Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Velvet Underground & Nico at 50

Beyond the banana: The inner gatefold of The Velvet Underground & Nico
There was a time in the late 1970's when the first album by The Velvet Underground seemed to be more talked and read about than listened to. The radio only played Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll from their last album, Loaded, which was the easiest of their albums to find - and the most conventional. When discussing The Velvet Underground & Nico, their first album, the most common words were along the lines of "dark," "gritty," "uncompromising," even "scary." So for those of us who were freighted with all this baggage when finally dropping the needle on side one, the initial shock was how unexpectedly gentle it was.

The first song, Sunday Morning, starts with a childlike glockenspiel melody straight out of Buddy Holly's Everyday, accompanied by a sliding bass line soon joined by a viola drone and drums that were more of a hint than a rhythm track. Lou Reed enters, practically whispering: "Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side." THIS was the fearsome VU, this was Lou Reed, who taught us to walk on the wild side? Sunday Morning is an absolutely gorgeous study in optimistic melancholy - and love at first listen for me - but clearly, this legendary record was more complicated than we had been led to believe.

Musical pioneer and producer extraordinaire Brian Eno famously said that almost no one bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but that everyone who did formed their own band. This is partly why the album sounded so different than expected - after living with its influence for 15 years, with some of the resulting music pushing the envelope even further in terms noise and volume, the incredibly nuanced original was bound to take some getting used to.

Now, the second song, I'm Waiting For The Man, was more as advertised. Over a pounding two chord vamp, in an unmistakeable New York accent, Lou speak-sings a tale of meeting a drug connection on "Lexington, 125." This was a level of cool that is still, even at this late date, mostly only being attempted and approximated. In March 1967, when the album was released (on the heels of The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single), it must have sounded utterly bizarre. I grew up less than two miles away but Reed might has well have been singing about another planet. Besides Dylan, whose producer Tom Wilson worked on this album (and the follow-up, White Light/White Heat), perhaps the only preparation for what was going on here came from The Doors debut, which had come out about six months earlier, and which drew on some similar strains of dark poetry, but with a more radio-friendly sound and image.

Also like The Doors, The Velvets never turned their back entirely on the blues, which is how Jimmy Page was able to fit I'm Waiting For The Man in to the set list of The Yardbirds in their final days. Another early adopter was David Bowie, whose manager had brought a test pressing of the album back from New York. While the gestation was long, Bowie's love of the VU came out in Queen Bitch from Hunky Dory in 1972, and in the many performances of I'm Waiting For The Man (and White Light/White Heat) in the Ziggy Stardust era. The circle was finally complete when Reed joined Bowie to perform both songs at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

One thing that makes the Velvet Underground & Nico so astonishing is that the entire album was in the can and ready to go in April 1966, before The Doors album even came out. Release was delayed for nearly a year by their label, Verve Records, which was more familiar with marketing jazz and was also caught up in putting out the first album by Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention. It's a compelling mind game to imagine the album coming out in an even more innocent context. Maybe it would have made a bigger splash, like a hand grenade in a Disney film, but it's just as possible that it would have been actively suppressed rather than benignly neglected. One thing that is unquestionable, that the VU were consciously going head to head against the Summer of Love ethos. "We were pretty much appalled by what was going on on the West Coast," John Cale has said. "The hippie scene was not for us. They were scruffy, dirty people."

So how did The Velvet Underground come together to create such a unique and prescient sound? The core of the band was made up of Long Islanders Lou Reed (guitar, vocals, lyrics) and Sterling Morrison (rhythm guitar, bass, backing vocals), who had met and played music together at Syracuse University in the 1950's. Out of college and trying to make it in music as a staff songwriter and session player at Pickwick Records, Lou met Welsh violist John Cale (also bass, keyboards, backing vocals) at a recording session and they hit it off. Cale was classically trained, had written symphonies now lost to time, and had washed up in NYC after a scholarship at Tanglewood Music Center brought him to the States. When original drummer Angus Maclise quit on the eve of their first live performance, Maureen Tucker, also from Long Island and the sister of one of Morrison's roommates, was brought in on drums.

That first gig was not a success - they only performed three songs before being given the hook - but they persisted and landed a residency at a Greenwich Village club. The night they were fired from there was also the night Andy Warhol was in the audience and they were soon under his wing and providing a soundtrack to his performance art piece, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol is credited with producing the album, which seemed to consist mainly of insisting the engineers not clean anything up. After Warhol died, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs For Drella, a richly emotional exploration of their time with the pop art master, which also illuminated his involvement in the VU's early days. It seems that, besides providing the instantly iconic album cover, the other important thing Warhol did for the nascent band was model an incredible work ethic and indomitable self-belief. His example forced them to sharpen their craft and push their art further, so by the time they were in the studio their material was honed to a fine point. There is nothing on The Velvet Underground & Nico that is not meticulously planned and prepared; even the exploratory freak-outs had a roadmap.

