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Lou Reed at the Cactus

Local acts strip down for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground

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Lou Reed
Lou Reed in 2004. Danny Norton Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

It’s safe to say the influence of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground on modern American music has been fairly well documented, yes? And there’s no real evidence that Austin musicians were any more in thrall to that crew than anyone else in the land, right?

Oh, except there was that time when half the town gathered at Liberty Lunch to see who could render the best version of  “Sweet Jane,” sung over and over by a dozen or more bands in nearly infinite variety until a winner was chosen: Two Nice Girls, whose majestic VU-Joan Armatrading mashup became a set standard and an audience favorite.

Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground won the heart of Austin music early on and never really let go. 

There's also the fact that VU guitarist Sterling Morrison moved to Austin post-Velvets (and after a stint as a tugboat captain) and taught literature at UT, played in a few local bands and was a staunch supporter of others. Not to mention the late-80s local New Sincerity movement, as it was dubbed by Sublett himself, on whom Reed and the band were certainly a guiding influence. It was an influence that Alejandro Escovedo and company’s popular outfit The True Believers put front and center.

Then there were a certain music scribe’s territorial pissings in the form of  “Margaret Loves John Cale” graffiti that, during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, graced every women’s bathroom in every club in town.

None of which proves anything, except that Lou Reed and the VU won the heart of local music early on and never really let go.

Jesse Sublett was one of the earliest. His band The Skunks was one of the definitive bands who ruled unlikely punk venue Raul’s on the Drag in the 1980s. On Saturday night, he and other notable musicians who were equally struck — including Jon Dee Graham, The Reivers, Kacy Crowley, Why Not Satellite, Kim Simpson, Wild Seeds, Kathy McCarty, Steve Bernal and Dashiell Sublett — will gather at the Cactus Café to perform a tribute to the late Reed.

"I wanted to gather up songwriters and present the songs pretty bare bones in an intimate setting." — Musician and writer Jesse Sublett 

CultureMap interviewed Sublett via telephone recently to get the lowdown on the upcoming show.

CultureMap: Give me a very brief history of Lou Reed’s influence on you and Austin music.

Jesse Sublett: [laughs] Well, the '70s were really dismal, especially for a lot of people like myself who weren’t mainstream or felt like outsiders. People like David Bowie, The New York Dolls and Iggy Pop kind of got us through that dark time.

Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground were always the music of the outsiders and just always meant something special. There was a feeling of vindication when punk rock happened, like our time had come. As soon as there was a scene, people were out there with our bands, and a lot of them were doing Velvet Underground covers.

When Lou Reed played at the [Austin] Opera House in ’78, that was an important show. If you were in the scene, you were there. Another watershed moment was when John Cale played the Armadillo.

And then New Sincerity had the same propulsive, strumming, joy-of-rock sound. You could imagine that in garages and warehouses all over America, everywhere somebody’s always playing “Sweet Jane” and “Waiting for My Man.”

CM: Why now, and why the Cactus?

JS: Reed wrote many classic songs that are as durable as a hammer — just simple, three-chord songs. The lyrics are meaningful, but you don’t need a thesaurus to relate to them.

And they’re literary, too. A lot of the songs are like mini-plays or movie scenarios. That’s the cool thing — his songs can be garage rock sing-alongs or they can be really personal or mysterious.

For this show, I wanted to gather up songwriters and present the songs pretty bare bones in an intimate setting, rather than everybody just banging away — which is cool, also.

CM: Did you have any personal relationship or any encounters with Lou Reed? Will there be anecdotes?

JS: I have the classic story that gets told over and over again, some version of it. [laughs] When the Skunks were playing in New York years ago, I ran into him at Manny’s Music store on 48th Street. He was kind of behind the counter looking at a guitar. I went up, and before I opened my mouth, he frowned at me and said, “You don’t work here.” I told him I was in a band and I’ve been playing his stuff for years, “Sister Ray,” and so on. I asked for an autograph, and he frowned and scrawled it really tiny. On my checkbook.

CM: The night Lou Reed died, Jonathan Toubin, who used to play music in Austin and DJs in New York, wrote on Facebook, “Lou Reed, may you rest in peace deaf to the horror of the 1000s of ill-conceived covers of your perfect songs stinking up the world tonight!” Why will the show at the Cactus be different?

JS: [laughs] Ours will be good! I know a lot of musicians must cringe up in heaven or wherever they are, but that’s what happens. You just take away from it what you get out of it. You know, no telling what he’d say. He’d probably roll his eyes.

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