Archive for February, 2012

Most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t really involve the original concept of a fictional band, but the concept works anyway because of the transformation the band was going through. They may not be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they’re not the Beatles anymore, either; at least, not as everyone knew them.

A good example of this is “Getting Better.” It starts off sounding a lot like Rubber Soul and Revolver-era Beatles, or most notably like the single “Penny Lane” which had been released earlier that year. But it also adds elements like a tambura and the strings of a pianet being struck with a mallet. There’s also some great interplay between the singers in the chorus. Paul sings “it’s getting better all the time,” to which John responds “it can’t get no worse.” That sums up the optimism/pessimism relationship that the two had quite concisely.

The Beatles are not without their foibles, though. “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home” are two missteps, slight though they are. I can feel Paul’s twee cutesiness creeping up again on “Hole.” I gotta give him credit for it not showing up at all thus far in the album, and “Hole” is mostly harmless in the full scope of things. “She’s Leaving Home” is another matter. It cranks up the melodrama to a groan-worthy level. Then there’s “When I’m Sixty Four.” I shake my head every time I hear it (and only occasionally bop along to the infectious melody). “64” was the first song recorded for Sgt. Pepper, and was actually written by Paul years earlier. The tape of Paul’s vocals is actually sped up a little in order for him to sound younger, which fits the youthful romanticism of the song.

John fares a lot better than Paul on this record. Gone were the days of glorious collaboration between the two that produced “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Occasionally they make a song together with stupendous results (“One After 909” comes to mind), but for the most part they work independently.

the circus poster that inspired “Mr. Kite”

“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is one of the things a great piece of art should be. It’s based on a very old carnival poster from the 1800s. The poster talks about somersets and hogsheads and other thing I can’t understand, meanwhile guaranteeing that their show will be the “grandest of the season!” The lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” are taken almost directly from the text of this poster. John bought it from an auction when the Beatles were filming a promo video for “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The song really goes over the top to evoke the entire carnival and county fair experience, employing harmonium, glockenspiel and some complex organ sound effects. The middle eight uses a vast collage of fairground organs and calliope music all jumbled together. All these recordings were literally chopped up with scissors and taped back together for the final master. The mangled remains of the tape are what we hear.

Amazingly, John once said he “wasn’t proud of that” and “was just going through the motions.” Even John’s apathy can create great songs. He’s like the best painter in the world who really wants to be an electrician.

In the same vein is “Good Morning Good Morning.” In both of these songs, I find John’s dissatisfaction with conventional instruments and ways of recording to be quite refreshing. “GMGM” features Sound Incorporated doing the distinctive brass parts, but brass instruments are just the beginning of John’s thinking outside the box. It also features animal noises at the beginning and end of the song, purposefully arranged so that each animal is able to “devour” the one before it. It ends up sounding like some demented farmyard. The song also shifts time signatures in a mad, constant rush that never lets you get comfortable.

On Friday: Hey, George writes songs, too!


3-year-old Julian’s picture that inspired “Lucy”

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class a few years named Lucy. At the beginning of the year, we would all take our desks, then go around and say our names. It seemed like every year it would come around to Lucy, she would say her name, and the teacher would say, “huh, like that song.” Then the teacher would sing the first line of the chorus to “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” and say, “I love that song.” Lucy would just nod. She must have heard that a billion times.

The responsibility for “Lucy” lies with John Lennon’s son Julian. He was 3 years old when he brought home from school a picture he had drawn. Kid pictures are a funny thing. We praise and laud them to the kids as if they’re the prize of the century, and hang them on the fridge. Viewed with a critical and objective eye, of course, kid pictures unilaterally suck, but that’s not the point. It’s the kid that made the picture that matters, not the picture itself. And if it’s our kid, then Jackson Pollock better make way. Aside from their usefulness as a window into the child’s psychology, they make parents feel proud of their kid. And they can even inspire a song.

“Lucy” was one such song, and a big fat thank-you needs to go to Julian, and the real-life Lucy who in turn inspired the picture. It’s a wonderful piece of psychedelic whimsy, and has a childlike boppiness. It also features a shift from a 3/4 time in the verses to 4/4 in the chorus. This normally annoys the crap out of me (especially when it’s accompanied by a big tempo change), but it works here. The lyrics speak of tangerine trees and cellophane flowers and marshmallow pies, but the strange and perhaps drug-induced imaginings of the narrator don’t make the listener feel ill-at-ease.

