Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Velvet Underground-The Velvet Underground, 1969

The Velvets Forgotten Third Record—an Exquisite and Subdued Guitar Masterpiece

As the Sixties drew to an untidy close, The Velvet Underground released their third and penultimate album, which was elegantly self-titled. 1969 was a considerable year for records that saw the release of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, Tommy James and the Shondells’ Cellophane Symphony, Dusty Springfield’s landmark Dusty in Memphis, Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s creepy and weird Farewell Aldebaran, Skip Spence’s ghostly Oar, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and of course, Abbey Road.

The Velvets though trumped them all with their delicate masterpiece of sparse novelistic beauty, which acted as a silent—given that no one cared about this album when it was released—triumph for Lou Reed and a stunning rebuke of John Cale and the caustic and harsh decadence of their 1968 entry White Light/White Heat. The fact that Reed could erect such a monument of fragile grace out of the ashes of the Cale rupture is a triumph of vision.

The cover, seeming no less iconic now than the Warhol banana that marked their first record, is an ashy photograph of the group: Sterling Morrison, with his page-boy haircut and funny moustache looks as if he is stubbing out a cigarette, Lou Reed, dressed daintily in a sweater, holds up a magazine, Moe Tucker sits cross legged, giving Lou a quixotic look, and poor Doug Yule lurks in the shadows, shunted practically off the couch and separated from his compatriots by a large standing ashtray.

The photograph was taken by a Warhol denizen called Billy Name and looks like the kind of thing you may find among your parents’ things—not looking at all like it was taken at the Factory. After the holocaust of noise that was White Light/White Heat, Billy Name’s sweet and intimate family portrait of the new Velvets indicated that deep changes were afoot.

The first Velvet Underground record, The Velvet Underground & Nico is a very cool and knowing album crammed with lyrics that range from gritty street talk and stream-of-consciousness jabber to pulpy sexual nonsense; blunt, minimal guitar work; repetitive drumming; proto-goth posturing; John Cale’s viola; Nico’s ugly Teutonic croon; and Lou Reed’s nasally, Dylanesque drawl. It was a very tough and seemingly uncompromising document, which was totally at odds with the world of American music at the time, whether it was pop, rock, garage, folk, psyche, or avant-classical, even within the crucible of New York City.

The album, blessed by Andy Warhol, has pretty much made the Velvets’ reputation as obscene punk pioneers and arty farty New York anti-hippies, but it is flawed, being unfocused, incoherent and sounding sometimes like an uncontrolled experiment. It has darkly classic moments, some excellent songs—"I’m Waiting For the Man," "Sunday Morning," and the Nico songs are all well-written and rendered, but to be truthful it may have been better if Lou Reed had sung them.

In the end Andy Warhol and actual producer Tom Wilson made it into a schizophrenic bastard by shoehorning in the unwanted Nico. And I like Nico very much, her album, Chelsea Girl with Reed, Cale, and other contributions from her conquests, is a brilliant footnote in the larger Velvets’ story, but her presence on the Velvet Underground’s first album signifies compromise in the midst of an otherwise uncompromising moment in American music history and by extension, a band at war with itself.

After having gotten rid of Nico and Andy Warhol, the Velvets recorded White Light/White Heat, and entered full-headed into a scuzzy seemly morass of drugs, transsexuals, the dead, and almost dead, all spit through the conduit of harsh mind-splitting guitar squalor. Other naïfs had composed paeans that floated upon clouds of weed smoke or fantastical lysergic journeys through the inner-mind, but the Velvets eschewed that kid stuff in favor of the reckless twin-pursuits of amphetamines and heroin; the nihilism promised in the Velvet Underground’s first record had bore rank fruit.

White Light/White Heat’s centerpiece is the squalid, epic blues poem, "Sister Ray," a seventeen minute three-chord juggernaut of sloppy guitars, pounding, loose-skinned drums and John Cale’s squealing and unmercifully over-driven organ. While Reed’s other overdrawn ode to drugs, "Heroin" is ultra-personal and very serious in an adolescently sincere way, "Sister Ray" is an impressionistic tale of a drug den populated by characters such as Miss Rayon, Rosie, Doug, Sally, the murderous, lascivious Cecil, and a soldier shot dead, that showed Reed’s growth and confidence as a writer and prefigured his crowning achievement as a solo-artist—"Street Hassle."

If The Velvet Underground & Nico sounded like a band at war with itself, White Light/White Heat was pure cannibalism, and when it was over, the Velvets had shed yet another member as the rigid and classically trained Cale left—perhaps forced out by the increasingly megalomaniacal Reed—to pursue a quixotic career as producer, performer, and shepherd of the coming New York punk movement.

The book on the Velvets seems to be that the first two albums—The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat—best the last two—The Velvet Underground and Loaded—because the first two are ostensibly difficult proto-punk records anchored by Cale’s bleak artistic vision and were unlike anything else, while the last two are pop records written and recorded in an attempt to sell out.

There are of course many issues at play within this scenario, the first being the departure of the difficult Cale and the arrival of the pliable Doug Yule. Also, after the Velvets broke with Warhol, Reed hired a manager called Steve Sesnick who Cale called “a snake,” and who by all accounts was just that, given that after Reed left the band, Sesnick tried dispersing all the songwriting credits from Loaded to Yule, even going so far as to put a photograph of Yule all alone at a piano on the back cover, as if it was his, and not the band’s album.

