The Velvet Underground And Nico, “Femme Fatale”

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Finding the roots of LouTallica’s “Lulu” in an early Velvets classic

When downtown rock and roll legend Lou Reed and heavy metal gods Metallica shocked music fans everywhere with the announcement that they were collaborating on a project, we thought it’d be a good time to dig into the American Songwriter archives.

We featured Lou Reed in a cover story in 2009. At the time of the interview, Reed had recently performed his 1973 magnum opus Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, with an album and film of the performance following in 2008. In the eclectic interview (Reed is notorious for being a tough interviewee), the songwriter talks about the impact of revisiting Berlin.

“My major interests are the lyrics of that. It wasn’t the Velvet Underground. No, [Berlin] was something else: the one that almost sunk the ship.”

With this week’s release of LouTallica’s Lulu, an album of songs based on the work of German playwright Frank Wederkind that is sure to puzzle fans of both artists, Reed has returned in part to the strange theatrical world of Berlin. But “Lulu” is also a character that seems to reappear from another part of Reed’s past.

In an interview with the New York Times, Reed says Lulu is a “particular kind of woman,” and describes the project as “a vehicle for a certain kind of problem men have with women… The music is trying to give you that feeling of being upset or angry, wherever she takes you. You’re up, you’re down; now it’s gone. Is there a man amongst us who has not run into something like that?”

That “problem” could also apply to the character from The Velvet Underground classic, “Femme Fatale,” with it’s famous line, “She’ll build you up to just put you down.”

According to Victor Bockris’s Lou Reed: The Biography, Reed wrote the song at the request of Andy Warhol, who at the time was managing The Velvet Underground, while making art and films with a group of “superstars” at his Factory loft in New York. One of those stars was the heiress and socialite Edie Sedgwick. “Andy said I should write a song about Edie Sedgwick. I said ‘Like what?’ and he said, ‘Oh, don’t you think she’s a femme fatale, Lou?’ So I wrote ‘Femme Fatale’ and we gave it to Nico.”

Sedgwick, who was born in California to an wealthy but deeply troubled American family, met Warhol in 1965 and began appearing in his underground art films, such as Kitchen and Poor Little Rich Girl.

But by 1966, Warhol and Sedgwick had fallen out, and the New York socialite could be found at the Chelsea Hotel, where she became linked with Bob Dylan. (Several Dylan songs from the Blonde On Blonde period, including “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” are thought to have been inspired by Sedgwick.)

Though the song was written by Reed with Sedgwick in mind, it was sung on record by Warhol’s new muse and controversial Velvets member, Nico. For many fans, the song has come to also represent her. (Sedgwick died of a drug overdose in 1971; Nico, born Christa Päffgen, died in 1988.)

The Velvet Underground recorded “Femme Fatale” at Scepter Studios in New York in early 1966 and the song was initially released as the b-side to “Sunday Morning” in December 1966. Both songs then appeared on the band’s debut album, The Velvet Underground And Nico, in 1967.

On a live version of the song recorded in 1969, (less than a year before Reed would quit the band), and later released by Polydor as The Quine Tapes in 2001, Reed comments on Sedgwick’s reckless lifestyle: “She paid for it because she got put away… Edie’s a superstar. Was a superstar.”

Through the years, “Femme Fatale” has been covered by many artists, including Big Star and REM, as well as Nico on her 1985 solo album The Blue Angel. Most recently, Beck tackled it for his “Record Club” online series.

Sedgwick has also continued to fascinate contemporary audiences. In 2006, Sienna Miller depicted her life in the film, Factory Girl.

“Femme Fatale”

Here she comes,
You’d better watch your step,
She’s going to break your heart in two,
It’s true.

It’s not hard to realize,
Just look into her false colored eyes,
She’ll build you up to just put you down,
What a clown.

‘Cause everybody knows
She’s a femme fatale
The things she does to please
She’s a femme fatale
She’s just a little tease
She’s a femme fatale
See the way she walks
Hear the way she talks.

You’re written in her book,
You’re number thirty-seven, have a look.
She’s going to smile to make you frown,
What a clown.

Little boy, she’s from the street.
Before you start you’re already beat.
She’s going to play you for a fool,
Yes, it’s true.

‘Cause everybody knows
She’s a femme fatale
The things she does to please
She’s a femme fatale
She’s just a little tease
She’s a femme fatale
See the way she walks,
Hear the way she talks.

‘Cause everybody knows
She’s a femme fatale
The things she does to please
She’s a femme fatale
She’s just a little tease
She’s a femme fatale
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
She’s a femme fatale
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
She’s a femme fatale
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
She’s a femme fatale

Written by Lou Reed

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