I can hear the question on your lips before you say it. “Is the song about drugs?” There’s the simple fact that it’s called “LUCY in the SKY with DIAMONDS.” L. in the S. with D. LSD. Any 2nd grader (with an unsettling knowledge of controlled substances) could figure that one out, so that’s not enough. But the song has a weird, other-worldly quality, encouraged by the celeste-like intro. The picture I get from the lyrics is of a crazy, colorful world, but it’s more Dr. Seuss than Timothy Leary. Personally, I don’t buy the drug subtext thing, but here’s the main reason. It’s a quote from John himself.

“It was purely unconscious that it came out to be LSD. Until someone pointed it out, I never even thought of it. I mean, who would ever bother to look at initials of a title? It’s not an acid song.”

That settles it for me.

Lonely Hearts

The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the most famous in rock and roll; it’s a collage of about 60 celebrities and influential people. Dead center are the four Lonely Hearts, with that famous bass drum in the center, their namesake. Complete anonymity is just a dream, however, since the flower arrangements spell out BEATLES. But I’ve got to give them props for sticking to their concept. Right next to the Lonely Hearts are life-size wax figures of the Fab Four. The message is clear; this isn’t the Beatles you used to know.

The first track begins with the low chattering of a crowd, as well as an orchestra tuning up. John’s quivering guitar comes in on lead, and Paul’s voice dives right into the storytelling. Late in the song, the character Billy Shears is mentioned. He’s apparently going to sing the next song (and he wants you all to sing along!), and we wait with excitement. But when the second track starts, it’s Ringo. Even today, it seems like I’m getting gypped.

Ringo – how on EARTH did this guy marry a Bond girl?

Ringo has sung before, and it’s usually a pretty cheesy or maudlin experience. “Act Naturally” and “Honey Don’t” are both pretty groan-inducing. I kinda feel sorry for Ringo; he’s always been a bit of a pariah. Ringo-bashing has been a sport since he joined the band. When asked by a reporter if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, John responded, “he’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.” In his famous SNL plea for the Beatles to get back together, Lorne Michaels offered a check for $3000, but added, “if you want to pay Ringo less, it’s okay; we understand.” I mean, yeah, the guy can’t sing and he looks like a frog, but throw him a bone once in a while.

I was familiar with the song “With a Little Help From My Friends” from an early age, but it wasn’t a Beatles song; it was the theme song for The Wonder Years. That intro with the old-style video camera and the Joe Cocker song were a golden part of my childhood. That’s pretty ironic because at that age, I simply couldn’t understand the nostalgia that show represented for people of the previous generation. The Joe Cocker version is 100% soul (sung by a white guy; more irony), whereas the Beatles do it pretty sing-songy and kid-like.

On Monday: Is “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” about drugs?

Salt and Pepper

When I decided to crawl out of my Beatles-hating phase in college, I went to Napster (remember Napster?) and picked up a somewhat random assortment of Beatles songs. The requirements were that they had to be songs from Sgt. Pepper or later, and I had to have heard of the song titles before. This included both versions of the song “Sgt. Pepper,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” and “A Day In the Life.” Upon listening to those a few times, I decided that I needed the whole album in order to put them in context.

Looking back, that was one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. It ranks right up there with going to London when I was in college and with marrying Ruthanne.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles – 6/1/1967

A revolution was ready to take place in the minds of the four members of the Beatles. All the madness and fervor the last 4 years had brought had taken a toll on John, Paul, George and Ringo. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom in record time, gotten to the summit, looked out over the landscape and said to each other, “I guess we’d better keep moving.”

At that point, in mid-1966, the four of them had had enough: of rock and roll stardom, and of each other. First they did something unheard of for an act that big: they stopped touring. And I don’t mean they took a break or something; they stopped. Even today, that’s pretty weird. It causes me a little incredulity to think that the biggest, most important albums the Beatles made were after they stopped touring. John had a little part in a movie, How I Won the War, and immersed himself in the art scene. This was where he met Yoko. Where would we be if that hadn’t happened? Ringo spent more time with his wife and kids, and Paul co-wrote the score for a film, and even won an award for it. George, for the first time, went to India with Ravi Shankar for what passes for a spiritual awakening. Later, he would convince the other three to go, but more on that later.

