Sound of the City’s search for the quintessential New York City musician enters Round Two this week, with battles in the Round of 32 daily.
Last time around Patti Smith showed John Zorn who has the power, and Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground got all “Venus In Furs” on Stephin Merritt. But when Smith takes on Reed and company, which iconic downtown punk innovator will survive?
Patti Smith: “Rock N Roll Nigger”
Almost went with “Because The Night” or “Gloria,” but those were interpretations of work by, respectively, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison and I thought it only fair to pick something that showed off her songwriting in its purest form. Over an apocalyptic Lenny Kaye riff, Smith stands up for outsiders everywhere, her fury at intolerance matched only by her love for everyone made to feel outside of society.
The Velvet Underground: “Heroin”
I really wanted to go with the heartbreakingly frail “Pale Blue Eyes,” (which, for what it’s worth, Smith does a great cover of) but “Heroin” captures the full spectrum of Lou Reed’s art. Reed gives detached, non-judgmental details about his struggles with addiction over an escalating storm of feedback that seems seconds away from breaking apart. The mournful coda mixes sonic relief and Reed’s gut-punching resignation that “heroin will be the death of me.”
Longevity: They’ve both made classic albums (Loaded, Transformer, Easter and Horses are just the start) that continue to influence new artists and will be included on Best Album Ever Lists as long as such lists continue to be made. Both are also good for an album every four years or so. Their recent releases (Smith made a covers album of songs by Jimi Hendrix and Tears For Fears, Reed made an album of New Age meditation music in 2007 and the disastrous Lulu in 2011) aren’t even in the same tri-state area as their best work, but both can be still be counted on for intense live shows that shame younger artists…unless Reed is in a bad mood that day or something.
Innovations: Both solo and with his band, Reed tackled lyrical matters (drugs, rough sex, gender confusion, homosexuality, depression) that were rarely discussed so directly, if at all, before he came around. He was also playing around with feedback, noise for noise sake, unconventional song structures and purposefully raw production before such things were in vogue. Hell, he’s the one who made them in vogue. He gets the edge here over Smith, who at her core is a superfan who refined and distilled what she loved (and to her immense credit continues to love) about her favorite artists, from Bob Dylan to The Who to Nirvana.
Starpower: Reed has more overall mainstream fame and a greater number of well-known pop hits like “Satellite Of Love” and “Walk On The Wild Side,” but he’s not that much more well-known than Smith, who’s also had a few well-known singles (“People Have The Power,” “Because The Night.”) But these are both beloved cult icons, more known for a total body of work and a towering legacy rather than any sort of mainstream success.
Intangibles: Smith’s acclaimed biography Just Kids won The National Book Award in 2010 and introduced her to a new generation of young fans. Reed’s recent album length collaboration with Metallica was the most critically reviled album of last year…which at least shows that Reed still knows how to get a reaction out of people.
Likely Winner: Smith’s public image is that of an optimist with an unbreakable heart, Reed’s is that of crotchety grump that still gets his jollies by pushing people’s buttons. Which is to say that people might be more inclined to vote for the person who seems like less of a dick, but this could probably go either way.