975’s Blow By Blow and 1976’s Wired. Both instrumental albums, they are considered electric-guitar classics and remain high-water marks in the realm of jazz fusion.

Esteemed Beatles producer George Martin was at the helm for Blow By Blow and he highlighted Beck as the album’s featured performer. Martin put orchestral strings behind the guitarist on two tracks, and they even recorded a cover of the Fab Four’s “She’s A Woman.” Front and center as lead instrumentalist without the burdens of a rock group or lead singer, Beck transformed into a fusion guitar hero. Borrowing riffs from electric Miles Davis and Mahavishnu guitarist John McLaughlin, JB added his searing rock sensibilities to the mix and captured the jazz-rock zeitgeist.

Syreeta “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (1974)

Blow By Blow featured another Syreeta Wright cover, this one written by her by-then-ex-husband Stevie Wonder. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” first appeared on 1974’s Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta. Again, Beck was inspired by Syreeta’s aching performance, and his anthemic interpretation echoed her vocal and song’s bittersweet poignancy. Beck dedicated his version of the tune to fellow guitarist Roy Buchanan, and he mimics Buchanan’s tone and trademark volume swells on the song’s haunting introduction. The album includes another, funkier Wonder composition called “Thelonius,” but “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” will be remembered as JB’s ultimate Wonder cover. 

Jeff BeckCause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (1975)

This was a new threshold in jazz-rock fusion, and it provided a distinctive identity for JB. A pioneering rock guitarist with great nuance, tone and loads of technique, Beck had an instrumental approach that was incredibly fluid, melodic, imaginative and risk taking. His guitar had a distinctive voice, and it was singing more than ever. 1976’s Wired was an extension and a refinement of the context established on Blow By Blow. Martin was again the producer, Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer lent his talents, and the band was tough, deep and funky. Beck’s exquisite playing was especially transformative on his deft handling of classic Charles Mingus instrumental “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat.” 

Charles Mingus “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat (1959)

Mingus composed “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” in homage to late saxophonist Lester Young. Originally performed in 1959 on Mingus A Um, the ruminative elegy contained ample space for improvisation and was an ideal jazz standard for Beck to record. As a set piece, JB hit all of his marks. He mastered the moody melody, stating and restating the themes, and he solos with great urgency and virtuosic skill. This spectacular interpretation of Mingus’ rich jazz tune was another peak recording for Beck, and he still plays the tune in concert to this day. 

Jeff BeckGood Bye Pork Pie Hat” (1976)

Beck pursued the fusion trend but gradually absorbed his jazz inclinations into a larger whole. He showed conviction in his artistic choices and used a rotating cast of fine supporting musicians. For 1985’s Flash, Beck and producer Nile Rodgers devised a glossy rock album with singer Jimmy Hall. One of the tracks created without Rogers reunited Beck and Rod Stewart for an outsized version of Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” The original 1965 performance by Mayfield and the Impressions was an undeniably inspirational message. The gospel-like ode was also a righteous vehicle for Stewart’s soul-driven rasp, and Beck’s chiming counterpoint amplified Mayfield’s song of hope and anticipation. 

Near the end of the 20th century, Martin assembled an all-star tribute album of Beatles songs called In My Life. Considering Martin’s sterling pedigree as producer of John, Paul, George and Ringo, he couldn’t have found a more appropriate stylist to interpret “A Day In The Life.” Beck, a true contemporary of the Beatles, performed a majestic instrumental rendition of the immortal tune framed by Martin’s 64-piece orchestra. Telling the story as expressively as any singer, JB knocked this one out of the park with his guitar. Again.

George Martin With Jeff Beck “A Day In The Life” (1998)

Beck always followed a uniquely personal musical course. In 1993, he made an album of jumping rockabilly celebrating the music of Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps guitarist Gallup. In 2010, Beck made a live recording at the Iridium Jazz Club in NYC called Rock ‘N’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul, which was comprised of old vocal standards and vintage instrumentals like “Peter Gunn,” “Apache” and “Sleep Walk.” Beyond artistic connections to his original heroes, the guitarist was open to all kinds of music and found equal value in contemporary trends and modern rhythms. 

