❉ We Are Cult on Lou Reed’s obnoxious, hilarious aural verité live album.
“I think of it as a contemporary urban blues album. After all, that’s what I write – tales of the city. And if I dropped dead tomorrow, this is the record I’d choose for posterity. It’s not only the smartest thing I’ve ever done, it’s as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably ever gonna get, for better or for worse.” – Lou Reed.
“one of the funniest live albums ever recorded.” – Rolling Stone, 1979.
“I know, so now everybody’s gonna say Lou Reed’s mellowed, he’s older. He didn’t act mean, he talked. Oh boy – we’ll mug you later, does that make you feel better?” – Lou Reed: ‘Take No Prisoners’
There’s the sound of a match head roughly grazing the striking surface of a matchbox, fizzling into life, followed by a laconic, closely-miked Noo Yoik voice drily intoning, “Sorry we were late, but we were just tuning” – the unmistakeable tones of the man David Bowie once called ‘the King of New York’, Lou Reed, open the city’s street poet’s second* official live album, ‘Lou Reed Live – Take No Prisoners’, later described by Reed biographer Mick Wall as “One of the greatest, most brutally honest and fantastically funny live rock albums ever released.”
And what a live album it is. Take No Prisoners captured the erstwhile Louis Allen Reed and his touring band, led by keyboardist Michael Fonfara, during an engagement at New York City’s Bottom Line, promoting his then-current album Street Hassle (itself a masterful construct of studio and heavily treated live recordings), an album which saw Reed reconnect with the glitter in the gutter of down-at-heel street life he had been turning his attention to since the Velvet Underground’s fearless debut, most notably in its title track, an epic song-cycle which astutely co-opted Bruce Springsteen (touted as the new Lou by CBS), who contributed a mumbled monologue.
As Alex Neilson wrote in The Wire, “You can’t help but think Springsteen’s melodramatic rock had ruffled the old guard of Reed and Dylan, who both brought out records using saxophones, gospelised backing vocals and the like as a response to his stratospheric success.”
Since his solo career began in earnest with Transformer, Reed had continued penning odes and elegies to habitues of New York low-life alongside his own misanthropic musings, even when drowned out by the overbearing arrangements of the misunderstood Sally Can’t Dance and the misnomered Rock’n’Roll Heart; but Street Hassle firmly established Reed as the Godfather of the Punk movement – knowingly including a shimmering revibe of Velvets outtake Real Good Time Together, then a live favourite of Velvets mentees The Patti Smith Group – but, Reed being Reed, included a few jabs at his public persona (“Well, if it ain’t the rock’n’roll animal himself! What it is! Standing on the corner. Well I can see that. What you got in your hand? Suitcase in my hand”) and the obligatory nod to his first love, doo-wop, with the Shirelles-quoting Wait.
Street Hassle drew from a similar well to 1976’s Coney Island Baby, which catalogued his first-person observations of gay clones, S&M fetishists, criminals, narcissists, speed freaks and skag heads; but whereas that album was dressed up in a deceptive tunefulness that recalled the warmth of The Velvet Underground (1968) and Transformer, Street Hassle was a match made in Munich – where much of the tracks were originally recorded ‘as live’, and where Reed used the pioneering ‘Stereo Binaural Sound’ technique to create an anechoic, immersive stereo effect that placed the listener right in the centre of the action.
