Review: Apple TV’s ‘The Velvet Underground – A Todd Haynes Documentary’ – An Enjoyable, Stylized Look At The Iconic Band

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It was just one of those exhausting weeks. After another arduous day I needed a distraction. Much to the Rock Chick’s consternation, I filled a tumbler with bourbon, flopped down on the couch and pulled up Apple TV. As I’d been threatening to do for a few weeks now, I pulled up the new documentary by Todd Haynes about the Velvet Underground. The Rock Chick was on her feet and across the floor to the stairs faster than an Olympic sprinter. I hadn’t seen her clear a room that quickly since the days I was really into watching Kojak reruns. Say what you want but there hasn’t been a decent cop show on TV since they cancelled Kojak. I had hoped the Rock Chick would hang around and watch the documentary with me but I can fully understand her reaction. I think a lot of people have the urge to flee when they hear the Velvet Underground is coming up.

I know in the early days of my rock n roll obsession I was afraid of the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground was Lou Reed, vocals/guitar; John Cale bass/keyboards; Moe Tucker, drums; and Sterling Morrison, lead guitar. When I was in college I used to love to get those Rolling Stone magazines counting down the top 500 LPs. The Velvet Underground’s iconic first LP, produced by Andy Warhol no less and featuring German-born singer Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico was not only always on the list but it was usually near the top. I had always been under the same mistaken impression I had about punk rock back then, that it was all just avant-garde noise. There were a few bands I was “afraid” of in those days. I figured if you put the Velvets on the stereo the needle would break, your ears would bleed, neighborhood dogs would howl, you might grow hair on your palms, all sorts of bad things would result. I’m still not sure how I garnered that impression from merely reading about the Velvet Underground. I’d never heard any of their music. It wasn’t played on the radio. No one I knew owned any of their LPs. It was Brian Eno who famously said, “The Velvet Underground’s first LP only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” That might actually be true. So many musicians cite the VU as an influence from David Bowie to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (who was pals with the band and is featured in the film).

In the mid-80s I started getting into Lou Reed. You typically get into a band in a few different ways. Either a friend turns you on to an iconic older recording or you would hear something on the radio that was then current and it would catch your ear. I know it’s a risk to my credibility when I tell you my first Lou Reed LP was the then-current album, New Sensations. That album might be the most accessible album Reed ever put out. Even then I was just dabbling in Lou’s catalog. I picked up Transformer, the David Bowie produced LP that is probably Reed’s best known work. That’s the album with “Walk On The Wild Side” on it. Right out of college when I went into my exile in Arkansas I heard “Dirty Boulevard” on MTV… there was really no radio in Ft. Smith. I loved that dark track. “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs,” is a quote I still use today when referring to my job. I immediately went to the record store and purchased New York which had just come out and I loved that record. I was spending so much time in my car in those days I bought it on cassette which I now regret. I wore that thing out driving from Ft. Smith to Shreveport or Dallas or back to KC… anywhere but Arkansas. That led me to dive deeper into Reed’s catalog. Although admittedly, I still shied away from the Velvet Underground.

It wasn’t until the late 90s that I decided to stick my toe in the Velvet Underground pond. I had dug out that Rolling Stone magazine from the 80s with the top 500 albums ranked and had decided I was going to buy all of them. Crazy, yes I know. It was a great time of musical expansion for me. My friends had all settled down and were having children. I was just hanging out listening to music… which if I think about it is what I’m still doing. Thank God I married the Rock Chick. Anyway, as part of my push to buy all 500 of these records, I went out and bought the Velvet’s debut LP with Nico and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t all just noise. Yes, John Cale brought a kind of drone thing to the band but Lou Reed was a fabulous songwriter. Nico’s vocals were interesting on the few tracks she sang. The thing that grabbed me about them was the lyrics. Their debut came out in 1967, “the Summer of Love.” While everyone was in tie-dye and bright colors singing about love being all you need, the Velvets were wearing black and singing about heroin and S&M. They were nihilistic and dark. What’s not to love there. They were a real counterpoint to the hippy thing.

