There is something special that all the truly great albums have in common: they take us into another world, another place and time and intimately invite us into somewhere that we are shut out of. Truly great albums open doors into the stories of the lives of other people and the magick of the places they inhabit and the things they feel and do and see. The best of the powerhouses of 20th century musical album prowess are not just stuff to listen to, they are works of great literature and poetry.
Let’s face it very little truly, monumentally musically and lyrically great has been done in the last 23 years, bar Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Amy Winehouse, Big Thief, and perhaps The Street’s Original Pirate Material. That small number decreases if you take out work from artists who had their genesis in the 20th century, such as Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Kid A, and Bowie’s Darkstar. There was a moment when I thought Goyte had possibilities, but he faded out of view after releasing the arthouse Somebody That I Used To Know, with its factoryesque music video and its deadpan delivery and simple musical hooks accompanying the vaguely disturbing lyrics, all wrapped up in a nursery rhyme-like addictive drone. What all these great albums have in common, all the absolutely wonderful sound and fury coming out of the musical scene, is that all of them, somewhere, have been influenced by people who listened to and understood the power and the glory of The Velvet Underground. Of course, lyrically, Lou Reed was very influenced by the literary exploits of Dylan, though Reed was no more born to be a folk artist than he was made not to push the envelope on just about everything he touched. The world is still trying to catch up to Lou.
The Dylan-inspired, Men of Good Fortune – (in it’s demo version, though he toned it down for Berlin), even has the Dylan whine and Appalachian jumping yawping notes and the harmonica and that folk skipping beat and the G, C, D workhorse chords that saw Dylan’s poetry through many a song incarnation. Dylan showed the world that popular music could be great literature. Reed decided to be the forward charge, the Kerouac to Dylan’s Rimbaud, and see where experimentalism took his art. I am glad Reed left Dylan to do Dylan things, and went off to do Lou things instead. All roads lead to Dylan, but Lou Reed and his Velvet Underground made an essential off the beat(en) track or two.
The world was on the cusp of a seismic shift in culture when the Velvet Underground was brought together in 1965. The band existed in a proto incarnation as The Primitives, alongside John Cale. It was Lou’s band, but Cale provided the avant-gaurde noise and toned down Lou’s rock and roll tendencies, keeping him from allowing his Chuck Berry and doo wop obsessions full rein. The band gained members, becoming first The Warlocks (yes, yet another one to add to the failed Grateful Dead enterprise, and the forgettable 90’s outfit…the name is doomed!) , and then marvelously, The Falling Spikes. adding Sterling Morrison to what would end up being the final line up, though missing the essential pared back drumming of the magnificent Mo Tucker. The band could never survive the IV drug reference, sadly, and entered its final incarnation Reed had been working what he described as ‘the poor man’s Carole King’ at Pickwick records, where he was dying a creative death making little pop fool’s gold nuggets and catchy jingles. Dylan had entered the public consciousness and made the case for popular music as art. If Dylan was Rembrandt, then The Velvets were about to be the personification of Warhol’s Pop Art movement. After a parade of flakey drummers, Mo entered the fray and the legend was ready to be born, missing only the ingredient X of the Machiavellian Warhol. Warhol told Lou to keep ‘all the dirty words’ and gave them an entire Factory’s worth of inspiration.
The Velvet Underground and Nico is one of these unlikely rare flowers of destruction. Warhol taking over managerial duties marked a change in luck for these men and woman of dubious fortune, though the album was not a commercial success at the time. What is did do was seed punk, heavy metal, and even provide the ground work for electronica with its long droning instrumentals punctuated by noise and shattered glass. There would be no Bauhaus if Cale had never drawn his bow over the strings of his electric viola.
The album opens with the deceptively dulcet tones of Sunday Morning. The track-list takes the listener on a tour of Factory life. Waking up on a Sunday morning, a dawn not on a New Age, as The Velvets sang about in 1970’s Loaded, but on a new day with the possibilities ahead, that Lou sings he ‘doesn’t want to know’ about. The past is close in the rear view mirror, and the world is opening up, saying ‘it’s nothing at all’. This is the theme of the album, its raison d’être: the expression of French existentialist nihilism. It espouses individual freedom, artistic total freedom, whilst knowing, whilst feeling on a basic primitive level, that nothing matters, that everything is nothing after all. This is the heart of the matter: rebellion, freedom and nihilism. This is why The Velvets make some shattered glass, why they prove they can do pretty and then shock the senses with screeching noise and fury and nihilistic drug use. It is why they are waiting for the man, and singing about that ultimate nihilistic kick – heroin.