The logical conclusion to this approach was to take Street Hassle on the road. The tour arrived concurrently with punk and while audiences may have expected to see the ‘Phantom of Rock’ adopt the guise of Punk Grandaddy, just as he had morphed into a Glam grotesque on his much-bootlegged 1972/1973 tour, or the drug-addled Hitler Youth Frankenzombie of the savage jaw of ’74, the lineup immortalised on Take No Prisoners was as far from punk as one could get in terms of minimalism – saxophones honked, Billy Joel-esque Yamaha keyboards twinkled, and a pair of coloured girls quite literally do-de-do’d. But what the tour gave in spades, and which no one expected, was more punk than any number of tabloid-friendly shock tactics…
There’s three kinds of live albums. The ones that afford listeners carbon copies of the songs they know and love, with added crowd noise and insincere “Hello Cleveland” patter, tour souvenirs (Lou Reed: Live in Italy); the ones that allow the listener enhanced, expanded jams of the songs familiar from vinyl (Rock N Roll Animal); and the ones that offer an ‘Experience’ – an aural verité document that’s the next best thing to being there, and which could only be bettered with a ‘scratch and sniff’ card reeking of the attendant whiff of skunk and beer. The Velvet Underground’s ‘official bootleg’ Live At Max’s Kansas City was one such document, as notable for its frequent cries from Jim Carroll for more Tuinals and various Max’s denizens cackling and gossiping as it is for its ramshackle performances of Femme Fatale and Lonesome Cowboy Bill. Take No Prisoners is another.
When assessing his back catalogue, Lou Reed once described Take No Prisoners as the “letter” that should have accompanied the infamous Metal Machine Music’s “postcard”. Over eighty minutes, across four sides of wax, Reed uses his platform to essay some scabrous deconstructions of his greatest songs, ‘in character’ monologues, berating and celebrating everyone from Springsteen, Streisand and Diana Ross to front-row music journalist Robert Christgau (“If you write as good as you talk, no one reads you”). Upon first hearing this album (on a crappy TDK C90) I declared to the friend who had bestowed this analogue artefact to me, “It’s the Lou Reed stand-up comedy album!” As bandmember Marty Fogel said, “Lou Reed was the funniest man I ever knew. His sense of humour, his wit, his timing was just better than all the top stand-up comics.”
Which is an entirely fair assessment. Take No Prisoners is a great showcase for the Fonfara-era Lou Reed band, but it’s mostly memorable (and hilarious) as an audio document of Lou Reed in full-on Lenny Bruce mode, with the cocky confidence of a performer on his home turf. Bandmember Marty Fogel would say: “The talking, yeah, Lou would do that back then – although not to the degree that you hear on that Take No Prisoners record. But here he was: he was in Manhattan, his hometown, five nights, and I think he just got into it, and the talking became more extensive than it was typically… Take No Prisoners is great, but I’d prefer it if we had done a lot more playing and Lou had done a lot less talking. But, y’know: it’s his show.”
Bassist Moose Boles recalled: “We weren’t necessarily looking for, y’know, “the slickest recording.” The criteria we used was, is the performance there? We wanted to give the listener the experience, if you’d never been to see Lou Reed, if you’d never been to a concert, and you wanted to fucking know what it was really like to be sitting in the audience? That’s what we wanted to give you. And that’s why the 360-degree sound was so important.”
The album begins, as most ‘70s Reed shows, with Sweet Jane. After berating his roadies (“Cantchoo fucken hear, what’s wrong with yoo?”) and quoting W.B. Yeats and Jewish humourist Henny Youngman, Reed launches into a far from prosaic, full band take on the Velvets FM Radio classic to throw off non-sequiturs about gay sex (“bend over, we’ll put the head in – you don’t like it, we’ll talk about it”) and his experiences with the draft (“Where were you on the list for Vietnam?”), and sends a few well-aimed shots across the bow towards a certain megastar (“Don’t you hate those Academy awards? Here’s fucken Barbra Streisand – ’I wanna thank all the little people’ – fuck little people, I like big people… People from Wyoming”), Patti Smith (“Fuck Radio Ethiopia! I’m Radio Brooklyn!”) and some of his own honed one-liners: “Give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue – you can wipe my ass with it”)
Taking off like “a giddy vulture” (Mick Wall), stream-of-consciousness style he even dissects the lyrics while marvelling at his off-the-peg thoughts while flashing back to his post-VU sabbatical as a copywriter: “’Sitting there by the fire’ – it’s an electric fire, you gotta plug it in. But I like make believe fire, like make believe love too. Hey, make believe love, that’s an advertising line; write that down, fuck I might forget it!”
