The Many Lives of Lou Reed's 'Sweet Jane'

Lou Reed

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Billboard editor Joe Levy shines a light on "Sweet Jane," Reed's three-chord (four, actually) classic, and one of the best songs rock & roll has produced about itself

"So I thought I would explain to you how you make a career out of three chords," Lou Reed says at the start of the 2004 live album "Animal Serenade," as he fools around with the opening of "Sweet Jane." He then goes on to show the Los Angeles crowd that there's a fourth chord tucked into the end of the progression. "As with most things in life," he jokes of the hidden chord, "it's that little hop at the end."

Sweet Jane: Versions Noted in This Article

Recorded in 1970 at Atlantic Studios at Broadway and 60th Street in New York City, "Sweet Jane" appeared on "Loaded," the Velvet Underground's fourth album, and first for Atlantic Records. In the previous three years, the Velvet Underground had put out three albums of earth shaking noise and delicate chanson to an indifferent public. By the time of "Loaded," the band was falling apart, and Reed would quit three months before the album's release in November of 1970. (To Reed's eternal annoyance, Atlantic cut out the song's bridge in post-production.) 

As "Sweet Jane" worked its way up to a staple on FM radio, Reed was living on Long Island and working as a typist at his father's office.

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Two years later, Mott the Hoople covered "Sweet Jane" on "All the Young Dudes," the album David Bowie produced for the band shortly before he produced Reed's breakthrough "Transformer." It was the first step toward "Sweet Jane" becoming a rock & roll standard. A year later, Detroit's Brownsville Station — the band best known for "Smokin' in the Boys Room" — had a go, and then Reed himself followed with an extended version on the live album "Rock & Roll Animal," featuring two Detroit guitarists, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, soon to be of the Alice Cooper band.

As time went on, the song was covered live by British post-punkers Gang of Four and R.E.M. And in 1988, the Cowboy Junkies contributed a hushed, slowed-down version that restored the excised "heavenly wine of roses" bridge. A decade after that, Phish recorded their version at their Halloween show at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, during which they covered all of "Loaded." And a decade after that, Lou Reed showed who did it best with a version at the tail end of his live recreation of his "Berlin" album.

One of the best songs rock & roll has produced about itself, "Sweet Jane" rolls up several of Reed's great themes: how mutable sexuality is and how strong love can be. Jack and Jane are ordinary folks on the outside — he's a banker, she's a clerk — who like to go home and put on each other's clothes. Telling their story is a guy on the corner who's in a rock & roll band. And though it may sound a little sentimental, he'd like you to know that whatever people may say, life is more than just dirt, that old fashioned notions about love aren't worth giving up on, and that anyone who had a heart wouldn't turn around and break it. He offers as proof one shining example: Sweet Jane. 

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