Nitin Sawhney “Nadia” (1999)

On 2001’s You Had It Coming, Beck adapted a dance-floor track by British Indian musician Nintin Sawhney entitled “Nadia” featuring Swati Natekar singing in the Brij dialect of Hindi. Beck’s approximation of the vocalist’s Eastern-styled microtones utilized the guitar’s tremolo bar, intense string bending and volume swells to replicate her acrobatic vocal scales and unique leaping from note to note. Much like his devoted emulations of Syreeta, Beck embraced this electro-world vocal performance and turned it into an instrumental for the ages.

Jeff Beck “Nadia” (2001)

It’s been one long victory lap, and JB can do whatever he wants. Sometimes, it almost feels like he’s showing off. In 2010, Beck released an album filled with ambitious covers. Emotion & Commotion contained vocal tracks like “I Put A Spell On You” (featuring Joss Stone) and evergreen show tune “Lilac Wine” (with Irish singer Imelda May). The LP included a stunning instrumental rendition of that age-old interpreter’s favorite, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Beck also chose Middle English hymn “Corpus Christi Carol” by way of singer Jeff Buckley’s own remarkable version. And then there’s “Nessun Dorma.”

Luciano Pavarotti “Nessun Dorma”

“Nessun Dorma” (“let no one sleep”) is from Puccini’s opera Turandot and one of the classic tenor arias of all time. It was popularized by Luciano Pavarotti’s many performances as well as renditions by Plácido Domingo. Pavarotti performed it at the World Cup in 1990, and then again as part of the Three Tenors in 1994, 1998 and 2002. Pucinni’s score allows for holding long sustained notes at the very top of the tenor range. Pavarotti certainly did this, and as one might expect, Beck’s fearless guitar work reaches for those dramatic high points in grand fashion.  

Jeff Beck “Nessun Dorma” (2010)

Almost all of the cover songs featured here remain alive in Beck’s performance repertoire. These tunes are more than just guitar showcases, because as an interpretive artist, JB continues to make them his own. Almost all of these awesome interpretations can also be found in aforementioned documentary Jeff Beck: Still On The Run. All of which invariably leads me to hereby state—for the record, officially—that Jeff Beck is rock’s greatest interpreter.

After so many cover tunes, we thought it only fair to include an original Beck composition. When deciding on which song to feature, there was only one clear answer: “Definitely Maybe.” This version actually displays two Jeff Becks stacking his guitar melodies on top of one another. So there.

Jeff Beck “Definitely Maybe” (1972)

The Basement Vapes, Volume Nine: Spoiler Alert! Shadow Beats The Heat

Together again for the very first time, De Niro and Pacino get mixed up with DJ Shadow in the perfect movie trailer that never was. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers yells “Action!”

“I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best. Try to stop guys like me.”

In tribute to the reunion of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Irishman, let’s recall the first time these two icons met face to face, cinematically. The year was 1995, the director was Michael Mann, and the movie was Heat. Yes, two decades earlier, both actors were in The Godfather Part II, but they were never onscreen at the same time. In Heat, however, the confrontation between these two outsized personas was precisely the point.

One cop. One robber. Not really that different from one another. Each with a backstory. Each with a team of macho minions. Both in fractured love relationships. Both totally consumed by their work. Two alpha dogs hurtling toward the inevitable collision of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. All of this is exemplified in the much-ballyhooed roadside diner scene where the duo trades lines mano a mano, sitting across the table from one another. Set in Los Angeles and based on a true story, the bank-heist film has a solid supporting cast including Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd and Jon Voight. If you’ve never seen Heat, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Hint: Two men enter, one man leaves.