The other element Warhol brought to the band was German "It Girl" Nico, essentially untrained as a singer (her credit on the album is "Chanteuse," which is somehow perfect), but with a spectacular look and natural charisma. Lou wrote three classic songs for her that provide crucial variety to the album and in their sensitivity belie his reputation for misogyny. Femme Fatale comes third on the album and demonstrates Reed's complete absorption of 1950's ballad style, down to the backing vocals on the chorus. Of course, in the 1950's there were no songs sung by a Teutonic ice-princess about a rapacious woman's sexual conquests - maybe Kurt Weill comes close.

The title of Femme Fatale also hints at the roots of Reeds lyrical interests - hard-boiled American literature by the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. Incorporating their dark themes of transgression, obsession and betrayal into a rock and roll context is perhaps Reed's greatest inspiration and most revolutionary act. He has often said that he wanted to write the great American novel as an album and, besides Bob Dylan, no one else did as much to singlehandedly expand the vocabulary of rock music than Lou Reed.

The fourth song on the album is a perfect example. Venus In Furs was based on the 19th century novella of the same name by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the word "masochism" is derived), which explored themes of sexual dominance and submission. Surely, Reed must have thought, nearly 100 years after Venus In Furs was published, the world of rock and roll was ready for lyrics like "Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather/Shiny leather in the dark/Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you/Strike dear mistress, and cure his heart." Not quite ready, Lou, but thank you for forcing the issue!

Run Run Run, which follows, is blues-based bit of Dylanesque rock, mainly distinguished by Reed's distortion drenched six string shamanism, which, like Roger McGuinn's work on Eight Miles High (1966), was likely based on John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" sax solos. All Tomorrow's Parties comes next, a spooky and hypnotic vehicle for Nico, which presages post-punk explorations by Siouxsie & The Banshees and Nick Cave's first band, The Birthday Party.

As great as the album is up to this point, it can seem like mere preamble when it comes to the next song, Heroin, which starts side two. This novelistic look into the mechanism of addiction, and the mindset of an addict, doesn't just realize Reed's literary ambitions - it propels him into the company of his heroes. The fact that it's set to mesmerizing and (yes) melodic music only makes the band's achievement here more impressive. Such is the power of Heroin that not only were other musicians absorbing its lessons, but authors, too - like Denis Johnson, who titled his breakout book Jesus' Son (1992) after a line from the song.

Sequencing There She Goes Again after Heroin was a wise choice. It's a charming, if somewhat slight song that's probably the closest thing to an actual pop song on the album, and it gives listeners a chance to catch their breath. The final Nico song, I'll Be Your Mirror, is the first of Reed's indelible ballads, and one of the most poetic love songs ever written. So much of Reed's achievement over the years is based in acceptance and compassion, so neatly embodied in the lyrics to this song. For example: "When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you're twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/Cause I see you." Nico's restrained delivery is perfect, and, matched by the band's delicate accompaniment of guitars, bass and tambourine, demonstrates what can be accomplished when convention is set aside to pursue artistic truth.

The last two songs, Black Angel's Death Song and European Son, are examples of the VU at their most avant garde, with the former being the reason for their dismissal from the club after the concert Warhol witnessed. Lou's delivery and stream of consciousness lyrics are direct descendants of Dylan's work, but he goes a little further, spouting nonsense syllables for part of the song. European Son is truly psychedelic music, an attempt to alter consciousness rather than describing a state of altered consciousness, as most psychedelic songs do. The full band receives songwriting credit and it is a bit freeform but moves along and doesn't overstay its welcome. Its complete title is European Son to Delmore Schwartz, name-checking another hero, the poet who wrote "In dreams begin responsibilities" and mentored Reed in college. When European Son ends in a nasty haze of amplifier noise, there is a distinct sense that something has happened, which could be said for the whole experience of listening to the album.

If The Velvet Underground & Nico had been the only album they recorded, The Velvet Underground's place in the music firmament would have been entirely secure. It is hard indeed to imagine how bands and performers like The Stooges (Cale produced their first album), Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Suicide, Television, The Ramones, Joy Division, The Feelies, The Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and many others would have even existed, much less gone on to influence so many others on their own, without the example The Velvet Underground provided on this record, which is well worth celebrating 50 years later.

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Lou Reed

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