The Velvet Underground & Nico at 45
“It takes blues and booze, Lord, to carry me through” - Charlie Patton
The blues would not have been possible without Reconstruction. Yeah, I know, this is supposed to be an article about the 45th anniversary of the seminal rock album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, but stick with me for a minute. The Africans that were brought to America as slaves developed work songs and spirituals that helped them fight boredom, drudgery and injustice, but it wasn’t until Emancipation was achieved and the Constitutional Amendments guaranteeing citizenship and the vote were passed and brutally circumvented, that what we now know as the blues began to develop. What we hear in this music is the cry of the cast out, the holler of the ignored, and most importantly, the anger of the betrayed. Freedom was the great promise made to the slaves and their children. This promise was broken for blacks living in Southern States as white majorities actively suppressed their franchise by imposing Jim Crow laws that segregated the races and denied the vote for many up until the 1960s. The blues is the reaction to this broken promise. The lot of the free black man in Mississippi, the source of the Delta blues, became one of hardship, stripped of dignity and denied admission to an America that was on its way to unprecedented prosperity. The bluesman had his guitar, he had his bottle, maybe a little reefer to ease the pain, and a woman who was the font of all his pleasure and pain. And because his song was so seductive when it first appeared on radios in the late 1920s, upstanding citizens called it the devil’s music.
The blues continued to develop in the ensuing years, becoming more nuanced, going electric, but always retaining its outsider status. It’s ironic on many levels that the blues did not take a foothold in the mainstream until the civil rights movement overthrew the formal structures of oppression and white kids from Britain started playing it back to American audiences. Sure, rock and roll in its very name had taken the sexual abandon of the bluesman and cleaned it up just enough for white teenagers to fall under its spell, but it wasn’t until the mid 60s that the blues in a somewhat pure form achieved significant popularity. The young Brits, and soon their American counterparts, loved the raw, frank nature of the songs recorded by Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, but they were most obsessed with mimicking the forms, bending the notes the right way and finding the elusive groove. But because it was second- or even third-hand, it could never achieve the kind of authenticity the itinerant black farm worker had, cataloging his woes twelve bars at a time. No, what was needed was an outsider music the white musician could sing from his own place of loneliness and alienation. Who would speak for those born into white privilege but unable to conform to the rigidly defined standards of the new middle-class consumer culture? In the 50s, the Beats would begin howling against a system that they could never feel a part of, but it was Lou Reed and the Velvets who finally set that isolation to music.
Brought up soaked in R&B and doo-wop, and liberated by the musical and lyrical revolutions kick-started by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, Reed was in a unique position to start a revolution of his own. As a teenager he was given electroshock therapy to cure his bisexuality and at Syracuse University he studied with and befriended the writer Delmore Schwartz; two formative experiences that cemented his outsider stance and provided the means for expressing it. He was lucky enough to meet another young man who was struggling to find a place in the world of avant-garde classical music. John Cale, with a viola in hand and drones in mind, bonded with Reed over the bizarre, one-note tuning he played on a single they recorded called The Ostrich. Armed with Reed’s view of New York’s underbelly and Cale’s cutting edge minimalism, they set out to record music that would use the platform of a major label and a genre that had come to dominate the pop charts to bring the voice of that lone bluesman, drunk, crying in the night, to a worldwide audience.
Of course it didn’t exactly work out that way. With little support from the label, and an amateurish production that made even its least controversial songs unsuitable for radio, the album peaked at #171 on the Billboard charts in 1967, despite the backing of Andy Warhol, then a major celebrity in the art world. Its influence would eventually vindicate that failure, but the fact remains that the kind of abrasive, even disturbing outlook on display was never and probably will never gain wide acceptance from the public at large who, when confronted with the seedier side of life, is content, considers it good form, to look the other way. Even the moments superficially suitable for public consumption are haunted by a lurking unease. The album begins with such a moment on Sunday Morning, with Cale twinkling away on celesta and Reed, in a performance stolen back from Nico to grab his share of the glory, delivering the most delicate vocal he ever recorded. But listen closely and you’ll hear the drone in the background, most likely the heavily reverberated piano and viola of John Cale. Something sounds not quite right, and even though they were clearly aiming for a hit with this record, their avant-garde instincts undercut their pop ambitions. Similarly, the choice of fashion model Nico, whose voice can only be compared to that of a transvestite vampire, ensured their most lyrical set pieces would have a dark undercurrent. Thus, on the beautiful Femme Fatale, when Nico declares “she’ll break your heart in two”, AM radio listeners would have been inclined to take her literally. Even the most generous of unsuspecting consumers would have wondered why this gothic princess from a horror movie was singing all these pretty songs. Nico’s attempts to stay in key sounded anything but effortless, coupled with the band’s lax attitude towards keeping their instruments in tune, made conventional songs like I’ll Be Your Mirror a struggle to turn into aural wallpaper. It was horrible in a way, but you couldn’t ignore it - you either had to accept it or turn it off. Most people chose the latter. Even when they were musically on their best behavior on a song like There She Goes Again, a British Invasion style riff with a Dylan-esque vocal that The Monkees could have recorded, Reed is lyrically flirting with danger, his girl out walking the streets, down on her knees, until he courts it outright, asking “what can you do?” and then answering, “you gotta hit her”.
