#14, "Sweet Jane," Velvet Underground (1970)

This is admittedly an embarrassing pick. It’s a pick someone who doesn’t know the Velvet Underground would make to get credibility for appreciating the Velvet Underground. It’s a song that you’d know even if you know nothing else about underground and underground-adjacent culture. It’s a basic pick. It’s a boring pick. It’s way less interesting than “Heroin,” which showed up months ago on this list at #85. It’s so close in this way to “American Pie” by Don McLean. The two songs couldn’t have less to actually do with each other except that they’re both really basic songs within their respective genres. They’re embarrassing. 


So like, I’m well aware that this is an uninspired pick, but I can’t help it. I love this song. I love it. This might be the consummate Mary Alice pick. It’s a banger for the ages, by far the best-known song by them. My pride is no match for the power of “Sweet Jane.” But I’m not alone. According to Second-Hand-Songs-dot-com, there are 43 cover versions. This is not very many. The same website cites 903 covers of “Yesterday” by the Beatles. BUT! There are more NOTABLE* covers of “Sweet Jane.” 


*Included in the NOTABLE category, but unfavored by me is Mott the Hoople’s, which is by any measure boring and unnecessary. Also released like two years after the Velvets’? I don’t understand this. I blame David Bowie because he’s good at everything except selecting songs to cover (he struck gold with “Across the Universe,” the exception, not the rule). Here, see for yourself:

I think like a lot of people of my generation, the first version I’d heard of “Sweet Jane” was the Cowboy Junkies’, which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1994 major motion picture Natural Born Killers. The soundtrack appealed to the youth of 1994 because of the presence of L7 and Nine Inch Nails, but in whole it constituted a heady mix of then-current dark rock and hipster joints of the past, with the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of the hippest hipsters of the late 1960s, the Velvet Underground. And it won over us 90s teens, even though a lot of us were unaware of the original.* I just listened to it for the first time in 20-odd years and I can confirm it is a brilliant reinterpretation. I love it. I’m going to listen to it again. I’ve heard that it was Lou Reed’s favorite cover of “Sweet Jane” so I must be right. In another turn of timely luck, I stumbled upon this Miley Cyrus performance:

It was released just days ago as part of MTV Unplugged’s Backyard Sessions series, a thing I only knew existed two days ago when a friend posted Miley’s rendition of “Sweet Jane.” It is GOOD, it really is! What’s weird about it is that it seems to be a cover of the Cowboy Junkies’ rendition but then she added a whole bunch of bluesy show-offy stuff in the middle and towards the end. It is, without a doubt, a stunning display of talent. Both in terms of vocal range and her ability to sound like a 60 year old former heroin addict who has *really seen some shit* and it’s impressive, but is a bit antithetical to the spirit of the original, which is stripped down and amateurish. Part of its charm. 

*Quick additional anecdote re: the Cowboy Junkies’ version. I recall my pal Cybil recounting a scene she observed of her high school crush standing on one of the senior benches, recreating this scene in Natural Born Killers during which “Sweet Jane” played. I think he was telling someone else about it, not just doing the dance for his own amusement. It can be seen at the beginning of this clip:

Basically, you have the Juliette Lewis character standing on the hood of a car, doing that sexygirl thing where you sway your hips with your arms raised to make your torso look longer and your stomach more perfect. I guess Cybil’s crush was talking about how hot Juliette Lewis was while doing this and in turn, Cybil thought *he* was extremely hot. Quelle 90s. 

I also mentioned in my post about “Heroin” how much I love the Velvets’ album on which “Sweet Jane” appears, Loaded. I’ve read conflicting viewpoints on whether it’s acceptable to love Loaded or not. I’ve seen it referred to as their attempt at pop, an intentional sell-out move. Pitchfork calls it a “perfect rock album,” if not a perfect Velvet Underground album, which makes sense to me, but I don’t think I agree. It’s kind of all over the place, isn’t it? That’s not anything that would irreparably harm my ability to enjoy it, but even a “perfect rock album” is a bit of a stretch. “Who Loves the Sun” is catchy and part of me still thinks they intended to write a song mocking hippies but in the style of a hippie song, which would be genius but borderline novelty. The other explanation is that this is where they were attempting to appeal to a broader audience. I don’t know, what do you think of that? “Sweet Jane” is of course a classic for the ages. “Rock and Roll” is the runner-up for best song and “Cool It Down” is the perfect sleazy anthem for the Velvets’ place and time. The cracks begin to show with “New Age,”* which I think is a fine song until the part where they put a bow on the whole song with the other hippie-evocative refrain “IT’S THE BEGINNING OF A NEW AGE” which maybe leads me to believe that they were leaning in a little. Lou Reed sounds like he’s taking a shit in “Hold Your Head Up High” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” hits one of those pop music motifs on My List where he name drops a character** none of us should have ever heard of. In “I Found a Reason,” a rhythm and blues-influenced rock ballad that has one of those “talking parts” that appear in R&B songs ⅔ of the way through the song (e.g., “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, that piece that includes “All those times at night when you just hurt me and just ran out with that other fella? Baby I knew about it, I just didn't care.” At best it’s stylistic and awkward, at worst it’s clumsy and awkward). In “I Found a Reason,” it starts out with Lou Reed addressing the object of the song as “Honey,” which is not a term Lou Reed sounds at all comfortable using. He sounds so weird and whenever we’re listening I’ll always mockingly repeat “hawney?” I could go on. These are flaws, not things that make me dislike the album. My point is that it is imperfect. 


