Freshman year in college, in a fit of the sort of idealism you only really get to experience in that phase of life, I was sitting with a friend I had newly made, and he was playing me music and telling me how much he liked each song and why.
[Again, youtube links accompany song titles]
Somewhere in this sequence, he puts on “White Light/White Heat” (just the song, not the whole album). But before then, he says: “Just imagine, it’s 1968, and then just” [he hits play and makes a subtle but distinct hand-gesture of intensity and pleasure].
I didn’t quite yet understand his enthusiasm – probably because I’d only ever heard that one song, from my greatest hits CD. By itself, actually, though this song is plenty engaging, but it’s actually underwhelming after you’ve listened to the rest of this album. When it comes down to it, “White Light/White Heat” is an excellent introduction to White Light/White Heat, almost a thesis statement. Just an initial letting-you-know what sort of thing is on tap.
Yesterday when I Googled “avante-garde” to make sure I was spelling it correctly, the first result was actually “Avante-Garde Rocker Lou Reed dies.” Today (since I’m still not sure) it produces the similarly timely:
I never know how much spying Google has done on me before delivering results like that, but at any rate – if there is one VU album we can uncontroversially call avante-garde, it’s this one.
If you don’t really think so, you really only have to get as far as the second track – “The Gift.” It’s John Cale reading a short story (which was written by Lou Reed) on the left channel and an ongoing one-take jam session in the right. In fact, one memorable late-night ride in my 1986 Saab through eastern Pennsylvania (in case you’re wondering, Locust is in western PA), CD-to-cassette converter in, in 1997, actually led me to discover that my car stereo was rigged up wrong. The right channel was coming out of both speakers. I really would never have noticed this, given that most songs don’t use (abuse?) stereo separation like this. But there you have it.
To speak to the substance of this song – though it sounds ridiculous in the abstract, there’s actually something very captivating about it. The story has decent pacing and might be able to stand on its own. It’s a gallows-humor take on dorky male college student jealousy, filtered through the lens of expressionism (it’s like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” meets maybe John Updike? [read that question-mark Eli Cash style].
Waldo Jeffers had reached his limit. It was now Mid-August which meant he had been separated from Marsha for more than two months. Two months, and all he had to show was three dog-eared letters and two very expensive long-distance phone
calls. True, when school had ended and she’d returned to Wisconsin, and he to Locust, Pennsylvania, she had sworn to maintain a certain fidelity. She would date occasionally, but merely as amusement. She would remain faithful.
But lately Waldo had begun to worry. He had trouble sleeping at night and when he did, he had horrible dreams. He lay awake at night, tossing and turning underneath his pleated quilt protector, tears welling in his eyes as he pictured Marsha, her sworn vows overcome by liquor and the smooth soothing of
some neanderthal, finally submitting to the final caresses of sexual oblivion. It was more than the human mind could bear.
Visions of Marsha’s faithlessness haunted him. Daytime fantasies of sexual abandon permeated his thoughts. And the thing was, they wouldn’t understand how she really was. He, Waldo, alone understood this. He had intuitively grasped
every nook and cranny of her psyche. He had made her smile. She needed him, and he wasn’t there (Awww…).
In the words of Maude Lebowski, you can imagine were it goes from there.
Or maybe you can’t: he mails himself in a package “parcel post special delivery,” gets delivered to Marsha’s house, who, we learn through a separate narrative strand, has of course been cheating on Waldo with one “Bill” (“like an octopus, hands all over the place”), and doesn’t even believe herself to be obligated to him at all. She can’t get the package open, and Marsha and Sheila Klein (“her very, very best friend”) end up using a knife, which leads to them inadvertently stabbing him to death.
Track Three – “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” it is probably fair to say, is the most pretentious track here. It’s some confused description of Lady Godiva having some sort of surgery? [again, think Eli Cash]. Gradually (again using some lo-fi stereo separation for two voices – John Cale and Lou Reed) describe a botched operation. There are some creepy-sounding medical noises, and a random reference to the album’s title (“underneath the white light”). There’s again a low-level sort of jam session going on in the background.
“Now comes the moment of great, great decision, the doctor is making his first incision!”
At which point it is discovered (over some Chewbacca-like groaning) that the patient wasn’t actually properly anesthetized. It ends with “the head won’t move” (i.e., just the same way “The Gift” ended, I guess).
That’s the close of side 1. To my mind (and, I imagine, to just about everyone’s mind who’s ever listened to this), it’s side 2 that really makes the album.
It’s something like a suite, like Sonic Youth’s later “Trilogy” (Daydream Nation). “Here She Comes Now,” “I Heard Her Call My Name“, and then, like “European Son” before it, now and even more challenging (but in some ways more intuitive) massive (this time 17 minute) final track – “Sister Ray.” These songs for a gradual crescendo the likes of which I’ve not encountered elsewhere in indie rock. Now I don’t listen to a lot of “noise rock” but this has to be the great ancestor of all that.
“Here She Comes Now” is mysterious, exotic and continually unfolding its energy. Each successive repetition of the single verse (there’s not really a chorus) adds more sound to it, with one of those signature VU guitar riffs, accrues significance and and tension. Actually though – a better attempt at this song was undertaken by Nirvana, extending it to around 5 minutes, and really cashing in (through Cobain’s whaling and a spare but jangly guitar) in a way that the VU really doesn’t. But they weren’t necessarily trying to either – the other two songs do that.