What I will tell you is that in 1996, the year after Heat came out, DJ Shadow released Endtroducing….., his groundbreaking full-length debut. Shadow (Josh Davis) was an innovative hip-hop “bedroom composer” outside Sacramento who devised an astounding sonic experience entirely out of samples, mostly from old, forgotten vinyl. The entire LP is a headphone masterpiece and probably the first of its kind. Consider haunting album track “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2,” an elaborately constructed electro-chamber suite. The track stitches together obscure instrumental samples and urgent drum-machine flourishes with found dialogue interspersed. “Stem” presents an ominous synthetic world of sound with strong recurring motifs. It sustains a wide dramatic arc, demanding engagement and provoking an emotional response—kind of like a good movie.

Which brings us back to the cops and robbers. According to legend, back then DJ Shadow was in the U.K. when Mo’Wax label owner James Lavelle asked him to cough up a remix off of Endtroducing….. to help plug the record. Since Shadow was on the road and away from his immense record library, he had to make do with whatever source material was on hand, which apparently was the movie Heat. The net result, “Stem (Cops ‘N’ Robbers Mix)” takes the first movement of Shadow’s original track and transposes selected dialogue from Heat to highlight and embellish his dramatic vision.

As Shadow’s suspenseful soundclash unfolds, we’re introduced to the film’s two main protagonists and the inexorable fate that awaits them. Besides Al and Bobby’s frank exchange at the diner, there’s the set-up, the cop analysis and thwarted pursuit, the big bank heist and, of course, the climactic conclusion. Shorn of the film’s side-trips and entanglements, Shadow’s abridged take is tension-filled—anchored by sampled synthesizers, an elegiac violin and punctuated by gabber-paced drum beats unleashed in the guaranteed gunfire crescendo. This “Stem” remix serves as a worshipful reconstruction of Heat, as Shadow condenses the storyline and presents a concise, riveting audio cut just less than four minutes long.

Here’s the thing. After having listened to the “Cops ‘N’ Robber Mix” countless times and being convinced of Shadow’s dazzling auteur instincts, I stumbled upon a YouTube video where some savvy fan had edited Heat to conform with Shadow’s audio portrayal. And it’s freaking brilliant. Using Shadow’s dialogue samples to guide the visual cues and matching the DJ’s impossible beats with high-action explosions and machine-gun bursts timed down to the second, this film edit is a thrilling music video that also serves as a hyper-advanced, spoiler-alert, perfect movie trailer that never was. So, if you don’t have time to watch Heat in its entirety (which you really should), just check out this four-minute version. There’s a similar edit online with a sharper picture, but I prefer this one for its editorial choices and painstaking precision. This ain’t no director’s cut—but this ain’t no fooling around either.                                          

For the record, here’s the original theatrical trailer for Heat, so we can see how clichéd movie trailers were back in 1995. You’ll notice instances of the same scenes being used in Shadow’s mix—because these classic performances simply had to be showcased. Still, Heat is far better than this overdone studio trailer represents, and it proves that the movie really did deserve the crazy-visual remix it ultimately received.

When else has a film been remixed with a built-in soundtrack that then becomes an after-the-fact movie trailer and messes with the space-time continuum? We’ll have get back to you on that. 

The Basement Vapes, Volume Eight: I Found A Love … And It’s Magnatone

When MAGNET’s Mitch Myers falls, he falls hard. Infatuation began with a Wilson Pickett song—then true vibrato took hold.

Have you found a love? Wilson Pickett did. The immortal soul shouter began his secular singing career with a gifted vocal group from Detroit called the Falcons. Originally their lead singer was Joe Stubbs, brother of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, but Pickett replaced Stubbs in 1960 when the Falcons still had other sharp young singers like Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd. 

In 1962, Pickett co-wrote and recorded the group’s hit “I Found A Love.” At the time, the Falcons were using a Dayton-based backing band called the Ohio Untouchables, who later morphed into famed funk group the Ohio Players. The Untouchables were on the same record label as the Falcons (Lu Pine) and were led by a flash guitarist named Robert Ward. 

It was Ward who played the bluesy guitar counterpoint on the Falcons’ “I Found A Love.” What made his guitar work so unique was the warbling sound he derived through a Magnatone amplifier. The amp was known for its vibrato-drenched, organ-like resonance, and that signature sound magically enhanced Ward’s simple guitar refrain. 