The day I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico I had listened to it once when a buddy of mine called to go out and get a beer. He and I went bar hopping. This guy was really into smoking pot, something I’ve never enjoyed. He had some hashish. He kept telling me I’d enjoy it as “it’s a different kind of high.” That is always the pitch with the pot guys. I don’t like it, it makes me anxious and I haven’t done it in years. But there’s always a pot guy telling me to try edibles or hash or something because it’s a different high. On the night in question, I must have been drunk, because I believed my friend’s claims about the magic hash. I vaguely remember taking a hit just as we pulled up in front of this bar, O’Dowds. It was a block from my apartment. I stepped out of the car and felt “the fear” wash over me with the hash, smiled at my friend and promptly walked home without him, leaving him standing on the curb. There is no such thing as a different high… it’s all one anxious, paranoid, miserable experience for me. But hey, I don’t judge, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

I got home and to calm myself, I decided to put on my new LP purchase, the Velvet Underground. I was thinking, yes, music, that’s the ticket… that’ll bring me back to reality. I’ll drink some water and lay down. I put the album on and was wandering around my apartment in the dark. Suddenly I hear Lou Reed in the darkness, he’s waiting for the man… his voice terrified me. Rather than take the album off I just sort of, hid under the bed until it was over. In retrospect, maybe I should have put on some Hendrix. While the VU terrified me that night, I can assure you, I haven’t been afraid of their music since. I quickly bought the rest of their catalog. Their second album, White Light/White Heat is actually the avant-garde noise I had feared but I understood them and it didn’t scare me anymore. Their third LP, The Velvet Underground which features the great songs “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” is probably the most pop-oriented thing they’ve ever done. If you’re a novice fan that might be the place to start. That’s the album where John Cale, who was the most aggressively experimental quit and Doug Yule joined. Yule could sing but he was also a more traditional bass player. Their final LP, Loaded is also a masterwork, despite Reed quitting during the process. Don’t be afraid!

I was hoping for some in-depth look at the Velvet Underground. There’s a lot of mythology around the band. Todd Haynes documentary is a very stylized look at the band. He does go in depth into the background of the band but it does get a little lost in the split-screen, chaotic manner it’s presented. He starts by profiling Lou Reed and then John Cale. He has a number of friends and family of the band (Sterling and Lou are gone) who talk about their experience with the band. It was great to see Moe Tucker interviewed. John Cale is prominently featured, as he should be. Jackson Browne pops up, and while he’s the last guy you’d associate with the VUs, he was friends with Nico and possibly her lover. That Jackson… he got around. It’s a thorough look at the VU but Haynes way of presenting it in this faux Warholian way gets in the way of the story for me. The film starts with, yes, a split screen and on one side is a close up of Lou Reed’s young face… that was all it took to send the Rock Chick running from the room.

I was also a little disappointed there wasn’t more, well, music in this thing. You’d get snippets of songs but nothing substantive. There seems to always be music playing but its not in the forefront as much as I’d have liked. I would have liked Haynes to let us see the Velvets on stage a bit more. Let us hear them playing live. Again, there are snippets of that in the film but it jumps around quite a bit. I do like the retelling of the story of when Reed fired Warhol as the band’s manager. Warhol had discovered them and put them in his multi-media Plastic Explosion Inevitable show. They’d play and he’d project a film onto the band. He produced their first album and pushed Nico into the band. The first LP was a commercial dud and Reed got pissy and fired Andy without consulting the band. Warhol was so angry, and he apparently rarely got angry, he called Lou “a rat.” It was the worst thing he could think of.

The documentary goes on to chronicle Cale’s departure and Yule’s entry into the band. Eventually the lack of commercial success killed the VU. Reed left, everybody else quit but Yule. The moment Reed left, for me, is the end of the Velvet Underground. I get why Cale quit. He wanted to push the band further into it’s experimental sound and Reed wanted the band to be more accessible and well, sell a few more albums. Those conflicting views on the direction of the band caused that split. Those two did reunite for a tribute LP to their mentor Andy Warhol upon his passing, Songs For Drella which I also highly recommend.

