Believe it or not, there was a time when Lou Reed the solo artist had charisma. That’s right — the grump who lately has become preoccupied with “adapting” Edgar Allen Poe and obsessing over sonic clarity used to be a guy you might want to hang out with. And 1976’s Coney Island Baby, his sixth studio solo album, is arguably his most charismatic. Because, arguably, it had to be.
Reed had infamously alienated his record label, RCA, and many of his fans with his previous album, 1975’s instrumental drone-fest Metal Machine Music. That album had finished off whatever cache of street-smart cool was remaining from the glory days of 1972’s hit Transformer — and that wasn’t much. So, as Reed puts it in the liner notes of this new reissue, Coney Island Baby was an attempt to “get me out of the classic mess I had let happen to me”, both musically and financially.
It’s difficult to imagine how much of the reaction to Coney Island Baby 30 years ago was simply due to it not being Metal Machine Music. Many still regard it as one of Reed’s best solo albums, while others have claimed that, stripped of its original context, it’s bland ’70s rock, Lou Reed Lite. Well, it does go down easy, musically and lyrically, but that doesn’t mean it’s slight. It’s not a crime to make music people actually want to hear, and Coney Island Baby remains a real pleasure. It has some great songs and no bad ones, and it presents Reed as, well, a guy you might want to hang out with.
Musically, the album starts out sounding like an American Dire Straits — not exactly a bad thing in itself, but the relaxed “Crazy Feeling” and bouncy “Charley’s Girl” are certainly more pop than anything Reed had done since the Velvet Underground. There’s a reason why the VU’s softer, more pop-oriented albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, are as beloved as they are: When he wanted too, Reed could write songs that made you glad to be alive. He was able to capture as many thrills in love and romance and music as he could in drugs, sexual perversion, and violence. On Coney Island Baby he’s still talking about “scenes”, murder, and topless dancers. But he’s also doing it with levity that was sorely missing from such ’70s bummers as Berlin. The music suits this approach, and it’s not exactly Lawrence Welk, either. Reed had re-embraced the electric guitar, and future session whiz Bob Kulick complements him nicely, adding some mean riffs. The rhythm section is solid, too; much has been made of Michael Suchorsky’s precision drumming, and for good reason — listen to his smart-bomb fills on “She’s My Best Friend”, for example. In case there’s any question, Stones-like stomper “Ooohhh Baby” shows that Reed and band could still turn up the heat.
In terms of lyrics, Coney Island Baby can be surprisingly introspective. Reed had always written first-person songs about street life, drugs, and violence. With a few exceptions (“Pale Blue Eyes” chief among them), though, he preferred looking at women and romance from the distance of third person — a tendency borne out by his trademark string of songs titled “Candy Says”, “Caroline Says”, and so on. But Coney Island Baby begins with him searching for empathy and common if non-traditional ground:
You really are a queen…
And I know ’cause I made the same scene.
I know just what you mean…
You got that crazy feeling
I feel just like you.
On “A Gift”, Reed even manages to poke fun at his street-hustler image and fascination with less-than-reputable women, both of which led to charges of misogyny. In true Lou fashion, he takes an angle that mixes mock humility with mock self-pity:
I’m just a gift to the women of this world
Responsibility sits so hard on my shoulder
Like a good wine I’m better as I grow older
If that’s not exactly a revelation, then the title track definitely is.
You know, man, when I was a young man in high school
You believe it or not, that I wanted to play football for the coach
All those older guys, they said he was mean and cruel
But you know, I wanted to play football, for the coach
In those few lines, Reed captures the very essence of American childhood. It’s not that everyone wants to play football; it’s that everyone wants to belong, and organized sports are for an adolescent the idealized place to belong. Therefore, everyone wants to play football. That idealism is evident in Reed’s looking past what the “older guys” report from the reality of the other side of the fence. Also implied is that he never got to play — never got to belong in that way. Millions of kids don’t make the team, but with his intimate tone and phrasing, coupled with a lushly melancholy backing track, Reed makes the experience painfully poignant — and personal. “The coach”, of course, is another American archetype — the proxy father figure. Here, Reed, the rock’n’roll rebel, comes clean. And if he couldn’t escape longing and nostalgia, who could?
The half-dozen bonus tracks on this reissue only strengthen the package. “Nowhere at All” and “Leave Me Alone” rock harder than anything on the album proper, while the trio of alternate versions reveal the conscious effort to move away from the “street-smart” Reed. Recorded with producer Steve Katz and then scrapped, they’re rawer and harder, but not necessarily better. “Crazy Feeling” sounds more than ever like “Sweet Jane” — good. But Reed’s affected mumbling and Vince Lombardi quoting sacrifices much of the title track’s sincerity — bad.
All in all, in Coney Island Baby, Reed made the album he had to make — for him, for his fans, for his record company. There aren’t many happy endings in Reed’s history, but this was one that everybody could feel good about. In this case, that wine metaphor wasn’t far off.