Category: The Velvet Underground and Nico


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!