I enjoyed this documentary but it’s really only for fans. Clearly I’m ambivalent about this doc. I liked it but I don’t feel strongly enough to recommend it to everybody. This is a great place to perhaps start your journey into the VUs. It’s a very stylistic, pretty movie to watch. I’m not sure this will turn anybody onto their music though. If you’re interested and you want to watch this doc, I will warn you… beware of family members sprinting from the room. It’s too bad… this is a band that deserves a wider audience. I know their fame has grown over the years but this is a truly under appreciated band.

Review: Lou Reed ‘New York: Deluxe Edition’

“It’s hard to give a shit these days…” – Lou Reed, “Romeo & Juliette”

By the time I got to college, I thought I was a rock and roll expert. I suppose all of us in our late teens/early 20s think we know everything. What’s that old saying, “When I was young I thought I knew all the answers…as I got older I realized I didn’t even understand the questions.” Of course I still have a few friends who think they know it all, but maybe that’s unique to me. As a college kid I’d never even heard the music of the Velvet Underground let alone Lou Reed. I’m not sure I’d even heard of the Velvets. I thought Lou Reed was a “one-hit wonder” with only “Walk On The Wild Side” to his credit. It was the only song of his they ever played on Kansas City radio. I went to college in Manhattan… unfortunately it was the one in Kansas, not the island in New York. In fact, at that point in my life I’d never even been to New York City. To me it was like a dirty Emerald City in a magical world of Oz (B&V Playlist: Songs For New York City). Somewhere over the rainbow, indeed. It was big, violent, scary and ruled by guys like Kojak, those guys in ‘The Warriors’ and the mob. It was druggy and decadent. At least that’s what I’d gleaned from television cop shows and the movies.

If there is an artist who embodied that New York underbelly it was Lou Reed. And yet in college my slate was blank on Lou. It wasn’t until 1984 that I got into Lou Reed. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I got into Lou Reed through MTV. After an evening of drinking and being ignored by women, I returned back to my place and planted myself in front of the television, watching videos and eating a convenience store sandwich (the famous Chuckwagon). As the sun burst over the Kansas’ plains, the video for “I Love You Suzanne” came on. Something about that track just clicked for me. I loved the lyric, “you do what you gotta do, you do everything you can.” The next time my roommate Drew and I went to the record store I decided to take a chance on this Lou Reed guy and I bought his then current LP New Sensations. It was one of the most upbeat, warm LPs in Reed’s catalog. The title track, about the joys of riding a motorcycle is one of my all time favorites and I have never been on a motorcycle…well I’ve been on a mo-ped but I don’t think that counts…you don’t want your friends to see you on a mo-ped. “Down At the Arcade” was another big favorite. The whole disc is just amazing…well, I’m not crazy about “My Red Joystick,” but that’s just me.

I was on the bandwagon. I soon discovered Lou had been the principle songwriter and lead singer/guitarist for the ground breaking Velvet Underground. It’s been said the VU didn’t sell many albums or have many fans but each of them seemingly went out and formed a band. Such was their influence. It took years before I screwed up enough courage to buy all of the Velvet’s albums. I was afraid it would all be abrasive noise. I don’t know where I got that idea. I had the same fear about punk and now the Clash are one of my all time favorites. In 1967, during the “Summer of Love” when everyone was dressed in Day-Glo orange and singing about love, Lou was writing songs about heroin (B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin) and bondage. Instead of buying the VU’s debut, I actually wimped out and merely purchased Lou Reed’s then greatest hits disc, Walk On The Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. And truth be told I never connected with it the way I had with New Sensations. I guess I wasn’t ready for Lou yet.

