The Velvet Underground and Nico

50 yearsalbum cover

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.

_____________

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.

Velvet-Underground

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.

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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part Two

2013 004 

Despite all the computations
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station,
And it was alright

               (Lou Reed, from the Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll”)

Last month I inducted five bands into the longitudes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and promised there would be five more.  These, then, will wrap up the Top 10 artists I feel should have already been inducted, but so far been shunned by that other Hall.  You know, the one whose museum is in Cleveland but whose VIP induction ceremonies are usually shifted to the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Sorry about the sarcasm.  I should try to keep things upbeat, especially when it comes to music.  Anyway, this induction is a time to celebrate!  A time to be happy! 🙂  And one of the best things about this ceremony is the total absence of self-congratulatory music biz backslapping, cronyism, and sloppy post-induction onstage “jamming” by bloated, bag-eyed, half-drunk, over-the-hill millionaire rock stars wearing ill-fitting dinner jackets.

Well, I tried.

The next five acts being inducted are… (Paul Shaffer, please leave the building):

New York Dolls: how can longitudes induct a band that made only one great record, and one very good follow-up?  Well, the Sex Pistols made only one great record, and there would be no Sex Pistols – and therefore nobody to label the RnRHoF a “piss stain” – had it not been for these proto-punk nasty boys.  Led by Mick Jagger look-a-like David Johansen (aka “Buster Poindexter”), the Dolls’ music was often ramshackle, but it was delivered with in-your-face panache. dolls Songs like “Personality Crisis,” “Subway Train,” “Frankenstein,” “Trash,” and “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown” are stripped-down rock & roll before the fall, straight out of a Staten Island garage or Bowery basement.  Classic New York City hard rock, with exaggerated androgyny just for humorous effect.  Iggy and the Stooges made it to the RnRHoF, as well as the cartoonish Alice Cooper, so why not these guys, three of whom are already dead??  I’d ask record exec and RnRHoF guru Ahmet Ertegun, but he’s in rock & roll heaven too.

Todd Rundgren: the “Runt” seems like a 180-degree turn from the Dolls.  And like the Moody Blues from last month’s induction, he polarizes opinion: you either love him or hate him.  But Rundgren actually produced the Dolls’ classic debut album, as well as successful albums by Badfinger, Patti Smith, XTC, the Tubes, the Band, Hall & Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Psychedelic Furs, and many more.  He’s also famous for his groundbreaking work in media technology.  But his induction rests on his own solo records, including his masterpiece, Something/Anything?, a double album filled with golden pop nuggets all written and sung by Rundgren and where he played almost all the instruments (long before the artist formerly or presently known or not known as Prince ).  Bravely changing direction, Rundgren followed with the kaleidoscopic A Wizard, A True Starrunt2Like many prodigies, Rundgren was erratic, and his philosophic excursions with his band Utopia didn’t help his case with RnRHoF.  But he’s one of the pop renaissance men, along with Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder.  And even more than the others, he was unafraid to risk failure or ridicule.  Songs like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,”  “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “A Dream Lives on Forever,” “Can We Still Be Friends,”  “Time Heals,” “Bang the Drum All Day,” and others only scratch the surface of his significant contributions to rock.

Fairport Convention: similar to Love (see first induction), Fairport Convention is unknown to many rock fans.  They’re more familiar in England than America, where many hail them as Great Britain’s greatest folk-rock band.  Like the Byrds in America, Fairport covered a lot of Bob Dylan songs when they started, but they soon found their own muse, plundering English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s archives to create their own British Isles brand of psychedelic folk-rock.fairport  Singer Sandy Denny is regarded as having one of the best voices in rock or folk, sort of a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Judy Collins (her beautiful song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by Collins).  Fairport also included critically respected guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson.  If you haven’t heard this band, I encourage you to check out the albums What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege and Lief, which form the core of their catalog and earn them a spot in longitudes’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Procol Harum: yet another English progressive rock band.  What doesn’t RnRHoF like about these groups?  Are they too Caucasian, or European, or musically proficient?? (I’m convinced Genesis was inducted due to their Phil Collins-era pop molasses, not Peter Gabriel’s earlier, more intriguing influence).  But even critics of progressive rock are fond of Procol Harum.  Their lyricist, Keith Reid, didn’t play an instrument, but wrote clever gothic poems with references to rusted sword scabbards and haunted ships.  He had the perfect partners in pianist/arranger Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher.procol  This axis was ably assisted by Hendrix-styled guitarist Robin Trower and thunderous drummer B.J. Wilson.  All of them gave Procol a sound like no other group, one that veered between crunching blues and soaring symphonic rock.  Last year they were nominated by RnRHoF but missed induction (“Sorry boys, maybe next time”).  A slap in the face to a great band that did “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” and made some very cool albums.  Longitudes hereby corrects the injustice.

King Crimson: here is a British band that wrote long, complex songs with flute, violin, saxophone, and keyboards.  And the keyboards included a Mellotron, a modified tape replay keyboard, no less. Oh my God, what heresy!  What would Elvis say!  Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is rolling in his grave (wherever his grave is located).  Despite RnRHoF’s misgivings, longitudes recognizes Crimson’s importance in stretching the boundaries of rock, with their bold explorations into free jazz, classical chamber music, and dissonance.  Led by erudite guitarist Robert Fripp, the only permanent member, King Crimson in the beginning included talented vocalist Greg Lake, later crimsonone-third of the supergroup, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and multi-instrumentalist and tunesmith Ian MacDonald (who later went for the bread and formed Foreigner).  Pete Townshend of the Who called Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, “an uncanny masterpiece.”  King Crimson influenced a lot of musicians, from Genesis to Rush to Nirvana.  More than just a band, they were a forward-thinking musical aesthetic.  But RnRHoF evidently prefers the group Heart.  ‘Nuff said.

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians