The Velvet Underground and Nico

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Hey white boy… you chasin’ all women around? You wanna make love to the scene? Take a drag or two.

 Oh, pardon me, sir, I don’t know just where I’m going. I’m weary. I’m just looking for a dear, dear friend of mine.

 You better watch your step, little boy. ‘Cause everybody knows, when midnight comes around, all the angels scream.

The lines above aren’t from a pulp novel. They’re snippets of lyrics that I borrowed from a slab of vinyl released 50 years ago today.

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New York City, December, 1965. A cold wind slices through the city night.  Anonymous, grey people wrapped in overcoats shuffle along a sidewalk on West 3rd Street.  They move hurriedly, hunched over from the cold wind, oblivious to the  small nightclub with a tacky-looking sign above the door: “Café Bizarre.”

Inside this little matchbox-sized café, glasses clink, voices murmur, and cigarette smoke clouds the room.

On a little stage toward the back, a Mephistophelian looking man with long, greasy black hair and wraparound sunglasses toys with what looks like an electric violin. Another man, taller, casually tunes a guitar. Behind him, protecting a shabby drum kit, sits an innocent looking girl with a Beatle haircut. At the center of the little group stands a collegiate looking kid with bushy hair, tight pants, and biker boots. He’s holding an enormous hollow-bodied electric guitar. He’s chewing gum. He glances at the other guitarist and cracks a mischievous smile. He then steps toward a microphone.

“Black Angel’s Death Song,” he announces to the half-empty room.

It was the last song the Velvet Underground would play at the Café Bizarre. The manager fired them immediately afterward.

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Promo photo of Velvet Underground (and Nico). L to R: John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker

The details may be slightly different, but the general picture is accurate. It was the final show by the Velvet Underground before joining Andy Warhol‘s  pop-art multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable, part of his Factory ensemble of experimental artists, junkies, transvestites, and high-society dropouts. He teamed the foursome with an exotic, beautiful European chanteuse named Nico. In 1966, after a whirlwind tour of the states, Warhol financed recording of their first album, and it was released the following year… to little acclaim, and practically non-existent sales.

But in the last 50 years, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO has come to be regarded as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and essential to any respectable record collection. The band’s name (lifted from a porno paperback found in a recently vacated apartment) is now regularly associated with adjectives like “daring,” “uncompromising,” “revolutionary,” and “influential.”

Why is this record so important? (Brian Eno famously said that only a few people bought the record when first released, but every one of them formed a band: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Deborah Harry, Jim Carroll, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and a few others). It’s not a stretch to say that the Velvets procreated glam rock, art rock, punk, alternative, industrial noise, and maybe even rap (don’t laugh… listen to the title track of the group’s second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT).

Along with leader Lou Reed’s insightful lyrics – an unholy marriage between Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot – the music on this album set the band apart from everyone else in the kaleidoscopic 1960s. It was harsh, discordant, primitive, and punctuated with blasts of distortion, feedback, and effects inspired by Welsh violist John Cale’s avant-garde studies with John Cage and LaMonte Young (best exemplified in the manic eight-minute closer “European Son”).

At the same time, there were moments of folkish tenderness, as in “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the last two sung by Nico in a voice that sounds like Marlene Dietrich on barbiturates. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Warhol’s favorite) mixes alcohol with the downers, but the straightforward lyrics, about a shunned and lonely Cinderella (Reed’s lyrics were gender-neutral) are incredibly sad and touching.

Even before teaming with Warhol, the Velvets were testing their experimental sounds in the subculture of underground art-film New York, and Reed had already composed his most notorious songs dealing with hard drugs: “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as the sado-masochistic “Venus in Furs.” The lyrics and two-chord makeup of “Heroin,” in particular, are as striking today – and maybe even more relevant – as when they were first written:

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow

And I really don’t care anymore

Ah, when that heroin is in my blood

And that blood is in my head

Then thank God that I’m as good as dead

As with all great songs, “Heroin” has a musical structure that expertly punctuates the words and song theme. The song starts slowly, but gradually speeds up. Two simple guitar chords with a pounding bass drum, like a slow heartbeat. A sinister, single-note drone (Cale’s electric viola, strung with guitar strings) enters and becomes increasingly loud (the chemical pulsing through the blood?). The heartbeat grows faster, the guitar and drums become more frenetic… then slow down… then build again.

At the song’s climax, Cale’s viola goes completely berserk, right when Reed (in Dylan-ish talk-sing) begins confessing about “dead bodies piled up in mounds” and “thank your God that I just don’t care.”

Drug addiction is one of the tragedies of modern times. Fortunately, I don’t have experience with hard drugs, nor the harrowing lifestyle around them, so I can’t vouch for how accurate “Heroin” is in its depiction.  But of all the many rock songs devoted to the subject, this song, for me, seems the most frighteningly accurate (and there are many who agree with me).

Even the less celebrated songs on this album are noteworthy, and provide the glue that holds things together. “There She Goes Again” is the closest thing to pop here, and it kicks off with a halting ten-note intro borrowed from the soul shaker “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye. “Run, Run, Run” is a chugging little vignette of New York City street life, a sort of taste test for the group’s later 17-minute juggernaut “Sister Ray” (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT), and it’s filled with Reed-patented dysfunctionals with names like Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry.

And “Black Angel’s Death Song” – the song that ended the Velvets’ brief nightclub period – is an inscrutable, imagistic poem, probably written while Reed was an English student at Syracuse University. With a classic, typically menacing Reed vocal, Cale’s viola, and a sound effect like an ejaculating air hose, this is a song that’s primarily concerned with mood, and it grows more appealing over repeated listenings.

Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, and Lou Reed

I asked a question earlier, but I don’t think I adequately answered it. There are a LOT of reasons why this record is so special. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I would use the word “honesty.” You take it or you leave it. There’s no bullshit here, unlike in so much other “popular” music.

