Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Coney Island Baby

Anybody who doesn’t have a love-hate relationship with Lou Reed, well, I have to wonder about them. He was both a flawed genius and an unreconstituted pretentious asshole/nutjob, and it could be hard to separate his bat shit from his diamonds. But one LP I love unconditionally is 1976’s Coney Island Baby, on which he reveals both a pop side and a vulnerable side, and on which Reed shocked the entire world by singing about how he wanted to play football for the coach. Lou Reed? Football? To paraphrase John Fogerty, “Put me in coach/I’m ready to pay… good money for methamphetamines.”

Coney Island Baby is as close as Reed would ever come to pure pop product, and followed hard on the heels of the disappointing Lou Reed Live and the combination fiasco/fuck you that was Metal Machine Music, on which Lou let feedback do not just the heavy lifting, but all of the lifting period, before cold-bloodedly foisting off the resulting caterwaul on a defenseless public. Lou claimed there were classical references buried in all that hypnotizing squeal, but Reed spent those years as crazy as a hoot owl on one substance or another, and should you ever get the chance I recommend you read the Lester Bangs essay in which he calls Reed on Metal Machine Music, amongst other things.

Don’t get me wrong. Lou at his warmest can still be one mean character. On the otherwise catchy “Charley’s Girl,” which comes with a ready-made melody and fetching female backing vocalists, Lou warns the world to “watch out for Charley’s girl,” because she’s evidently some sort of narc, and in the middle of the song he sings, “I said if I ever see Sharon again/I’m gonna punch her face in.” Which is one catchy rhyme, but given Reed’s history of domestic abuse, was neither funny nor an idle threat.

But for the most part the melodies are friendly and easy on the ears, and there isn’t so much as a trace of the maniac/genius who gave us such harsh blasts of gritty Hubert Selby Jr. realism as “Sister Ray.” There are no extended cuts either. No, this is your radio-friendly Lou, although the radio declined to turn any of these tunes into hits. Only on the static, stutter rock classic “Kicks,” a loosey-goosey studio shuck/jam on which Lou lets us know he needs thrills in his life, does the wild man show us his avant-garde degenerate dope fiend side. With its weird vocal interjections, disjointed conversations, and general aura of studio mayhem, it has more in common with the Velvet Underground’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation” than anything else Reed would ever put on record.

The cheerful guitar opening of “Crazy Feeling” reminds me of Bob Seger, that’s how AOR it is, and Lou has that crazy feeling about his girl to the accompaniment of cool church bells, one very hep shuffling riff, and more female vocalists. Reed is rarely this accessible or friendly, and the mood continues in that vein on “She’s My Best Friend,” a reworked Velvet Underground song in which he doesn’t threaten to punch anybody in the kisser. No, it’s a lovely tune—the opening guitar work is delicate and delightful—and Reed spends the tune, whose lyrics grow more and more surreal as the song goes on—revisiting his Velvet days, while an electric guitar delivers up a pair of exhilarating solos and some backing vocalists sing “aaaaaahhhhh.” As for the closing jam it’s definitely a keeper, and to this listener one of the most ecstasy-inducing pieces of music Reed ever recorded.

“A Gift” is a hilarious novelty tune in which Reed blithely declares himself a gift to all the women of the world, and in short turns himself into the rock’n’roll version of Mac Davis, who gave us “It’s Hard to be Humble.” The lackadaisical melody may not be much to write home about, but when Reed sings, “Responsibility sits so hard on my shoulder/Like a good wine I’m better as I grow older” you’ll forgive him the workmanlike melody. “Ooohhh Baby” is a bona fide rocker boasting a raunchy guitar riff that brings to mind Ron Wood, and the tune has more in common with the Faces than John Cale, but the song works despite these factors, thanks largely to Reed’s impassioned and rushed vocals and a guitar solo that may not hold a candle to the miracle that is “I Heard Her Call My Name,” but how could it? The plain truth is nobody has more than one “I Heard Her Call My Name” in them, and Lou shot his wad on the second VU LP.

“Nobody’s Business” features lots of ensemble vocals and a classic Reed guitar shuffle, and his message, to put it simply, is mind your own fucking business. “Nobody’s Business,” like many of the songs on the LP, sounds like little more than bare bones, but he makes it work, with some natty vocal phrasing, one nice guitar solo, and a rhythm that shifts from a shuffle to a hard ride. As for “Coney Island Baby,” it’s a classic, and one of the stranger tunes of Reed’s star-strangled career. From it’s slow and delicately beautiful beat, supplemented by tasteful guitar licks, to Lou’s repeating that he “wants to play football for the coach,” it reminds me strangely of a Van Morrison song, of all things.

I suppose it’s his soul man move and his repetitions of the same phrase over and over, as he does by repeating “the glory of love” until concluding, “Just might come through.” Lou had both a devil and a demon in him, but he’s solidly on the side of the angels on this one, as he warns his Coney Island baby to remain unjaded and to remember, “the city is a funny place/Sort of like a circus or a sewer.” Ah, but the way he sings, “The glory of love/Might see you through” may be the most generous and compassionate gesture of Reed’s entire career, especially when he ends the song by saying, “Man, I swear I’d give the whole thing up for you.”

Lou Reed recorded plenty of pretentious crapola in his long and storied career, and when he wasn’t attempting to impress with his literary/artistic bona fides he was just as likely to wing it in a manner that let it be known that he thought of his audience as dogshit. But occasionally he got it right, and Coney Island Baby is definitely one of those times. It exhibited his humor and his generosity of spirit and love of life, and in short revealed the best of Reed, one who took off his armor of bluster and bullshit bravado long enough to let us see the man behind the blue mask, and I’m grateful I have it to hear when times are hard, as they so often are, in this circus and sewer of a world.


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