Graded on a Curve:
The Velvet Underground, Loaded

Celebrating Doug Yule in advance of his 76th birthday tomorrow.Ed.

Choosing your favorite Velvet Underground studio LP (and I’m talking here about the famous four released between 1967 and 1970) is a helluva lot tougher than choosing your favorite Beatle. I mean, everybody KNOWS who their favorite Beatle is, but if you’re like me, your fave VU album varies in response to a whole lot of variables including mood (Angry? Gimme White Light/White Heat! Euphoric? Make mine The Velvet Underground!), romantic status, drug intake (Bad trip? Gimme White Light/White Heat again!) and for all I know barometric pressure.

At this moment in time 1970’s Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s final studio album (if you don’t count 1973’s Squeeze, that Doug Yule solo LP featuring none of the Velvets we all know and love) is at the top of my list, and this despite the fact that in many ways it’s the least “Velvet Underground” of the VU’s quartet of great studio albums.

Why? Because for a multitude of reasons that have yet to be explained–although I’m certain poor mental health, burnout, business worries, and galloping drug abuse had a lot to do with it–on Loaded Lou Reed saw fit to offload a lot of the heavy lifting on to Doug Yule, the rather faceless fellow who stepped into John Cale’s shoes at Lou Reed’s behest in 1968. Yule may be an outlier in your standard Velvet Underground hagiography, but he sings lead on four of Loaded’s ten songs, plays lead guitar on some more, and plays some of the LP’s most fiery solos–and all of this in addition to playing bass, piano, and organ. Oh, and he also plays drums on half of the album’s songs, as Maureen Tucker was on maternity leave and didn’t play on the album, although she’s credited on the LP for doing so.

It can be argued, of course, that the only real “listenable” difference lies in Yule’s newfound prominence as a singer, and that even this is no big deal seeing as how he and Lou sound so much alike that even The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau saw fit to praise Lou’s vocals on “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” when it was actually Yule singing. Hell, for a long time I thought that was Lou singing on “Who Loves the Sun”–he didn’t quite sound himself, it’s true, but I wrote it off to an oddly adulterated batch of methamphetamine.

Still, I will argue until the end of my day’s that Yule’s oversized presence gives Loaded a unique feel. That said, what really distinguishes Loaded from its predecessors was the fact that it constituted a determined effort to produce hit songs; the album title is short for “loaded with hits,” and not, as I long assumed, a blunt statement on Lou’s (then very elevated) drug toxicity levels. Gone were the experimental tracks, the in-your-face primitivism and lengthy forays into S&M, hard drugs, depravity, and feedback; what’s on offer on Loaded are straight ahead rock and pop songs. Sure, Lou had worked this territory before, especially on 1969’s The Velvet Underground, but Loaded marked his first concerted Eric Carmen-like attempt to make a big hit record, one that everybody’s got to know etc.

That it didn’t work had as much to do with the time when the album was released (time never favored the Velvet Underground, and not even “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” scored) as the fact that even at his most commercial-minded Lou Reed could not repress his imp of the perverse. “Who Loves the Sun” might have worked had it not really been about hating the sun, while “New Age” is, well, downright strange; the tale of a “fat blonde actress” who is looking for love that inexplicably segues into the “beginning of a new age,” it had zero hit potential and Lou, no matter how loaded, must have known it.

The same can be said about “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.” which may be the jolliest rodeo song ever written by debauched city slickers, but is hardly Top 40 fare. Even the slow and wistful “I Found a Reason,” which with its hushed vocals is one of the most beautiful songs Lou ever wrote, takes a turn for the weird when Lou delivers a spoken soliloquy that devolves into the surrealistic lines, “And I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways/Hand in hand with myself…”

But if Loaded was the commercial bust that broke the Velvet Underground’s back–Lou would walk away from both the band and the music scene altogether shortly afterwards, in the company of his parents, not to return until 1972’s solo effort Lou Reed–it stands as a creative triumph. “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” make it a must-own all by themselves. They remain two of the warmest expressions of Reed’s muse, and the most amazing thing about them is that Reed delivers both in a voice that is the very definition of “New York Cool.” But the cool is misleading; on both songs he manages to soar above his characteristic hipster sneer, and even offers up a challenge to his own knee-jerk nihilism (when he sings about all those “evil mothers” who will tell you “life is full of dirt” you can be sure he’s singing about himself) while he’s at it.

“Cool It Down” is a street-wise NY strut and “I’m Waiting for the Man” in reverse; it really is love by the hour Lou’s looking for “out on the corner” on this one, and not his next bag of dope. The song works on the basis of Lou’s deadpan cool vocals, a slinky groove propelled by Yule (on bass) and Tommy Castagnaro (one of the four drummers to play on the LP), and some nice honky-tonk piano. “Head Held High” boasts some frenetic vocals by Reed (“Do the dog!” he barks; “Watch out!” he shouts shortly thereafter) and succeeds by sheer propulsion; the “answer” to life, sings Lou on this guitar rave-up, is “to become a dancer,” and this one’s a dancer for sure.

“Train Round the Bend” is city boy Lou’s homage to The Great American Train Song, but Reed turns the whole concept on its head; unlike Elton John, who never met a disillusioned rustic looking to get back to the country he didn’t like, Reed is “sick of the trees” and doesn’t want to be a fucking farmer nohow. As for the tune it chug-a-lugs like a good steam train should, looking to take poor neon-deprived Lou home to the safety of NYC’s crime-ridden streets. Why, Lou’s so happy he can’t help but crow about it; soon all that horrible fresh air and all those loathsome cows and pigs will be nothing but another bad memory.

On “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” Yule shines on vocals, sounding a lot like Lou only nicer, more tender, and with a quaver in his voice that can’t, in its sorrow, help but crack here and there. The song swings slowly, the chorus repeats itself frequently, and this one is a heartbreaker what with its characters “who ain’t got nuthin’ at all” weeping in their loneliness. And Yule outdoes himself on guitar, especially on the lengthy and very happy-making guitar solo that kicks in at around the 5-minute mark. Yule also holds up his end vocally on “New Age,” another slow one that situates the piano upfront and boasts some of Lou’s saddest–and possibly most perverse–lyrics. This one is a far, far weirder take on the fan boy hagiography of, say, Captain Fantastic’s “Candle in the Wind”; there is no dismissing the possibility that Lou’s autograph-seeker is, well, nuts.

Lou Reed was unhappy with Loaded for a lot of reasons, but the world has come to recognize it for what it is–a landmark in songcraft by one of rock and roll’s more idiosyncratic songwriters. On it Lou sloughs off the trappings of New York decadence and sleaze and gets down to the business of working within the traditional song form in the aim of producing hit singles. That he failed is not to say he lacked the skills, but rather that he could only compromise his intellect, anger, and wit so far. Reed spoke a mouthful when he said, “I’d harbored the hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels and films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.”

And what makes Loaded all the more remarkable was that it was produced by a Reed who would shortly thereafter abandon the Velvet Underground because, by his own admission, he was afraid of dying. Drugs had him levitating above his bed he told Mo Tucker, but levitating or not he found it within himself to write an album’s worth of timeless songs. And I by no means intend to mythologize Lou’s near-fatal self-abuse. If anything, Loaded makes me wonder what the guy might have been capable of had he been sober as a judge.


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