I wish I’d started exploring Reed’s back catalog more thoroughly in college. He’d put out some great albums in the 70s. Transformer produced by Bowie was the most famous of the lot. The bleak Berlin is an album that took me a while to warm to, but is one I truly love now (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). But there were other gems I wish I’d discovered earlier. Coney Island Baby is a great record. I had an ex email me about it just a few years ago. She was geeking out about how great it is… I envied her that first time listen. Street Hassle was all beautiful parking lot poetry and has a cameo by Springsteen. I also dig The Bells. After getting sober Reed released the masterpiece The Blue Mask (that I recommended to that same ex) and followed it up with the strong Legendary Hearts. I wish I’d discovered all of this earlier because it would have given me stronger roots into the genius of Lou Reed. All I had was New Sensations and a greatest hits record which somebody absconded with.

I tell you all this because, I eventually turned my back on Lou. I bought the follow up to New Sensations the day it came out. I don’t know if you can describe Mistrial as Lou Reed’s worst album – for me that will always be Metal Machine Music, which is all feedback – but it’s probably a close second. I actually sold Mistrial down at the used record store in short order. It was around that time that Lou did a tv commercial for, of all things, Honda scooters. He even allowed them to use “Walk On the Wild Side” for the commercial. That may not seem like a big deal now – but back in the late 80s, rock stars who sold their songs for commercials were considered heretics. John Mellencamp was particularly outspoken about the  evils of songs being used in commercials. He later sold “Our Country” to Chevy for a truck commercial. Be careful what you criticize… you may just become it.

Because I hadn’t done the work to go back through Reed’s prior albums I didn’t have that great of a connection to the man I now think of as the King of New York. My dalliance with Lou was over almost before it started. I thought of New Sensations a one-off…a great record by an artist I just wasn’t that into. I graduated from college and spent a summer in Boston. One weekend I went to New York – my first trip there ever – and I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t think Lou even entered my mind. Any more he’s kind of synonymous with that city in my head. By 1989, I had been sent into exile in Arkansas by the corporation I was serving at the time. Arkansas is even farther away from New York spiritually than Kansas is.

There I was, miserable and lonely in Arkansas. I’d been sent to Ft. Smith but even the faceless corporate drones I worked for realized that was a mistake. They’d moved me up to Fayetteville which was better but not much. Then, one late night, after too much beer and too much time spent staggering up and down Dixon Street being ignored by women (I see a trend) I went home and yes, turned on MTV. This black and white grainy video came on…I’m not sure I was paying attention to who it was. It started with a strumming electric guitar riff… my ears perked up. And then I heard that unmistakable voice… “Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel, he looks out a window without glass.” I felt that old magnetic pull. I knew I was headed back to “The Dirty Boulevard.”

I decided to take another chance on this Lou Reed guy. I hedged my bets and bought New York on cassette something I rarely did. The liner notes said – and I apologize my current copy is in a box in storage – advised us to listen to the album in its entirety, in one sitting, “like you would a novel or a movie.” He said the songs had been recorded as they were written, like chapters of a book… at least that’s how I remember it. The first track, “Romeo and Juliette” grabbed me immediately. I knew that Lou was back. New York is simply put, a masterpiece. He covers a range of topical subjects that mostly still resonate today: poverty, predatory landlords, child abuse, AIDs (which was relatively new ground back then), the ecology and politics.

My friends and I still quote this album the way most men do movies. Instead of quoting ‘Caddy Shack’ I find myself saying, “It’s hard to give a shit these days” instead. There’s a road in Kansas City, Southwest Boulevard, where there used to be a few strip joints and massage parlors. I still call it, the “Dirty Boulevard.” I also occasionally say, when in a bad situation (usually the holidays), “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs.” Such a visceral image. The entire album is cinematic in its scope. “Busload of Faith” is a big rocker – and a favorite of my friend Stormin – that Seger eventually covered believe it or not. “Strawman” is another huge rocker. Reed keeps it to his favorite configuration here – two guitars, bass and drums. The backing band lacks guitarist Robert Quine but still makes this music come alive – bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Fred Maher and guitarist Mike Rathke. The mellow tracks are great and hard hitting as well – “Halloween Parade” (about AIDs), “Endless Cycle” (about child abuse), and “Last Great American Whale” (about the ecology). That final track has a line I’ve quoted directly to my sainted mother… “You can’t always trust your mother.” There is a light hearted moment, “The Beginning of a Great Adventure” where Reed muses about being a father. “It might be fun to have a kid that I could kick around, a little me that I could fill up with my thoughts.”

