Andy Warhol’s fingerprints are all over The Velvet Underground & Nico (he even had his name on the cover, and not the band’s), but he is only to be found as a specter on White Light/White Heat. Lou and John were running the show, along with producer Tom Wilson. White Light/White Heat is very different from the first album is several notable ways. VU&N, though boundary-pushing and avant-garde, had a definite pop sheen and appeal. The presence of Nico alone lent it a little respectability, and Andy made sure the Velvets’ image was just what he wanted it to be. On WLWH, there was no Nico and no Andy; nature abhors a vacuum, but the Velvet Underground must have reveled in this particular one. They took the aesthetic of the first album and turned it on its head, upending the contents and finding much more interesting things inside. Where VU&N was pretty and glossy, WLWH is ugly and bizarre. They amped up the creativity, the daring, and apparently the distortion.

The title track is a nervous and tightly wound rock and roll number. It reminds me of Jerry Lee Lewis in its piano-heavy musical style. The lyrics also reflect Jerry’s own life in their motif of excess and lack of self-control. “White Light/White Heat” is unquestionably about drugs (most critics think amphetamines). Once again, Lou Reed steps carefully so as to not endorse or discourage the free use of drugs. He must think it’s not his place to take a position one way or another. His position is only to say, “this is how it is.”

The song “White Light/White Heat” ends with a droning bass and drum part. The bass is so fuzzy that the sound it’s making is almost not a musical note. Both of them repeat so often that you might think the record is skipping. The message might be that after the high drugs provide wears off everything is in monotone, and sometimes you have to get another fix just to make the noises stop.

"Bowie's in space!"

It’s worth mentioning that David Bowie covered this song quite a bit on his Ziggy Stardust tour in the early 70s. As good as the VU original is, I was simply blown away the first time I heard the Bowie version. Lou Reed sings with a breeziness that contrasts the nervous quality of the instrumentation, but Bowie is bombastic and celebratory. The subject matter gets lost and he’s even unsure of the lyrics, but it doesn’t matter because the focus is on the delivery. Bowie’s “White Light/White Heat” rushes forward with such abandon and freedom, leaving the perfectly good VU version in the dust. Lou Reed must have been simultaneously angered and honored.

VU’s discovery by Andy Warhol might have given them a lot of art scene cred, but they didn’t really lose any of it once they and Andy parted ways. “The Gift” is a picture perfect snapshot of the late 60’s underground art scene. It has two segments that are pretty separate from each other. On the right channel, the Velvets play a groovy extended jam, a good soundtrack to sitting around stoned and doing absolutely nothing. On the left channel, John Cale recites a short story written by Lou for a college class.

The main character of “The Gift” is Waldo Jeffers, a young romantic sap who longs to give a gift to his long-distance girlfriend, Marsha. He’s tortured by their separation and haunted by fantasies of her sexual infidelity. He gets the brilliant idea to send himself through the mail to her; he buys a box big enough for him to fit in, and mails himself parcel post. When the package arrives, Marsha is unaware that it contains Waldo himself. She gets frustrated at her inability to open it, and then gets her father’s sheet metal cutters. When her friend Sheila stabs the cutters through the top of the box, she also stabs Waldo right in the head. I guess romance is dead.

VU circa 1988, during their short-lived reunion

The sick and detached sense of humor of Lou combined with the idiosyncratically Welsh delivery by John makes the story even more disturbing and hilarious. The last line about the “rhythmic arcs of red” particularly kills me. I find myself unable to explain to anyone why “The Gift” is funny. The sheer ridiculousness of it, and the deadpan delivery of something as gruesome as being stabbed in the head has something to do with it, but that’s impossible to transfer to someone else. Either you find it funny or you don’t.

More about WLWH on Friday!

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