The song starts with some lovely guitar work, sounding lyrical and transcendent. The other-worldly music seemingly transports us to a different time and place. (Audio clip - 128K.) Then, while the last notes of the intro are still fading, the main riff of the song begins its insistent, demanding pull. Lou Reed enters on vocals, sounding street-wise and conversational.
Standin’ on a corner —
Suitcase in my hand.
Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest,
And me, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Huh!
Riding in a Stutz Bear Cat, Jim:
Ya know, those were different times.
All the poets, they studied rules of verse,
and those ladies, they rolled their eyes.
The first verse begins with apparently a first-hand observation of a street scene. The singer is used to life on the street, since he is standing on a corner carrying a suitcase with him. Jack and Jane are introduced. Their clothing is described, although the observation of Jack in a corset is to be taken metaphorically. The next line comes as a surprise since, rather than describing his own clothes, the singer describes himself as being “in” something entirely different: a rock’n roll band. The suggestion is that all three characters are wearing devices that are separate from themselves, and whose effect is to present a certain image to the world. The singer emphasizes his desire to project an image with a swaggering ejaculation after his statement of being in a band. The overall impression is that Jack and Jane are rather conventional and straight-laced, while the singer is more modern and liberated.
Throughout the song, Reed uses various effects to make his words seem conversational, rather than stiltedly poetic. The first of these is to address his comments occasionally to someone named Jim, as if this was an overheard conversation between the two.
The mention of a model of car no longer made now more explicitly refers to a different time and place. The singer muses that things were different then, that poetry was a respected masculine occupation, and that women played a more romantically passive role, unlike the business-like demeanor of Jane in her vest.
Overall, the subject matter of the first verse seems to be the roles we play and the images we project. The singer manages to bring up differences between male and female, conservative and liberated, old and new. It is always easier to see human behavior in terms of roles when we look backwards to earlier times, so this retrospective look makes it easier for Reed to clarify his intentions.
The chorus take us back to the relationship between male and female, and strips this relationship down to the bare bones, with its simple two-syllable repetition.
The second verse gives us a closer view of Jack and Jane.
I’ll tell you something: now Jack, he is a banker,
And Jane, she is a clerk.
And both of them save their monies.
When they come home from work,
Oooh, Sitting down by the fire,
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!)
Sweet Jane! C’mon baby!
Note that this new view of Jack and Jane includes personal information about the couple that passersby on the street could not know about these two. The effect is of an extended reverie by the singer about what their lives might be like, based on the images they present. Again, they are presented as straight and conventional, to the point of appearing ridiculous.
While Reed says nothing explicit about himself here, the form of the lyrics and his singing style draw a sharp contrast with the more formal, regular structures that are part of Jack and Jane’s world. He accomplishes this in several ways. First, he speaks the lyrics as much as singing them, favoring expressive shadings of his voice over purity of tone and rhythm. (Audio clip - 76K.) Second, he adds expressive exclamations (“Oooh,” “C’mon baby,” “Get ready!” and the like), mixing these in with the more formal words of the lyrics. (Audio clip - 116K.) Third, even the formal words consciously avoid many conventional structures, with Reed rushing one line, for example, to insert twice as many words into it as are present in the next. There is the simplest of rhyming schemes, with the ends of the second and fourth lines matching each other, but its most notable effect is to emphasize the irregular line length. So while the words Reed is using describe a world of conventional formality, the mode of expression represents an entirely contrasting life of spontaneity and defiance of convention.
Let’s see what the third verse offers us.
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 gonna tell you that everything is just dirt:
You know, that women never really faint;
And that villains always blink their eyes;
That children are the only ones who blush;
And that life is just to die.
But anyone who ever had a heart:
They wouldn’t turn around and break it!
And anyone who ever played a part:
They wouldn’t turn around and hate it!
The first two verses have set the listener up perfectly for the sudden switch in perspective presented in this third and final verse. The first two lines continue in the already established vein, contrasting the cool and liberated life of the rock singer with the conventional nine-to-five life of Jack and Jane. But then Reed throws in the seemingly offhand line: “Just watch me now.”
The whole song pivots on these four words, teetering momentarily, then shifting irrevocably. For what Reed has just said is that “other peoples they have to work.” So when he says “Just watch me now,” what we are invited to watch is the singer at work. But wait a minute! It seemed a second ago that it was Jack and Jane who had to work, while the singer was part of the group that went out dancing. Reed has effectively just dropped the veil he was hiding behind. Up till this point Reed has gone to every extreme imaginable to give us the impression he was playing, extemporizing, involved in nothing more than casual conversation — now, suddenly, he lets us know that there is an underlying structure and intent, that this has been a performance. These four words also focus attention on the work he is about to do, again revealing that he has a destination in mind, that he knows what is coming next, that this is more than idle conversation.
The remaining lines now reveal a much more complex world than the one presented by the shallow comparisons in the beginning of the song. Reed asserts that there are evil people who will tell us that life is meaningless. But then he goes on to describe these same people as saying that none of the roles we play are true and authentic. Again, he uses behaviors from the past to make it clear that these are pieces of somewhat arbitrary roles, determined by time and place and fashion: women fainting, villains with unblinking stares, adults blushing. Again, the first two verses have lowered our defenses, lulled us into thinking that our cool modern urbanity is more authentic than the ridiculous roles played by Jack and Jane. But now Reed suddenly calls these easy assumptions into question, suggesting that it is evil to doubt the reality of these poses. The last line of the verse emphasizes the seriousness of these issues, saying that if we lose faith in the parts we play, then the only purpose of life is “just to die.”
Note too that the structure of the words also signals the shift in perspective. The words come slower now, with much more conventional and regular line lengths. The effect is both to emphasize the significance of the words, and to represent the predictable conventions that Reed now seems to be describing favorably.
Now comes the chorus, but again Reed turns the table on us, confounds our expectations. Instead of the trite and apparently meaningless words heard before, Reed injects new words, new thoughts: “Anyone who ever had a heart: They wouldn’t turn around and break it! And anyone who ever played a part: They wouldn’t turn around and hate it!”
These words come to us awash in cymbal crashes and background vocals, adding emotional intensity to the weight of the words. (Audio clip - 152K.)
Reed now repeats the original chorus, but those same words now have new meaning. For the singer is no longer merely mocking Jack and Jane, making fun of their attraction to each other — he is now singing with real longing, speaking his own desires, as he repeats those two simple words of attraction and admiration.
The song leaves us with unanswered questions. Who was that masked singer? Was he the cool, modern rocker he first appeared to be? Or was he the conventional poet studying rules of verse? Knowing Reed’s history, the answer is that he was both. And was he really a poet and rock musician, or was he just playing a part, doing a job, putting in time? The answer again is that both answers are true. And are the roles that we play just silly conventions, or are they deeper reflections of our true identities? The truth, Reed suggests, is that the parts we play are as much inseparable parts of our human identities as our thoughts, our dreams, and whatever values we hold dear. Remove them, and the whole fabric of our existence begins to unwind. And what part does the artist play in all of this? Is he an observer, or an active participant? Does his work merely reflect reality as it is — or in some way help create it? For if art helps to define and give value to the roles that we play — as this work undeniably does — then does it not shape the very nature of our lives? If we are all players on a stage, then who is the playwright, and what debt do we owe him?
“Sweet Jane” is one of those works of art that contrives, in a single, dizzying flash, to reveal the world as something far stranger, deeper and richer than it ordinarily seems. It is a work that not only casts light on our daily lives, but shapes them, gives them meaning. If there is a higher function for art — or a better example of its performance — then I have not yet found them.
Next: Bruce Springsteen