The story of an average New York Sunday morning continues with what every good soldier of existential nihilism does after waking up in NYC in 1965 – they go and wait for their man. The peace and calm only lasts as long as the drugs do in the Factory world of Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground. Lou’s man is infamously on Lexington, 125 and always late. The track struts its way along, all cool and confidence, not on the look out for sex (the furthest thing from our anti-hero’s mind), but for that ‘sweet taste’ and those falling spikes once referenced in the band’s name, the ‘works’, the instruments of self destruction. To get back to that Sunday Morning dreamlike kick takes considerable effort, in fact the ‘3 fights of stairs’ and the long wait for that ‘sweet taste’ is not even half of the problems faced by the creation that was Lou Reed in 1967.
The dream returns again, with Femme Fatale, featuring the droning Germanic and consistently flat tones of Nico. Nico sings as if she has been tuned down half a step, with a reverberation that echoes like a ghost in the machine. She does not sing pretty, or even in tune, but she invokes something other, something foreign, something which has absorbed an existential threat and become a backroom song bird, surviving only on smack and broken dreams. The only reason Nico works is because she sings consistently flat, each note is the same amount ‘off’ as the next one, echoing and playing against the drone of the strings. The Berlin burlesque cabaret air must have entranced Reed as much as everyone else, as he revisited it later in Berlin.
Nico, the German daughter of a dead Wehrmacht soldier and a mother who made weapons, recounted giving food to Jewish people and ‘refusing to wash with soap made from human bones.’ Born just before Kristallnacht her childhood was marred with war and suffering. She was just a child, and now a child-like woman who changed her name and tried to deaden the pain, her voice wavers with uncertainty. The guilt was misplaced, but no wonder she tried to outrun her childhood. Anyone with a soul would, and that beautiful excess of soul is what made Nico great, and is the essential seasoning, that ingredient X that moves The Velvet Underground and Nico into the realms of greatness. Working with the Jewish Lou Reed, there is an essential tension between the two of them. Each track that Lou sings instead of Nico, he gives is more and more each time, while Nico, nebulous and high and airy, floats off entirely. The Femme Fatale is a tease, that will ‘break your heart in two, it’s true.’ Even her eyes are ‘false colored’. It is all smoke and mirrors, and a woman who will entice everyone, but never call back anyone, who exists only to attract and not to fulfill fantasies. She is the fantasy, cold as Alaska, rendered alone and isolated by the heroin and a past which was not her responsibility but that haunted her none the less. The illusion hides the reality. The costume hides the pain.
The next track takes us back out of Nico’s world, and back to Lou and his Run Run Run. This is a precursor of Walk on the Wild Side, but instead of a leisurely stroll, we are running through the scene and its players. Just like his later mainstream hit, Lou takes us to meet his friends. The noise finally kicks in, with the dissonance and the frenzied electric of the bowed strings. The drums pull the track along in a brutalist fashion, while Reed chaotic scrambling guitar solo sounds like the audio reproduction of pure meth to the mainline. It was famously written by Lou on the back of an envelope whilst the band were travelling to a gig at the Cafe Bizarre.
Lou sings us a song of junkies. Teenage Mary and Uncle Dave are discussing going on a drug run (a trip to go and get mostly illegal chemical compounds is called a ‘run’) to see if they can cop on Union Square towards that ‘gypsy death’ that has captivated them. Margarita Passion is dope sick instead of high, the only two modes in the true depths of a serious old-fashioned heroin addiction. Some heroin users are pukers, some are not…the ones who are not don’t tend to be the ones who love it as much, and Seasick Sarah clearly deserved her moniker, as she is the one who turns ‘blue’ making the ‘angels scream’. It is life and death as usual on the heroin run. Life carries on regardless, and Beardless Harry, who ‘can’t even get no small town taste’ (slang for a little bit of drugs, often given, or begged for, for free, enough to take the edge off, not enough to get really high), is riding down to 47, figuring down there he might be able to find someone who he can con, rob or buy enough to ‘get himself to heaven’. All of Lou’s menagerie of freaks and junkies have one thing in common, they gotta ‘run run run’.
