Sweet Jane / Bay of Angels

A vinyl single, one song on each side. Released on Record Store Day, 20th April 2014.



by Robb Johnson 

Lou Reed has always been a massive influence and inspiration on my writing, guitar playing and approach to music. I think that “Sweet Jane” is just a sublime piece of rock’n’roll; it has a great lyric, truly poetic in its use of everyday language, and a lovely memorable two-word-two-chord chorus. It’s a narrative vignette that’s complex without being over clever, and it seems the perfect balance of intelligence and three-chord simplicity – only of course, it’s four chords and there’s that breathtaking bridge at the end, that got left off most versions after the record company ditched it for the allbum “Loaded”. I used to listen to Lou’s playing with the Velvets – the manic thrashing and the beserk feedbacked lead lines – and that was how I wanted to sound. Somewhere I read a quotation from Lou where he said he thought rock’n’roll could and should show the same levels of adult intelligence as the novel or cinema – and then added “I was wrong”. I don’t usually play covers, but I have played “Waiting for the Man” quite a lot, “Sweet Jane” quite a lot more with most of the electric bands I’ve played in, and “Walk on the Wild Side” at acoustic gigs.

When Lou died, October 27th last year, we were in Nice. My dad had died in August, and I was utterly bereft, and needed something to look forward to, so the money I got for working on “Gentle Men” I used to get us to Nice for a couple of nights. On the 27th, we’d walked up to the hill that has The Bay of Angels on one side and the harbour on the other. At the top, this guy was sat in the autumn sunshine playing “Stairway to Heaven”, more for his own entertainment than with the intention of getting passers-by to put money into his guitar case. I stopped and listened, and we started talking. He said he liked playing those old songs as they reminded him of better times when he was young. He looked at me: “We must be both about the same age,” he said. He looked at the rings on my right hand, and asked if I played. When I said yes, he handed me his guitar and said “Play something.” So I did. He picked up some percussion, and played along. I finished the song – I had played “Karl Marx City Blues” – and asked him his name. He told me his name was Dimi, and that I should keep on playing. We did three songs together. People put money in the guitar case, someone stopped and filmed us, but that wasn’t the point. The point was we both had a real good time together, as Lou once sang, and I was so grateful for this kindness, for this little moment that reminded me how much it means to me to be able to play guitar and sing, and my life was saved by rock’n’roll, again. And when we got down from the hilltop, Arv found the news that Lou Reed had died. I stood out on the balcony of our apartment, at the corner of the block, watched the street pass by, and sang “Sweet Jane”, and the next day, I started writing about Dimi and me, and me and Lou, and that became “Bay of Angels”.

So, being a bit short of money again, I couldn’t afford to do an album for Record Store Day, so I thought it would be really cool to do a single. Originally I thought it would be hilarious to release a Christmas single in April, but everybody else, even my sons, thought that I would be the only person to appreciate this situationist prank, so I then decided to do a single to say “Thanks Lou”. I was going to do an EP, not just “Sweet Jane” but also “Walk on the Wild Side” AND “Junior Dad”. This is I think the last song Lou recorded, and I think it is devastatingly beautiful. I googled it and was happy to see Lou ending his recent concerts with this song, and with each performance the song seemed to become even more devastating and yet more beautiful, with Lou adding lyrics and images. But – and this may come as a relief to the many people who find “Lulu”… challenging, on talking to the vinyl manufacturers, it seemed better in terms of audio quality to just stick with one song per side. And anyway – that’s the great thing about a single – it’s your one shot, your best two songs.

So – “Bay of Angels” wasn’t really a problem, but how should I do “Sweet Jane”? I think a really good song should sound pretty much as good on an acoustic guitar as it does with any amount of electricity in a band behind it, and I think “Sweet Jane” isn’t just really good, it’s a great song. So I worked out a way of playing it, fingerpicked, and with the weird bridge about the “heavenly wine and roses” included too, on an acoustic guitar. I had promised myself after Lou died, that I would finally take the trouble to learn how to add the bridge on at the end, and again was happy to remember, when I last saw Lou at Hop Farm Festival in 2011, that he’d been including the bridge back in his performances.

Recording was a bit of a problem. There was a deadline mid-February for Record Store Day manufacturing, which I didn’t discover until the last days of January. This was also when my last lot of acrylic nails had just fallen off, taking most of my real nails with them, just before I recorded these songs, and my voice was more ropey than usual, my throat having developed a nice line in catarrh and coughing, but I was using my lovely old Martin D18, which sings like a choir if you so much as look at it, and I think the recording is okay. You always think you could do it better – well, I do, anyway – but usually I find you just end up doing it differently.

Anyway – this is only available from proper record shops on April 20th, Record Store Day, and the photo and sleeve design is by Hari.

And again, thank you Lou, and thank you Dimi.