So much for the pop songs. On the grittier side of things they kick off with I’m Waiting For The Man, a love song to a Harlem drug dealer. This is where rock and roll finally consummates its marriage to the blues. Charlie Patton needed his spoonful so bad he couldn’t even say the word; “cause I want my…, Hey baby I’m a fool about that…”. Was he talking about drugs or a woman, and in the throes of desire weren’t they the same thing? Here’s where Reed has landed 45 years later. The shock is in the audacity of using the pop charts, now the provenance of baby boom teenagers, to express such an unvarnished, adult sensibility. Songs vaguely about drugs had started to creep into the charts with hits like Mr. Tambourine Man and Eight Miles High, but this was no trippy, dream pastiche; this was real life. Then there’s the homoeroticism, which I struggle to find precedent for in pop music. But the originality does not stop with the lyrics; the beat, or more accurately the pulse, of this song is startlingly new. It’s a chug-a-lug of hammering eighth notes, utterly unsyncopated, and the urgency of that fix is palpable. It’s not hyperbole to say that after this song, pop music can never be quite the same. Dylan and the Beatles had opened the door, but Reed and the Velvets kicked it down, and now nothing, absolutely nothing, was off limits. As if daring himself to go one step further, Reed then gives us Venus In Furs, a droning masterpiece about sado-masochism. Here, the full band, rounded out by Sterling Morrison on bass and Maureen Tucker on drums, really comes into its own. Who ever sounded like this? Who would have dared? Mo religiously avoiding the high hat, Cale wielding his viola like a whip, and Reed relentlessly strumming his one note Ostrich guitar, the whole mélange is instantly unforgettable. And then there’s Heroin, a song that takes the rave-up pioneered by The Yardbirds and brings it down to earth with one of the most ambivalent songs ever recorded about drugs or anything else. Everything about this song is a testament to the band’s refusal to look away from the reality of what man can do to himself. They ride the rush and wallow in the comedown.
The sonic innovations continue in The Black Angel’s Death Song, which is an unsettling poem set to viola and guitar, punctuated occasionally by Cale hissing violently into the microphone. Not only does this song eschew any percussive instruments at all, it uses the viola in the abrasive fashion of Penderecki, a contemporary composer then experimenting with novel sounds to draw from the strings. This rich hybrid of style, genre and daring represents the best of what the musical revolution of the 60s had to offer. It’s the deliberate break with convention to serve a higher artistic purpose that we still identify with and the reason we still cherish this music. The old cliché is that not many people bought this record but everyone who did started a band. The truth in that statement is that the boldness and inventiveness on display is so inspiring, yet so approachable, that it makes one believe there’s a masterpiece sitting in each of us, waiting to be unveiled.
Like any great work of art, these mere words are insufficient to grapple with its myriad implications and resonances. You understand when hearing it more than you could possibly express. That’s why we are us and they were the Velvets. Remarkably, they were able to equal some of the high points on this record at various points in their short career; on White Light/White Heat, on Sister Ray, on Pale Blue Eyes, and elsewhere. But nothing could quite recreate that first step into the dark closet of the soul. The intelligence behind it is so keen that young people today discovering it for the first time will not cease to be shocked and illuminated by it. The rest of us can return to it again and again to revel in its audaciousness and truth, just like we do Charlie Patton’s moan calling to us across a century. So it will always be.29 October, 2012 - 02:00 — Alan Shulman