Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground and Nico [Part 1 of 4]

I decided to write four posts about the four Velvet Underground albums.  I didn’t really know how to react to Lou Reed’s death – he’s one of those celebrities I didn’t know anything about as a person.  What I do know is that I’ve deeply loved and enjoyed some of his music, hence these posts.

[All the song titles in this post are Youtube links]

There are a bunch of Lou Reed solo albums, but I’ve actually heard very few of them, and what I have heard has felt hit-or-miss: New York, for example, has some great moments, but some pretty boring ones too.  But none of those moments are why I know who Lou Reed was, and they’re not really why I felt sad when I found out he died.

I do know who Lou Reed was, and did feel sad when he died, because of his work with the Velvet Underground.  So I’ll write about that.

The first things I heard by the VU were covers – REM’s Dead Letter Office compilation had versions of “There She Goes Again,” “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale.”  I loved that compilation, in the way that only an early-teens music enthusiast can love something that, to them at least, is obscure.  I knew they were Velvet Underground songs, but that’s all.  A couple of years after that, I got The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed, a late-80’s CD release.  It had about half the songs from the first album, and then a smattering of songs from the others.  I especially remember really having trouble with the guitar noise on that one –  though once I came to love it, I’d play it around casual friends as a sort of loyalty test: if they couldn’t make it through the last few minutes of “Heroin,” for example, I could count them out.

When I was in college, I got the Peel Slowly and See boxed set.  That was a huge revelation for me – I’d listen and listen and listen to each of the albums, but especially the first, which was the second cd of that boxed set (I was always a little scared of the first one, with 20-minute demos and screechiness).

I don’t have that boxed sex anymore; I do have an audiophile re-issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico though, and I’m listening to that while I write this.  You can listen to a digital version of the full LP without interruption here.

The thing that always made me come back again and again to this album was its brutal combination of scratchy avant-garde feel (it sounded like it had been recorded with very little processing/production work, by the most bohemian people my suburban-teenage imagination could conjure up) and then its also absolute emotional directness.  Even now just the scratchy-ringing jangle of the guitar on “Run Run Run“, combined with the feedback-laced solo that comes in later, captures that contradiction.  On the one hand, this is obviously fairly straightforward rock and roll, with ordinary chord progressions.  On the other hand, the backing vocal tracks are so harsh, like the mikes they were recorded on weren’t good enough to capture the vagaries of tone, or maybe it was that they weren’t that good at singing.  But their being not that good at singing added to, not detracted from the effect.

There is an exotic distance to “Venus in Furs,” in its reference to obscure literature, S&M, etc. and yet, that exotic distance ends up serving to create a different sort of directness and closeness.  “I am tired/I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years” captures something much more elemental than the vagaries of whatever subculture inspired it, and not just those words, but the three chord changes underneath it.

What I now know as the first side ends with “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” a track which I remember a camp counselor way back when telling me was “Andy Warhol’s favorite song.”  Everyone who’s ever a camp counselor needs to remember just how much validation a little statement can provide to a moody teenager.  He was probably 4 years older than me then (and therefore 15 years younger than me now, but it felt like (and still feels like) a pronouncement from on high.  The running guitar line that starts just as a doodling, breaks into a solo in between verses, and then reaches its apex to resolve on the last chord of the song brings the first half to a close in an artful coda.

One of the features of this album that has always astounded me is its sheer emotional, cultural and musical range.  In some ways, this is the blues, but the textures, feedback, dissonance, lo-fi sound, plus the shifting vocal tones – from withdrawn irony to devastating sincerity and back again – showed me how much more was possible with music than I had ever imagined.

The second sides opens with what has to be the album’s best song, and possibly the band’s.  “Heroin” has that same quality all the great Dostoevsky novels have – of bringing you face to face with the worst and best parts of humanity in a disconcerting way you cannot easily set aside or forget.  On the one hand, it is a brutally sad song about addiction, but in another way, it is as honest a portrayal of the universal human condition as anything could be.  The back-and-forths of the tempo, timed with the rising and falling of the melody – and really unpretentious depressed idealism – “I wish that I was born a thousand years ago” (and you can hear the yearning in the intonation with which “wish” is spoken) and then the unwinding of the conclusion.  Again, just like Dostoevsky, you come close to actually feeling what his characters in their darkest moments feel.  A nasty inversion wraps up the song, as the dissonance and feedback unwinds the melody, and singing devolves/progresses into yelling, it is not heroine addition or addicts that are being indicted, it’s humankind: “about all the jim-jims in this town and all the politicians making crazy sounds and every body putting every body else down, and all the dead bodies piled up in rounds…”  As with Crime and Punishment, It takes a portrayal of the depths of drug-addiction to lay out that most trenchant critique, one that gets to the heart of the violence of human society.  Ending, though of course, in a signature Lou Reed demurral: “and I guess that I just don’t know.”

