Review Summary: 'Sounds like a bootleg, in the best way.'
Sold as a bootleg until it was officially made available in 2001, American Poet
is a mix of Reed’s solo material and selections from The Velvet Underground’s library of tunes. It was recorded during a 1972 show for Reed’s Transformer
tour, and provides listeners with a glimpse of his remarkable live presence.
Instead of crumbling under the faulty sound quality, Reed leads the band -- and the audience -- through a repeatedly fierce, enjoyable show. Weaker than those on Transformer and The Velvet Underground records, the backing vocals in American Poet
often leave Reed to fill the silence behind him. Tracks like, “Sweet Jane,” “Satellite of Love,” and “Walk it Talk it” find him singing “bum bum bum” and “Sweet Jane!” in occasionally lonely choruses. This is not to say that Reed is incapable of driving the refrains. His voice is clear and confident here, with the same melodic proficiency reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s best days.
This is also not to say that Lou Reed’s supporting band is inept. While their inability, either as performers or due to the poor recording quality, to place their voices beside Reed is somewhat disappointing, it is
a Lou Reed concert -- he is (rightfully) the focus.
Musically, the band is proficient, and delivers a number of remarkable performances. In “Heroin” -- a rendition Reed calls “The Rock Version” -- the band offers an aggressive take on the hazy ’67 version. Less psychedelic than the version recorded in The Velvet Underground’s collaboration with Nico, this rendition is a straightforward, but equally moving, adaptation. The tempo swells and bursts, tension rising like blood pressure, as Reed, “[closes] in on death.”
also features plenty of articulate, well-executed guitar solos that demonstrate the groups’ ability to remain together during long periods of improvisation. This is made possible by the adept Scottie Clark’s consistent percussive backbone, allowing for Bobby Resigno to explore more complex rhythms and melodies on the bass. The band retains its energy throughout the entire performance. “It’d be naughty” to leave them out. The group is comfortable, genuine, and raw -- even at first listen. The poor production value, while a detriment in some regards, aids in the album’s authenticity: it sounds like you might have recorded it. There is a level of intimacy that pervades American Poet
, despite the occasional crackle of the speaker.
As with much of Lou Reed’s work, however, the emphasis is clearly placed on the lyrics; fairly uncomplicated musical compositions to carry the poetry along. His unique songwriting talent is repeatedly observed through his storytelling and social commentaries, which complement the simple rhythms. As diverse as he is brave, Lou Reed frequently chills, prods, and jokes with his listeners in a way that again develops an intimacy between the performer and his audience. “Walk on the Wild Side” exemplifies Reed’s sincerity:
Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that bash
Empathetic and endearing, his live presence is irresistible. American Poet
is a strong testimony to his brilliance as a musician and writer.