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In Praise of The Velvet Underground

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Everywhere in the older Chinese writers he encountered praise of music as one of the primal sources of all order, morality, beauty and health.       Hermann Hesse  

I was lying in bed; it was around midnight. I was listening to some AM station playing alternative stuff, late night radio, songs they wouldn’t allow on the pop daytime playlist. The radio had a good clear speaker. It was turned very low so my parents couldn’t hear anything. Plus, my younger brother was asleep in the room’s other bed. It was 1970. I was eighteen. I’d be off to college next year.

I was righteously stoned. Killer bud. Wrecked, we used to say. The sound that came out of the radio looked – yeah, looked, it was probably opiated hash I’d been smoking – like a little stage with tiny performers in perfect proportion. This guitar starts playing, a simple rhythm riff, catchy as hell. I started getting into it. Then the guy starts singing… but it wasn’t really singing. It was this off-key talking thing, a singer couldn’t sing worse if he tried and I thought it was some kind of joke. I mean, I loved Dylan but despite what people said, Dylan could actually sing, he was never as tuneless as this, not unless he wanted to be.

But I got caught up in it, and listened with more than my ears. I started listening with my feelings, for lack of a better way of saying it. I let my mind’s judgment slip off – if you want to call it listening with your heart that’s ok, close enough. And this guy, with this raspy sing-talk thing started connecting to me. I plugged into his voice, the little voice coming from the speaker, the little guy dancing on the tiny stage telling a story about rock and roll and a girl’s life being changed by it and finally I got it. The solid heart of the guy was coming through clear as a bell. This was a real story he was telling, telling honestly. I sensed it came out of the city, some tough place – any fake emotion was stripped away, there wasn’t a bad note, every off-key note he sang was perfect. It took my head off, a big kind of epiphany, I realized in that instant music was whatever you made it into.

It didn’t have to have harmonies or perfect rhyme; it didn’t have to be only notes on a scale; it could be bent and twisted, distorted, spoken, played simply and directly. It could be raw and what really mattered was the honesty.

What I didn’t realize in my revelation was that punk music had been born. DIY, indie alt, whatever you want to call it. I’d just heard the Velvet Underground.

They’d already been around a while, of course – since 1966. In fact, Loaded, which contained their most played songs, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll,” came out in 1970, the last studio record by the band. (The last official one, called Squeeze, came out under their name but only one band member, bassist Doug Yule, played on it, and is considered to be a solo album by him rather than an actual Velvet Underground record.)

The Velvets were breaking up at the time I’d discovered them. Lou Reed, their singer and main songwriter, left over the commercial inertia of the band and an argument with Atlantic/Cotillion Records, when they cut what Reed considered to be a significant, softer section, with the words ‘heavenly wine and roses,’ from “Sweet Jane.” Cuts were made in other songs as well and Reed felt they were butchering them. But the radio version of “Sweet Jane,” with the cuts in, became the popular one, and Reed himself left out the contested ‘heavenly wine and roses’ section on his 1974 live solo recording, Rock and Roll Animal.

It was a while before I came back to the Velvets. I saw The Stooges several times in 70 or 71, but it was mostly lost on me, the distorted fuzz-box guitar, raw power thing. I just couldn’t wrap my head around Iggy’s self flagellation or lying on stage getting reamed in the rear by the neck of Ron Asheton’s Strat. I was listening to Ten Years After, this band called Touch, a great lost LA psychedelic band, The Youngbloods, Jimi, who’d just left us. Like a lot of people, I was hanging onto the 60’s still. For new stuff, there was a band out called Led Zeppelin. And Creedence. McCartney even made his own album. Enough to keep my attention.

It wasn’t until around 1977, with disco ruining music everywhere, that I heard Elvis – Costello, not the King, a record called “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes.” When it first came through my car radio speaker, I pulled over to the side of the road, and was slapping the dashboard in jubilation when it was over. Something new was happening and it had to mean something.

It did. Punk was on the horizon. I put together a band called The Buzzarians with some other guys. We played garage rock. My band partner, Bart, was always talking about Lou Reed and the Velvets. Yeah, I know, I said, but I didn’t. But gradually I started listening to everything of theirs, finding amazing things.

Lou Reed was – is, a writer first and foremost, which resonated with me somehow. It’s what he’s always considered himself to be. He studied with author Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, who told him to write in colloquial language, in the language of the street. I started listening for the writerly stuff, examining the narratives he was crafting in songs. One song, "The Gift," is a Poe/O'Henry sired short story, recited over a musical jam. I started to realize these songs weren’t necessarily autobiographical, but often written objectively rather than subjectively. It was then I could assimilate a song as initially jarring as “Heroin.” Reed said in interviews that the song didn’t condone the drug, or condemn it, it just took a clear look at a user. Showing the addiction for what it was.

And what a song “Heroin” is. Two guitars, Reed and Sterling Morrison, John Cale’s droning viola making all kinds of feedback, two chords maybe three no bass, going from slow to fast and faster, chaotic crashing out-of-time drums that stop with no explanation near the end as the song rages then start again and there’s Lou singing “a mainer to my vein leads to a center in my head and then I’m better off – and dead – because when the smack begins to flow I really don't care anymore…” earlier in the song, he’d established his aching spiritual purity and romantic quest for something else, for sailing the dark seas away a thousand years ago away from the city where freedom’s lost and evil abounds… made a decision to nullify his life but was trying for the kingdom still and when he shot into his vein he felt just like Jesus’ son…

Man… better off and dead, not better off than dead…

…a whole slew of conflicting thoughts running, living or not and how to if you did decide to, all coming fast and finally culminating in the great open ended statement “and I guess I just don’t know…” admitting to helplessness while still hanging onto a faith search, a modern, corrosive version of what Hesse called ‘belief and surrender.”

