Friday, July 9, 2021

Sweetest Of The Janes

Almost any time the name Miley Cyrus is mentioned in our house, something that happens more often than you might imagine, Mrs. Bhagpuss can usually be relied upon to say "We like Miley. She's a good girl!". 

Whether Miley would take that as the compliment it's meant if she heard it is difficult to say. If she happens to follow this blog (Hi, Miley, if you're reading!), I guess we might find out. There is a comment section, after all. I guess stranger things have probably happened, although not too many I can think of right now. 

I imagine she'd take it well, anyway. She seems to do just about everything well. She certainly sings well, something an increasing number of erstwhile skeptics seem to have noticed at last. She's been making something of a practice of covering other people's songs lately and doing it better than just about anyone. The comment threads that follow them on YouTube are full of backhanded compliments from aging rock fans who never thought she could do it but who at least have the grace to admit they were wrong.

It's a wide and surprising selection ranging from Pink Floyd to Hole to Dolly Parton. (That Doll Parts cover is stupendous, by the way). I really wanted to pull up the video but that will have to wait for another time because this isn't a post about Miley Cyrus and how amazing she is. 

Oh, sorry, is that what you thought was happening here? 

Nope. This is a post about the Velvet Underground song Sweet Jane. I saw Miley had covered it, brilliantly, and it made me remember a project I was planning, a long time ago.

Somewhere in the house where I live there's an audio cassette that must be around a quarter of a century old by now. On it are a bunch of covers of Sweet Jane. I started collecting them after I heard the Cowboy Junkies version, probably the most famous Sweet Jane cover of them all, and there are a lot, trust me.

It goes without saying it wasn't the first cover of Sweet Jane I'd heard. That would have been Mott the Hoople, who covered it magnificently on their 1972 album "All the Young Dudes". It's entirely possible that was the first version of the song I ever heard, period. I was listening to the Velvets before that but I took quite a while to get around to buying Loaded, the album on which the song first appeared.

I did buy Max's Kansas City early on, where Sweet Jane comes in at Side 1 Track 2, but that came out the same year as the Mott album and I'm fairly sure I already knew the song by then. And anyway, the version I really loved in those days didn't become widely available until two years later with the release of the sublime 1969.

Sweet Jane is a story song. Lou wrote a lot of those. I've seen it explained as everything from "a surreal look at the life of a rock star" to "correcting the misplaced notion among the "protest kids" that prior generations were trapped in society's shackles and that only the current generation knows how to live free of them." Yeah, right, that'll be it. I think this precis from Billboard probably gets it about right.

It has one of the best and most widely borrowed riffs in all rock. It comes from the very tail end of the period when the Velvets' operated with a languid, cowboy strut rather than the frenetic amphetamine yowl they're still somewhat famous for and it lopes along with a loose, louche grace. You can hear the perfect economy of the rhythm guitar part in this ten-minute take from Take No Prisoners, where the band vamps while Lou does his stand-up routine. I could listen to it on an infinite loop.

It's also an FM radio classic, or it became one after the fact, when the Velvet Underground name finally meant something. I'd wonder if that was the heritage all the many covers were drawing from if it wasn't that most these days include the glorious bridge that was left off the radio-friendly Loaded edit. Okay, that's not exactly how it happened but it might as well be.

What I'd been planning back then was a mixtape featuring nothing but versions of Sweet Jane. Those were the days of the cassette mixtape, as so fondly recalled in Belghast's excellent Mixtape Mondays series. I figured doing a whole tape with just one song on it would both amuse and annoy certain friends of mine. 

I never finished it. It was much, much harder to pan for gold in those pre-internet days. I just about managed enough versions for an actual album but C90s are two albums long, at least.

If I was doing it now I could fill one of those C90 five-packs I used to buy with nothing but Sweet Jane covers. There are so many! And some of them are even good! In fact, a lot of them are good. Sweet Jane is one of those magical songs that almost anyone can handle, unlike that other much-covered Velvets' classic, "Waiting for the Man", whose deceptively difficult pacing makes a fool of almost everyone rash enough to take it on.

