“My Friend George”

Lou Reed, I read in the Times, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next April. Various questions arise, of course, chief among which are, Isn’t he already in there? (yes, as a member of the Velvet Underground, so I guess this will be a separate entry) and Shouldn’t it be spelled Rock ‘n’ Roll with a “‘n'” rather than an “and”? (there’s actually a lively debate over this issue, but I guess when you’re naming a Hall of Fame, it won’t do to have an “‘n'” in it: the Victoria ‘n’ Albert Museum, for instance, would just sound silly and might lead people not to go in gawk at all the antique tchotchkes, and perhaps the slangy “‘n'” would turn away customers who would otherwise pay good money to gaze upon Ramones memoribilia.  It’s about dignity, people! But perhaps I digress).

Anyway, I remember the first Lou Reed record I bought, actually as a cassette, back in 1984 called New Sensations.  This is not one of Lou’s greatest works, though I liked it pretty well and used to listen to it on my Walkman a lot.  Everybody and his brother already knew “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane,” but New Sensations was hailed for its brighter, boppier sound. “I Love You, Suzanne” had a happy guitar lick and not a single reference to drug addiction so far as I could tell.

The song I liked best on the album, though, was a darker one called “My Friend George”– I’ve appended the lyrics below, as well as a Youtube clip– and I am pleased to see that, in an interview with Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone from 1989, Lou claimed that he liked it best, too. In his review of the album, Kurt Loder called the song a “lovely, loping” lament for “the hard times of a violent (and possibly psychotic) old pal,” which is sort of right– the song begins, Read in the paper ’bout a man killed with a sword/ and that made my think of my friend George / People said the man was five foot six / sounds like George with his killing stick.  Lou said a little more about it in the Rolling Stone interview that’s worth noting:

That’s my favorite song on that album. I remember that when we were recording it, the engineer turned to me and said, “Do you have a friend named George?” And I said, “Of course not.” One of the nice things about being a writer is that you can have a friend named George.

As the singer indicates, George is not a real person but a symbol, a kind of heroic figure, and it was as such that I liked him so much. My favorite part of the song is when the narrator meets up with his friend at a local bar, after having heard that he’s “got this stick.” George “was wired up,” the lyrics go, and then the following occurs:

Avenge yourself he says to me
avenge yourself for humanity
Avenge yourself for the weak and the poor
stick it to these guys right through their heads

Well, the fight is my music, the stick is my sword
and you know that I love you, so please don’t say a word
Can’t you hear the music playing, the anthem, it’s my call
and the last I seen of George was him
running through the door

It’s the “stick it to these guys right through their heads” that really gets me, that expression of a visceral hatred of injustice demanding immediate, violent response which breaks the rhyme and meter of the song, the audio equivalent of “him running through the door.”

The sentiments of the song sound just as fresh now– in these days of protest over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and so many others, not to mention the simmering anger at the utter failure of any criminal proceedings to be brought against the Wall Street bankers who wrecked the economy in 2008–as they did when I first was listening to Lou on my primitive headphones back in the day.

coal_not_doleAs it happens, I was a student in London in 1984, and the sense of class resentment at the time was at a complete boil.  Margaret Thatcher was utterly at war with the National Union of Miners led by Arthur Scargill in what was probably the last great labor movement of the twentieth century; the miners’ strike would last until the following spring and eventually end with the complete destruction of the union, but not before thousands lost their livelihoods and were forced onto welfare. Coal Not Dole read the buttons one saw everywhere.  “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands,” Thatcher said at the time of the strike. “We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”  The rhetoric was more than matched by action, with police forces in riot gear battling strikers in widely-reported confrontations.  The anger on the streets was palpable, not just in the run-down parts of North London but even the fashionable districts near the Victoria ‘n’ Albert Museum.  At the age of twenty, it all seemed so wrong to me, and Lou’s friend George seemed so right.

02124477-f2a4-4518-a246-a64f67fcaf24During this turbulent period, I can remember one time riding on the top floor of a double-decker bus through the affluent neighborhood of St. John’s Wood, not far from Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Abbey Road studio. The bus careened alongside the roundabout, in the center of which stood a life-size bronze statue of a mounted St. George killing a dragon on a high plinth.  I’d passed by it numerous times, admiring the way the medieval legend of England’s patron saint had been re-purposed as a memorial to both world wars.  On this particular morning, however, it happened that I was listening to New Sensations as we drove on by the monument.  There was Charles L. Hartwell’s saint driving his lance through the monster’s neck while Lou sang, “Stick it to these guys right through their heads.”  Everywhere else in St. John’s Wood, well-heeled business men and women made their way, copies of the Telegraph tucked under their arms, untroubled by the miners’ misery. I gasped at the sudden epiphany.

By some chance, could Lou be referring to St. George in this song, I wondered.  Could the killing stick be the saint’s lance, could the bastards he’s fighting be any number of gold-hoarding dragons?  Lou was Jewish, of course, but was more than willing to employ Christian symbolism when it suited him. When he died in 2013, in fact, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeted, Oh, it’s such a perfect day I’m glad I spend it with you Oh, such a perfect day You just keep me hanging on (Lou Reed).  While he was ridiculed by some in the media for it (“it’s about heroin, dummy!”), I suspect the cardinal could detect in “Perfect Day” the sound of a human yearning after happiness .

And I suppose what I hear in “My Friend George” is a yearning after justice, and three decades later, that sound is undiminished.  This coming March will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Miners’ Strike, and what it continues to mean for England remains unclear. Just a few weeks later, on April 18th, the late Lou Reed will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cleveland, a city now embroiled in protests over the killing of Tamir Rice.  Less than a week later, on  April 23, it will Saint George’s Day. Hey bro, what’s the word? Talkin’ ’bout my friend George, You talkin’ ’bout my friend George.

 

Read in the paper ’bout a man killed with a sword
and that made my think of my friend George
People said the man was five foot six
sounds like George with his killing stick

Hey bro, what’s the word
talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Hey bro, what’s the word
talkin’ ’bout my friend George
You talkin’ ’bout my friend George

I knew George since he’s eight
I always thought that he was great
And anything that George would do
you know that I would do it too

George liked music and George liked to fight
he worked out in a downtown gym every night
I’d spar with him when work was done
we split lips but it was all in fun

Hey bro, what’s the word
you talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Hey bro, what’s the word
talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Talkin’ ’bout my friend George

Next thing I hear George’s got this stick
he’s using it for more than kicks
I seen him down at Smalley’s bar
he was wired up, I tried to calm him down

Avenge yourself he says to me
avenge yourself for humanity
Avenge yourself for the weak and the poor
stick it to these guys right through their heads

Well, the fight is my music, the stick is my sword
and you know that I love you, so please don’t say a word
Can’t you hear the music playing, the anthem, it’s my call
and the last I seen of George was him
running through the door, I says –

Hey bro, what’s the word
talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Hey bro, what’s the word
you talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Talkin’ ’bout my friend George

Hey bro, what’s the word
you talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Hey bro, what’s the word
what me saying ’bout my friend George
Hey bro, what’s the word
hear you talkin’ ’bout my friend George
Hey bro, what’s the word
I hear talkin’ ’bout my friend George

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About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in England, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “My Friend George”

  1. Pingback: Orwell against mistreatment of prisoners | uncomelyandbroken

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