By Walker Mimms '14
In 1968 the Beatles released their tenth album. Its cover was pure white, save for a tiny embossed title in the lower right-hand corner, faintly legible if one held it right—“The BEATLES”—and, beneath this, a seven-digit number indicating what particular pressing it housed. The LP jacket, once a protective storage sleeve for its product, dressed up to appeal to whomever, was now conceptual art.
That was in late November. But ten months earlier, an unclassifiable and obscure group from Manhattan called the Velvet Underground released their second album. And its cover was pure black. Written across the top in gossamer, white capitals:
WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
And at the bottom, if one tilted the cover in the light, one could make out the almost imperceptible image of a skull, in slightly less-black black—a photo of a tattoo, as it turned out, by Warhol’s right hand man Billy Name. White Light/White Heat peaked at number 199 on the US charts; The White Album, needless to say, number one worldwide.
The purpose of this comparison is not to prove that a group of avant-garde nobodies—now a mouse pad in the MoMA giftshop and a household name in rock and roll—beat the biggest band on earth to the punch. That may be the case, but aside from the coincidence what I think is so fascinating about the Velvets’ creative choice (and, to be fair, Warhol’s) as I stare at the cover, is what it has foretold about the career of Lou Reed, the band’s frontman and songwriter who died at the age of 71 on Sunday of deteriorating health, after a liver transplant earlier this year.
The White Album is conceptually interesting because its makers, having maxed out the colorful pomp of their previous efforts, used it for a series of consciously unpopular experiments—bare and disparate songs, for example, some quite abrasive; an eight-minute musique-concréte sound collage; and to top it off, a non-cover. Make of it what you will, they snickered. But even if they really did not care, there was no risk involved: as a matter of course, it was going to be loved.
But the Velvets had little other than one album under their belt and the blessing of New York’s coolest artist when the four of them began the first of the two days of recording that would result in White Light. Whatever fumes they were riding on came solely from Warhol’s banana. And what they chose at this pivotal moment—and what has been elevated to myth in the canon of modern music—was authentic, rather than marketable. They chose depressing songs about heroin and anesthetics, and an eight-minute story—Lou Reed’s college composition—of a girl’s accidental murder of her boyfriend while prying him out of the crate in which he shipped himself to her. That song is called “The Gift.” Their guitar amps feed back and distort and roughen the album’s moments of real beauty. The overdubs are sloppy. The closing track, “Sister Ray,” is a seventeen-minute jam of pure feedback which, if you listen closely to Reed’s chanting, pieces together glimpses of a heroin orgy; its mantra goes:
“I’m searching for my mainline. You know I couldn’t hit it sideways… She’s too busy sucking on my ding-dong.”
They allowed themselves only one take of it, which the engineer could not even bear: “I don’t have to listen to this shit,” Reed’s take has it. He walked out. This was what they sounded like at their shows, this is what they knew, so this is what they played. And the black void of the album cover embodies this authenticity; the kiss of death for any budding rock group, but the only true statement.
The third and fourth Velvet Underground records are just as experimental. But the real experiment for Reed was to record real pop songs after this. The Velvet Underground and, the next, Loaded, are delicate, melodic, and impossibly catchy, in a Beach Boys way—fit for a Coca-Cola commercial.
While tracking the forty-something-year career of any musician like Lou Reed, or Bob Dylan, or of any artist for that matter, it is tempting to trace themes in the work and to psychoanalyze him. It is fun, and in the case of celebrity musicians we somehow feel especially permitted to blend in equal parts the persona with the albums and YouTube videos of concerts into our interpretations—to read a human life like a character in a novel. This is not entirely wrong, but sooner or later we are only speculating. But I have always felt that Lou Reed’s character—what little I know about it—was made manifest in whatever he touched.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1942. He studied creative writing and journalism at Syracuse where he met and struck up a friendship with the New Directions poet Delmore Schwartz. He then fell in with the New York underground art scene and met Andy Warhol and a young Welsch music student named John Cale. It was here where he discovered the two great themes of his musical career: sex (with women, with men, with anyone) and drugs. He formed the Velvets with Cale in the mid-60s, and their shows, organized by Warhol, became a mainstay of the New York art scene. From 1967 to 1970 they released an album each year; Cale stayed for the first two, Reed for all four.
