I’ve got this silly analogy I kick around sometimes – Einstein wrote four papers in 1905 that redefined four different sciences. The Velvet Underground have four albums that created or redefined four musical genres. To those historians of music out there that know more about this period than I do, I apologize in advance – I know this is probably simplistic, and like I said, silly. But this is a blog.
1) The Velvet Underground and Nico spawned the whole genre that is (or maybe was) “alternative.” Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Nirvana and everything leading up to them could perhaps be said to have originated in that first VU album. Loud, at times discordant, but still tethered to traditional song structures in way that limns the line between popular and confrontational.
2) White Light/White Heat though, limns no lines, and is something after which every noise/dissonance/confrontational band that ever wanted to shock their audiences can aspire to. I know there’s a bunch of sub-genres here, none of which I know anything about, but don’t they all have to point back to this album?
3) The Velvet Underground gives us the Yo La Tengos and Yeah Yeah Yeahs of the world. Probably what ends up, much of the time, being called today “indie rock.” Conventional singing and guitar but bursts of carefully modulated noise that can’t quite happen in the straightforward pop world.
4) And Loaded really is the prototypical “classic rock” album (about which, more tomorrow). NOTE: this is the weakest part of the VU/Einstein parallel. There are many more albums more prototypically classic-rock (and let’s be honest, better) than this.
Like I said, basically a facile comparison, except, facile comparisons are part of what make music more fun that science.
Here’s another one – if the four VU albums were members of the Beatles, I’m not sure what the other three would be, but I’m sure that The Velvet Underground is George Harrison.
“Candy Says” is a gentle introduction, though in a way, in my head at least, the song that really sets this album out and ready to stand as great, is “What Goes On.”
In my younger and more vulnerable years, when I still thought philosophy could produce world-changing knowledge, to me, this song was the perfect embodiment of Hegelian dialectic:
Lady be good and do what you should, you know it’ll work all right
Lady be good and do what you should, you know it’ll be all right
This line, the song’s crux, shares something with the older (and to some, more reactionary) Hegel’s vision of “reason as the rose in the cross of the present.” So also this song’s three basic chords are a gentle but insistent thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Their long, repeated resolution at the end of the song brings my mind from crisis to resolution, and makes me see those crises as less critical than they seem. Even just “all right” (one of Lou Reed’s favorite adjective phrases), and its perfect enmeshment with those chords, to some might suggest a band that has given up the ghost, and is now content with pop-rock, but to me, this is a song of gentle yet intense repose. I’ve heard live versions that have a bit more rock to them – much the same way as when you see Yo La Tengo perform, their music transforms into something more visceral than its recordings represent.
As I start to listen to this, I recognize I don’t have so much to say about individual songs in the way I did with the previous albums. It’s not from lack of listening, or lack of appreciation, it’s just a more homogeneous, you might even say, more coherent album.
So I’ll talk about the rest of the album (minus the penultimate track, which will elicit separate comment) under two interdependent headings.
Lyrics – The words on these tracks are more likely to become aphorisms you might quote out of context with less embarrassment (but also with less meaning), like “between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” Again, a gentler, more deliberate kind of wisdom, it sets aside the frenetic rush of “Heard Her call My Name” or the existential punch of “Heroine.”
“Thought of you as my mountaintop, thought of you as my peak/thought of you as everything I’ve had but couldn’t keep… if I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see, I’d put you in the mirror, I put in front of me” reminds us that also in the VU’s vast arsenal is a powerfully conventional personal love song.
“Help me in my weakness, ‘cuz I’m falling out of grace” is a line that could only have been delivered ironically on albums one or two. Here it sounds like the very real and honest plea of a lost soul that somehow gains more traction because we know about those first two albums.
“There are problems in these times, but ooh, none of them are mine” is almost giddy in its naivety. “I’ve been blinded but now I can see what in the world has happened to me” gives us no reason to doubt its simple claim and again, we know from earlier listening experiences.
“That’s the story of my life, that’s the difference between wrong and right. But Billy said, both those words are dead. And that’s the story of my life.” This is pure classic AABA structure, not so far off from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” really. That song is just those lyrics three times and another singing guitar solo thrown in he middle.
Music – The gently sliding nature of the lead guitar is for me this album’s most distinctive pleasure. Each song has a guitar line that is relatively understated, but quite individualized and subtly appropriate to the different songs’ lyrical subject-matters. The voice and the melodic guitar call and respond to one another, each sometimes leading and sometimes following.
There’s even simple two-part harmony (like on “Jesus”), which starts to become touching and poignant. The guitar solos have the same effect – of surprising subtlety and an almost total LACK of dissonance, feedback, and all the rest of the things that define the first two albums. The final slide-guitar solo on “I’m Set Free” is soft and gentle.
Most of the tracks have a more conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge/solo-verse-chorus structure. But the bridge/solo nearly always sheds new light on the lyrical content from before. In other words, these are the songs of professional musicians – this is Apollonian, not Dionysian art (which latter description, needless to say, would better characterize the VU’s first two albums).
The Murder Mystery
Okay, so there is something artsy, perhaps pretentious, and maybe even avante-garde here. But though I’m tempted to draw an analogy to “Immigrant Son” and “Sister Ray,” since they all come at (or near) the end of their respective albums, and each challenge the listener in a different way, really, “Murder Mystery” is so much gentler in its challenge. Sections of stereo-separated deadpan male-male reading (accompanied with descending and mildly discordant drumming) alternate with also stereo-separated male-female singing. I’ve never really made heads or tails of the overall narrative. There are traces of Kennedy conspiracy talk (“off to the left is what is not right”… “To Rembrandt and Oswald”). Lots of “inverse” and “reverse” and “obverse.” I think there are games being played with the words in an attempt to make music-like nonsense patterns out of them.
Then there are some final sections with undulating organ chords then a piano, and more male-male reading, ending finally with clanging and banging on the piano. “Oh you’re such a good lad/here’s another dollar” tries for a bit of the primal debauchery of White Light/White heat.
But it’s all a shade too deliberate, too much of an Art Music Experiment, and less of the cacophony that makes “Sister Ray” the truly revelatory test of our listening.
The real end to the album, though, isn’t that banging piano – fittingly enough, it’s “After Hours,” featuring Maureen Tucker on solo vocals. It’s not exactly Molly Bloom, but there’s a nicely intentional underwhelming anticlimax that manages effectively to bracket “Murder Mystery.” “All the people are dancing and they’re having such fun… I wish it could happen to me/…but if you close the door, I’d never have to see the day again.”
Again I’ll go back to Dostoevsky. The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat are the albums of Dmitri and Ivan (not sure which is which); The Velvet Underground is the album of Alyosha. If The Brothers Karamazov is a “polyphonic novel,” as Bakhtin tells us, then the VU’s oeuvre, taken as a whole, is similarly polyphonic. I mean that not in the musical sense – this music is generally homophonic (though I don’t think that word does justice to “Sister Ray.”) But in Bakhtin’s literary sense, here is a cluster of albums that don’t take sides in the great clash between “pop” and “avante-garde,” between physicality, sensualism and spiritualism. They present each of those voices with their own force and most convincing aspects. At times, those voices speak to each other.
At any rate, the Velvet Undergrounds of the first three albums do not demand a choice in the culture wars, they show us the wide variety of life experienced through art.