Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Sally Can’t Dance

Lou Reed couldn’t win for losing in the early 1970s. He released an album he considered his masterpiece (1973’s Berlin) and it was a commercial flop; he then released a pair of albums he was either ambivalent about or truly hated (1974’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and that same year’s Sally Can’t Dance) and his audience rushed to the record stores. Reed said of the latter LP, “I hate that album. Sally Can’t Dance is tedious. Could you imagine putting out Sally Can’t Dance with your name on it? Dying my hair and all that shit? That’s what they [his audience] wanted; that’s what they got.” He then proceeded to call it “a piece of shit.”

Reed was right, to an extent. The album’s a hodge-podge of musical styles that don’t cohere. The songs’ subject matter is all over the place. Its songs vary from the ridiculously over-arranged to the stripped to the bones. But Sally Can’t Dance remains one of–if not the most–fascinating LPs of Lou Reed’s career, and not because it’s a failure. It’s far from a failure. It’s simply an oddball work on which Reed seemed to be winging it, at least in part because he’d stopped caring about pleasing his audience. Fuck ‘em, he might have thought, if they can’t take a joke.

Few tracks are as uncharacteristic of Reed’s work as opener “Ride Sally Ride.” It opens with a fancy horn arrangement, tosses some female backing vocalists into the mix, then goes full gospel with horns and vocalists, giving you the impression the guy who gave us “Heroin” was in the studio bathroom shooting speed, leaving some happy-go-lucky Lou in his place. The song’s ending is pure Broadway, but Lou adds a few characteristic lines along the lines of “Ooohhh, isn’t it nice/When you find your heart is made out of ice.”

“Animal Language” also goes heavy on the horns, but it’s also exceedingly strange even by Reed standards. Let’s see if I have its storyline straight: dog’s barking annoys guy so guy shoots dog in mouth. Meanwhile, old lady’s house cat has a blood clot, while some sweaty dude puts up a board to keep cat and dog (isn’t he dead?) dog apart, which so frustrates dog and cat they shoot up guy’s sweat. I can’t decide whether it’s metaphor, parable or a symptom of methamphetamine psychosis, but in any event it’s worth it just to hear Lou say “Ooohhh-wow, bow-wow” and “Ooohhh-meow, me-meow.” As for the guy’s sweat it may or may not be a controlled substance. I’m calling my pharmacist as we speak.

The organ-fronted and bluesy“Baby Face” is a domestic bore; Lou’s unhappy with his living situation, and musically nothing’s happening aside from Danny Weis’ guitar fills and the occasional voice in the background saying things like (I think) “Man you don’t split your stash with your friends.” “N.Y. Stars” has a David Bowie ala Young Americans vibe, and in addition to some absurdist stuff about eyeball stores and “faggot mimic machines” it includes the very catty lines “They say, I’m so empty/No surface, no depth/Oh, please, can I be you/Your personality’s so great.” Now there’s the vicious and sarcastic Lou we know and love so well.

“Kill Your Sons”—a harrowing autobiographical look at the treatment (as in shock treatment, and other pharmaceutical forms of mental torture meted out to Reed as an adolescent)—is the odd song out on Sally Can’t Dance, in so far as it shares the same heavy metal crunch as the songs on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. ”All of the drugs that we took, it really was lots of fun,” he sings sarcastically, “but when they shoot you up with Thorazine on crystal smoke/You choke like a son of a gun… “ Thorazine, as I can tell you from personal experience, is not a lot of fun. They don’t call its effect on your locomotion faculties the “Thorazine Shuffle” for nothing.

Like “Baby Face,” “Ennui” hardly stands amongst Reed’s best tracks; as the title indicates it just ambles along, with piano and guitar accompaniment. Lyrically Lou predicts a sadly conventional life for whoever it is he’s addressing, although he can’t resist tossing in a few bleak lines; “All of the things that your old lover said/Look at them, they jump out of windows/And now they’re just dead.”

“Billy” is arguably the strangest song Reed would ever write. An autobiographical ballad about a childhood friend, Lou’s sympathy is palpable as he recounts their slow parting of ways. Lou leaves Billy a psychological cripple from his stint in Vietnam: “When he came back, he wasn’t quite the same/His nerves were shot, but not me/Last time I saw him, I couldn’t take it anymore/He wasn’t the Billy I knew, it was like talking to a door.” It was one of the most empathetic songs Reed would ever write—he doesn’t have a single bad thing to say about his old friend. An acquaintance once noted that Lou could be both fun and sweet. But “when he had you hooked with the sweetness, he had to destroy you in order to survive. He couldn’t help himself, like any predator.” Something tells me Billy was lucky not to revive their friendship later in life.

The surprisingly funky title track is the album’s centerpiece. As with “Ride Sally Ride” you get more horns and female backing vocalists—it’s Broadway writ small, and it’s no surprise it pissed off fans of his darker work. Which isn’t to say its subject matter is cheerful—the Sally in question’s life seesaws from fashionista to speed freak who can’t dance because she can’t get off the floor. Are we supposed to take it she’s dead? That “They found her in the trunk of a Ford/Ooh, she can’t dance no more” gives you that impression, and Reed’s flattened affect is disturbing. Then again, methamphetamine addicts aren’t generally known for either their empathy or affect.

As mentioned previously, Sally Can’t Dance is far from Lou Reed’s best album; in fact it’s a shambles, but I find its shambles and more interesting than I do everybody’s sentimental favorite Transformer. It was Reed’s theory that, in his own words, “[Sally Can’t Dance] is fantastic—the worse I am, the more it sells. If I wasn’t on the record next time around, it would probably go to number one.”

He proved how wrong he was with 1975’s Metal Machine Music. Not only was Reed not on the record—it lacked musicians, songs, melodies, and even instruments, that is unless you count the electric guitars he propped against amplifiers to produce more than an hour’s worth of screeching electric feedback. The LP was withdrawn from the market several short weeks after its release. No, Lou Reed’s audience wanted Lou Reed, no matter how much he thought they were pieces of shit.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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