It’s no secret: Lou Reed, the inimitable Velvet Underground frontman and solo rock legend, was a bit of a cranky dude. Just ask any journalist who interviewed him before his death in October of 2013, and they’ll define him, with a smirk and a politically correct reserve and respect, as prickly. He didn’t like answering questions about, well, anything. And he could be particularly grumpy about interpretations of his music, especially the many takes on his “Sweet Jane.” There was one, however, that he actually liked: That swoon-worthy take by the Cowboy Junkies.
According to the BBC, Reed himself called the Canadian band’s 1988 version “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.” It’s a funny word, “authentic,” considering the feel of their version was far from the rockin’ version of Reed’s Underground original. But it’s hard to disagree with him. While the song has been covered by countless artists, from Mott the Hoople to Liz Phair, Gang of Four to R.E.M. to Phish, the Cowboy Junkies give it a romance-in-the-stars lifeblood never before heard in those three simple chords. It’s hushed, tender, angelic and simply gorgeous. It’s where the heart overtakes the mind.
Reed originally recorded what would become his rock standard in 1970 at Atlantic Studios in New York City for Loaded, the Velvet Underground’s fourth album. By then, the band was falling apart, and Reed would quit three months before the album’s release in November of 1970. The Cowboy Junkies, however, opted for a church. In 1987, the band—four Canadian kids (guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins, drummer Peter Timmins, singer Margo Timmins and their bassist pal Alan Anton) who has released one previous LP—gathered in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church, surrounding just one microphone. They spent just one day recording a collection of covers and originals. It was their haunting, waltzy version of “Sweet Jane” that would launch the resulting LP, The Trinity Session, and the band, to stardom. But the album is much more than that.
The Cowboy Junkies—and really, how about that name, though?—rewrote Elvis’ standard “Blue Moon” as a tribute to Elvis, calling it “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis).” It’s equally haunting and magic, as if the church is an instrument, the sound increasing in spiritual vintage as it echoes across the walls. Same for their versions of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.”
The originals swell with a similar emotion, Timmins’ voice like a lullaby from a distant past, frozen in time and projected into 1988. Especially “I Don’t Get It,” a harmonica-laden blues jam, and “200 More Miles,” a twangy ballad based on their tour through the southern U.S.: “And Tulsa burns on the desert floor/ Like a signal fire/ I got Willie on the radio / A dozen things on my mind / And number one is fleshing out / These dreams of mine,” Timmins sings.
This album always felt more of the American south and southwest. Perhaps that could be chalked up to Natural Born Killers, the twisted Oliver Stone film starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as star-crossed victims/serial killers out for revenge. But their love is the sort that appeals to us all, just a little; we all want a part of what they have. And “Sweet Jane” is front and center in the film.
There’s a release of “Sweet Jane” that opens with a dialogue from Harrelson’s Mickey and Lewis’ Mallory:
“The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal,” says Mickey. At which point you can almost envision their stolen red convertible blazing into a New Mexico sunset, with the abandon of knowing their demise is hot on their heels.
Then, in her tender, whimsical voice, Mallory rambles on in one of film’s most memorable verses:
“I see angels, Mickey. They’re comin’ down for us from heaven. And I see you ridin’ a big red horse. You’re drivin’ the horses, whippin’ ’em. And they’re spittin’ and frothin’ all on the mouth. They’re coming right at us. And I see the future. There’s no death ’cause you and I, we’re angels.”
“I love you, Mal…”
“I know you do, baby. I’ve loved you since the day we met.”
There is literally no other song to follow those words than the Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane,” as Timmins’ whispers of those famous lyrics just crack the soul. Because we all know that if you play the game of love, your heart will be broken. If you play the part, you’ll turn around and hate it. But we play it to embrace those fleeting moments — like the recording of The Trinity Session — that exist between the drama of life, full of “Heavenly wine and roses” that “seem to whisper to her when she smiles.”