At the heart of this, I think, is that all four of them were tired of being the Beatles, and wanted to be someone else. So in late 1966, they started doing just that. On a plane ride from Kenya to England, Paul got the idea for an alter-ego band, characters to stand in for the four of them not just socially, but also musically. On that very flight, tour manager Mal Evans asked what the S and P pots on their meal trays were, and Paul simply responded, “salt and pepper.” I think a light bulb must have turned on in his head.

The original concept for Sgt. Pepper was a concert performed by this fictional band; the four members even had alternate names, and different colored uniforms like superheroes. This didn’t take very long to get abandoned, though it didn’t completely disappear. Much of the visual aesthetic is still intact, even if most of the music doesn’t directly reflect it. My Chemical Romance was taking a page directly from the Beatles (borderline stealing) when Gerard Way invented the Fabulous Killjoys. It was a brilliant idea because it allowed the Beatles to experiment in any direction they pleased. As a result, their creativity rose to meet the opportunity.

Tomorrow: meet the Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Move Over, Rover

While most of Are You Experienced is very heavy and forceful, it’s a thick, plodding heaviness. It is mid-tempo, enveloping the listener in a cloud. “Fire” is the one song that breaks out of that mold and goes for the fast-paced, youthful energy that gave rise to late 70’s and late 90’s punk. One of Jimi’s great strengths is contrast over the course of an album, and again, this song’s frantic pace is made even more frantic by the comparison to more stately tracks on the record. There are even hints of rap music in the “move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over!” line. He shouts and howls interjections of “get on with it, baby!” and “aw yes, it’s Jimi talkin’, baby!” like only a black man can; if he were white and saying those things, he’d look like a moron.

“Third Stone From the Sun” is a spacey near-instrumental. The only lyrics are Jimi doing spoken-word about aliens discovering Earth, or some crap like that. The first time I heard of this song (before I actually heard it, mind you), I was watching Pop Up Video on VH1, back in the day. The video in question was Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” and I learned that the guitar solo in “I’m Too Sexy,” was lifted from “Third Stone From the Sun.” Something occurred

Right Said Fred, perfecting the one hit wonder

to me then: why don’t I check out the Jimi Hendrix song instead of this cheap knock-off? It was just a few weeks later that my dad came home with that box of LPs from the tag sale. When I looked through them and came across Are You Experienced, low and behold, one of the tracks was “Third Stone From the Sun.” Fate, I tell you!

Finally, the backwards guitar and symbol crashes open up the title track. For this last song, Jimi puts on his drug dealer hat; the first one’s free. The term “experienced” which he throws around might refer to sex (if you listen to my mother, an “experienced” girl was a girl who “slept around”), but maybe not. He follows the question “are you experienced?” with “have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.” Maybe he’s talking about another aspect of the counter-cultural lifestyle. Later, he intones, “not necessarily stoned but… beautiful…” With that, he simultaneously says he IS and ISN’T talking about drugs, which the listener must have suspected all along.

If you want my opinion (and it stands to reason you do else you wouldn’t be reading this), he’s really talking about something bigger than drugs or sex or any particular thing. “Experienced” is a state of being, a space where ordinary humans transcend their temporal nature for a second and glimpse something unknowable. I can’t describe it any more than that. It’s like an old saying about blues music: if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

Jimi Hendrix was a flame that blazed brightly for 5 years, and then burned out. I had heard stories when I was little that before he went on stage he would smash a bottle of liquor on his forehead, and then cover the bleeding from the broken glass with his bandana. He died in late 1970 in what is one of the worst ways to go – choking on his own vomit. But this remains: rock and roll is forever changed (and for the better) because Jimi was part of it.


While the origins and authorship of “Hey Joe” are in dispute and probably lost to the sands of time, Jimi Hendrix’s version is the most well-known, if not the first. The Leaves have what is considered the first recording of it, done in November of 1965. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s a Jimi song.

There was this guy I was friendly with in college whose name was Joe. One day I saw him in the cafeteria and I said, “Hey Joe. Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” He didn’t say hello back, but just looked at me with utter confusion, slightly disturbed. “Huh?” he said. I hung my head and sighed. “No, you’re supposed to say, ‘I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady; I caught her messin’ around with another man.’” More confusion, and his voice rose about an octave and a half. “HUH??” But I saw him a few more times in the coming weeks, and said the same thing to him each time. Eventually he got it. Around the 4th time, he responded, “Oh wait, I know this! Umm… I’m goin’ to shoot my woman, ‘cause…” He took a few seconds with a look of deep concentration on his face. “’Cause she was cheatin’ on me!” He looked like a 7th grader that just won the spelling bee. “Close enough,” I said with a smile.

