I dabble in guitar, which is really just another way of saying I am a poor guitar player. Anyway I dabble in guitar, and one song I have always wanted to learn is the rhythm section for Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” it is such a groovy song. I love how the melody of the guitar moves so smooth, and I really wanted to recreate that sound with my own hands, that would be great for parties. So I learned the basic cords: DAGG BmADD, okay got it; did not sound quite right so I started playing them up down, up up, up up, up down, repeat; yeah that sounds right; only it is not. Bar cords. Bar cords I do not know. Oh well my incorrect version actually sounds really good, so at least I got that going for me. Nonetheless I will keep practicing “Sweet Jane” properly, good way to practice bar cords which I am terrible at, after all I only dabble.
Anyway enough but me failing to be a rock star let us talk about Lou Reid, The Velvet Underground, and “Sweet Jane.”
Through most of my life I have never really paid much attention to the lyrics of “Sweet Jane,” and this is really unlike me. I have a pretty good talent for memorizing lyrics, and I tend to really get into analyzing songs, which you may have noticed since I have a music blog and all, but for a variety of reasons I never paid too much attention to “Sweet Jane’s” words. One reason is my love affair with the song’s rhythm. Another reason is that I just never gave the song much of a second thought. Velvet Underground did a lot of drugs, and in turn, they wrote many songs about drugs; and for those of you who somehow do not know, sweet Jane is a slang term for marijuana; so a song titled “Sweet Jane” written by group drug fiends, well, one would assume it is about drugs, so naturally I just assumed “Sweet Jane” was a groovy song about marijuana; right?
Well at least mostly wrong.
The truth is “Sweet Jane” is about a lot more than just the sweet sensation of sweet Jane. Lou Reed is making a social commentary and it is not as straight forward as simply, “change is a coming, the revolution is here, get used to it squares,” which would be entirely appropriate message coming from the Velvet Underground; but no, Reed has a lot more insight to offer.
If we look at the first verse we see the perspective of an outsider seeing the conformed plastic world as something dull and maybe even tragic.
Suitcase in my hand,
Jack is in his corset, and Jane is her vest,
And me I'm in a rock and roll band.
Riding in a Stutz Bear Cat, Jim,
You know, those were different times.
Oh, all the poets they studied rules of verse,
And those ladies, they rolled their eyes.”
Who would not pride themselves as being in a rock and roll band, especially when contrasted by a banker?
The outsider, presumably Lou Reed himself, observes Jack and Jane dressed prim and proper and compares them to the styles and lives of the poets and artist; and then those ladies rolled their eyes, but at who? Presumably at Jack and Jane who are not part of the revolution.
The differences between these two groups of people are further divided in the second verse:
“I'll tell you something,
Jack, he is a banker,
And Jane, she is a clerk.
Both of them save their monies,
And when, when they come home from work.
Sitting down by the fire, oh.
The radio does play,
The classical music there, Jim.
"The March of the Wooden Soldiers,"
All you protest kids,
You can hear Jack say, get ready.”
The differences continue for a small spell in the third verse:
“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 going tell you that everything is just dirt.”
But then this happens:
“You know that, women, never really faint,
And that villains always blink their eyes,
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,
Wouldn't turn around and hate it.”
Something very humanist is being said here and I feel a little ashamed having looked past it for so many years. Despite the radical differences a rock star, poet, romantic wanderer, that Lou Reed and company might have felt towards the working stiffs Jack and Jane, there is a commonality here, Jack and Jane could very well have been poet wanderers in their past. Necessity can drive people to change and work nine to five for a living. Love can change people too, in fact it is being suggested here that Jack and Jane settled into their boring conformed life for each other, and who has a heart would turn around and wreck the things they love, they would not and could not live like that forever hating it.
But of course we have evil mothers out there just spewing dissent onto everything, conjuring up stereotypes about everyone, even about women, villains and children.
I have always enjoyed the Velvet Underground’s music, and I greatly appreciate the important role Reed played in the creation and advancement of seventies glam rock, but I have personally felt slightly apart from the whole scene. I could never dress, or do drugs, or sleep with trans-women, like Reed, nor would I want to really, furthermore, at best, I can only dabble in guitar, I have neither the talent nor the time to be a poet wanderer like Reed or “Sweet Jane’s” narrator; basically I am Jack. It is nice knowing that working stiffs like me were never poorly misjudged by rock heroes like the Velvet Underground.
It would be very easy for Reed to look at the working stiffs and stereotype them as the boring dirt like people that surely some of his more radical friends would have prescribed them as, but Reed sees the false dichotomy in this; he sees the dual nature most people live with. We human beings are many multiple things, and we play many parts over the course of our lives. Reed understands this and looks at the strange boring conformed folks and thinks to himself, perhaps they were once poet wanders too, perhaps a small part of them still is.
And to tie things back to drugs, it cannot be a coincidence that Lou Reed named the woman in the working couple Jane. I think the reason is twofold. I think Jane has a little wild in her, just like Jack, just like everyone, and this further emphasizes the fact that a little bit of the artistic rebel lives in us all. Also I think the love of a drug like marijuana is comparable to the love of another, and while the hippie musician has his sweet leaf, Jack has his literal sweet Jane, and again, and who could possible judge that?
“Sweet Jane” possesses a very accepting and relaxed view of the world and also is one of the instrumentally most relaxing smooth songs ever created; a double dose of good feelings; a persisting positivity in a turbulent world. It is always so nice to find connections with people who are so wildly different from yourself, but that is only natural, as that is true human nature.
- King of Braves