The track is not something you can sing along to in the car. It is not radio friendly fare which will bring in the bucks. A lot of people will find the noise element renders it unenjoyable, and those who get it, who love it, who see themselves in it are not enough to make it to mainstream popularity. The Velvets remained on the underground, darlings of the creatives and the artists who have been on more than a few runs themselves.
Nico returns to the spotlight for the iconic All Tomorrow’s Parties. The Femme Fatale is planning her outfit, what she is going to wear to face the future of ‘all tomorrow’s parties’. What is a suitable thing to wear to face an uncertain future of runs and Sunday mornings, and having to keep up the pretense of being a femme fatale whilst trying to protect yourself from the onslaught of others, Fate, Chance, King Heroin, and desperate men? “Rags and silks, hand me down gowns” sings Nico, “blackened shrouds” she continues, foretelling her own inevitable death. All tomorrow’s parties for a girl like Nico always end up going from rags and silks to shrouds. What you love will kill you in the end. Ever wondered what you will be wearing when you die? Ever wonder which party will be your last? The only trouble is that the party everyone else is at is not so much fun sometimes. It is more a dance macabre than a rock and jive gig. Nico’s own addiction, married with the masterful drone that Cale sets up, and Lou’s lyrical genius come together in a song which epitomizes the dying swan, Ophelia in flowers, except the only flower round here is the poppy.
The big song of the album is perhaps the most shocking of all: Heroin. It most certainly was not the kind of musical fare you could put out at Pickwick Records. There was no easy listening, won’t offend your grandma sunbeams and kittens. In fact yer grandma would not even understand what was being said enough to be offended. Bringing the black tar side of the road out from the underground to the overground, shining a light on what goes on in those bathrooms of the artistic revolution, was a bold move, and one which made them both untouchable by the big musical industry powers that be, insured they could not be played on mainstream TV until at least the 1990s, and also one which cemented their legendary status. They were playing honestly. Not for the Velvets hiding behind euphemism, no ‘baby we couldn’t get much higher’ that the Doors tried to sell with a wink and a nod and still got shut down. No ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ LSD songs. No, Lou went to the mainline, the heart of the matter and shot it full of china white. Heroin is one of the most beautiful love songs every written. “It’s my life and it’s my wife” sings Lou, even though in reality Lou was reportedly and visibly much more into speed than heroin. The character Lou plays in the Velvets songs is a junkie, a heroin afficionado, with perhaps a slight taste for run run running. Lou gives the nod to Jim Carroll, his friend and New York City junkie King, writer of the basketball diaries. Reed reportedly didn’t want the song to age, so instead of using the slang of the time, creates a new slang word for junkies or ‘heads’ – ‘Jim-Jims’. I can only hope Jim took it as the respectful gesture which it was clearly intended to be. The song mirrors the rush and release, the rocket fuel rush and the floating in outer space. We are back to the Sunday morning tinkly sweet reverie, and then forced into that headlong run, that rush, that peak of the high, and ‘all the dead bodies piled up in mounds’. The music mirrors the experience, tries to take the listener there just on the wings of the song, and to be frank, no other drug song comes near to doing this so effectively. The song has now entered the mainstream. Everyone knows Heroin, but like Kurt Cobain once sang ‘and they like to sing along, but they don’t know what it means’. We are piggybacking onto the Velvet run. Lou sings that “I guess I just don’t know”, and it is this ‘big decision’ to ‘nullify (his) life.” Nothing changes. Nihilism reigns supreme. Long live the King. The King is Death. “Closing in on death” is the answer to caring too much. It is the answer to caring as much as Nico. It is the answer to existential pain. If anyone wants to find compassion for the junkie who feels too much, who is in too much pain in their merely being alive, then listen to Lou putting on his ‘sailor’s suit and cap’. Listen to the evils all around, and the fight to escape them, and feel that compassion, feel too much too, just for the few minutes of the song.
