Sorry we’re late but we were just tuning

May 3, 2018

Lou Reed, “Live — Take No Prisoners” (3/10)

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere. The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst. Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

–“Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats

The 70s brought us a lot of great things, like fabrics made from space-age polymers and film stock that instantly looked dated.

But one of the more questionable fads from that time was the live album. From Kiss “Alive” to “Frampton Comes Alive” to Cheap Trick’s “Live at Budokan,” rock bands released live albums not simply to fulfill contractual obligations (like their cousin, the greatest hits album), but as a way of showing fans what their music can sound like when it’s recorded live in front of what may or may not be a captive audience. And with or without overdubs.1 The trend was so ubiquitous, that I thought every band, as a matter of course, released three studio records and then, to break things up, a live album.

But in sixth grade, a friend (I think it was Jeff?) gave me a couple of records he didn’t want and thought I might like. One of them, I don’t remember. The other was Ted Nugent’s “Weekend Warriors.”

The third was Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners,” a double live album.

“If you don’t rock with us in the streets with us I swear to gosh I will shoot you in your butt.” — Ted Nugent (implied)

At first, I was most interested in the Nugent record, since I had seen his other records in record stores and suspected his music sounded like the wailing guitar solos I heard coming out of dirty, smoky cars driven by unbathed long-haired dudes smoking cigarettes.

The cover was about what you’d expect: it’s an illustration of the Nuge shredding on his guitar but the neck of the guitar morphs into a gun that’s shooting, I don’t know, rock-n-roll naysayers? The songs are about what you’d expect, too: songs about the ladies, songs about drinking, songs about venom, songs about rocking in the streets 2 and so on.

Yes. It was exactly like the music I heard coming out of the smokey cars and it got old pretty quick.

The Lou Reed record, on the other hand, seemed far more dangerous.

The cover, a gatefold, was an illustration of a man in fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and a leather motorcycle jacket. Or is it a man? Those stockings…

S/he’s standing on a corner 3 Behind her, a puddle of urine and a trashcan has been dumped over, the contents — a busted up doll, some costume jewelry, a shattered picture frame — spilled on the sidewalk. On the back cover, there’s a long black car at the curb and, at the end of the street, a man leaning against a light pole.

“Probably selling drugs,” I thought. “These punks are all on drugs.”

So cool.

I wasn’t quite sure if this was “punk rock,” that dangerous subgenre rock so subversive, “20/20”4 did a special segment on it. My parents and I watched the segment together and I shook my head in disgust, tsk-tsking at all the right places, making concerned comments like, “Ugh, do they have to be so loud?” and “What’s with the hair, huh? I mean, come on.” But deep in my heart, I was thinking, “This is the music for me.”

All indications were pointing to the album being punk rock, but I was still nervous about listening to it. I strapped on my headphones and placed the needle at the beginning of record one, side one.

And, boy, did I have every right to be nervous.

The album opens with what sounds like very shaky hands lighting a cigarette with wooden matches. Then a voice. Lou’s, I assumed.

In the right ear: “Hello.”

Pan left: “Sorry we’re late but we were just tuning.”

The voice seemed forced and weird. Like a weirdo. Like a punk.

Then, the sounds of the audience. A real audience.

If there’s one thing the live albums of the 70s could never get right it was the sound of the audience. The closest anyone ever got to an actual live vibe was a firecracker going off during “Wind of Change” on “Frampton Comes Alive.” The rest of it is white noise that might contain young women screaming. Who knows. It never varies. It appears the audience doesn’t know when songs begin or end. It’s just a persistent buzz that fades in and out.

But the audience on “Take No Prisoners”? You can hear their conversations. And what are they talking about? The craziest stuff! The first intelligible thing you hear?

Lou Reed’s a bastard! Woo!

An actual swear word! My 12-year old ears were on fire and loving every minute of it!

Then Mr. Reed starts talking and within seconds he’s using the real cream of the crop, hardcore, R-rated swear words.

Someone else in the audience yells, “Heroin!”

Of course, at the time, I didn’t know this was the title of one of Reed’s songs. I thought this was how junkies behaved: they randomly shouted out their favorite drugs, like one yells out the name of their favorite players during football games.

At the same time, this wasn’t exactly what I imagined punk rock to sound like. The music was… listenable. Melodic. There was a piano, background singers, a saxophone. Granted, Lou Reed never really sang, but he certainly surrounded himself with world-class musicians.

Reed opens the set with a quote from Yeats. Yeats! Then he goes on to talk about Springsteen (digs him), critic Robert Christgau (hates him), Patti Smith (on the fence), and everything else that comes to mind.

And that’s just the first song.

I listened to the rest of the album intrigued, scared, curious, and loving every minute of it. Some of the songs are incredibly loud and intense (“Leave Me Alone”), incredibly sad (“Berlin”) and I still believe the version of “Satellite of Love” on this record is one of the greatest live performances ever recorded: The piano is odd and mysterious. Reed’s voice is raw and weak, yet he manages to tell a story so well. And the guitar break at the end of the song will make the hair on your neck stage dive. Sometimes, this guitar break makes me cry.

Yeah, yeah. Reed’s made better records and there are probably better live albums out there. But there was no better introduction to the seedy, dirty world of underground rock than Lou Reed “Live – Take No Prisoners.”

“‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst. Are full of passionate intensity.’ Now you figure out where I am.”

–Lou Reed