This reading of history may be true in terms of Loaded, because Reed, Yule, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker were all trying to score hits. Their third record though, seems to have no pretensions toward bearing hits. Loaded, with its garish cover of pink weed smoke wafting up from an underground entrance, which must have made Reed wretch and Cale laugh in disdain, was a commercial failure. But not for lack of trying—it was, so to speak, quite "loaded" with hits. The third album though, was too claustrophobic, too sparse in places, too dense in others; and though not as difficult as their earlier work, it was still just too complex to appeal to a mass audience.

On The Velvet Underground, Reed’s schoolboy infatuation with drug culture is largely absent—or at least submerged—which allowed him to replace his grim, realist fantasies with a poetic web of relationships, conversations, and sideways pleas for direction that flew in the face of the empty nihilism of White Light/White Heat. It is the Velvets’ most mature record, with its mesh of brittle guitars, so fragile and understated that when coupled with swaths of church organ revealed a breathless requiem quality that went hand in hand with Reed’s lyrical motif of faith.

Unlike their first two efforts, the Velvets’ third record has no real centerpiece, no "Heroin" or "Sister Ray." Its opening track, "Candy Says," was written for/about a Long Island boy named James Lawrence Slattery who liked to, what was called at the time, cross-dress, and who came to identify as a female, before becoming a Warhollian superstar under the moniker Candy Darling.

The opening line, “Candy Says, I’ve come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world,” shows a deft, world-weary empathy that Reed would show for the rest of his career, but never had before. With its gently plucked electric guitar, brushed drums, softly hushed bass, and Doug Yule’s whispering croon, "Candy Says" was like a lullaby, setting a soft tone, that was easily placid enough to calm the nerves of the up tightest of children.

Even though the tone of "Candy Says" would be wisely revisited, the Velvets exploded the shivery mood with the buoyantly nonsensical "What Goes On," before slipping headlong into a sometimes cold, but very exploratory conversation—or perhaps one way monologue—between Margeurita and Tom, called "Some Kinda Love," which continued Reed’s fascination with naming his characters. Reed’s snake like vocals slither playfully between the choppy, tone-bending guitar, which recalls a kind of urban folk-blues made tangible partly by Maureen Tucker’s always-primal junk tub drums that drone machine-like toward the end, failing to ever change. No fills, no frills, no muss, no fuss.

A quick note on Maureen Tucker—In almost every other rock band, the drummer along with the bassist establish a skeletal time-keeping rhythm that the guitarists, keyboardists and other players hang on to. Not so with the Velvets. Tucker was not there just to keep time, instead she stood like a small wizened child over her kit, replete with upturned bass drum and she banged along with mallets, creating a kind of heavy-thudded percussive universe that stood alongside all the other imaginative skill-sets that made the Velvet Underground the most progressive (in a forward looking way, not in the way that means to shoehorn neoclassicism into rock structures) rock band of the sixties.

"Pale Blue Eyes" revisits the quiet terrain of "Candy Says," without being as claustrophobic. In fact it may be one of the most spacious songs the Velvets would ever record, with its barely audible church organ, wide open chords, tambourine and ever-present lead guitar that shifts deftly between gentle folk-picking and soft, angular lines.

Reed, who has always tried to reconcile his twin-fascinations with poetry and novelistic realism with varying degrees of success, composed a masterpiece with the the almost apologetic "Pale Blue Eyes." His fascination with faith, or some approximation thereof, is on display if not as explicitly addressed as it is in "Jesus" and "I’m Beginning to See the Light." In a moment of guilt-soaked romanticism that recalls Graham Greene in its nearly joyless pathos, Reed sings, “It was good what we did yesterday. And I'd do it once again. The fact that you are married, only proves, you're my best friend. But it's truly, truly a sin.”

Lou Reed destroys the gospel notion of being caught in the midst of a Jesus-loving epiphany with the glorious, perfect "I’m Set Free" as he states, “I’m set free, to find a new illusion.” Faith is just a dream. Tucker shines, wielding her hammer-like mallets and "I’m Set Free" displays, what I believe to be the most dramatic and effecting guitar solo that I have ever heard. Everything but Tucker’s drums drop low in the mix, the rhythm guitar switches to the right channel and the lead guitar, flooded with reverb gracefully skates along toward a climax of quiet cymbals.

For the first time, the Velvet Underground had constructed a coherent record, a document with a unity of purpose, where each part interlocked and engaged with the next in an intricate and meaningful way. Unlike their earlier efforts, this record did not denote the tone of saber rattling. Thematically, it was not led by the collar by drugs and sex; sonically it was not once abrasive or irrational, it was quietly, soberly majestic. The unwavering agendas had been sunken, and for the first time the Velvet Underground did not sound like a band at war with itself.

If I were to poll myself once a year for ten years, this album would be number one on my list six times probably. If I had my druthers, I would cut the overlong and artistically decadent "Murder Mystery" out, because it sounds a bit like run of the mill sixties psyche experimentalism. "After Hours," sounding as if it were written in an era of bathtub gin and bobbed hair, may be one of the best closing songs on any record. It was Moe Tucker’s first shot at a lead vocal and she did much better with it than Ringo did on the Buck Owens classic "Act Naturally."

In the end, I think it may be helpful to view the Velvets in four discreet phases instead of two. The first album was influenced by, not only the presence of Nico and the guiding hand of Warhol, but also minimalist composer La Monte Young. The second conveys a certain sense of liberty, as the band got free of Warhol and Nico, but it is also alienating in its nihilistic rage. The third is again marked by a sense of liberation, this time from Cale’s high-art shackles and the dread of nihilism, which furthered a true attempt at introspection by Reed that shows an engagement with a higher power. And the last phase is a kind of crass attempt to cash in on their potential that was ultimately a commercial failure but a songwriting success.

Loaded-Era Velvets-Garish?



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