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Liner Notables #3: The Velvet Underground And Nico

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Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…  

“You’ve never really known life until you’ve fucked death in the gallbladder.” It isn’t immediately apparent how this warm and fuzzy homily from the crap-and-camp film Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein is related to such music in which the figure of one song, as Lou Reed would have it, "started dancin' to that fine fine music / You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll."

But if anyone can put a death-mask on celebratory vigor it would be the avant guardian who splattered a soupçon of soup-can consumer culture on canvas and called it art. Indeed, as Andy Warhol produced them on their 1967 self-titled debut, the Velvet Underground and Nico — way before death metal and goth — stuck out from the Summer of Love like a Winter of Discontent.

With songs such as "The Black Angel's Death Song" and lyrics that deal matter-of-factly with the slipstreaming surrender to "nullify my life" while "closing in on death" ("Heroin"), the dark realism of a group who brought their tried-and-true brand of experience and experimentalism to this innovative album extends to the liner notes as well.

Those observations came in the form of newpaper excerpts from chomping-at-the-bit arts and music reviewers bending over backwards and soundboards to wallow in Warhol's mixed-media/performance art ensemble, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable — a psych-out extravaganza designed to introduce VU to a potentially waiting world. As it turns out, the all-boffo commentary prominently featured in The Velvet Underground and Nico overstates a wide variety of preening pretentiouness as creative juices overflow.

Some writers stick to the expected hyperbole for the times, and concern themselves with the show-bizzy rock particulars. "At the Plastic Inevitable it is all Here and Now and the Future." One, more taciturn, takes his turn with "Three-ring psychosis"; perhaps "like Berlin in the decadent '30s" fits the bill; or "fused together into one magnificent moment of hysteria."

Meanwhile, the music of the Velvet Underground is described by one twisted wordsmith as a combination of "Sado-Masochistic frenzy with free-association imagery… the product of a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis de Sade." Another frets that, by comparison with the "far out" headliners, the "great, groovy group which opened the show sounds passe."

But, getting back to the Frankensteinian philosophy of life and internal organs, other liner note contributors display an intimate fascination with dying and danger. You would not have thought death had undone so many…

"Not since the Titanic ran into that iceberg has there been such a collision as when Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable burst upon the audiences at the Trip Tuesday."  Embellishing this notion of watery graves, another reviewer opts for "these flowers of evil… in full bloom". To experience this menacing assemblage "is to be brutalized, helpless — you're in any kind of horror you want to imagine, from police state to mad house." 

Is the late Nico, the Velvet Underground's resident Teutonic "Chanteuse" (as she is billed), a "beautiful, flaxen-haired girl," as one writer puts it — or, as another attests, "another cooler Dietrich for another cooler generation"? A little less sweetness and light comes when a somewhat obsessed Dante wannabe plunges head-first into the inferno: "Nico, astonishing — the macabre face — so beautifully resembles a memento mori, the marvelous deathlike voice coming from the lovely blond head."

He might be a little head-over-heels for a Necro-Nico persona, but at least he's not gaga over gallbladders.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Vern Halen

    Amazing as this album is….so’s White Light/White Heat….as well, the third eponymous release. Nico’s Chelsea (sp?) Girl & Marble Index, made after her departure from the VU are standouts as well. This is simply a superficial comment here: any in-depth discussion of the Velvets could take up a whole website in itself.

  • Mark Saleski

    nice.

    1. i love old-fashioned liner notes
    2. spiffy: soupçon of soup-can
    3. i hate the word “chanteuse”

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Vern. I’m thinking of going on to Lou Reed soon enough. I may be one of the few who really like his first pop-oriented solo album–the anti-Metal Machine Music.

  • Vern Halen

    MMM got discussed on BC about a year ago on BC if you wan to find the thread. I had it on 8 track (!).

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks Mark–I kind of like, instead of “chanteuse,” “a cooler Dietrich for another cooler generation” for a billing. A litte wordy, but every group should have one…

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Vern–You had an 8-track of “Metal Machine Music”? I hope it was Quad, ’cause that’s the only way to experience all the subtleties and nuances.

    I think I might’ve resurrected MMM here as a topic at one or two points last year. Once, when I was relating my experience of working in a record store and, in sampling all four sides in disbelief, unwittingly unleashing it industrial-strength din-in-a-drum force on an ungrateful customer base for a few minutes.

  • Mark Saleski

    i have MMM on vinyl.

    AND i’ve listened all the way through!

  • Vern Halen

    No quad – but I wish I knew where that 8 track was – I’m sure it’d be worth something as a novelty item.

    Yes, I heard it all the way through – makes Neil Young’s Arc sound (almost) melodic.

    Hmmmmm…. now that I think about it, I think I’m going to record a cover version of MMM – bring it into the 21st century, y’know – maybe rap over it & use some samples. Or perhaps a straight bluegrass version would be kinda interesting…..

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Listened to Metal Machine all the way through? Did you guys lose a bet or something?

  • Mark Saleski

    i have a high tolerance for weird.

  • Vern Halen

    And I’m eternally hopeful – I kept thinking maybe there was a great song buried as a hidden track or something in there somewhere. Normally, I’d look at the grooves for some clues to sonic changes, but as I said, it was an 8 track.

  • Mark Saleski

    nope. hellacious noise.

    i looked on ebay today…no MMM on 8track.

    dang.

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    doesn’t have a good beat, can’t dance to it…

    I appreciate the wayward experimentalism of the whole project — but even more, I love the idea of Reed convincing the record company to go to the extra expense with a two-record set. Because one record wouldn’t be sufficient to get the shock, if not awe, across?

    Would’ve loved to be the the room for that conversation.