A few of the tracks are so topical as to be somewhat frozen in time. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” is very late-80s “current event-y.” Lou was very deeply affected by Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ and responded with “Dime Store Mystery” an almost religious mediation on “the duality of nature, godly nature, human nature.” Great art inspired a great artist. All of that topicality aside – most of these songs are so universal as to be poignant and relevant even now, thirty plus years later. He even name drops Trump in “Sick of You.”

Last weekend they released a ‘Deluxe Edition’ of this landmark album. If you’ve never heard or owned New York I urge all rockers out there to buy this album. In terms of bonus material, I can’t lie, there’s nothing here. There’s a few “single version” of a few tracks. There’s some “Work Tape” versions of tracks here but nothing that will change you’re perception of this brilliant album. The “secret sauce” for me on this ‘Deluxe Editon’ is – like it was for recent releases from U2 (Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’) or the Rolling Stones (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set) is the disc of live versions of the songs from New York. While the live tracks are all taken from different performances and concerts, because of the continuity of the material, they hang together well. I love how Lou speaks to the meaning of a lot of the songs prior to playing them live. I love all his on-stage patter. “There Is No Time” is particularly rocking live. Many of the tracks expand quite a it when played in front of an audience. Lou was nothing if not a rock and roller at heart. He and his band playing brilliant music, enthusiastically is always a treat. Lou even says, everything played on stage is live, “not sampled by someone whose been dead for years.” Ah, Lou, thank god you never changed. Lou continued the brilliance after New York when he reunited with the Velvet’s John Cale to record the tribute to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella. Another album from this period worth a listen.

While this isn’t the treasure trove of unreleased tracks I might have hoped for – although I doubt anything was left over here – it’s a great ‘Deluxe Edition.’ There is one unreleased track but it’s an instrumental… mostly noise. The original album and the live stuff more than make up for the superfluous bonus material. This is an album that should be celebrated like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘The Last Tycoon.’ Politically charged, poignant, and rocking. What more could we ask for?

If you love Lou, check out the movie ‘Blue In The Face’ where Lou has a few cameos and discusses being raised on Long Island. He says, “I remember being born in Brooklyn and thinking it was terrible. But then my family moved to Long Island which was infinitely worse.”

Things are getting crazy out there again with this COVID stuff… be safe and stay strong out there! Cheers!

B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums

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“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved, See my heart I decorate it like a grave” – Alice In Chains, “Down In A Hole”

A few weeks ago I posted a playlist about heroin, entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin. When I was compiling that playlist I ended up thinking a lot about Alice In Chains and their best album Dirt. Yes, I’m with everybody else in thinking that Jar of Flies was their creative peak, but that was an EP like Sap (another great bit of music), not a full blown album. When doing a playlist about heroin it’s hard not to think about Alice In Chains and their late lead singer Layne Staley who died of an overdose. When I put that list together I realized that I had put not one but two Alice In Chains tracks on it, both from Dirt. I really dug those two tracks on the playlist, “God Smack” and “Junkman.” I hadn’t listened to that whole album in quite a long time and so with those two tunes bouncing around my skull, I had to put it on. I love that record, but I realized about halfway through…this is an unrelentingly dark album. Why they didn’t just name it Smack I’ll never know.