Other musical artists – I won’t mention names – have crassly exploited shock effect and darkness for commercial reasons. But they’re poseurs. Unlike Lou Reed, they don’t possess any empathy for the people they sing about, nor a belief in their ultimate redemption. Reed wasn’t singing about caricatures and stick figures. He was empathizing with real people that he actually knew. Or that lived inside him.

If you haven’t yet heard THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO… I envy you, because it will shake your musical world a little. When I first heard this record, it was like discovering Dostoevsky after a diet of Dr. Seuss. It sounds trite, but the Velvets helped liberalize me. It was like crossing a bridge into a new territory of sounds, attitudes, and ideas. With his later songs, like “Jesus,” “Lisa Says,” “New Age,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” Reed seemed to be sending personal postcards to his listeners (and I was one of the lucky recipients).

But this album is where it all started.

Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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Thoughts of Mary Jane

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Last Christmas I visited my 25-year-old son, who lives in the Mile High City. He picked me up in his car at the airport terminal. After we settled into our seats, he tossed an innocuous looking paper sack in my lap. “Welcome to Colorado,” he said, in his characteristic deadpan manner. I opened the bag and pulled out a long, white cigarette. I didn’t need to ask what it was.

“Memories are made of this!” I laughed, echoing an old Dean Martin song. If you’d have told me 25 years ago that my boy would one day present me with a welcoming gift that, in some parts of the U.S., is still a felony to possess… I’d have suggested you were smoking something.

Ohio is not Colorado, and not only because it lacks mountains. Recently, however, my home state waded a few centimeters beyond the shallow end of the gene pool when it passed a law permitting use of cannabis sativa (marijuana) for medical purposes. Pardon me for sounding derisive. But this is like America finally determining that, after 250 years of colonial and post-colonial slavery, emancipation of humans might be a good thing.

I’m perplexed why it’s taken so long for government officials (some of them, anyway) to concede that ingesting a plant may provide relief to people undergoing chemotherapy or suffering chronic pain. Maybe these politicos have been too preoccupied with weakening gun laws and deregulating industries that spew pollutants into our atmosphere. Again, pardon me for sounding derisive.

Marijuana plants contain a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can reduce pain, induce relaxation, and heighten one’s senses. For you free-market conservatives, THC also promotes capitalism by expanding the tax base and helping to sell Big Macs and records like Pink Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.

Unlike many foods legally sold in grocery stores, marijuana contains no toxic preservatives like MSG, BHA, BHT, or sodium nitrite, not to mention trans fats. It’s been a popular “vegetable of choice” amongst musicians since the early days of jazz.

Marijuana has not yet been proven to be physically addictive. There is some evidence of psychological dependence. But I’m betting there will always be people who have a predisposition toward overdoing things. My wife is psychologically dependent on low-fat fudgsicles. I’m psychologically dependent on watching Lawrence Welk reruns.sticker

There’s also no evidence that marijuana leads to harder drugs, despite decades of critics trying to prove otherwise. I smoked pot in college. I had opportunities to drop LSD and snort cocaine, but I turned them down. Just my opinion, but if a person wants to do hard drugs, he or she will find ways to do them, whether or not marijuana is involved.

Here’s another thought: morphine, a highly addictive opiate derived from the poppy plant, is a prevalent painkiller used in hospitals. Codeine, another addictive poppy product, is used in cough syrup, and sold over the counter. Why has it taken so long for non-addictive marijuana to be considered a therapeutic drug? Was REEFER MADNESS that powerful a movie? Was Nancy Reagan that influential?

Pardon me for being derisive about Nancy Reagan’s simplistic and failed Just Say No campaign.

And with apologies to my fellow inebriates, but no argument in defense of pot can ignore discussion of our one legal recreational drug. Our favorite social lubricant and liver enhancer was at one time used as a medical anesthetic. That’s the good news. During this same period in U.S. history, it was also doled out like candy to mollify the natives of this country so we could more easily steal their land. This popular recreational and physically addictive drug is now instrumental in exacerbating statistics for vehicular fatalities, divorce, homelessness, depression, and suicide. Other than contributing to temporary stupidity, marijuana doesn’t come close to creating this kind of societal havoc.

From my own experience, the worst thing about using marijuana is that it may cause mild anxiety, lethargy, and caloric escalation from eating junk food. And poor grades. Take it from me, it’s hard to study organic chemistry when flowers are blooming, the sun is smiling, “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” is in stereo, and McDonald’s is serving. And since marijuana affects the nervous system, it’s probably good that people are tested for specific dangerous professions, or where employees are assigned to protect public welfare.

But I can’t shake the nightmare of being tested by a certain squalid employment agency and being mistakenly accused of having pot in my system. It was shameful enough submitting to their breathalyzer b.s. in the first place. But after being accused, and even after they apologized and suddenly altered their erroneous “findings,” I swore off drug tests forever. I may have compromised most of my youthful ideals by this point in life, but I do have a little dignity left.

One final thought: there are pockets of people who still believe, despite tangible evidence to the contrary, that our government knows what’s best for us. For example, I know a very sweet but naïve and hyper-religious woman whose daughter has struggled with polycystic kidney disease. Despite having a successful kidney transplant, the girl still experiences pain. Recently, I ran into both at the grocery store. After hearing about the poor girl’s suffering, I suggested the possibility of medical marijuana. I forget what the mother said. But her look told me “Well, we don’t care for hippie drugs and would never do anything dangerous.”

Ok. Fair enough. We ended the conversation with smiles and a hug. I wished them the best of luck, as I headed to the checkout line, and Mom rolled their grocery cart toward the wiener section.

Not to sound derisive, or anything.

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