Live: Take No Prisoners Turns 40
Lou Reed’s Street Hassle, his second album for Arista Records, came out in early 1978, and the consensus was that it was his best album since whatever you thought his last best album was. It made a certain sense, then, for his label to record a live album that included some of his repertoire from the Velvet Underground and his solo years at RCA.
In a certain sense, because it was a golden age—the post-Frampton Comes Alive! Age—of the double live LP (in ’78, there were such documents by Ted Nugent, Little Feat, David Bowie, Hot Tuna, Kansas), and why shouldn’t Arista have versions of “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side” in its catalog? But the question was, is this necessary? In the ’70s, there had already been two live Velvet Underground albums and two live Reed albums—Rock and Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live (both taped at the Academy of Music in ’73)—so how many variations on “Sweet Jane,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’m Waiting for My Man,” and “Satellite of Love” did anyone need?
Redundancy be damned, it was decided to capture Reed during a run of shows at the Bottom Line in May, and he was, even for him, in a cantankerous, combative mood. He went off on tangents, sniped at adversaries real and imagined, used his songs as premises for extended exegeses, and I guess those of us who worked at Arista thought that when it came to assembling the music, all that would be excised, and what we’d have was a more-or-less normal live album, since, when all the venting was over with, Reed and his band did some pretty intense, purposeful takes on songs like “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Coney Island Baby,” and songs from Street Hassle. The laugh was on us. Live: Take No Prisoners, released in November ’78, is, like Phil Ochs’ Gunfight at Carnegie Hall and the Stooges’ Metallic K.O., the live album as confrontation. To say the album begins with “Sweet Jane” would be somewhat accurate. It begins with the suggestion of “Sweet Jane.” But soon Reed is distracted, quoting Yeats, zinging Barbra Streisand and Patti Smith (“F*** ‘Radio Ethiopia,’ man”), letting the expletives fly. “Ever meet somebody from Wyoming?” he asks, apropos of nothing.
Reed uses “I Wanna Be Black,” “I’m Waiting for My Man,” and “Walk on the Wild Side” as reference points, but in this context you could hardly call them “songs.” Live: Take No Prisoners has been sometimes called Reed’s “comedy album,” but I think that’s only because there’s nothing else to call it, and because his snappish NYC-hipster delivery is a little reminiscent of Lenny Bruce. Some of his—what? monologues?—have the cadence of beat poetry, but mostly they’re like the unleashed spritz of Catskills comics at a Friars Roast. When he suggests that Village Voice writer Robert Christgau might be a “toe-f**ker,” or mocks New York Times critic John Rockwell for bringing a bodyguard to CBGB’s, or talks about an encounter with the mas macho Norman Mailer, there’s a kind of sardonic glee in his voice—like, I have the mic now, motherf**ker—but the asides aren’t exactly side-splitting. (He was far funnier in the deadpan, knowing performances he gave in the movies One-Trick Pony and Get Crazy.)
He was particularly ticked off at Christgau for the “B-plus” grade the critic gave Street Hassle (“maybe he’s better off not aiming for masterpieces”). Months later, at the Bottom Line, that still stung. “Can you imagine working for a f**king year and you got a B-plus from an a**hole in the Village Voice?” This Festivus-like airing of grievances comes in the middle of what is ostensibly “Walk on the Wild Side,” but is “Walk on the Wild Side: The Annotated Version.” He lets his band carry the riff through most of the nearly seventeen minutes while he acknowledges Bruce Springsteen in the audience (this has now become a Vegas act with in-house celebrities), rips critics for turning on Springsteen (when did that happen? He hadn’t put out an album since Born to Run, and no artist was more adored by rock writers), explains who the characters in “Wild Side” are (“Little Joe was an idiot”), and tells the story about how producers approached him to write songs for an Off-Broadway musical based on the Nelson Algren book.
Are there any definitive versions of Lou Reed songs on Live: Take No Prisoners? Probably not, although there are stretches—“Pale Blue Eyes”>”Berlin,” “Coney Island Baby”>“Street Hassle”—when the banter stops and things get serious. “I do Lou Reed better than anybody,” he says at one point, striking a pose, and that’s what makes this artifact so strangely compelling. In the second half of the seventies, New York City was bursting with bands that were the spiritual descendants of the Velvet Underground: the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group (who used to regularly include “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” and “Pale Blue Eyes” in their sets), Blondie, Television, Talking Heads. Some writers called Reed “the Godfather of Punk,” and you can only imagine how that emeritus title might’ve rankled him. He was only in his mid-30s, for God’s sake, and he was no one’s Godfather. Was he going to be pushed aside by Elvis Costello (who won that year’s Village Voice critics’ poll in a walk)? Take No Prisoners’ “Leave Me Alone,” a squawking blast of misanthropy, showed that no one was going to out-angry him.
When Reed left Arista and went back to RCA, I was assigned the task of putting together an album of “classic performances” from his Arista tenure, and side one of City Lights consisted of three songs (“Coney Island Baby,” “Berlin” and “Satellite of Love”) from Take No Prisoners. I was pretty happy with how it turned out. Christgau reviewed it for the Voice: “Who ever said a romantic couldn’t crack jokes whilst baring his heart—his lust and anger casual, his passion no more deeply felt than his cool. Reinforcing the impression: all the sides you need of Take No Prisoners—one.” Oh, nice, I thought. His grade: B+. Damn.