Category: The Velvet Underground


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.

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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!

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!

The Big Apple

In the summer of 2009, my wife and I moved to New York City; more specifically Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. Previously, we lived in western Massachusetts, a place filled with forests and general stores and Robert Frost-esque rock walls. Needless to say, there was a bit of culture shock. I had gone to college out near Boston, so I was a little used to the grind and crawl of city dwelling, but Ruthanne was less prepared. She spent the first 2 months nervous and unhappy; she liked the rock walls, and didn’t like the cement wall that our apartment window looked out on.

New York isn’t hiking paths and twisty roads and mountains that are really hills; it’s plazas and avenues and digital billboards in Times Square. It’s Frank Sinatra and the Today Show and TKTS and restaurants we’d never heard of. It’s a place that almost lives up to your expectations you had since you were a kid, but falls tragically short.

But there is another side to the Big Apple (a name no native New Yorker has ever uttered in his life); a stereotypical seedy underbelly part of its past, now acknowledged as lore and legend. Andy Warhol and the Factory and drug-addled parties are an integral part of it. Describing in detached detail that aspect of NYC, as a Greek chorus might the plight of Oedipus, is the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground started as two guys (Lou Reed and John Cale) who loved the avant garde, and eventually became the house band of the Factory, Andy Warhol’s art/movie studio. The Factory had its original home on 47th St. in Manhattan, and was populated by a cadre of artists, hangers-on, drug addicts, and Warhol’s friends. Usually, a single Factory denizen would be all four.

Andy Warhol

Andy was one unique cat. Everything I’ve read, heard and seen about him says he was spacey, free-thinking and revolutionary in his own way, but also manipulative, insensitive, and capable of extreme cruelty. His films are some of the most sexually explicit (and sexually bizarre) ever produced, though he was an unmarried, deeply Catholic virgin. Some say he was gay, but as far as intercourse with another human being goes, I don’t think Andy ever had it.

Enter the VU. After humble beginnings, including John Cale giving their demo tape to Marianne Faithful in the hope she would pass it on to Mick Jagger (she didn’t), Andy Warhol eventually took notice of them. In addition to becoming the Factory’s house band, the Velvet Underground also provided the musical accompaniment to Warhol’s traveling multimedia art show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol also became the band’s manager, and the Velvets benefited from Andy’s high public profile. He “produced” (that’s with air quotes) their first album, though his involvement was little, in the name of giving the band free rein over their own sound. But the most important contribution Andy made was his suggestion (which translated as his undeniable command) that they be joined on a few songs by singer and Factory It Girl Nico.

Ah, Nico. I’m tempted to think the pairing of Nico and the Velvets didn’t initially excite any of the people involved, and was a grudging thing at best, but I’ve seen no indication of that. Still, some of the best parts of their first album came when Nico had no involvement whatsoever. Nico, who was an individual artist in her own right, couldn’t simply be absorbed as a member of the Velvet Underground. I don’t think either party would have been satisfied with that; Nico would have to share the spotlight with four other people, and VU would have to take on what was essentially dead weight. Like it or not, that pairing created an environment that might not have produced such a fantastic album had it not happened. It couldn’t be sustained, though – Nico quit before 1967 was even over.