A well-loved song is recorded and re-recorded, covered and covered again, imitated and satirized and then rediscovered and reimagined all over again. And so it has been with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Here’s a reasonably comprehensive and annotated record. (Props to Joe Levy’s post at Billboard from last October, which covered some of the same ground, and to this valuable post by Jim Higgins of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)
Velvet Underground recordings
Live recording of an embryonic version of the song in a mellow, down-tempo mood, beginning with the “Anyone who ever had a heart” section, ending with the “Heavenly wine and roses” coda. Jack and Jane haven’t entered the picture yet.
Live at Max’s Kansas City (summer 1970)
Nearly a year later, the Velvets were playing a version of “Sweet Jane” that’s pretty close to the studio recording that would be released that winter — including the double-tempo intro section. One big difference in the lyrics: Here, Jane’s in the corset and Jack in the vest.
For the canonical album recording of “Sweet Jane,” the producers at Atlantic trimmed the song of its “Heavenly wine and roses” middle section. In more recent reissues, it is restored, as here:
Also reissued: an early studio demo version, with some dreadful off-tempo cowbell apparently contributed by the band’s manager, Steve Sesnick.
Live MCMXCIII (1993)
When the original lineup of the Velvets reunited in the early ’90s, “Sweet Jane” was of course in their set, at a perky tempo and with Mo Tucker’s stripped-down drumming at the center.
Lou Reed solo versions
Ultrasonic Recording Studio session (Dec. 1972)
This broadcast, from around the time of Transformer’s release and bootlegged under titles like “Waiting for the Glittering Man,” offers a crisp live performance of “Sweet Jane” in which Reed actually sounds like he’s having fun. Listen to that “fa la la la la, fa la la — hahaha” he slips in between verses at around the 2-minute mark. (It’s also available here.)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (1973)
In which “Sweet Jane” enters prog-rock heaven — with an epic symphonic guitar intro (by Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter) that it doesn’t at all need, but that sounds deliriously perfect to this day. After all that orchestrated grandiosity, the song itself feels like a little bit of a let-down.
Unreleased, live performance in Paris (1974)
Maximum glitter: By now Lou had bleached his hair and put down his guitar. He stands by the side of the stage while the band plays a funk intro.
Street Hassle (1978)
In which Reed turns himself inside out, and grimaces. “Gimme Some Good Times” opened this album with an over-the-top self-parody of “Sweet Jane.” Reed’s call-and-response is all painful self-laceration:
Hey if it aint the rock ‘n’ roll animal himself, whatcha doin bro?
standing on a corner
well i can see that, whatcha got in your hand?
suitcase in my hand
no shit, what it is!
Take no Prisoners (1978)
“I’m gonna quote a line from Yeats: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity’ — now you figure out what I am.”
From the strangest live album of Reed’s career — full of hostile banter, jokes, and interruptions — comes this rangy take-off on “Sweet Jane,” including rants about Barbra Streisand (“Don’t you hate those Academy Awards, man?”) and free-associative monologues (“I give good clerk!”).
Live in Italy (1984)
Reed couldn’t deny “Sweet Jane” forever. As he said in the liner notes to the Loaded reissue, “I loved that lick. I still, to this day, love playing that lick.” With his early-’80s band (guitarist Robert Quine, drummer Fred Maher, bassist Fernando Saunders), he pulled himself together and started talking the song seriously again. In this version, Saunders’ hyperactive rubberized fretless bass stands out.
Live on David Letterman (1994)
Dig the headless guitar.
Live with Soul Asylum (1995)
At the show celebrating the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
AOL Sessions (2002)
Just a seated Reed, Fernando Saunders, and Antony Johnson singing backup, in a room at AOL.
Animal Serenade (2003)
The live album didn’t include “Sweet Jane” — but the bonus track is out there. Here you can hear the intro, with another take of Reed’s explanation of “how you can make a whole career out of three chords.” Answer? There’s really four. “As in most things in life, it’s that little hop at the end.”
Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse (2008)
Recorded in Dec. 2006, a month after the Web 2.0 conference show, and sounding like it’s from the other side of the artistic world: measured, thoughtful, exquisite, valedictory.
Live with Metallica (2009)
At Madison Square Garden for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Covers and others
All The Young Dudes, Mott the Hoople (1972)
Ian Hunter’s interpretation of “Sweet Jane” is mellower than the original, sweetly memorable, and for many years more well-known than the Velvets’ version — surely, the definitive cover.
One reason is that, apparently, Reed himself was at the May 1972 Trident Sessions where David Bowie was producing the album, and actually sang a demo for Hunter to study. This, apparently, is that take.
A few months later, in July 1972, Reed shows up at a Bowie “Save the Whales” benefit at the Royal Festival Hall and sings “Sweet Jane” with the Ziggy Stardust band. Never, perhaps, have artist and material been better matched. If only the sound were better.
All this makes sense because, a year earlier, on Hunky Dory, Bowie had included a song — “Queen Bitch” — that is a pure homage to “Sweet Jane” and the Velvet sound. Later, at Bowie’s 2010 birthday celebration, Reed joined Bowie to sing it:
The Trinity Session, Cowboy Junkies (1988)
Alongside Mott the Hoople’s, this is the other influential “Sweet Jane” cover — following the Live 1969 arrangement and serving up the song in a thick 3 a.m. trance. I’ve always found its vibe captivating but resented its effacement of “Sweet Jane’s” essential propulsive energy. Reed reportedly told the Junkies this was his favorite cover.
Yeah!, Brownsville Station (1973)
The “Smoking in the Boys Room” guys offer what is maybe the sweetest, most middle-American-sounding, straightest “Sweet Jane” ever.
I Write Your Name, Jim Carroll (1983)
Carroll’s musical ouevre was heavily in Reed’s shadow, so it’s no surprise this is a lovingly phrased cover, but there’s something dutiful about it, too.
Entertainment! [reissue], Gang of Four
A noisy, taut, aggressive rendition, as you’d expect, but with evident love. Live track included in the 2005 reissue of their first album.
Halloween show, Phish (1998)
Phish played the entirety of Loaded at this performance, stretching out “Sweet Jane” to eight-minutes with a jam at the end that takes Allman-esque flight.
A later, less rangy performance from Phish in 2012.
Demo, Sugarcubes (1986)
Bjork’s take on “Sweet Jane” is dire: she cuts off abruptly at “…and life is just to die.” This is apparently a “demo for the Icelandic movie ‘Skytturnar.’ ”
This World is Not My Home, Lone Justice (1999)
Maria McKee brings “Sweet Jane” a loving twangy country-rock vibe.
Live, Michael Stanley and the Resonators (2012)
OK, this one’s hard to beat: Stanley shoehorns the chorus of Jim Pepper’s “Witchi-tai-to” right into “Sweet Jane.”
Brides, Annabel Lamb (1987)
Kinda plodding. But thumbs up to the bassist for quoting the “Walk on the Wild Side” bassline at about 1:30 — “a little classical music.”
Live, Two Nice Girls (1986)
There are multiple versions of this duo’s delicate, dreamy “Sweet Jane,” into which they’ve interpolated pieces of Joan Armatrading’s “Love and Affection.” I like this one the best for its mention of the “Sweet Jane” covers contest that was apparently held in the city of Austin in 1986.
Miscellaneous live covers
There’s a goofy REM version kicking around out there, in which Michael Stipe — forgetful of the lyrics — keeps spitting out “Stutz bearcat!” The Kooks kind of mess up the song too. Wreckless Eric brings his inimitable accent to the party. “Sweet Jine” indeed…
Live, Gov’t Mule (2013)
The night after Lou Reed died, Gov’t Mule played “Sweet Jane.” The riff rings true.