Lou had his preferences. He later denied the Hunter-Wagner hard rock re-invention from the Rock 'n' Roll Animal album, so popular with seventies metalheads, even though it had been his idea in the first place and he was the one singing on it. I saw him with the Hunter-Wagner line-up, touring behind that album. He certainly seemed invested in it then. He worked with Mott on theirs, too, along with his pal David Bowie. They were both reportedly pleased with how those sessions worked out. 

Supposedly, he also liked the Brownsville Station version, something I find difficult to credit, having listened to it. It was one of the earlier covers by a major band (What, you don't remember Brownsville Station and "Smokin' in the Boys Room"? Yeah, well, you didn't miss much...) coming just a year after Mott, so maybe he just liked the attention. And the royalties. His favorite, according a number of interviews, was that Cowboy Junkies' slowdown and why wouldn't it be? 

In the end it's all a matter of re-interpretation and reinvention, isn't it? Who wants to hear someone do a song just like the record? If it's the original artist, well, you might as well just listen to the record, hadn't you? And if it's someone else and they manage to get it dead-on, well, it's one of those dogs walking on their hind legs deals. Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be... Lou Reed.

To cover a song is to live inside it. To turn it outside-in and wear it like a skin. Anything less is karaoke. Not that there's anything wrong with karaoke but it's not meant to outlast the moment. If you're going to put together a mixtape from nothing but versions of the same song, you're going to need a little more than that.

In the end, that's why I shelved the project. I listened back to what I had and it felt a little much even to me. The interpretations didn't differ sufficiently to keep the whole thing fresh. Of course, I didn't have the internet back then.

Even with the inexhaustible resources of the worldwide web I'm still not sure it would be a wise choice. It's one thing to put a bunch of links in a blog post and pick out some highlights for people to watch and enjoy at leisure, another to set up an actual playlist with thirty Sweet Janes in a row. Who'd listen to that? Plus, someone already did it, so it's not like it would even be original. 

I'll just stick to a handful, then. Some of my favorites and some of the stranger variations. Enough for a short album or a very long EP.


Wreckless Eric. I can scarcely believe I never heard this until yesterday, when I started doing the research for this post. I've been a fan since I first heard John Peel play Semaphore Signals in 1977 and I somehow managed to miss this until now. It's perfection.

Cowboy Junkies. The whole "slow it to a crawl" thing has become such a covers cliche now it's hard to remember how revolutionary this felt when I first heard it. I was mesmerized. I still am.

The Jim Carroll Band. If anyone was born to cover this it would have to be Jim Carroll. Like Jonathan Richman, he was there when it all went down the first time around. That's Jim's annoying voice you can hear on Max's Kansas City, asking if anyone's got any Tuinol. I imagine someone did.

Two Nice Girls. As I've mentioned, there was a time when I was taking flak for sporting a Joan Armatrading pin on my green safari jacket. The jacket itself was never a problem. There was no punk dress code in '76-77, that was yet to come and I was already gone when it came in, but apparently there were still lines you couldn't cross. Even at my height of admiration for Joan, though, it would never have occurred to me to cross Love and Affection with the Velvet Underground, but then I never was a nice girl.

Kate Nash. There was certainly a time when expressing anything other than contempt for Kate Nash would have gotten me much the same reaction but I've enjoyed everything I've heard by her, not that it's been all that much. She has a voice that comes ready heartbroken. This is a magical reinterpretation. I'd love to hear what Kate was thinking when she made it. I hear a lot of Laurie Anderson in there, which, if intentional, is genius and, if not, is even smarter than that.


Brother Ali and Chuck Prophet. If you ever thought what Sweet Jane really needed was a bald guy with a beard rapping through the middle of it then here's the cover you've been waiting for. The frame is the laid-back take you'd expect from Chuck Prophet, leader of one of my favorite underrated eighties bands, Green on Red. He says himself in the introduction he's operating somewhat out of his comfort zone and I think he's referring to having been bundled up with Brother Ali, probably at neither of their insistence. It kind of doesn't work - at all - but it's a curiosity for sure.

Annabel Lamb. I'm a sucker for dropouts. If Annabel had left much more out of this one there wouldn't have been anything left to leave in. The arrangements are so eighties but the vocals drip Berlin in the '30s. Disorienting.