The casual violence of the lyrics is indicative of the blues, a low-class, grimy and common type of music from its origins onward. And Jimi’s version is blues all the way, with an electric twist. His voice lends itself to the material creating a unique synergy. The criminal story told is made vaguely more disturbing by Jimi’s at once lazy and intense tone. His improvisational “and that ain’t too cool…” gives me a little shiver even to this day.

As flip as Jimi is about murder in “Hey Joe,” that attitude is turned on its head on “Foxey Lady.” This is probably the heaviest and most powerful track on the entire record; how appropriate that it’s saved for the guttural, visceral sensations of physical and sexual attraction. In “Foxey Lady,” Jimi’s a roaring tiger, stalking his prey with absolute certainty that it will be his. This song is all id; the entire inflection, both lyrically and musically, is “I want you, and I will HAVE you.” Even for the blues, this is pretty startling.

“Love or Confusion” is a fairly straight-forward song about the bewilderment that overtakes a person when they embark on a romantic relationship. The real prize here is that Jimi creates a “drone” that would make Lou Reed proud. The tonic played on an electric guitar just once is sustained by the loop of feedback created by the distortion; it goes on so long that there is no end in sight. It’s commonly said that one note played for 35 minutes with feeling is better than the fastest and most technically excellent notes played in a dead and mechanical way. If you can’t understand that concept, just listen to “Love or Confusion” and you’ll get it.

Jimi’s approach, while most commonly like that of a wild animal, is not one-dimensional. There are a few moments of tenderness, made even more poignant by the sharp edges of the rest of the album. “May This Be Love” is nothing more than a love song, unabashed in its message, yet poetic enough to avoid seeming maudlin. I’m constantly taken by surprise by this song, especially wedged between “Love or Confusion” and “I Don’t Live Today,” the latter of which ends with a swirling sonic chaos over which Jimi intones “there ain’t no life nowhere…”

Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding

Right after “I Don’t Live Today,” a moment of aggressive hopelessness, we’re treated to another softer song, on which Jimi proves his mastery of this type of material as well as the hard stuff. Not many artists since him were able to shift so effortlessly between these two extremes. “The Wind Cries Mary,” apparently inspired by a Curtis Mayfield riff, reveals a poet’s heart. Something as mundane as an argument with his girlfriend about her cooking can produce this type of response; for a poet, anything can be a source of inspiration, from a sunrise to a fingernail clipping.

The 6 string electric guitar had been an icon in rock and roll for over 40 years when I got my hands on it, and I took for granted that it always was as it currently is. To a trained ear, the sound of the guitar had gone through somewhat massive metamorphoses over the decades, but that didn’t matter when I was 13. When something first enters your life at that age, it has no past. Everything about it is fresh and new, and it has all come into being just now. I soon figured out that the electric guitar is much older than I am, and my partnership with it was just one of many partnerships it had. It’s a player; it had broken the hearts of many young lads before me.

This universal aspect the guitar has to it just makes what Jimi Hendrix did that much more mind-blowing. Jimi played the player. He took the 6-string and mastered it. His was the reverse of my relationship with it; I did its bidding, but it did his.

The story of the 6 string took a major and permanent turn when Jimi got a hold of it. It took on a power, force and volume that no one had heard from it before. It was rather simple, but most genius innovations involve a simple idea. He knew that there was more potential for power to run through the guitar, so much that one amplifier couldn’t hold it. Jimi’s idea broke down into “why don’t we just use more than one amp?”

Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix

Pete Townshend of the Who told a story about when he met Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Jimi had come to a Who show and liked it very much. Their wild abandon and lack of restraint appealed to him. When Jimi introduced himself to Pete after the show, they were talking shop for a bit. Jimi asked Pete what kind of amp he used, and Pete told him about his model. Jimi nodded his head and said, “I think I’ll give it a try.” Later, Pete went to a Jimi Hendrix Experience show. He found that Jimi had taken him up on his recommendation, but he wasn’t just using one of his amps; he was using four – at the same time.

This was where the idea for the Marshall stack came from. One amp was no longer enough for those who could afford it. Marshall amps (I don’t know why it was that particular brand; I don’t think that was the brand that Pete and Jimi were discussing) were just run one into another, and the multiple amps were “stacked” one on top of the previous  ‘til they became a literal mountain of sound. It was both sonically powerful and visually intimidating.

Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced - 5/12/1967

That power and charge are present from the very first second of Are You Experienced. That’s the most remarkable thing about “Purple Haze.” It’s a splendid lead-off track because it’s an indicator to the rest of the album. It has a kind of wild abandon from the beginning. Jimi is singing lyrics that say he’s out of control, lost, blind, and in unknown territory. But he sings them with an excited and even victorious voice, and says he’s just gotta “kiss the sky.”

“Manic Depression” follows; the power is different but not lesser. It’s a nervous, tension-filled power. In harmony with that emotional tone, the lyrics are about a mental anguish that can only be relieved by music. While the lyrics speak of a man in turmoil, Jimi’s voice suggests something different. He’s laconic and breezy, like he’s not quite taking this seriously.

On Monday: Jimi’s goin’ down to shoot his ol’ lady…

Tag Sales

It was the summer of 1995; I was 14. It was a quiet, sunny afternoon. At about 3:00, my father came home and walked into the living room all aflutter, carrying a cardboard box. He said he had just come from a tag sale near us. This was a common occurrence during the summer in New England where I grew up. Once a year, most people took stock of the stuff they had acquired over the year and, being dissatisfied with their stuff, their wallets, and themselves, decided they would sell it. This only happens for a single family about twice, but there were enough families where I grew up that a plethora of tag sales happened every summer.

My dad had just returned from one with a real find. He’s an intense music enthusiast. I get my passion for music (and all things) from him; combine that with my mother’s meticulous nature and my near-OCD preoccupation with music becomes clear. Anyway, he showed me what he had acquired at the tag sale he went to, which was a stack of used LPs. Such things, especially gotten at tag sales, are usually not very exciting, but as I looked through them, I could see that they were. A lot of them I had never heard of (Spirit, Electric Flag, Mountain), but others made me catch my breath. December’s Children; Abbey Road; Band of Gypsys; and what Dad said was the first Beatles album ever. In actuality it was Meet the Beatles!, which was the 2nd album to come out in the US, and the 5th overall. To be fair, it said right on the cover that it was “The First Album by England’s Phenomenal Pop Combo.” That just ain’t true.

But the real prize was Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix, the first album from the guitar deity. This may not seem more remarkable than the other great finds I just mentioned, but for this. The sticker on one side of the vinyl listed the songs on side A; flipping the vinyl over revealed a duplicate side A sticker. A simple factory mistake, but it makes the value of the copy shoot up incredibly. As amazing as this is, it’s shot down in flames by the next thing: the previous owner penciled in on one of the stickers “Hendrix Side B.” Any value the copy may have had is completely destroyed by a bit of lead powder. It makes me weep.

The Velvet Underground + Nico + Andy Warhol

The prize for the trippiest song of the 60’s is won by “Venus In Furs” by the Velvet Underground (silver medal would go to the Doors’ “The End”). Lou Reed and John Cale were initially brought together by their shared appreciation for the drone: using sustained notes and chords in long and sometimes disharmonious strains, creating a sound that’s designed to help the listener descend into madness. The two of them created drones no stronger than on “Venus In Furs.” Reed’s use of the ostrich guitar is particularly notable. In addition, the lyrics penned by Lou Reed present nothing less squirm-inducing than sado-masochism, which is sexual play-acting that depends upon one person being “master” (or in this case “mistress”) over the other person, who is the “servant.” The servant is completely beholden to the master, dependant on him/her for everything. In this way, the master exerts absolute power over the servant. At its heart, sado-masochism is the desire for power expressed in sexual terms.

“Venus In Furs” is based on a novella of the same name by 19th century Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (his name is where the term “masochism” comes from). The novella appears to make a comment about equality among the genders, and even has whispers of the women’s movement.

the cover of VU&N, with the peel-off sticker

Finally, we have “European Son,” which completes the dream of the album with a dizzying freak-out of absolute madness. From the very beginning of this nearly 8 minute track, one can hear the nervousness and tension in the music. It’s a dam that is just barely holding the river back for the first minute or so. Suddenly, the sound of breaking glass; a piece of the dam breaks, then another, letting streams of water out at various points. Soon, the dam gives way and the entire river rushes forward with abandon. The Velvet Underground & Nico ends in approximately seven minutes of utter chaos; instruments become amorphous shapes in a multi-colored world, and the swirls and pinwheels of sound lose all form and coherency. When the album finally ends, the listener is crying “no more.” Oddly enough, “European Son” is nothing compared to the track that ends VU’s second album, “Sister Ray.”

