Monday, November 28, 2011

Song of the Week: The Velvet Underground - Sweet Jane (alternate version)

Many years ago a friend and bandmate of mine, who occasionally haunts this board under the name Coyote, asked me a simple question. "Are you a fan of The Velvet Underground?" "Well, yeah, of course I am", came the answer. Then he started talking about Rhino Records' reissue and expansion of the final Velvet Underground album, Loaded. Other than the two college radio friendly songs, Rock & Roll and Sweet Jane, I really did not know that album. On his suggestion I ran out and bought the double disc. I have to say, it is one of the best purchases I have ever made and can tell you that of the 4 records the Velvet Underground ever made, Loaded is without question my favorite. And, to be honest, it is the expanded version that makes it so great. The demos, discarded tracks, and alternate takes put the final selected tracks into perspective and make this album irresistible.

It is one of those demo or alternate takes that we focus on today. It is the song with the chord progression that could do no wrong,  Sweet Jane. The version I was familiar with appeared on the 1970 vinyl release of Loaded. That version was short, succinct and upbeat. Then when I got the expanded addition of Loaded, called Fully Loaded, I noticed immediately that that version now had a bridge included in it that I had never heard before. Blow my fricken' mind. "Heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper to her, yeah, when she smiles." How did that get cut out of the original release?

The lyrics to the song have always mesmerized me.
Some people, they like to go out dancing, And other peoples, they have to work, just watch me now!
And there's even some evil mothers, well they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt.
You know that women never really faint, and the villains always blink their eyes, woo!
And that, you know, children are the only ones who blush and that life is just to die.
And everyone who ever had a heart. They wouldn't turn around and break it.
And anyone who ever played a part, oh wouldn't turn around and hate it.

But then there is the slower demo version. It's missing that super-cool, but pasted on trippy intro. It still has that bridge in it and it builds to a beautifully sloppy crescendo in the end. The lyrics are slightly different -- our "protest kids" reference is gone for example. Drummer Maureen "Mo" Tucker wails away in, um, well, we'll call it "harmony". This demo version is probably not as good as the final, full-length version, but it is awfully cool.

The Cowboy Junkies did a version of Sweet Jane, and included the bridge, in 1988. It is truly sublime and one of the best covers I have ever heard of any song. Below is a video of them doing their super slow version with rearranged lyrics that track more closely to a 3rd, live version of Sweet Jane that the Velvet Underground did in 1969.


  1. I went to an excellent presentation last night given by Richie Unterberger about the Velvet Underground. He has a book out about them, White Light White Heat, an exhaustive history of the band. The presentation had some great rare footage of this rarely filmed band as well as some unreleased recordings. I asked him about Loaded and if he knew anything about why they put the shortened version of Sweet Jane on the record. He said there was a desire to make Loaded more commercially appealing and the shorter version was chosen probably with that in mind. He went so far as to say the title could be seen as a nod to this intention, as in "this album is loaded with great songs." No singles came out of the album however. By the way the released album doesn't have Mo on it as she was pregnant at the time and not available. Doug Yule's younger brother stood in on drums.

    My introduction to VU was through the Cowboy Junkies cover as well as REM's Pale Blue Eyes. When I later heard the original Sweet Jane I was also surprised to not hear the interlude and even considered that CJ had added it. The "la la la las" just elevate this already great song for me.

  2. Loaded has never been my favorite VU album (probably third, after the thrid album and the Velvet Underground and NIco), but that Fully Loaded edition is pretty cool. I love that they only had four albums and they are all unique.

    Im used to the bridge on Sweet Jane from the Live 1969 and Live at Max's Kansas City albums, and i miss it on the Loaded version. it's too bad they didn't wait a few months for Mo to record the album, but Lou Reed wasn't long for the band at that point so it's probably best they made it while they could.

    Jack, so cool you saw Unterberger's presentation. i saw him at the Library of Congress a few years ago talking about his Unreleased Beatles book. His Velvets book is an amazing piece of work that answered a lot of questions for me.