“Lisa Says” (Velvet Underground, Live, 1969 Version)
Why am I so shy? Oh tell me why am I so shy?
You know god times they just seem to pass me by.
Oh, why am I so shy?
There are certain songs you hear when you’re 18 that you can immediately relate to, but are convinced that someday, somehow, you’ll learn to outgrow when you ‘grow up,’ and “Lisa Says,” particularly this version of “Lisa Says,” is one of them.
In this excerpt, the singer recognizes shyness as an affliction that prevents him from giving Lisa a kiss even though he wants to (and she asked)! He’s more drawn to speculation, but he can’t figure out what causes it, much less “cure” it. If he could answer it, would he be able to change, and become the presumably less cruel, and more well adjusted “good time Charlie” he contrasts himself with? Or is the shyness a salient, essential part of who he is?
When I was 18, I and could immediately relate to this introverted persona-- so obviously a Pisces (“made up of mostly water,” as he puts it in “The Ocean,” another song from these sessions), but I probably believed it was a situational mood song more than a salient identity song—not just because of Reed’s later music, or the “rock and roll animal” persona he never felt comfortable with, but because even in 1969, he was on stage singing a song about being so shy. There’s a difference between being shy, and being shy about admitting your shyness in public in a heartfelt, yet artful, way. “Lisa Says,” in contrast to most pop songs, is not shy about admitting its embarrassing shyness. In the process, the song becomes an introvert anthem!
In the original meaning of “introvert,” it’s not a judgmental term as “shyness” often is, but a descriptive term that means “inwardly directed.” This can be evidenced in a tendency to be “always staring at the sky” (as Lisa puts it). But it can also be social, and lead to a deeper, more profound, kiss than what the extroverted “Good Time Charlie,” able to live in the so-called present, is capable of. It’s not just a soliloquy or confessional poem, in which the singer pleas for understanding. The heartfelt melody (and even the campy, music hall middle) shows it understands its shy listener, without condescending. In this sense, the “I” of this song becomes transpersonal--and Reed, as a Pisces Introspective Hero, helped me embrace it, at least for the record.
Looking back on his early songs in 1975, Reed writes:
Passion--REALISM--realism was the key. The records were letters. Real letters from me to certain other people. Who had and still have basically, no music, be it verbal or instrumental to listen to.
The song may not be the letter, but the record is. The record, rather than the live performance, is the key that brings people together (especially in this increasingly fragmented society). It’s not just a “finished product,” but a highly personalized ‘form letter’—written for certain other “inwardly directed” people. Of course, the letter analogy may not have as much meaning in the 21st century, during the internet era, when the contemplative medium of letter writing has become supplanted by a glut of tweets and transient “kiss” of texts. It’s easy to forget that as late as the 90s, it was standard to write a letter, and wait a few weeks for a response. This may have lacked the “immediate gratification” of electronic culture, but certainly allowed the words to sink in, for both the writer and reader. Yet Reed’s emphasis on the record, rather than the song itself (let alone the video), emphasizes the intimate relationship that happens between the recording studio and the solitary listener who may not experience music in traditional club settings.
The records are “not for parties/dancing/background romance,” but are an introvert media. Like most VU fans, I first discovered them through college radio, rock and roll history books, and/or records. Part of this was due to necessity—living in a small town where none of my favorite bands played, and no ‘underage clubs’ that I was aware of, made me value recorded music over the live show (and in some ways the medium of recorded music—for better or worse-- may have a lot to do with why so many of us are so shy; as if the record is where it’s happening more than the ‘actual present,’ which it was easy to feel as a kid).
Only later, did that lure me to see Reed in live performance, which in many ways was less intimate, and even disappointing---at least if one was looking for that kind of connection one could have in solitude. Yet, even in live performance, Reed was able to make many of us feel part of a community of introverts in a way most music could not. And, in a way, Lou himself never did “outgrow” this Piscean, introspective, persona. That may also explain the dark sunglasses more than “the future’s so bright I got to wear shades,” and why Lou Reed abandoned the version of the song that emphasizes all the lyrics about the shyness (he could pull similar theme and music-hall feel off in a more campy way with Moe Tucker singing on “After Hours”), but for those who find Lou Reed usually to be “too cool” (if not quite as ‘cool’ as Leonard Cohen), “Lisa Says” may be one of his most honest songs.
After all, shyness is also a professional workaholic stance: some people like to go out dancing/ and other people they have to work---just watch me now! (as one version of the “cool” rocker “Sweet Jane” puts it), and certainly, just because you’re an introvert, doesn’t mean you can’t rock. In fact, dancing to Lou Reed (or other music) live, and at parties, allows one to be “inwardly directed,” and in a zone, and appear less shy than one really is. A lot of people who knew me, or think they knew me, as a “class clown,” or performance poet, or rambling verbaholic teacher, are surprised when I tell them I’m “shy.” —for some people, it’s easier to talk to the world than it is to one particular person you’re attracted to…and it amazes me how few people understand that.
The record, like the letter (or even the virtual reality of the internet, in theory), is the art that allows the introvert to compensate for his or her “failure” in the social present. I experienced this first hand, when I recorded “Lisa Says” for Jeff Feuerzeig’s “Piano Van Sessions” recently. As I sat in a Ford Econoline with a piano in it, rehearsing the song for a recording, I peered through the little sliver of light and see pedestrians who “are dancing and having such fun” (“Afterhours”). You can say I’m bringing music to the masses, or at least random people who would never hear such a song in a smokeless bar, but I’m wearing my “game face,” in a zone as they say, paying more attention to practicing the song for the recording than to the pedestrians in the immediate social moment.
The future is more present than the present; the record more social than the live performance. I feel isolated by the transient “kiss” of the present that the “street musician” is supposed to thrive on. I feel shy, but—equally—I can understand why Lisa would say, “You treat everybody so cruel!” It may not be my intention, but by the time I realize I came off cruel when she flirted, she’s gone (first thought, worst thought)! I didn’t outgrow it--even if I thought I did for a while with my lady by my side for all those years.
But the recording, by contrast, gives me hope, and it makes me glad to hear that many others consider “Lisa Says,” their favorite cover song video Jeff Feuerzeig and I have made. The responses I’ve received from people all over the world may be cold, “wire mesh mother” comfort in the present—but they keep coming in long after “the night like this” in which I was offered a transient kiss has passed, as if it might eventually compensate for the affliction, and allow me, like Lou, to make a virtue of something I can’t change.
But enough about Lou and myself; what about Lisa? Of all the “says” women (or trannies), Caroline, Candy and Stephanie (and even the Lisa on the VU version of this song), Lisa is the most forward; she’s charmingly making the first move: “On a night like this, it’d be so nice if you gave me a kiss.” She’s not just kissing the guy; she’s using words to get him to do it. And all her rebukes, that might seem nags to someone else, are not really judgmental; she’s just trying to get him to kiss her! When I got into Shakespeare years later, I realize she’s kind of like the Shakespearean comic heroine (Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia, etc.) in that. I could easily fall for Lisa, and probably have a few times; sometimes she’s a tease, but sometimes she’s genuine! She has to tease to please.
Here’s the link to the video on YOUTUBE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npjH4FVqNNk
Chris Stroffolino, March 2013