I should probably mention that this live album is very sweary. But it’s not all self-aggrandizing showboating and bragging braggadocio; the album also offers perhaps the most intense and passionately sincere rendering of his ballad Berlin, complete with the ‘lost’ verse from the 1972 Lou Reed album, vocals ranging from a croaked croon to a hoarse recital, against peanut gallery screams for Heroin.
Elsewhere, a lengthy, slow-burning, jazz monologue styling on Waiting For The Man sees Reed, at his best a ‘character’ performer equal to Bowie, morph into the passive drug fiend, quoting from Street Hassle (“Hey, it was some really bad shit that you came to our place with”…) prior to, without Lou breaking character, segueing into outtake Downdown Dirt (“Your blood’s too rich, you’re Catholic too, you’re middle class too”) and mercenary dealer (“You don’t mean shit to me”) before the track seamlessly evolved into Temporary Thing to a cumulative cacophony of guitar, sax, keys and Chrissie Faith & Angie Howells’ wailing backing vocals.
Fonfara would recall: “Lou would just keep going and going and going and not let us stop, and you’d have no option but to keep on playing. And then, of course, he’d start talking between songs, these long raps, holding court.”
Jokey I Wanna Be Black is not for the woke – as he says on the album, “I never said I was tasteful!” – but displays Reed’s humour, where he mocks “the self-loathing implicit in the White Negro concept” in the words of Steven Lee Beeber, author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s, about the Jewish origins of punk.
The Bowie/Ronno-adorned, Loaded outtake Satellite of Love receives a loving rendition, complete with Faith and Howells’ angelic vox, which gains in sincerity what it lacks in the Transformer chocolate box arrangement.
Another track of Velvet vintage violence receives a wheezing keyboard organ makeover that doubtless wouldn’t have given Doug Yule any sleepless nights, but against the odds, Pale Blue Eyes comes across as a triumph, sounding like a man genuinely in his cups as befits the song’s utterly bittersweet wistfulness.
The jury’s out on whether it needs a seven minute rendition complete with howling sax solo and slightly discordant girl group backing vocals (“Alright baby!”), but this is the world of Take No Prisoners – here, Lou Reed is grabbing his songbook by the scruff of its neck, barking its angriest, saddest lyrics (“DOWN for you is UP!”). Take no prisoners, indeed.
Take No Prisoners is Reed, stark bollock naked, unadorned and unashamed, warts and all, so its fitting that the most affecting excerpt from it is his rendition of Coney Island Baby – the title of his 1976 album, part a personal lookback on awkward adolescence (“I was a little too light to be a line-back… actually I was a pole-vaulter… That’s pathetic”), homoerotic crushes (“The straightest dude I ever knew was standing right next to me, and I had to play football for the coach”); part one of Reed’s periodic hymns to the transformative power of ‘that rock and roll station’ (“when you’re all alone and lonely in your midnight hour”); regrets and self-doubt (“Hey Lou Reed, you ain’t never gonna be a human being”) and an extended tribute to his then-partner, transgender lover Rachel.
Lou Reed always wanted to write the music equivalent of the Great American Novel, and it’s all distilled in this pocket biographical masterpiece, complete with VU nod (“Oh, sweet nothing, it’s the glory of love”), particularly in this triumphant performance, where for once the dynamic overkill of wheezing sax, exultant BVs and pounding electric organ chords rises to meet the song’s cumulative crescendo, to riveting, roistering effect even as Reed’s entreaties become overwhelmed with incoherence (“Dontja… I love ya, I need ya.. Yeah Yeah Yeah… Baby my baby…”). At the finale, Reed almost sounds overwhelmed with this transcendent performance – no snark, just an abashed, “Sorry it took a while, thank you!”
From the sublime to the ridiculous, and side four of this remarkable fly-on-the-wall live album is devoted to a lengthy rendering of Walk On The Wild Side, using its simplistic structure as a framework for Lou to hold court and provide the Bottom Line audience, and vinyl listeners beyond the borough, with an extensive walk-through of the song’s genesis, preceded by a free-form rant about hecklers (“Whaddaya think this is? Question and answer?”) and stadium gigs (“Four thousand assholes throwing beer cans atcha? Oh, but that’s rock and roll! Bullshit, not from behind my back!”). As biographer Victor Bockris noted, “The songs became mere background to the godfather’s monologues.”
