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.

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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.

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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The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

david palmer_today

In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction. They’re still active today.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

can't buy a thrill

I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

steely dan_cropped

Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

TheMyddleClass_011-800x398

The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

wrap around joy

Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

myddle class poster 2

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part One

HoF2

Rolling Stone magazine recently stirred anger over its rock star-styled cover photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Marketing to young people’s fascination with beauty, celebrity, and danger is nothing new for RS.  They’re good at selling magazines, and they’ll undoubtedly sell a lot of copies of the Tsarnaev issue.

The RS Tsarnaev issue controversy deserves a blog post by itself, but that’s not what this one’s about.  RS is a bedfellow of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF).  And I’d like to talk about Halls of Fame here.

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Since Jackie Brenston‘s “Rocket 88” in 1951, rock music has had the power to galvanize young people.  I’m one of those who believes that the best rock also has integrity and adult appeal.  In the ‘50s and ‘60s rock music was the anthem of a generation.  Today it’s more the anthem of Chevrolet and Monday Night Football.

But, for better or worse, rock’s impact on popular culture is undeniable.  Unlike classical, jazz, country, or other types of music, rock is flexible in its form and delivery.  There are very few rules.  It can blend different genres.  It can have words (“Rocket 88”) or not have words (the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”).  It can be strident (the Clash’s “White Riot”) or peaceful (the Grateful Dead‘s “Dark Star”).  It can be poetic (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) or a crude street rap.

Procol Harum, circa 1968

Procol Harum, circa 1968

It’s also brutally honest.  I can’t imagine classical, jazz, or country doing a musical equivalent of John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World.”

Rock is also cross-cultural and multi-generational, and it’s rarely static.  I listen to Bruce Springsteen on Friday evening after work, and Joni Mitchell late at night, alone, while wearing headphones.  Depending on the song, rock’s a drug that can affect the head, heart, or nervous system.  When I’m a little depressed, a soft-rock tune like Loggins and Messina’s “Brighter Days” can actually make me feel less isolated.  Sterling Morrison, the second guitarist in the Velvet Underground, once said that he considered music more important than politics.  I heartily agree.

Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols might agree, too.  Jones has his own memorable quote: “Once you want to be put in a museum, rock & roll’s over.”  Someday I’ll delve into what I feel the RnRHoF is all about, and why a lot of it is “bollocks.”  I’ll need a few beers for that one, though.

Sex Pistols, circa 1976 (left to right: Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook)

Sex Pistols, circa 1977 (left to right: Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook)

But since the RnRHoF is obviously here to stay, I feel a need to rectify some wrongs.  So for this blog post, I’m inducting the first five of ten artists not yet in the RnRHoF, but which I feel should have been inducted long ago.  Steve Jones won’t agree with this list, but that’s okay.  I love his band anyway.

Most people favor the music of their youth – me included.  But I’m not biased strictly out of nostalgia.  I really believe the high-water mark of rock music – with apologies to Elvis, Buddy and Chuck – occurred during the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  So don’t expect Goo Goo Gadget on this list.

As Spinal Tap documentarian Marty DiBergi once said, “But hey, enough of my yakkin’… let’s boogie!”  Here are five artists to be inducted into the longitudes’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:

The Zombies: most baby boomers know their three hits: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season.”  But anyone who has dared plunge beyond these knows this band had a treasure chest of beautiful, carefully 220px-Odessey_and_Oraclestructured tunes that should’ve been hits.  Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals were unique, and the group had not one, but two exceptional songwriters in Rod Argent and Chris White.  Next to the Beatles, the Zombies wrote maybe the prettiest melodies of any band from England in the ‘60s.  Not sure why the Dave Clark Five is in the RnRHoF and this band isn’t.

Jethro Tull: Tull began, like so many other Brits from the 1960s, as a blues band, but soon drifted into English folk.  They made a bunch of excellent albums: Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung, Songs from the Wood, and the part-live double LP, Living in the Past.  They were one of the most exciting bands to see in concert in the ‘70s, with leader Ian Anderson’s simultaneous humming and flute playing (inspired by jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and elaborate group costumes and theatrics.  tullTull managed the trick of appealing to “heads” while also achieving commercial success in both the U.K. and U.S.  Often classified as “progressive rock” (loosely defined as rock that borrows from classical or jazz, and frequently using organ, woodwinds, strings, or brass) they were actually quite unusual, mixing hard rock with blues, folk, and even baroque: challenging and intelligent music that was also listenable.  The RnRHoF likes “listenable,” but maybe not “challenging and intelligent.”  But Traffic was inducted nine years ago, so why not this similar group?

Roxy Music: another unclassifiable band, though often lumped in the progressive and “glam rock” genres, Roxy was one of the most visually exciting bands of the ‘70s.  The leader was a stylish former art student named Bryan Ferry.  He had a unique tremolo voice that could fluctuate between heavenly highs and deep lows.  He was also a gifted and underrated songwriter.roxy  Early on, Roxy was the quintessential “art rock” band (the visionary, multimedia artist/producer Brian Eno was an original member), but by the early ‘80s Ferry was writing more mainstream songs, though on a higher plane than most radio-friendly acts.  Roxy was very popular in Europe, but couldn’t get beyond cult status in the U.S. because they were too weird and sophisticated.  The RnRHoF likes weird only when it’s unsophisticated.

Moody Blues: the Moodies are a difficult case.  They wrote some of the most pretentious lyrics in rock, but these were accompanied by luscious arrangements and melodies.  The main songwriter was lead singer and guitarist Justin Hayward.  Hayward was extremely prolific, writing the FM classics “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” as well as “The Story in Your Eyes,” “The Question,” “It’s Up to You,” “Lovely to See You,” “Your Wildest Dreams,” “Gypsy,” and many more.moodies  The other members also occasionally chimed in with great songs like “Ride My Seesaw,” “Legend of a Mind” (“Timothy Leary’s dead…”), “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” etc.  The band started in 1964 in Birmingham, England as part of the British beat boom, and they still tour today, although now they’re primarily an expensive nostalgia trip.  But their endurance, song catalog, and distinction of being the first progressive rock band have me scratching my head as to why only longitudes has inducted them.

Love: unless you were a hippie who lived in California during the late ‘60s or a rock critic with grandkids, you may not have heard of Love, rock’s first racially integrated band (along with the Butterfield Blues Band).  But they made one album that has guaranteed them rock immortality: Forever Changes, a psychedelic masterpiece that many rock historians rank with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.love  They started out in L.A.’s Sunset Strip in 1966, sounding like a garage-folk-rock band on acid.  Their legendary status rests on their first three records: Love, Da Capo, and Forever Changes, all of which feature some of the most innovative music and lyrics in rock.  Jim Morrison (the Doors) and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) idolized them.  The RnRHoF is still sleeping.

To be continued!