Hence “I Heard Her Call My Name.” More and more sound. More and more screeching, more and more dissonance, more and more mayhem. The lyrics are not exactly coherent, and also aren’t filtered so well that you can always make them out. Even the words I do understand, I just don’t understand what he’s talking about, except for “I know that she cares about me, I heard her call my name/she’s so long dead and gone, but still, it ain’t the same” (that line itself is sort of a moebeus strip of confusion).
In “Baby my mind’s split open” , the guitar’s sound equally matches the state to which the lyrics are giving voice. From there, a long messy guitar solo, and a steady repeating bass line drone on and on to the end of the track, and as the base cuts out, leaving just drums and guitars, a preview of what’s to come on “Sister Ray” takes shape. It’s still enough to make me worry that the neighbors will complain. Again, the harmony resolves itself in one last squeal, which, of course, turns out to be totally preparatory to what follows.
Yesterday I found Dostoevsky in “Heroine.” In “Sister Ray,” I find the primal debauchery of no less than the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake. The would-be fragmentary narrative stretches on and on, again over a single-take jam. There is singing and talking, there are words and phonemes, repetitions of a seemingly drug-induced/sexual/violent nature – phrase like “I said I couldn’t hit it sideways” spoken urgently, like they make sense. The unfolding tableau never really resolves itself, it just repeats in more or less completeness, much the way the core theme of Finnegans Wake doesn’t really either. There’s these nonsense but somehow also profound-sense clustering of characters – characters in the Greek sense of
kharakter “engraved mark,” also “symbol or imprint on the soul,” also “instrument for marking,” from kharassein “to engrave,” from kharax “pointed stake.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)
Not an “imaginary person in a story” – that’s much too straightforward. I’m talking about a stamp, a motto, a set of symbols and sounds that clusters together to form the illusion of stability, but then slips away into some other mishmash within a few seconds.
Eventually there’s a sailor, he’s shot “down dead on the floor”, and then an admonishment: “don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?” Answered by “oh no man I haven’t got the time-time…”
The words effectively function as a fifth or sixth instrument, over the guitars, bass, drums, and I guess organ-sounding keyboard? I know that’s a cliche of music criticism, the voice “functioning as an instrument,” but it takes on new light with this track. If anything, the music makes more logical sense than the words. There is a long segment in the middle where that keyboard-ish thing starts to sound like some sort of industrial saw, though in a harmonic sort of way.
I am tempted to just give up and go for the “look just listen to this alright!” sort of appeal. One of the hallmarks of great art the failure of any other medium to describe it. This song makes one of those moments for me.
The jam of this track has the sort of feel that, if you were listening on the other side of a door, it would sound like a song you couldn’t quite make out. When you opened up the door, though, you’d realize that you weren’t actually missing anything, except that now it’s not muffled (or, I guess, less muffled).
Eventually the “police… come and take me for a ride-ride, oh but I haven’t got the time-time, she’s still sucking on my ding-dong… oh now do it just like Sister Ray said…”
Random new characters (or other aspects of other characters) – “Rosie and his rayon?”
Then the organ gives way to the guitars. Little patterns that had showed up earlier in the song re-invent themselves into an extended glorious dystopian frenetic collage. At some point the violence comes to dominate over the rest, and a kind of desperation takes hold: “whip it on me Jim/whip it on me Jim/whip it on me Jim… Cecil knocks his new piece, he aims it at the sailor” is followed by a half-time restatement “I’m… searching for my… main… line… couldn’t hit it side… ways…”
I know I’m just intermittently restating things – if you’re out there reading and you’ve made sense of the action of the words of this track, by all means, send those thoughts along. To me, it’s just about as opaque (and just as elemental) as this:
|O here here how hoth sprowled met the||11|
|duskt the father of fornicationists but, (O my shining stars and||12|
|body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of||13|
|soft advertisement! But was iz? Iseut? Ere were sewers?|
The lyrics and the music trade turns, with accelerations and deceleration in turn.
Forcing the uninitiated to listen to the finale has, at several points in my life, brought me to loud and protracted arguments after the fact, as to its justification – the wrong kind of listener DEMANDS to your face why you’ve put them through that. If you’re reading this, you probably know, just like I do, that “Sister Ray” needs no justification.
One time I didn’t have a fight was on that same ride across eastern PA – a high school friend and I were driving from New York to Chicago, late at night, and we just sat there and listened. He offered no protests, no arbitrary definitions of “music,” nothing about how “if you don’t enjoy it what’s the point” blah blah BLAH BLAH BLAH. We just listened. At the end, I noted that it was recorded in one take. His answer was quite simple: “that’s pretty much the only way they could have done it I bet.”
Perhaps the most amazing part of the song is the drum. Nowadays it might be synthesized and mixed in, but so far as I can tell, that’s a live drum, pounding over and over and over and over, for 17:27. That drum does what really pulls the track together – it creates a creeping, inevitable, growing paranoia that makes you more and more anxious up until the very end.
It all kind of sorts itself out, Lou Reed reprises most of the main themes introduced a the beginning, and there’s almost a moment of country jig on the organ, and then a final flat amplified guitar shutting down the whole colossal mess.
[Random somewhat irrelevant coda – on the boxed set, the track immediately following was “Stephanie Says” (then “Temptation inside of Your Heart” and “Hey Mr. Rain”). Not sure if anyone else has this experience, but having listened to this so many times in sequence, though it was totally unintended, in my mind, the transition from the final moments of “Sister Ray” to the wistful tunefulness of “Stephanie Says” is one of the all-time most dramatic changeovers I’ve ever heard. Again, obviously totally not intended by the original artists – though perhaps it was intended by the boxed-sex makers.
No two tracks played in succession could go further to highlight the sheer range of the Velvet Underground’s ambitions.]