The ‘song’ settles into its form once its recognisable melody kicks in (“We know the riff, eight measures of it! Don’t you show any passion”) and Reed makes the decision, apparently out of boredom with the song (“It’s not like I don’t wanna play your favourites..”), to tell the story behind the song: “I got so sick of that song”, he tells the crowd, shortly before crowing, “Would YOU like to know how that song got written”, adding camply, “I know you’ve been dying to know – does that sound like Holly Woodlawn?”
In the course of twelve-plus minutes, Take No Prisoners lives up to my teenage self’s assessment of the album as “The Lou Reed Stand-Up Comedy Album”, as Reed, against that never-ending ‘doot-do-doot’ shuffle, regales the Bottom Line with an extensive monologue, interspersed with the album’s now customary non-sequiturs (“Nothing is in style, man! Haven’t you got into that yet? Why not? Because it’s nothing”) and a revealing comment about his ‘persona’: “Watch me turn into Lou Reed before your very eyes! I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it! Enough attitude to kill every person in New Jersey – ask ‘em in Passaic!”
In between rants at critics Christgau (“A consumer’s guide to rock, man? I object to fucken liner notes”) and Rockwell (“Nice little boxes – B plus. Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you got a B-plus from an asshole in The Village Voice?”), showing solidarity with Springsteen (“You notice the way the critics turn on him, like after they were on him? When they needed him they weren’t there”) and Diana Ross (“She digs Loaded, and that’s more than you do”); Reed launches into a hilarious, part-spoken, part-sung story of the song, via his post-VU hiatus working for his dad’s company (his delivery of the lines “I was shocked – I was stunned – I WAS TAKEN ABACK!” is worth the entrance fee alone!), the Nelson Algren novel of the same name (“So they give, they say go buy a paperback version… I said, ‘Is it abridged?’“), an altercation with the hypermasculine Norman Mailer (“He tries to punch me in the stomach, to see how tough he is – he’s pathetic, you know”), and its stars, Little Joe (“He has an IQ of 12… he is the only guy I know who went to Italy to be a movie star and it is not happening”), Candy Darling (“I do miss Candy and I didn’t even know her that well”), Jackie Curtiss (“She started [before] that whole Rocky Horror bullshit”), the mysterious Sugar Plum Fairy (“Sugar Plum Fairy… corrected Dorothy Parker’s prose for those of you who still read – what a shitty remark!”) and of course, Warhol: “Drella, if you’re there, I am very glad that you are around”.
When Take No Prisoners landed, Arista’s Clive Davis was, as Reed later said, “…always very supportive of me.. and with Take No Prisoners it was more of the same. I wasn’t a surprise to Clive, he didn’t go, ‘He did WHAT?’ He knew what I was. That’s why he signed me. He didn’t object to that. He knew what he was getting, he knew I did things like that. Clive’s smart.” At the same time, Reed said enthusiastically of the album: “I think of it as a contemporary urban blues album. After all, that’s what I write – tales of the city. And if I dropped dead tomorrow, this is the record I’d choose for posterity. It’s not only the smartest thing I’ve ever done, it’s as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably ever gonna get, for better or for worse.”
“I am running for office and I would not vote for me, I am not trustworthy”, Reed jokes during this extended, hilarious and frequently politically incorrect live album – Washington’s loss was our gain, as this fascinating, obnoxious, messy live album, demonstrates.
❉ James Gent is editor of We Are Cult, and co-editor with Jon Arnold of Me And The Starman.
❉ ‘Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners’ Released RCA (PL89356_/Arista (AL 8502), November 1978.
* We’re following suit of the compilers of the Reed-approved posthumous box set, and discounting 1975’s ‘Lou Reed Live’ – an album Reed loathed so much, the last thing you hear as the record skates into the run-off groove is a phased audience cry of “Lou Reed SUCKS!”