It slowly began to dawn on me, I really like music on that dark edge. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started listening to rock and roll on KY/102 and then later when I started actually buying and consuming music, my tastes ran to the more upbeat. I wanted something that “RAWKED!” Van Halen, Boston and ZZ Top were amongst my early purchases. I wanted that good time, party music. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to anything acoustic. I think most of my friends’ musical tastes ran in that same direction. We were all young, testosterone driven maniacs. What’s that phrase, “young, dumb and full of cum.” My friend Drew and I used to joke that our pal Matthew’s record collection when he got to college was all heavy metal with one Fleetwood Mac album thrown in. His fixation on Kiss back then still baffles me. For my  part, heavy metal did play a big part in all of my early listening from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to AC/DC.

I have to admit, looking back, that even then I was a sucker for a good ballad. I would have never admitted to liking sad songs back then… no, no, give me songs about chicks with a guitar solo. My first Springsteen album purchase was The River and while I loved “The Ties That Bind,” “I’m A Rocker” and “Out In The Street,” I was really, really into “Drive All Night.” The mellow tunes drew me to that album as deeply as the rockers. It’s hard to explain. You could say I was always secretly drawn to great lyrics, hence my early interest in Dylan, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I was that odd person who could relate to songs about broken hearts and sad endings to relationships before I’d even kissed a girl let alone had a girlfriend. Maybe I was slightly depressed as a kid and thus I had this feeling that my heart was already broken from a very early age. No one ever really wants to share the dark parts of themselves, especially when you’re young. There are just some of us who feel things more deeply and life itself can break your heart sometimes…

In college I started to branch out in terms of musical tastes and that’s when I started to buy some of the darker music in my collection. I mean, in truth,  it’s not all “dark,” some of it is just sad or melancholy music. It seems even at that tender age I was like Tom Waits who famously said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In the old days, when things weren’t going well, I’d put on some mellow, generally sad songs and hearing these artists sing about their heartbreak and losses made me feel, well, less alone. Someone else out there had been through what I was going through now and survived. Of course, you can take the sadder end of the musical spectrum too far sometimes. After one break up, my friend the Accountant (who lived three floors below me at the time) came up to my apartment and I was listening to some funeral dirge, moping about when he said, “Say man, uh, maybe all this downer music is affecting your mood… do you have any Van Halen you can put on?” The Rock Chick used to pretend to weep every time she caught me listening to Ryan Adams.

I realize that now may not be the time to share this particular list of albums. Many of us are feeling isolated and alone (B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue). If you’re prone to depression, I would suggest maybe avoiding these albums until we’re all free to walk outside without looking like extras on the set of the television show ‘E.R.’ I know the Rock Chick feels like I do, stuck at home and slightly bored. I take my life into my hands every time I go downstairs… like they say about a blowout football game when the teams start taking cheap shots at each other, it’s getting a little chippy down there. I have always either found solace in these records, or they’re just kick ass albums that everyone should hear. Take the gold where you can find it.