I had heard about the Velvet Underground ever since I really started paying attention to popular music history, which was when I was about 13. However, I had never heard any of their music, or at least not knowingly. I had heard R.E.M.’s two VU cover songs from Dead Letter Office (“Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again”), and I had probably heard snippets of VU songs in my voluminous viewing of MTV and VH1. I ate up Behind the Music and Legends like jelly beans. But sadly, it was embarking on the project you are currently reading which brought the Velvet Underground into my zone of deliberate listening. The Velvet Underground was always a name I knew from musical lore, but had no application for. I understood them to be incredibly foundational (half of my musical heroes listed them as a primary influence) but didn’t understand why. In the full scope of my life, my conversion to a Velvets fan has been very recent. Now, on the other side of it, I wonder what took me so freakin’ long.

Friday: the art of Jimi Hendrix

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico – 3/12/1967

The Velvet Underground’s first album is kind of like a dream, shifting and undulating as a mirage would. Poppy and bright one minute, dark and sardonic the next, The Velvet Underground & Nico presents the New York experience with a smirking laziness and cynical amusement about its inherent darkness. It drops names of places in NYC with generosity, and now having lived there I understand them. But beware: this is New York as seen through the eyes of a heroin addict, which colors every perception.

The album starts with a tinkly, delicate celesta melody, followed by a fey voice. “Sunday Morning,” the first track, is a soft introduction to this dream-like landscape, and a very pretty one. The name “Sunday Morning” was penciled in at the top of the track list on the album’s back cover because it wasn’t originally intended to be on there. Verve Records bigwig Tom Wilson suggested late in the game that the record needed one more song with lead vocals by Nico, to potentially be a big single. In the end, Nico only sang background on the track.

It might be said (incorrectly) that the album truly starts with the second track, “I’m Waiting For the Man.” This is Lou Reed’s deadpan and surprisingly frank description of the narrator (presumably Reed himself) going up to the corner of Lexington Ave. and 125th St. (Spanish Harlem to the uninitiated) to buy $26 worth of heroin, and use some of it on the premises. It bears a trademark of Reed’s writing in that it deals with important subject matter in a morally neutral voice and observational tone. Even though it’s in 1st person and the narrator is in the thick of heavy drug use, Reed doesn’t comment or expound; he merely presents.

This motif is also present in “Heroin,” the seventh track. The music of “Heroin” is intended to be representative of what it’s like to be on its namesake drug, and the lyrics detail with some startling beauty the feelings associated with it. I’ve never been on it myself (I prefer not to take drugs that don’t prevent me from dying), but I remember it being described as the best orgasm you’ve ever had x100, and lasting several hours. To me, the best description comes from Reed himself: “I feel just like Jesus’ son.” Reed caught a lot of flack, some people saying that in his naked and uncommented portrayal of drug use he was implicitly glorifying it. It was a sin of omission at worst; I would wager that anyone tipped over into heroin addiction by this song was already too far gone.

The pairing of Nico and the VU might seem awkward and unnecessary, but it was worth it for the creation of a single 6 minute track. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is like a hazy specter, haunting and beautiful. Nico’s deep alto is the centerpiece of the song’s deadened plodding. John Cale’s relentless piano (complete with a chain of paperclips woven throughout the strings) and Lou Reed’s ostrich guitar (all 6 strings tuned to the same note in different octaves) work in perfect harmony with Nico’s non-histrionic voice, creating a sound that can’t be duplicated. There is so much magic here that it boggles the mind. Its subject matter is that the celebrity/high art/rich living lifestyle, which the Factory was a big part of, is ultimately empty and unfulfilling. Lou Reed was very good at self-examination, but not so good at self-improvement.

Nico’s other two contributions fall pretty flat. “Femme Fatale” is a song Andy Warhol asked Lou Reed to write about Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick, sung by another Factory superstar. Andy’s odyssey with Edie is the stuff of legend, and “Femme Fatale” is a fairly accurate portrait of her, as well as true to Andy’s perception of her. But the song itself is rather bland and unexciting. I think Nico’s voice is best used in a doomy, unsettling presentation, like “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the third Nico song on the record, are simply not that. They’re both little more than pop tunes, sterling though they may be. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is even one of Reed’s favorites; after Nico and the Velvets parted ways in late ’67, they performed the song imitating Nico’s German accent.

More about VU&N on Wednesday!