[From January 2016, expanded in December 2016]
If you listen to songs by the Velvet Underground like “Heroin” or “Sister Ray”, and if you are openly aware, you can get a sense of their transcendental nature. The Velvet Underground’s music essential has no predecessors or direct influences. John Cale was influenced by the likes of John Cage and was classically trained, but if you go and listen to John Cage, you will find that there is not really a significant correlation between them and the Velvets.
The Velvet Underground created an audio landscape of transdimensional beauty that had not been created until that point and that might not ever be created again. The Nico album and White Light/White Heat, a.k.a. the “real” or “authentic” Velvet Underground, was a culmination of the humans but seemingly primordial beings Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker coming together in a miraculous synchronization of time and space.
I’ll go through and talk about why some of the songs are so amazing. They actually had to grow on me. They had to sit in my consciousness, in the background, and marinate for a while.
“Sunday Morning” is a calm before the storm. It introduces the Nico album with a depressive relaxation. It elicits being comfortable with feeling sad. It tells the listener that “these feelings are okay.” There is a logical paradox here. If we could place a character into the album, stringing him along from beginning to end, we would say that he is extremely troubled. So, things are bad but somehow it is all okay.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” is perhaps one of the greatest songs ever composed. It was originally a very folky, bluesy song but John Cale’s presence turned it into the masterpiece that it is. The distortion and percussion raise it above being just another 60s blues song. There is a constant and chaotic wall of sound surrounding the whole song that puts you into another realm. “Waiting”, even though Lou denies it, is a glorification and celebration of addiction and junky-ism. It is a song to dance and jive to and it is about a drug addict getting his fix, even though he knows his habit is destroying him. “Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive”
At this point, I don’t have much to say about “Heroin”. I have been through its grasp but have surpassed it. A listen I had to it a few months ago almost made me cry. It is a beautiful piece but I am not very interested in it now. I first heard it in the film Killing Them Softly but didn’t pick up on its significance. The best lyric is “I wish that I was born 1000 years ago”.
“European Son”, wherein John Cale hits and crashes a stack of plates with a metal chair after the only two stanzas of lyrics are sung, is a six-minute experimental piece filled by a distorted mock Chuck Berry riff. My intuition connects the plate smashing to rage, and connects that to John Cale’s childhood molestation by two different men.
The VU recognized and celebrated the opposite of what the flower power culture was. They did not see psychedelic love or a bright horizon but instead a shadowed cesspit of failed dreams, naivety, and shameful desires. Artists like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Hendrix were rainbow silk, while the VU were jet black leather.
The album White Light/White Heat features further debauchery, as the titular song illustrates and describes the rush of methamphetamines. “The Gift” is a literary mockery of male desire with more rusty instrumental work. The otherworldly “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is one of my favorites, creating an eerie Victorian sci-fi fantasy vibe and containing noises of a Wookiee-like creature a decade before Star Wars came out. I’m not interested in the lyrical story in “Sister Ray” as I am the overall aura and distinct mantras. I have distinct memories of running to it at the gym. Pounding, pounding guitar distortions and nightmarishly, beautifully synchronized jamming is the core of the song.
The final self-titled album has been slammed by critic Piero Scaruffi but I love it like a Beatles album, and this album is like a darker, but original and distinct, Beatles album. On my first listen, “Candy Says”, about an existentially suicidal transgender girl, immediately struck me deeply. “Jesus” is heartbreaking and “Beginning to See the Light” is a possibly sarcastic attempt by Lou at religious optimism in contrast to his atheism and morbid lifestyle. “Pale Blue Eyes” is my favorite here with its crying down-tuned guitar sweep, and narrates a man longing for and holding dear his married lover while contemplating their adulterous affair.
John Cale was gone at this point as Lou had kicked him out which may but I wonder what could have come if things were different. After White Light/White Heat, Cale wanted to put their amps underwater and play a whole album like that, but I guess it was just too crazy for Lou. I haven’t found an act quite like their first two albums. Mimickers like Spiritualized and the Black Angels cannot possibly match that beauty.