  1. Alice In Chains, Dirt – I’ve already talked about this album above, but it’s truly AIC’s finest full length album. “Down In A Hole,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Them Bones” are all great tunes. It’s clear the theme of this album is heroin. The only lighter moment is the song “Rooster” about Jerry Cantrell’s father surviving the Vietnam War…if you can consider that upbeat?
  2. Nirvana, In Utero – This album was certainly Cobain’s reaction to being named the “voice of his generation.” They were trying to shrink the size of their fan base by recording some really abrasive music. You don’t record a song like “Rape Me” if you’re trying to bring people onto the bandwagon. “Heart Shaped Box” was the tune that actually turned me around on Nirvana. Something clicked for me when I heard it. I still love that song even with lyrics like, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” While some of the tracks on this LP are impenetrable, “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are amongst their best. The art work told you all you needed to know about this record. I bought it in a used CD store downtown by the bar Harlings and it took me to the rest of their catalog.
  3. Pearl Jam, Riot Act – I may be wrong about this but at one time this was Pearl Jam’s worst selling record. It’s no coincidence that the first three albums on this list come from the Grunge era. That generation came of age on lithium (hence the SiriusXM station by that name that plays the music of that era). This is a later record by PJ and I’ve always considered it a bummer from start to finish. There are a few light moments like the humorous “Bushleaguer” about George W. Bush (“born on third, thinks he got a triple,” a line I use often). I’ve been listening to this album again and while it’s intense, it’s still a damn good Pearl Jam record.
  4. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star’s Alex Chilton was so disillusioned about the music business and Big Star’s failure to connect with a larger audience, he holed up and recorded this set of despondent songs. It wasn’t released until years after they broke up. There still isn’t an agreed to, official running order of the songs. “Thank You Friends” drips with sarcasm. “Holocaust” is despair exemplified. Big Star was a band I didn’t discover until after in life, but man I’m glad I did.
  5. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first proper solo album after the implosion of the Beatles. He’d been going to Primal Scream therapy and the vocals bear that out. He often goes from a whisper to a scream. “Mother” is haunting. Songs like “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero” reveal a pretty jaundiced world view. I love the song “God,” where he lists the litany of things he doesn’t believe in any more… until he ends with just he and Yoko…”I believe in me, Yoko and me.” I like this album significantly more than Imagine, but that may say more about me than John Lennon.
  6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon – Drake was another artist I came to later in life. In his short tragic life he only recorded three albums. Pink Moon was his third album and it was a departure from his two power-pop albums that proceeded it. Pink Moon is just Drake’s vocal and an acoustic guitar. He was despondent his career didn’t take off but he largely refused to ever play live… He died shortly after this album came out from an overdose on antidepressants. I think that says it all.
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night – One of Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy.” This is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums, if not my favorite. Drowning in despair, guilt and tequila after he fired original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who then died of an overdose, this is Young at his most raw and emotional. This album knocked me out the first time my friend Drew played it for me and it continues to do so today.
  8. Elton John, Blue Moves – People forget how huge Elton was from 1970-1975. This album isn’t dark but it’s certainly laced with a ton of melancholy. Many people feel it was Elton feeling sorry for himself after the backlash he got for admitting he was Gay. The 70s were at once a freewheeling and closed-minded time. I think he was just feeling some fatigue after 5 tumultuous years. He was bound to have some kind of let down… It’s not a great album but it’s a good one. It’s a double-LP and probably suffers in the shadow of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that preceded it by two years. The second album is particularly down. This album has the saddest song ever recorded, “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.” I’ve got my own story about that song…but again, we can’t share all the darkest parts of ourselves.
  9. Lou Reed, Berlin – This is the bleakest, most despondent thing I’ve ever heard. Reed’s concept album about a couple (Jim and Caroline) who are German drug addicts. It’s got some great songs, “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I” amongst them. But this is hard one to get through. It has grown on me significantly over the years but there is no fairy tale ending here… I dare you to listen to the song “The Kids” and not be haunted by it…
  10. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska – I was a huge Springsteen fan in high school. I had all of his albums up to that point. The River had hooked me. Then I went away for that difficult freshman year in college. I struggled my first semester due to some self-inflicted wounds (love gone wrong). I got home at Christmas and was in the mall when I saw that he had a new album out. Ignoring the stark imagery of the front cover, I thought, here we go The River 2.0. When I dropped the needle on the album and heard the stark, depressing title track I remember having the opposite feeling of the joy I felt when I heard The River for the first time. I liked “Reason To Believe” and almost immediately dug “Atlantic City,” but it took me years and years to come to appreciate this collection of songs about outlaws, losers and outcasts. Everybody feels left outside of society here. It’s a masterpiece, but I’d sure like to hear the “Electric Nebraska” – the version of the album recorded with the E Street Band… maybe we can hope for a boxset…

There you have it, my top bleak, depressing albums. Sometimes you’ve got to go dark. Again, if you’re prone to depression, you might wanna wait on these records. I’ve always loved these albums and I hope you do too. If there are albums like this that you’re into, please let me know and I’ll check them out! Otherwise, sit back, put one of these on, pour something dark and murky and contemplate…

Stay healthy and safe out there. Cheers!