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.
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.
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?