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’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.