The Dickerson Musical Instrument Company started making guitars and amplifiers in 1937. A man named Art Duhamell bought the company, changing its name to Magna Electronics; its brand became Magnatone. In 1958, Magna introduced a unique vibrato design into its line of amps—the very sound that would help define “I Found A Love.” 

Engineer Don L. Bonham led the development of Magnatone’s vibrato circuitry, creating a sound that differed from the popular tremolo effect associated with competitors like Fender and Gibson. According to Magna, the company had “F.M. Vibrato,” that is, “frequency modulation vibrato.” Tremolo is achieved by volume going up and down, but Magna had patented a pitch-shifting vibrato with a circuit that canceled parts of the electrical signal instead of modulating the volume.   

Primal guitar slinger Bo Diddley used one early in his career—reveling in its “true vibrato sound.” The great Buddy Holly purchased one just six months before his untimely demise. After that, musicians like Ward and ’60s guitar hero Lonnie Mack carried on the Magnatone tradition. 

The original “I Found A Love” unveiled Pickett’s churchy shout, serving as a street-corner hybrid with the Falcons’ gospel-styled chorus and Ward’s six-string vibrato. Later cover versions featured a similar guitar part or substituted a horn arrangement, while some confident singers delivered the passionate vocal plea with no frills at all. 

Regional acts soon began recording “I Found A Love.” Fresh-faced pop singer and future bubblegum-star Tommy Roe was the first to follow in 1962, and minor soul singers like Maxine Davis and Joe Woods recorded the song in 1964 and 1965, respectively. Pickett reprised the tune in two parts in 1967—backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section at FAME Studios in Alabama—but alas, no Magnatones were used in the making of his recordings.

Guitarist Mack tracked an instrumental version of Pickett’s tune using a Magnatone in 1968. No coincidence, as Mack came up professionally around Cincinnati and was already friendly with Ohio Untouchable Robert Ward. Indeed, it was only after hearing Ward’s watery vibrato that Mack got himself a Magnatone, and from then on, both guitarists were strongly identified with its mesmerizing sound. Mack’s guitar rendering of “I Found A Love” is considered a direct homage to Ohioan buddy Ward. 

There were other strong recordings of “I Found A Love,” even without the virtue of a Magnatone. In the ’70s, persuasive soul singers like Etta James and Percy Sledge made the song their own, and Detroit’s favorite son Mitch Ryder turned the voice/guitar counterpoint into a dynamic hard-rock/soul showcase. The original arrangement remained durable, and in 1987 swamp-guitar kingpin John Fogerty faithfully covered the song on the b-side of a German single. The CCR frontman sings it with great feeling, and his tremolo guitar sound (via Fender amplifiers) is somewhat akin to Magna’s thick vibrato.

There’s a sense that “I Found A Love” had an interdependent relationship with the Magnatone amplifier that spanned decades. Take Mack, who just a year after releasing his instrumental take, felt compelled to try it again in 1969. Mack was going through something of a career crisis and had embraced an Americana with more country/soul vocals and less guitar heroics. This time, he realizes the song’s full potential by singing and playing the counterpoint for all it was worth. Naturally, the patented Magnatone vibrato comes through loud and clear.

Mack kept on playing this tune over the years. It was integral to his stage act, and there’s a live recording from 1990 that makes it clear just how far he had come. Mack’s soulful singing is most assured, and the hotwired vibrato more electrifying than ever. By exaggerating the song’s vintage construct, his live interpretation becomes a concert tour de force, showcasing dramatic vocal/guitar skills and a heartfelt gospel-soul style.  

Clearly, “I Found A Love” has sustained some kind of symbiotic link with the Magnatone—a lifeline in which one entity helps to define and complete the other. It’s always a passionate rapport and just to bring things full circle, consider lost and forgotten guitarist Ward, who made a comeback in the early 1990s. Ward released a few solid blues albums on the Black Top label, including 1993’s Rhythm Of The People, which inevitably featured a reprised performance of “I Found A Love.” That’s 30 years on, replete with that old gospel feeling and, of course, his trademark Magnatone sound.      

