Category: White Light White Heat

White Light/White Heat seems to come out of a place within all of us that we don’t necessarily like to talk about. It’s the part of us that finds the humor in disturbing things, and that goes to places the more rational and moral parts fear, finding them to be not that bad.

"Lady Godiva" by John Collier

“Lady Godiva’s Operation,” White Light/White Heat’s third track, seems at first inscrutable. John Cale’s smooth voice is near-hypnotic, and the entire song is merely a cycle of two chords. The guitar is just distorted enough that you barely stay awake to its repeated motions.

The lyrics demand more focus, however. There are many competing interpretations; most of them involve Lady Godiva having an operation done on her – although in one, Lady Godiva is the one performing the operation. Sometimes it’s a sex change, and sometimes it’s a lobotomy. But the one I find most interesting is that the “operation” is an abortion. The lobotomy theory makes the story nightmarish in the Boris Karloff way, but abortion makes the terror come down into where we live. Most disturbing is the line “see the growth as just so much cabbage.” Whatever the procedure, the ether wears off and the patient is killed quite gruesomely.

After the detached manslaughter in “The Gift” and the subtle terror of “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” it’s quite nice to have a reprieve. The music of “Here She Comes Now” is similar to the previous two songs, but doesn’t have any of their sneaking darkness. It’s a simple song with simple lyrics. While theories about female orgasms abound on the internet, the lyrics don’t suggest anything other than longing. This moment of tenderness is much appreciated, even if it’s just 2 minutes long and is followed by a burst of cacophonous noise.

That burst comes via “I Heard Her Call My Name,” the record’s loudest and messiest song. The approach is fast, furious and graceless. Listening to it puts you in panic mode and on high alert for the entire length. For the second half of the record, the Velvets don’t hold back on the speed, distortion, passion, or enthusiasm.

For the cap, we have “Sister Ray,” 17 minutes of utter chaos. It was recorded in one take with no overlays, doubled vocals or separate drum or vocal parts. The engineer even walked out during the recording and left the Velvets to their own devices. He said, “I don’t have to listen to this. I’ll put it on Record, and then I’m leaving. When you’re done, come and get me.” The song is notable for not having a bass part; Sterling Morrison, VU’s bass player, is on guitar along with Lou Reed. John Cale plays an organ routed directly through a guitar amplifier to create as much distortion as possible.

The music itself is like a drug-addled nightmare, and the lyrics fit right in. They tell of a group of transsexual drag queens who pick up some male prostitutes dressed as sailors. They all have a wild and raging orgy, during which one sailor murders another with a shotgun. All Sister Ray can respond with is, “you shouldn’t do that. Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?” The orgy goes on; no one cares. Responding to a question about the lyrics, Lou Reed said it was a “joke.” If that doesn’t freak you out even a little, I don’t know what to tell you.

This is the last album by VU to feature John Cale, as his and Lou Reed’s relationship would deteriorate rather quickly after this. To replace him (as if that’s even possible), Lou recruited Doug Yule, a friend of the band. In my opinion, when Cale left the Velvet Underground, he took their mojo with him. Their eponymous third album – the first without Cale – is interesting considering that they had most of their instruments stolen immediately preceding recording. It’s consequentially very sparse, doing more with less. However, it just doesn’t have the artsy gloom of VU&N or the scratching grime of WLWH. A year later they released Loaded, and it had even less punch. Shortly thereafter, Lou Reed decided he’d had enough of VU, embarking on a very successful solo career.

This is seriously one of the darkest and most sinister albums ever recorded. The reason it rises to the top on the hopelessness scale over any album put out by Korn, AFI, Disturbed or Staind is that it doesn’t have to try. A large segment of the alt rock movement (to which the Velvet Underground is foundational) makes its name on a lack of love, hope or prosperity, but it misses the mark somehow. VU is genuine where those other bands aren’t; that’s why they’re still an influence while the rest are languishing. There is certainly something to be said for getting there first.

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!