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The Velvet Underground & Nico

2009-05-26 16:49
The Velvet Underground & Nico

That's what kind of band this is: one that lends itself to wild flights of hyperbole.

Ready? Let's start.

Listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico is like a descent into addiction: the sweet times give way to the horrors of the low, only to be momentarily lightened by a fix of euphoria before a new descent into the darkness – and each crash is harsher than before. And yet, and being sucked of the mulch of humanity, in wallowing in the most depraved desires and sick impulses of the heart, there is the gratifying relief that comes with encountering Truth. Cutting through the bullshit of mundanity, reaching one’s hand through the veil of filth, and touching something, anything, that finally feels real.

See, this is the kind of ludicrous exaggeration that the Velvet Underground inspires. And yet it feels apt.

"Sunday Morning" is the kind of sweet tune that reminds you of opening your eyes to your loved one beside you on white sheets that are blinding in the morning sun. It’s a praise song for waking up on another day when all seems right in the world. The opening notes like the tinkling of a music box, it's almost too saccharine. "Early dawning, Sunday morning/ It's just the wasted years so close behind...."

Hang on: "wasted years"? But I thought….

"I'm Waiting For The Man": Sterling Morrison's thrumming guitar and Mo Tucker’' ruthless ratatat drums echo the jangling nerves of a strung-out junky waiting for his dealer to fix him up. "Feel sick and dirty/ more dead than alive…" It's pounding, insistent, like a smack habit.

Is this the same Lou Reed of the previous song? Maybe not. The Velvet's frontman has reinvented himself so many times it’s hard to pin down what he's all about. Styles, temperament, sexuality – it all seems mutable to him. The only consistent adjective is "brilliant". He's by no means got the greatest voice to grace a record, but his nasal sneer suits the material.

Next is "Femme Fatale", a song about sexual corruption. Andy Warhol insisted that model, musician and muse Nico sing on the album. Her Germanic drone adds a surreal inflection to the pop song – and her drug habit and sexual entanglements lend the tune irony.

And then "Venus in Furs". The opening notes set the scene: a menacing drone shot through with Psycho-like screeches of strings. A relentless punishment of sound, like the strokes of a bonesaw working through a limb, and yet utterly irresistible. "Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/ whiplash girlchild in the dark...." It's music that perfectly evokes the snarling pleasure of filthy sex. Hypnotic. "Taste the whip in love not given lightly/ taste the whip, now plead for me...."

While hippies were flocking to the West Coast of the States to drop out and turn on to the Summer of Love, the Velvets were hanging out in Warhol's grimy New York art scene. Choosing black shades over rosy spectacles, leather over silk, they were the original proto-punks. A few short years later, the hippie era would fade as quickly as it had happened – leaving a muddied wasteland where fields of flowers had once bloomed. The daydream threatened to turn into a nightmare – but Lou Reed and his band of psychonauts refused to look away. They stared the nightmare in the face and gleefully embraced it with masochistic abandon.

"Run Run Run". Again, that thrumming guitar and heartbeat drum, like poisoned blood pumping through collapsing veins. A song about junkies selling their souls and ending up dead. "When she turned blue, all the angels screamed/ They didn't know, they couldn't make the scene/ She had to run, run, run, run, run/ Take a drag or two."

I first came across this album in 1991, at a time when rock music meant Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. I had naively assumed that music evolved in a linear trajectory, each new incarnation of a genre being better than what came before. With bootleg cassette tapes being the pirated currency of the day, my older brother brought back a bunch of albums he had copied from a musician in London. And that’s when I discovered the Velvets, and I realized that something dark and beautiful had happened at the end of the 60’s.

I almost felt angry, like a massive cover-up had taken place sometime during the intervening decades where music had been cheapened and sanitized to within an inch of its life. But screw it, the cat was now out of the bag, and I wanted to know more.

"All Tomorrow’s Parties": Nico's narcotic drawl meanders through a lament for a washed-up party girl.

And then the album reaches its frail, f**ked-up nadir: "Heroin". It’s the point at which all masks and pretense have been pushed aside and the naked, damaged heart is laid out for all to see. Lou Reed’s voice is raw, confessional. "I have made the big decision/ I’m gonna try to nullify my life." Mo Tucker's drums are a weak pulse undulating with the ride of the drug, John Cale’s viola a painful screech. "Ah, when the heroin is in my blood/ And that blood is in my head/ Then thank God that I'm as good as dead." It's hurtful, immaculate, beautiful.

VU are one of those bands that never made it big in their own time, and yet their influence on alternative and indie rock is pivotal. They managed to be both uncompromising and willing to work within the realm of pop music – but perhaps their dark nature kept the mainstream from ever fully embracing them. At the same time that I found their music in my hands, the grunge scene was just gaining traction. Here were bands that venerated the Velvet Underground as pioneers of punk-rock, seeking a return to stripped-down authenticity in music that hadn’t been seen for a long time. The timing seemed ordained.

"There She Goes Again": a melancholy pop song about a girl living and working on the streets.

"I'll Be Your Mirror": When you’re stripped bare and all the masks have fallen away, you'll need someone to help you find yourself again. It's a simple melody, a patch of sunlight the shows there may be a way out of the pit of despair of the previous songs. "When you think the night has seen your mind/ That inside you're twisted and unkind/ Let me stand to show that you are blind."

I've got a bootleg disc of the VU's rare stuff: unreleased tracks, demo version, and such like. It's called The Psychopath’s Rolling Stones. If ever I needed a shorthand description to describe the Velvet Underground’s music, this is it. They take all of the hooky rock of the Stones and cut it down to the bone, to where it becomes unhinged, deranged, with Lou Reed like a Holy Fool, seeking truth through self-flagellation.

"The Black Angel's Death Song": Reed's ramblings veer over Cale's suicidal viola, lyrics almost incomprehensible like the musings of a madman. It sounds like the last track of the album, addled by the exertions of the songs that came before.

But then: "European Son". The driving pulse starts up again, a nervous jangling like the impatient foot-tapping of a junk-sick loser. The album's over, but the world that the Velvet Underground has sketched out isn’t done yet. Not by a long shot.

And so this record became a touchstone to be returned to over and over, every listen like a pilgrimage to a place where bullshit has been banished and the nihilistic existence of the artist becomes the one true thing. Every visit takes its damage, but nobody leaves empty handed.

That's the kind of band this is.

Few pleasures come without damage. Like sweetness corroding a tooth, a cigar clogging a lung, The Velvet Underground can make your heart swell with the unfettered glee of rock 'n roll while simultaneously gnawing your soul to a bloody nub.

What to read next: Kalahari


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