Ward, the original conduit, died in 2008, and Lonnie Mack passed away in 2016. Magna Electronics went out of business in the 1970s but remained valued by a myriad of musician gear-heads. Neil Young has used its amp for ages, and famed guitarists like Ry Cooder and Jeff Beck have kept one in their arsenals as well. The Magnatone brand itself was revived in 2014. It’s a small boutique line of modernized amps, and no less than Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top endorsed the comeback, lauding the vintage vibrato circuitry still used today. Like so many others, Billy Gibbons found a love—and it’s Magnatone! 

The years roll on and so does the song. All told, there’s roughly 40 recorded versions of “I Found A Love”—and a lot of them are really good. In 2015, the late, great Gregg Allman sang the song onstage in Macon, Ga. Nearing the end of his life but still an amazing singer, Allman imbues the song with pathos that’s hard to match. The horn section sways, the backing vocals provide that gospel call-and-response, and a good old-fashioned Southern guitar sound fulfills its role as well can be expected without the luxury of a Magnatone.

The Basement Vapes, Volume Seven: By Popular Demand — Lou Reed’s Exquisite Jane

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers explains the confusing history behind “Sweet Jane,” Lou Reed’s often-covered, always-changing ode to rock ‘n’ roll

Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau (The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine)

A century ago in Paris, several surrealists and other artists devised a parlor game of sorts. The group included André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró and Man Ray. Their collaborative game was called Exquisite Corpse, where images (or words) were devised spontaneously, but assembled by certain rules. One popular method was for someone to draw on a section of a folded piece of paper and have the next participant complete an adjoining section without seeing what was drawn previously, except for the connecting ends. This sharing technique has had many variations over the years and still retains a sense of limitless possibilities. 

Image by Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and Max Morise

Exquisite Corpse came to mind in 2013 when I was organizing an NPR segment on Lou Reed’s timeless composition “Sweet Jane.” The piece was coming along well until I learned that Billboard editor Joe Levy had just written that exact article. I was a bit bummed, Levy nailed it—tracing the song’s history and mentioning essential versions. Not eager to be deemed redundant, I abandoned the radio segment and tried to forget the idea. 

But still … “Sweet Jane.” The song, to use a 20th-century analogy, is the Cadillac of rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Take it for a spin—the drive is classy, reliable and a little bit pimped out. It’s well built, solid and propulsive—a smooth ride that handles like a dream. The song is actually timeless enough that I’m inspired to take another crack at it, because, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski says, “New shit has come to light.” Well, not brand spanking new, but let’s consider the trajectory of this beloved song one more time.

“Standin’ on the corner, suitcase in my hand”

Lou Reed recorded the earliest version of “Sweet Jane” in 1970 with the Velvet Underground for the band’s fourth and final LP, Loaded. That LP was the group’s swan song—as co-founder John Cale had already departed and Reed would quit the band before the new record was even released.

“Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest/And me, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band”

Recorded in Manhattan at Atlantic Studios, Loaded was a last-ditch effort by a great band that had always been willfully non-commercial. “Sweet Jane” was a deceptively straightforward tune with a rousing chorus, and the performance was edited heavily with top-40 radio in mind. Indeed, the song’s original bridge was completely deleted in post-production, but with the expanded editions of Loaded available in recent years, we can now consider the various edits and the power of the song’s initial incarnation. 

“Riding in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim/You know, those were different times/All the poets, they studied rules of verse/And those ladies they rolled their eyes”

After a floating, celestial guitar intro, the song draws us in with three chords and a bump while Reed’s roguish street poetry stands out as eternally romantic—young at heart but wise in time. It’s a buoyant ode that celebrates life, love and the pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll, with some third-person omniscience and a bit of cross-dressing domesticity thrown in for good measure. 

