David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 245: Lou Reed (Coney Island Baby)

April 23, 2023

Every semester, when I do my regular punk lecture for SMC's Popular Culture class, I wish I could dedicate more time to Lou Reed as an influence on the punks. I have even expanded my presentation from a one-class-session lecture to two-class-sessions, but still don't seem to have the time. With 1975 the key focus for Day One, if for nothing else, to show the horrors of Top 40 radio at the time (quick clips of Captain & Tennille, Frankie Valli, John Denver, Glen Campbell, and Neil Sedaka guaranteed to turn any open-minded person to a punk), I have to choose between Patti Smith or Lou Reed as the official entree into the world of punk. In the end, I devote the time to Smith, rightfully so, because her 1975 Horses (and especially "Gloria") sets the stage much better than Reed's Metal Machine Music or Coney Island Baby, his two releases that year.  Neither of those present a particularly good template for punk, although the audacity of Metal Machine Music can do so much more than the romanticism of Coney Island Baby.

Which is too f*ing bad, because "Coney Island Baby," the song itself, is Reed's masterpiece. Sure, 1972's "Walk On The Wild Side" is the song he's best known for; and some of the Velvet Underground stuff even before that, "Heroin" and "Waiting For The Man," most notably, present the troubling side of life in ways no one else could; however, "Coney Island Baby" reveals a songwriter with great wit and touch, attuned to the murkiness of life's darker moments, still able to present the glory of love in that life. In 1975, as punk's embers are about to ignite, Reed showing the world his heart is about as anti-punk as he could have been (and probably tickled the hell out of him once he started being propped up as the punks' idol above all else).

At six and a half minutes, "Coney Island Baby" shares the musical technique that Reed had shown all the way back to "Heroin," a relentless singular melody, highlighted by fleeting musical flourishes, but generally unchanging throughout. Whereas the description for songs like "Heroin" and "Waiting For The Man" tend to focus on the adverb "droning," here the more apt descriptor is "addicting." The guitar riffs are sharp and crisp, closer to Clapton's latest than the Clash's debut. The background vocals blend in like a 50s Doo-Wop group. Steady drumming drives the song in subtle ways.

Reed's vocals, expressive to the content he's singing, emerge through the song and dominate the song. The lyrics ramble, a desire to "play football for the coach" abandoned after the opening for a foray into the darker worlds one associates with a Reed lyric. When Reed gets to the emotional center of the song, right after singing "and you're getting to hate/just about everything," his voice ascends to "the princess on the hill" who will remind us that love can defeat all that's "wrong" through the "glory of love," the repeating lovely mantra that fills the last parts of the song, background singers emerging more and more like angels.

Ultimately, "Coney Island Baby" is about the struggle to fit in, all the more poignant as written by the gay singer, reminding us that the "city is a funny place/something like a circus or a sewer," but which also allows "different people to have peculiar tastes." The desire to "play football for the coach," a phrase so fantastic in its repetitiveness, to be the man people might expect, is the catalyst to end up being "all alone and lonely/in your midnight hour" and to "find that your soul/it has been up for sale." Every kid who thought that some school activity might get them accepted, only later to question what they had to give up, should be taking notice.

This is why the punks should have loved "Coney Island Baby" (and for all I know, maybe they did) because it really is a loser's anthem, the "glory of love" the one thing that might see us through. We can regret so much but we must stay true to what's been true for us.  When Reed wraps up the song with the lovely proclamation to his relationship, "I'd like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel," as well as all those classmates from his school days, "all the kids at P.S. 192," the lovely final chords play out to the sweetest line any loser has ever said: "Man, I'd swear I'd give up the whole thing for you." 

I wonder if Sid whispered those words to Nancy.

Lou Reed. "Coney Island Baby." Coney Island Baby. RCA, 1975. Link here.

Day 244: Tina Turner "We Don't Need Another Hero"

Day 246: The Sugarcubes "Birthday"

See complete list here.