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Recorded and filmed in the summer of 2004 at the Benicassim Festival, Spanish Fly: Live In Spain is more of a freshman-level survey course of Lou Reed's works than a graduate seminar. The syllabus is light, covering only 11 songs, but there is a field trip. It's not much to crow about either, just a walk through a gallery of black-and-white photographs taken by Reed of people - musicians, roadies, assorted hangers-on - who accompanied him on the tour.
Most of what's taught is stuff you've already learned. That Reed is a voyeur who's observed drag queens and drug addicts living in New York City's network of caves and marveled at their survival instincts. That Reed has a fundamental understanding of loveless, dysfunctional relationships and doesn't have a clue how to fix them. It's enough that he understands, that he's taken the time to listen. More than anything though, we find out that the strength of Reed's songwriting is minimalism and how the sparse framework makes a wonderfully expressive relief map of his words and stories. Of course, you already knew that, didn't you? Even the casual alternative rock fan is somewhat aware of Reed's spartan arrangements and knows the plots of his most famous songs, like "Walk On The Wild Side" and "Sweet Jane" by heart.
Still, we all need a reminder from time to time, and in that respect, Spanish Fly: Live In Spain deserves and demands your attention. Shot simply, with the most straightforward of camera angles - with occasional views from behind drummer Tony "Thunder" Smith and some close-ups of Reed that reveal an intensity that belies his wooden exterior - Spanish Fly: Live In Spain documents Reed's greatest hits in a concert film that's low on frills but rich in emotion.
There's a somber reading of "Venus In Furs" that makes you want to lock yourself in a bathroom and dig a piece of broken glass into your arm. Jane Scarpantoni's sharp, cutting cello solo is the perfect accompaniment. It's full of self-loathing, just like the song's weary, hollow S&M enthusiasts.
The Latin sway and slight movements of Mike Rathke's guitar, the trembling of Fernando Saunders' bass and the pained expression of long-held notes escaping from Scarpantoni's sad cello are all Reed needs - well, that and Reed's tortured, distortion-fried guitar solo - to tell the woeful tale of "Ecstasy." The theme is obsessive love and Reed treats it with violence, throwing punches with his impassioned, rock-hard voice that break your jaw. The girl slips away. Even the arms full of glue Reed talks about how he can't hold her and the male lead who winds up a broken man without a home.
My favorite reading, though, is that of "Perfect Day." Following the repetitive chord changes and slowly rising landscape of "The Blue Mask", "Perfect Day" follows a heroin junkie around to the movies and the park and watches as he tries to fight off the urge to shoot up. There's a melancholic ache to it that matches your sense of impending doom and Scarpantoni's bittersweet cello seems like a perfect lullaby for an overdose.
Which Reed and his band come dangerously close to early on. Seemingly lost on the opener "Modern Dance" and the aimless "Why Do You Talk", they lack cohesion and purpose and seem like they left whatever passion they had back at the hotel. Bundled together, "Venus In Furs" and an incredibly tight, swinging version of "Sweet Jane" nudge the crowd awake, though, and they regain their footing.
Yet another public reading of Reed's unfinished thesis on human behavior, Spanish Fly: Live In Spain is Reed holding court and delivering a sermon. It's one you've heard before, that talk he's had with you about post-modern living and the chasms growing in all of our souls. He's spent years observing the human condition, scribbling down his observations in lyrics to songs that become compact cluster bombs of gritty rock, like "Romeo Had Juliette", or arty, almost classical pieces like "All Tomorrow's Parties" - not included here, why? - that are shrouded in mist or an opium haze. To Reed, all the world must seem like his own personal zoo. The animals take no notice of him as he watches their peculiar behavior, both public and private. That is, until he shares what he's learned with the rest of the class. Then we quake with fear at what he might discover about the secret urges and desires of others and ourselves. It's that discomfort that he stirs in you that's compelling, and Spanish Fly: Live In Spain, which unfortunately can come off as a blatant attempt by Reed to cash in on his past glory, makes you painfully aware of your failings, and Reed's. SEE ALSO: www.loureed.com
SEE ALSO: www.sanctuaryrecords.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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