“Jack, he is a banker/And Jane, she is a clerk/And both of them save their monies/And when they come home from work”

The song was already part of the VU’s repertoire, and early versions are preserved on both Live At Max’s Kansas City and Velvet Underground Live, as well as several greatest-hits packages. On the anthology NYC Man: The Collection, Reed chose to excise the heavenly guitar intro from the Velvet’s original studio recording. Lord knows why.

“Sittin’ down by the fire, the radio does play/The classical music there, Jim/The March Of The Wooden Soldiers/All you protest kids, you can hear Jack say”

Besides the edits, there’s also the elusive question as to the actual number of chords Reed uses in the song. Is it three? Is it four? As Lou confides to Elvis Costello about the extra “secret chord” on 2010 cable program, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, it was really just the luck of the draw between Reed and fellow VU guitarist Sterling Morrison on the day of that 1970 recording session. So that’s how it goes. 

After Reed left the Velvet Underground for a solo career, he was eventually encouraged and endorsed by David Bowie, who produced his notorious Transformer LP in 1972. This was the album featuring Reed’s biggest hit, “Walk On The Wild Side,” and it helped spur the glam-filled androgyny of the decade ahead. Naturally, Reed went out on the road to capitalize on his newfound popularity, and he tried on some transgressive personas in the process. One infamous phase was showcased on 1974 live album Rock N Roll Animal. Boasting the double-barreled firepower of hard-rocking Michigan-based guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, that particular tour provided a dumbed-down/amped-up Lou Reed show that even a Thin Lizzy fan could love. 

“Some people, they like to go out dancin’/And other peoples, they have to work/And there’s even some evil mothers/Well, they’re going to tell you that everything is just dirt”

There’s been much debate about this performance. It’s adored by some while dismissed by others. The band mixed showy dual-guitar leads with Reed’s pre-punk androgyny, helping induce a curious mainstream audience to walk on the wild side. For young listeners, it was their first exposure to “Sweet Jane,” and the dramatic live track developed an enduring life of its own. Ironically, the dreamy guitar intro of the Velvet’s version is transformed here into a lengthy, dynamic and regal prologue before the three basic chords come crashing in. Reportedly, Reed disliked the band’s hard-rock posturing and especially chafed at the attention being paid to his wicked lead guitarists. Whatever. 

Another seminal version appeared as the opening cut on Mott The Hoople’s 1972 LP, All The Young Dudes. It is also produced by Bowie, whose high esteem led Mott to perform this outstanding cover. Ian Hunter’s grand performance is part Bowie, part Lou, yet still totally original. Bowie also covered the song in concert, and there’s even an old demo with Bowie, Reed and Mott all playing the tune together. That said, I believe it’s my solemn responsibility to tell you that since Lou Reed is gone and David Bowie is gone, too, Ian Hunter officially owns this tune now. Hunter continues to perform “Sweet Jane” regularly, not only as an essential part of his Mott The Hoople revivals, but also as a centerpiece of his solo shows with the longstanding Rant Band.

“You know that women never really faint/And that villains always blink their eyes/And that children are the only ones who blush/And that life is just to die.”

Cruising ever onward, 1973 brought yet another version of “Sweet Jane,” this time by Michigan rock ‘n’ rollers Brownsville Station, appearing on the band’s Yeah! album alongside novelty hit “Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room.” The macho group starts by attacking the original tune like some garage band feeling sentimental on a Saturday night. The chord sequence is slightly skewed, bassist Michael Lutz bellows and barks, guitarist Cub Koda adds his tastiest embellishments, and the harmony-laden refrain is not without its juvenile charm. All in all, this cover actually is kind of sweet. Nuff said. 

“But anyone who had a heart/They wouldn’t turn around and break it/And anyone who ever played a part/They wouldn’t turn around and hate it”

In 1987, the Austin Chronicle, as part of its anniversary celebration, held a marathon “Sweet Jane” contest at the Liberty Lunch venue—an evening where the contestants all performed versions of Reed’s immortal tune. Judges included Chronicle staffers Marjorie Baumgarten, Jeff Whittington and Richard Dorsett, but not the late great Margaret Moser (because she hated Reed and loved John Cale instead). Sterling Morrison, former VU guitarist was living in Austin but did not attend.