There She Goes Again” (VU version this time) and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” are a wonderful pop contrast (the REM version of the former might actually make you forget this song is about a prostitute), leading to the final tracks: the prophetic voice of “Black Angel’s Death Song,” and of course, that ultimate of loyalty tests, “European Son.”

I’ll Be Your Mirror” took me some time to come around to.  I used to take it as evidence that Nico was a waste of time and a distraction.  I had heard Andy Warhol insisted she be involved, and was otherwise useless.  But there is a kind of compassion on this track that is at once totally unexpected vis-a-vis what’s come before, and then also totally fitting in the magnitude of its feeling.  Somehow that is all augmented by the low quality with which the song’s final moments are recorded.

The violin on on “Black Angel’s Death Song” (and its intermittent squeaks) place this song, along with “Heroine” in the escatalogical tradition of the final chapter of Crime and Punishment.  The spraying sound (later emulated by Nirvana on “Drain You” off of Nevermind) and “If epiphany’s terror reduce you to shame have your head bobbed and weaved choose a side to be on…” may sound like nonsense, but it’s just the kind of nonsense-only-when-written-on-paper that, in a musical composition, becomes profound.

The final track – “European Son” – is really the payoff here.  I’ve always loved how it is just a pretty ordinary chord-driven song that comes completely off the rails with little warning whatsoever.  First there are some rhyming lines “you killed your European son/you spit on those under 21”, then you’re just in the realm of cacophony that ratchets up more and more, including little bits and pieces of guitar outtakes that sound like they could have fit on earlier songs, (especially “Run Run Run“).  If you’re listening on headphones, and you leave the sound way up, it will actively hurt by time you are done.  Something like a bowling ball and the breaking glass, then ambient rhythms, sounds and harmonies that come and go.  The total effect is to remind you that, just as Schoenberg recognized about “consonance” and “dissonance” before – that they’re not opposites, so much as a sliding scale between the familiar and the unfamiliar, here, we find that “noise” and “music” are a false choice.  Noise becomes music, and then music becomes noise.  Strange as it sounds to say, the final moments of this song form a harmonious cadence.  All the tension and heightened emotion brought out in the previous 12 tracks is slowly released in a catharsis worthy of the greatest classical drama.

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3 Responses to Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground and Nico [Part 1 of 4]

  1. Sam Brown says:

    Keep ’em coming. I had an extremely emotional reaction to the news, like, unnecessary nostalgia driven tears, followed by a two and half hour trip through the albums, culminating in a horribly written poem, only one line of which I will include here.

    “He [Lou Reed] is also probably the ultimate argument for older brothers, or uncles, or cooler than you friends…”

  2. John Tryneski says:

    Great piece. This was my first Velvets album and I remember just being BLOWN AWAY that it was released the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s because it sounded decades ahead of its time. I’ve been kicking around a piece myself because, like Sam, this news hit me in the gut. I keep getting frustrated though because Jonathan Richman has all the writers beat so far in terms of tributes…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw4w-kdu_34

    Also, one interesting note on “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, apparently in later years Reed insisted that it was his favorite composition.

  3. Josh says:

    John – I’d never heard that about “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” On a semi-related note, there’s some sort of indie-ish movie I remember seeing in the 90’s that featured a struggling band, and I recall a scene in which they covered that song over-earnestly. I know that’s a vague description but does anyone know what I’m talking about? I think Juliette Lewis might have been involved?

    The Sgt Peppers’ juxtaposition is an interesting one – THOUGH – that’s also a great album; I’ve been a little confused that the latter-day critical consensus seems to have swung away from it. I’ll check out the Jonathan Richman. That’s another person I know nothing about but – anyone who wrote “Government Center” is good in my book.

    Sam – I’m touched, I really am. I think what I said about camp counselors is sort of the same thing maybe?

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