*The unnamed “fat blonde actress” in this song is either Sally Struthers, Kim Novak, or actually nobody, according to the internet. 


**One of the things I love about Pete is that he said what we were all thinking and complained about how Who Framed Roger Rabbit was built on the premise that we all knew who Roger Rabbit was before the film and we did not. As a society. 


The most notable thing about “Sweet Jane” is the guitar riff. It is classic and endures in every cover version ever produced. At the risk of being dramatic, it’s the kind of thing you have a hard time imagining it ever not existing because it’s so right. Like the first time I remember hearing “Sweet Jane” (Cowboy Junkies version), I would have sworn I’d heard it before even though I hadn’t. There are other songs like this, but “Sweet Jane” is the most intense example. I also need to mention Lou Reed’s vocal performance here. Lou isn’t known for his vocal abilities and in fact I’ve heard a lot of non-Velvet Underground fans who say that they like everything about the Velvets but Lou Reed’s voice. I’m not big on “talent” in this area? Like, I admire it, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have a decent range or even decent tone to be a great vocalist.* One thing that makes “Sweet Jane” tough to sing is its low register, and I again give Miley Cyrus all the credit in the world for her accomplishment in this area. But the thing that bowls *me* over about Lou’s delivery is the cadence, which is impossible to replicate.** I have seen the verses in “Sweet Jane” described as “conversational” or more poetry than song lyrics. I would say that the delivery seems stream-of-consciousness, almost like he’s making the lyrics up as he goes along, is not 100% sure about what the band is going to do, but is skilled at making himself look like he does know what the band is going to do. It’s odd, uncomfortable and brilliant.


*Most people would probably point to Bob Dylan as the exemplar of a non-traditional style that works really well in its time and context, but I wouldn’t. 


**This is a similar-but-different effect I discussed in my post about “Young Americans.” 


There are also several seemingly extemporaneous noises that punctuate lines in the verses. I stumbled across an entire treatise on the importance of the “ha” that follows “and me I’m in a rock n’ roll band” in the first verse. According to this Salon article, the “ha” is what launched both punk and glam and revolutionized youth culture. It reeks of bullshit to me and I know what the writer is getting at but it makes me mad anyway. Maybe even more so *because* I know what the writer is getting at. Next, we have “watch me now,” which follows “and other people they have to work.” I posted about Lou Reed’s pronunciation of the word “work” on Facebook before, which sounds like “wourk” and I love it. A friend commented that Lou’s never had to work a day in his life and he’s right. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t know how to say the word. I also wonder if that’s the source of the “watch me now” that follows. It’s the equivalent of pulling his collar. That isn’t true, it’s his way of saying he’s “like” the working man, which is untrue. There are other assorted “woos” and “whoas” and half the time he sounds like he’s on the verge of cracking up. I hate to call it “authentic” because I feel it’s a trap into throwing out a cliche but here we are.


But my very favorite part of this song starts about halfway through. The lead-in is also precious and I kind of love it because it’s the only thing I’d describe as “poetic” and also “my favorite”:


And the women never really faint,

And the villains always blink their eyes.

And the children are the only ones who blush.

'Cause life is just to die. 


Yeah! I’ll admit I don’t 100% know what this song is trying to tell us. I suspect that’s because it’s just a general “life, huh?” ramble, but yeah! It’s so unlike most Velvet lyrics in that it’s both practical and optimistic. It speaks to me. But then my very, very favorite part follows. It’s the first time the backup vocals kick in outside of the chorus and it is just so, so right:


But, anyone who has a heart

Wouldn't want to turn around and break it

And anyone who ever played the part

He wouldn't want to turn around and fake it 


Although the themes are kind of mysterious, I’ve felt for a long time that “Sweet Jane” has Lou reflecting on his separation from non-entertainers? You know, regular people? People who have to work? What I think he’s describing here is the natural inclination for regular people to live cautiously. It’s not him, but he observes it and he understands it. By the same token, artists are fundamentally more authentic because they’ve been phony by necessity. This part is shout-sang and it sounds a little like a bunch of people were told how and what to sing, but they all sound a little lost* and it’s appropriately lovely and chaotic. It’s “Sweet Jane.” 


*See also “Police Department Theme Song” by the Electric Grandmother. We used the same technique.