Austin music writer Michael Corcoran dutifully covered the show, writing up a scathing, comic takedown of the five-hour experience for Spin, lamenting the obvious transgressions of cool. Corky may have had an axe to grind with the Chronicle, but it’s a pretty funny story and an important historical footnote. The March, 1987 piece, provocatively entitled “Agony,” is unavailable online. But as Corcoran documents, the winner of the contest was a long forgotten group called the Magic Outlaw Band. The Mayor of Austin, Frank Cooksey, also showed up for the event, allegedly voting for Two Nice Girls, a “self-styled dyke rock band” that performed a medley of “Sweet Jane” with Joan Armatrading’s “Love And Affection” called “Sweet Jane (With Affection).” The Two Nice Girls finished in second place that night, but they also landed a record deal with Geoff Travis and Rough Trade Records solely on the strength of that medley.

Writer/judge Baumgarten, who co-conceived the Sweet Jane event, remembers the five-hour marathon as one of the fondest days of her life. Yet her colleague Corcoran thought the evening was one long, convoluted drag. Ultimately, there still can be too much of a good thing. The tune has been well integrated into our mainstream music-cultural lexicon (Cowboy Junkies, Phish, R.E.M., et al.) but once supergroups like U2 began covering “Sweet Jane” in concert, you could only wonder: Where will it end?

So, rather than invoking more versions of the song, I simply propose that somebody skilled construct a definitive amalgamation. By taking all of the notable performances and editing them together we would have an “Exquisite Jane,” a version greater than the sum of its parts. With Lou Reed’s simple, definitive chord structure as our sonic blueprint, the connective links are just waiting to be utilized. Thanks to modern technology, this audio assignment should be a piece of cake. Of course, some folks will always prefer the older classic renditions of “Sweet Jane” to any newfangled hybrid creation, but remember, those were different times.

“Sweet Jane!”

All things old are new again. East Coast blue-collar veteran rock ‘n’ roller Willie Nile revives patron-saint street bard Lou Reed’s enduring composition in anthemic old-school, Springsteen-esque, crowd-pleasing fashion. What else?

The Basement Vapes, Volume Six: The Three Main Food Groups (Neil, Bob And Lou)

Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Mitch Myers, MAGNET’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor, gets called into service one more time.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” —Shakespeare

I was at home sitting in my back office one night not too long ago, when the phone rang. No, not my cell phone, but my landline. Now I’ve had this landline with the same number for a very long time, but it hardly ever rings. I’ve had it so long that even solicitors have given up on me. People always ask me why I don’t get rid of it, but I guess I’m old-fashioned, and once in a while—someone interesting actually calls me on the darn thing.  

Which is why I answered the phone that night, even though it was from a blocked number. It was a young woman, sounding a bit tentative. The discussion went something like this:

Me: Hello?
Her: Is this Mitch Myers?
Me: Who’s calling?
Her: My name is ___. I’m calling from Cincinnati. Is this Mitch Myers?
Me: Yes, this is he. What can I do for you?
Her: Are you the same Mitch Myers who used talk about music on National Public Radio?
Me: Well, yes, that’s me. But I haven’t told stories on the radio for quite some time.
Her: Is it true that you were also a psychologist?
Me: Well, yes, that’s true, too, but I haven’t practiced in more than 20 years. What’s this about?
Her: I wanted to talk to you about my husband. I hoped that you might be able help.
Me: Lady, like I said, I haven’t practiced in years and I’m not even licensed. I don’t even know you. If you’re having domestic problems I’m sure there are plenty of qualified therapists in Cincinnati who’d be glad to help you out. 
Her: Please, just let me explain. My husband used to listen to you on the radio, and I really think that you’ll understand exactly why I’ve called once I tell you about our situation.
Me: I don’t know—this feels inappropriate. And I can’t imagine being much help. Couples therapy was never my thing.
Her: Let me just tell you. You’ve got the bona fides and I know my husband will listen to any advice you might have.
Me: OK. 
Her: OK meaning yes? Really?
Me: Yes, OK, yes. Just tell me what it is. I’m not making any promises but I’ll listen if you make it quick. What’s going on?
Her: First, I guess I should say my husband John is older. Much older. But we really love each other, and it hasn’t been a problem for either of us. We’ve been happy together, and things had been going so well that we decided to have a child. John Jr. was born a year ago, and that’s when things started to feel different.
Me: Different how? What do you mean different?
Her: I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. John’s a great dad. He’s a loving, attentive husband and the sweetest man in the world. He’s protective of our son, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for both of us. To be clear, there’s no abuse or anything unsafe. It’s just that his rules for the boy are starting to feel—I don’t know—a little rigid.