Willie Nile. I'd like to say I'd saved the best for last but I really haven't. I have saved the most swaggering, blustering, overblown epic for the end of the show, though. It seemed appropriate. I get the feeling I'm supposed to know who Willie Nile is but I really don't. This has almost half a million views on YouTube, where there are clips of him performing with Springsteen, too. He seems to be one of those New York guys who just knows everyone but I'd never heard of him until today. Pretty sure I won't be hearing of him again, either.

And that's about enough Sweet Janes for one day, I think. If you only listen to one, make it Miley. If you want more, there must be another hundred or so on YouTube. I didn't watch them all. If you find a good one I missed, be sure and let me know. 


  1. Holy cow. I never realized there were that many covers of Sweet Jane.

  2. And for the record, Smokin' in the Boys Room was much better as a cover done by Motley Crue, of all people, than the original by Brownsville Station.

    Man, that Kate Nash version. I totally wasn't expecting that. It has the feel of a bunch of friends sitting around a campfire at night, saying "Hey, remember that Velvet Underground song?" and taking the music in their collective heads and allowing it to mingle around the entire group.

    And just a last note, that had to have been one of the last episodes of Late Night before David Letterman left for CBS. It was what, about four years after New York came out and got Lou Reed back on heavy airplay on radio. Kind of nice to see Lou get reintroduced to a new generation after hearing him as the "Walk on the Wild Side" guy for so long.

    1. I noticed that Motley Crue version in the YouTube suggestions as I was doing the post. 80s hair metal is a pretty long way out of my range, though, so I didn't pursue it. I only remember the Brownsville Station original because it got an extraordinary amount of radio play over here even though I don't believe it was ever a hit in the UK.

      I do think Kate Nash is undervalued, not least by me even though I really like her stuff. I never seem to get around to listening to much of it, though.

      Lou had an interesting second act. He'd always been way more serious in intent than some of his wackier, drug-induced persona changes seemed to suggest but from New York onwards he seemed to assign himself this grizzled cultural commentator role and everyone was happy to take him at his own assessment. New York was probably the first of his albums I didn't buy on release since Transformer. I heard it and thought the music was plodding and the tone didactic so I reluctantly passed. Other than the Songs for Drella collab with John Cale I don't believe I ever bought another of his records on release, though I picked a few up later (Magic and Loss is pretty good).

  3. Wow. That Miley Cyrus cover of Wish You Were Here was… awful. I'm sorry — I don't normally criticize music — but as a Pink Floyd fan I wish I could unhear it. The twangy guitar (sounds more like a dobro than what's shown in the video) played directly to grid, the lack of the solo part in the intro, the horrible NA NA imitation of the solo part in the bridge that lacks all the subtlety and range of the original, Miley's flat, flat affect that takes all the life out of the song…

    I love the music segments here, and have found some great things in them, but I'm afraid that one struck a nerve.

    1. It's a long time since I last heard the Floyd original. I saw them do it on the tour before the album came out, when I was still at school, and I bought the album after that, as soon as it was released, but I don't think I've listened to it since the 1980s. I did wonder what the Na Na bit was. It sounded odd.

      I listened to it again in view of your "lack of affect" comment because lack of affect is something I generally enjoy in a performance (I wanted to call a band I was in Lack of Affect once...) but I can't really hear it. She sounds a bit disengaged, tired maybe, but then you could interpret that as an intentonal weariness, given the lyric.

      It's interesting though, how middle-aged and older Floyd fans react to the cover in the comments. The thread is chock-full of people presenting their age and length of service in Pink Floyd fandom before saying very positive things about the performance. That is not how YT comment threads that follow younger pop singers doing numbers from the classic rock canon usually go. Personally, I felt it was just about the weakest of her covers I listened to. I put it in the link mainly because of the comment thread.

      Hope some of the other selections went down better with you!

    2. Like I said, I almost always enjoy your music selections. No worries there.

      To be honest, I am uncharitable enough to have suspected Miley's People of 'turfing in those comments. I need to check with some of my Floyd fan friends and see if their feelings match mine — maybe it's just me. Idk. Music is hard, and this song is pretty special to me.


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