The conflict Reed felt in the writing of such stuff was apparent in his 1971 interview with Lester Bangs in Creem magazine, saying “I meant those songs to sort of exorcise the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hoped other people would take them the same way. But when I saw how people were responding to them it was disturbing. Because like people would come up and say, ‘I shot up to “Heroin,” ’ things like that. For a while, I was even thinking that some of my songs might have contributed formatively to the consciousness of all these addictions and things going down with the kids today. But I don't think that anymore; it's really too awful a thing to consider.”

Maureen ‘Mo’ Tucker, the drummer, stopped playing at the end of “Heroin” because during the recording, the instruments were all plugged directly into the sound board, no amps playing in the studio and she couldn’t hear the rest of the band, so she just played to what she thought was close to the beat, which wasn’t. The band liked the take and kept it anyway. Do it yourself, honesty matters.

Incidentally, Tucker was one of the first woman drummers in rock, preceded by Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs. Punk bands often held Mo Tucker up as an example that women could rock and it didn’t need to be made into an issue.

Andy Warhol had a significant part in the Velvets career earlier on. He got them a deal with Verve, a prestigious record company that produced serious jazz records. Warhol used the band for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Warhol Factory’s road show performance art thing. "Sister Ray" is the archetypal guitar distortion two-chord jam, recorded on 1968's White Light/White Heat, but emblematic of the sound they created in those early days. They became the house band for extended periods at Max’s Kansas City in New York, a club that later became the birthing ground for the American punk movement, where Patti Smith, The Talking Heads, Television, Blondie and many other bands got their start.

On their first record, Warhol insisted that the Velvets let Nico, a European chartreuse and early ‘superstar,’ sing, so she appears on that record. Reed gave several songs to her, “Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrows Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Nico was never a real part of the group, just a part of their connection to Warhol. Her affected European voice worked great for these songs, though. As far as a song, “Femme Fatale” cuts apart the woman of the title in a way that’s sharper and more definitive than anybody else has done – Dylan and Lennon included.

In “Candy Says,” (sung by John Cale's replacement, bassist Doug Yule) he narrates the woes of Candy Darling, a transsexual member of Warhol’s retinue, telling the story so tenderly, with so much human empathy that one can’t help but feel for the subject without judgement. The final aching plea, “what do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me…?” ending in a soft 50’s ‘doo-doo wah,’ chorus, is heartbreaking.

Reed was writing songs from any source he had at hand, with a documentary eye and a writer’s objective directness that was startling, groundbreaking. He could be a sentimentalist at the same time, like in “Perfect Day” where talks about feeding animals in the zoo and seeing a movie later, a perfect day on the weekend, away from everything, “I’m glad I spent it with you.” Even a string section on the chorus, you’d think Neil Diamond was coming around the corner. Then he inserts the line, “you made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good,” bringing back a hard edge of reality. The song finishes with the repetition “you’re going to reap just what you sow,” apropos of nothing before it, a stark statement in the midst of bliss, as if talking to himself, he had the thought, a dark cloud he allowed to enter into his perfect day.

In Loaded’s “I Found a Reason” Reed resurrects Phillie soul doo-wop, a completely earnest song, with, however, the metaphysical couplet, "I do believe, you are what you perceive," thrown in. With a corny sounding spoken-middle pledge of love, the thing is, it was a sincere homage, Reed loved his source music, wasn’t making fun of it, though it might have sounded bizarre to some oh-so-hip ears coming from a band as cutting edge as the Velvets. But to anyone who still had a heart, it made perfect sense.

David Bowie famously recorded the Velvet’s “White Light/White Heat,” and “I’m Waiting For the Man,” though they both sound precious and a bit ridiculous to my ears now, all swagger and mannerism, lacking any of the ragged authenticity of the Velvet Underground's versions. He reinvigorated Lou Reed’s career by producing Transformer, which contained Reed’s one megahit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Brian Eno said of them, “only about 1,000 people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a rock and roll band.”

Not exactly true, but it was to say they may not have sold a lot of records, but their influence was huge. The Stooges, Television, The Feelies, The Violent Femmes, Jonathon Richman and scores of others, later musicians as well, have dug into the Velvet Underground and found a wellspring of edgy, raw, hard, honest rock that wasn’t without spirituality or feeling, it wasn’t cynical for cynicism’s sake. It was music looking at the modern world with wide open, dead serious eyes. They were the first post-pop modernist underground band, where art met the charts and came out as something very very different. And nothing’s been the same since.

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About Will Brennan

  • JC Mosquito

    An ode to a band that obviously means a lot to you, as they do to many others. But there’ll be some who just never get it – don’t let it bother you – there’ll always be that core of “1000” who’ll never need an explanation. An interesting aside: someone just sent me the Legendary Guitar Amp tape today – like many, he’s catching up, so there’s hope for the world yet.