Me: In what way?
Her: Just around the house. It’s the rules for around the house that feel extreme. One rule. It’s just the one rule that I’m really talking about.
Me: What’s the one rule?
Her: The Three Main Food Groups.
Me: What? 
Her: The Three Main Food Groups. That’s what he calls them.
Me: This is a dietary thing?
Her: No, it’s the music. It’s the music that John Jr. is allowed to listen to. It’s the only music we can play at home when he’s awake. Just the Three Main Food Groups.
Me: You lost me. What are the Three Main Food Groups?
Her: I’m sorry. This is how we’ve been speaking since John Jr. was born. I know it’s a little weird, the Three Main Food Groups. 
Me: Yes, but what is it?
Her: Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.
Me: I beg your pardon?
Her: Neil, Bob and Lou. That’s all John Jr. is allowed to hear if we’re listening to music.
Me: The Three Main Food Groups are Neil Young, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, and that’s all you’re allowed to listen to at home.
Her: Right.
Me: Well, why? Have you and your husband discussed this? Was this a decision you made together? Do you think that this in the child’s best interest?
Her: Obviously, John feels more strongly than I do. I never even thought about the music at home till he brought it up. But he’s got it all worked out and is very convincing. It’s not like there’s anything bad going on. I know it’s a generational thing, but it all seems the same to me. I’d hate to dissuade him, I just want to be completely sure that it’s good for John Jr.
Me: What does your husband say? Why is this so important? What is he trying to teach your child?

Her: It’s kind of like that old, “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” thing, except it’s more about becoming a man. John thinks that the bodies of work created by these three artists encompass a full range of life experience. They cover the sonic waterfront as far as he’s concerned, from a single voice and an acoustic guitar to rock ‘n’ roll bands or sound experiments, country, folk, punk, whatever. They were poets all—singing out, writing anthems and classics, playing for the masses or maybe just for a handful of outcasts. Knocking out majestic tunes and castoff throwaways that sometimes pour down like silver and sometimes fall short. Their songs are about love, life, loss, rebellion, acceptance, sex, romance, God, gender, choice, race, religion, protest—justice and fate, tragedy and irony, celebration, meditation and mixed-up confusion. For him, these guys are North American success stories. Whether urban, rural, old-timey or contemporary in context, they were always working. They reached high and accomplished much. They were leaders and broke barriers speaking truth regardless of consequence. They played guitar, and each harnessed electricity in his own way. They defined trends, epitomized style, embraced excess, made great mistakes, invoked grand gestures, railed against injustice and sometimes helped other people. They were fathers, husbands, brothers and lovers. They had their own heroes and paid their own dues. They used drugs and alcohol and had their problems. They dealt with legal troubles, illness and death. They played well with others but not always, and left plenty of folks hurt or disappointed along the way. They were rock stars growing up in public, they were laureates and anti-heroes, too. They were fearless, smart, funny and difficult, and passed through generations of cool. They were lost and they were found,. They did things their own way even when it was unpopular. They still stand out and sound like nobody but themselves. They strode upright into the 21st century, and my husband still feels like he’s at his best when he’s listening to these three—these three main food groups. They spoke to him—and they spoke for him as well. John sees it as healthy and nutritional and just wants the best for John Jr.. I do, too. What do you think?
Me: That sounds like an OK place to start. Tell him to add Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone to the playlist and call me back in three months.