The mood lightens with There She Goes, the twin lives of Lou and Nico, as seen from Lou’s eyes as he observes that femme fatale – that Germanic ice queen who dances with death. Lou’s ode to Nico and her unavailability is a thing of beauty, with its walking bassline and the deeply satisfying groove. It is theme music for a girl dressed in rags and silks, flying free as a bird, as she ‘works it on out’.
Nico returns in I’ll Be Your Mirror, which is perhaps one of the best songs on the album. A more conventional song which shows the possibility of what could have been for the Velvets if they could have refrained from writing songs about smack and dead junkies. It is a cute as a button ’60s nugget, letting Nico show her sweet and gentle side. It is the Monday night to the opening track’s Sunday morning. It is a song of empathy and grace, and an absolute joy. It can’t last, because this is the Velvets and that is quite enough sugar. The song fades out to the most challenging track on the album: The Black Angel’s Death Song. Cale’s viola screeches, insistently scratching the inside of the skull in a way which is not quite comfortable unless you need to scratch that particular mind itch. Sounds of hissing steam shred nerves, whilst Lou intones lyrics which are incomprehensible, yet somehow vital. It feels as Reed is telling you the secrets of the afterlife, if you could only understand what he is saying. It is TS Elliot’s ‘music from a further room’ made real and alive. The violence of the words, razorblades and sacrificials burning out from the drone and the screech, pathed the way for the violence and bloody self destruction of punk. This is the birth of the punk genre, here in 1967, in three minutes and thirteen seconds of the destruction of beauty and the self. If the mirror was held up in the previous track, it is now being prepared to be smashed. The self is exposed to its bloody core, and must now be destroyed.
The final track of the album is the sacrificial culmination of the album. The mirror is literally smashed, with Cale smashing what was apparently a stack of plates with a metal chair, and the self destroyed. Nico sang Lou’s words in “I’ll be your Mirror” and then Lou, once he had held that mirror up to himself and the scene and everything he loved and know, lovingly destroyed it in a flurry of noise, smashed plates and frenzied distortion, feedback and abused guitars backed by truly brutal drumming by Mo Tucker. The nihilistic self is in full bloom, and once that flower has blossomed it will be destroyed. The album collapses in on itself in a black hole. Lou’s black hole soul is on display, having been prepared for the sacrifice in The Black Angel’s Death Song, and lovingly examined in I’ll be your Mirror. There is plenty to love and to hate in the scene, in the drugs, in the people and in the self, but to take it apart, examine it and then perform a sacrifice to the G_d’s of rock and roll, the saints of Lou’s beloved doo-wop, and the artists both serious and disposable which were married together in the pop art scene of Warhol’s factory, is an act of extreme bravery. Lou sacrificed his band’s success in exchange for not selling out. He knew it was the kiss of the Black Angel himself to write Heroin and sing it. Dylan might have been doing it, he might have been singing on it, and writing on it, but damnit no one came out and said it. Lou struck a chord for authenticity, and very nearly paid the price for it. I suppose in the end he did, in a delayed payment of bills owed to IV drug use and alcohol, devastatingly dying far too young of liver cancer.
Lou was always authentic. I doubt he would have had it any other way. It is the ex junkie’s equivalent of the solider dying with his boots on, but in The Velvet Underground and Nico, we see the young artist, striking a blow for the real people, for the life on the streets of New York, for the gutter poets and the one night cheap hotel live-ers. It is Lou saying he would rather make art than money, and giving the album the commercial kiss of death, insuring that it would not be given air play because of the subject matter and its brazen honesty, has cemented its place as a work of art, that lives eternal. Lou Reed, I salute you. Shall we go for chocolate egg cream and watch life go by on the streets and the alleys and in the backrooms where the ragged people go? Perhaps walk down to Lexington 125, down to Chelsea, where the old hotel has been turned into apartments for rich people that no one wants to live in, and see what happens when the unstoppable force of artistic nihilism meets the immovable object of capitalism, and everything turns into the ‘exploding plastic inevitable’. Ask Warhol: he knew where it was at…..
(all images created by Detroit Richards using AI)