By the time Reed had stumbled into fame with his early solo career, it was clear that he detested journalists. And he did not care for fans either. The footage of an interview in the Sydney airport, before two sold-out shows in 1974, is a particularly brilliant example of this. In his characteristic enormous sunglasses, with bleached-blonde hair, he toys with a swarm of reporters, almost exclusively in monosyllables and in complete deadpan. Someone mentions the bizarre transvestites that people his ‘70s albums:
“Are you a transvestite or a homosexual?”
“I dunno, what’s the difference?”
The games go on:
“You want people to take drugs themselves, is this perhaps why you sing about drugs?”
“Oh yeah, I want them to take drugs.”
“Why is this?”
“Because it’s better than Monopoly.”
In 1975, after a string of glam rock albums, he released Metal Machine Music, “an electronic music composition,” its subtitle reads. It is a double-LP of solid guitar feedback. Pure noise. Continuous, layered loops of it, divided into four sixteen-minute LP sides. And the fourth side ends in a locked run-out groove; once the needle hits the final revolution, it repeats to infinity or until you stop it. The discs' labels read:
Part I: 16:01
Part II: 16:01
Part III: 16:01
Part IV: 16:01 or ∞
Lester Bangs called it the greatest album ever made if you turned it up loud enough. Brian Eno said it was quite nice if you turned it down low enough, so that it became a sort of ambient background hiss. It may also have been Reed’s begrudging fulfillment of a record contract. The liner notes in the gatefold tell us nothing; they make up a pseudo-intellectual, jargoned theory of the album, complete with a La Monte Young name-drop: basically incomprehensible, and an utter joke on us if we read it otherwise.
“Make what you will of it”: but this time the snickering seemed more serious.
1978 saw Street Hassle, whose title track is an eleven-minute orchestral, half-spoken-word piece to which a young Bruce Springsteen, plucked on a whim by Reed from the adjacent studio, contributes a stanza. Half the songs were recorded live in Germany. He sings about wishing he were black—“I don’t wanna be a fucked up, middle-class college student anymore”—and recycles old Velvets lyrics throughout.
Reed’s career is exemplary among his contemporaries. It is an understatement to say that it stands on its own. But his legend will always rest on the Velvet Underground. The real appreciation of the Velvets did not catch on suddenly, neither then nor recently. Their influence was spread glacially, in a sort of diaspora through decades of music. The first Velvets album sold only 30,000 copies early on, and it was Eno who famously said that everyone who bought the album must have started a band. We could make a chart and trace the increasing tiers of trickle-down from that explosive and weird and perfect New York nucleus; through Warhol and Nico; through people like David Bowie and Eno—attentive greats, ears to the ground, who snatched up Reed and Cale once they became solo artists; and through the whole of punk.
The low fidelity of the first two Velvet Underground albums is urgent and brutal. Their sparseness is powerful. The drums are primal (Maureen Tucker used no cymbals). The softness of the third and fourth is shocking in comparison. They are beautiful and infectious.
Between all four lies Reed.
Lou Reed did what he wanted. And even if this became the shtick that he carried out through his career into the ‘80s and ‘90s—as his interviews grow grumpier and grumpier—and all the way to Lulu, his Metallica collaboration released exactly two years ago, this fuck you is precisely what binds his oeuvre together. He was infamously difficult to work with, burning bridges with Cale and Bowie, to name a few, after their initial collaborations. And this brattiness is precisely what makes his character enlivening for us listeners. We can feel it in his albums. We can feel the angry engineer at the end of the two-day session in 1967, and the nonplussed fans upon the release of the greatest piece of music ever recorded—all 64:04 minutes or ∞ of Metal Machine Music. Even if he cared about success—he probably did but would never admit to—he made it a point to convey just how little he cared about us. But it is we who inherited the character of Lou Reed three days ago.