by Lester Bangs (MAY 1971)
The Velvet Underground have been one of the most consistently advanced musical organizations of our time, paid the price and endured on the strength of their commitment. The mass audience which they've deserved for so long may finally be coming around to them after exhausting all that "safer", flashier music which eventually proved so stereotyped. Not that there is anything intrinsically difficult about the Velvets' music, then or now, but a combination of bad press, guilt-by-association and public defensiveness have dogged them, absurdly, ever since they agreed to donate their manifold talents to dramatize the milieu of a Pop artist/filmaker who had reached the stage where he needed a rock'n'roll band to deliver both his vision and his image to every still-safe living room in Middle America.
So the Velvets hit the pop music scene with a grinding fanfare, and brought countless quivers to the flesh of harried parents gaping at their children huddled in quietly intense circles around speakers ozzing the ultimate nightnare - a resinous hymn building into a roar of agonized hostility as inescapable as one honed fingernail shrieking across a blackboard: "Heroin/Be the death of me ... And thank your god that I'm not aware!"
If the kids embraced it with all the grim receptivity of a new age of ruthlessly self-consuming hedonism, the more respectable listeners set on high as arbiters of the kid culture - rock critics, writers of teen-mag album surveys, industry voices - flinched back with dual reflexes of shocked disapproval and glum silence: maybe this cancer (and isn't it aimed at our very vitals?) will just go away if we ignore it long enough.
Some of the more adventurous approached it with gimmicks: well, it has to do with Warhol, so it must be a put-on, right? Call it camp. Call it New York sickness and write it off musically - doesn't the chick drummer (and whoever heard of that, either?) lose the beat in "Heroin", isn't much of it grinding feedback noise? Who can take an album like this in the spring of '67, when the prospects for a Love Utopia shine so and Sgt. Pepper is just around the corner?
The early Velvet Underground certainly had a capacity to threaten people, whether they intended to or not, but what both their detractors and many of their most fanatical fans failed to grasp was the distance between the Velvets and their subject matter, a distance as implicit in "Venus In Furs" as in an America slice-of-life portrait like "Lonesome Cowboy Bill". The band has evolved through several fruitful stages of musical experimentation and thematic content in the last five years, some of the best of it unrecorded, but to many they are still a needle-driven instrument of Andy Warhol's supposed S&M conspiracy against the mass libido, and their first album remains their best seller while typing them yet as evil incarnate, spokesmen for the self-destructive fringe and parent of more precisely-aimed assaults like Alice Cooper and the Stooges.
Perhaps it's just that the Woodstock Nation has been brainwashed by the narcisistic, vibe-y albums of groups content to serve as PR squads for the youth culture's "beautiful young people" hype, and fails to see that art doesn't necessarily support darkness by treating it. In any case, the first Velvet Underground album is as solid a documentation of the last decade's malaise as we're going to see. "Heroin" is a classic treatment that stares death in the face and comes back poetic if unresolved. But all the Velvets' songs mark the progress toward that resolution, toward life and joy achieved honestly, outside all the counterfeit wisdom and popular shortcuts to salvation which have failed so miserably. The drug song that corrupts most is the one that advertises any chemical as the mechanism of ultimate self-realization. If heroin is the absolute alternative to enlightenment, it at least makes no false claims, and those who would use this music to score their own self-destructive programs will find no support from the Velvets.
I talked to Lou Reed last month and he spoke long and eloquently on this. He was especially surprised when I mentioned. an anecdote of the Rolling Stone writer who has asked me if the Velvets were still doing "fag stuff": "We were never doing `fag stuff', although some people associated us with that. Just like some people that don't know her think that Maureen has some sort of really hard, dyke-ish image, and when they meet her they're surprised to find out what a beautiful, sensitive girl she really is. So I know that those first two albums and that image hurt us a lot. Those songs that everybody typed us with were reflections of certain scenes around us, and some of it manifested where we were at the time. But later we changed and our music changed but nobody else could seem to shake their pre-conceived notions. Like at the time I wrote `Heroin' and `Sister Ray', I felt like a very rather negative, strung-out, violent, aggressive person. I meant those songs to sort of exorcise the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hoped that other people would take them the same way. But when L began to see how people were responding to them it was disturbing. Because like people would come up and say, `I shot up to -Heroin"', things like that. For awhile, I was even thinking that some of my songs might have contributed formatively to the consciousness of all these addictions and things going down with the kids today. But I don't think that anymore; it's really too awful a thing to consider.
"But I do know that that was only one aspect of our music, and we've gone through lots of changes since then, and I wish more people would recognize that fact. All of a sudden we started looking out when we went onstage and seeing audiences full of stoned-out, violent people asking for those songs. We didn't want to appear to be supporting that, which is why we won't play most of those songs anymore."
If the Velvets' first album was thematically grim, it was musically as bold as any statement from any band of the last five years. It rendered the dark street life of New York City in a vision as fully realized as anything in Burroughs or Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book; songs like "Heroin" and "Waiting for the Man" were obvious, but "Sunday Morning" was so lush and lyrical that you might not at first notice that the words described urban paranoia with a terse chill: "Look out/The world's behind you/There's always someone around you/Who will call/It's nothing at all ... "
The humor in songs like "Femme Fatale" and "There She Goes Again" was missed by a lot of people, as was the wit of "The Black Angel's Death Song" 's authentically absorbed Oriental influence in the viola track (just compare its originality with the obvious "rag rock" scales indulged in by so many other groups at the time, and recall that the Velvets were doing it long before the rest, in 1965), and its lyrics with their strange smears of imagery ("So you fly/Through the cozy brown snow of the east ... "). Which was also where Lou Reed began to branch out vocally into the distended' chants that eventually became a whole system of delivery in "Sister Ray." Here it just found the syllables shifting from the word "choose" to briefly take wing in nonsense syllables, a kind of expletive shorthand: "I chi chi/Chi chi I/Chi chi chi/Ta to kooah/If you choose/Choose to choose/Choose to go."
White Light/White Heat was the album, though, that firmly proved the Velvets to be much more than a Warhol phase, and established them for any one with ears to listen as one of the most dynamically experimental groups in or out of rock. This great album, which was all but ignored when it appeared, will probably stand to future listeners looking back as one of the milestones on the road to tonal and rhythmic liberation which is giving rock all the range and freedom of the new jazz. "Sister Ray" represented the ultimate extension of the pioneer work of the Yardbirds, marked the first truly successful attempt at applying the lessons of free jazz to rock, and threw a fierce light towards the future and further definitions in the new vocabulary by people like Beefheart and Tony Williams' Lifetime (dig especially the similarity between "Ray", a jam, and "Right On" on the Lifetime's second album). It also led Velvet fans to expect a consistent pattern of fiendishly intricate experiments, even though the band didn't want to limit and type themselves as part of the avant-garde any more than they expected to fixate themselves lyrically in the worlds of darkness conjured up by first album and much of the second. Partly because they knew that they had many more stories to tell, and partly in response to an audience as unprepared for futuristic music as for nightworld lyrics, the Velvets left White Light/White Heat to stand, for the time being, as their ultimate statement in the new musical vocabulary of electronic abstraction.
Lou reminisces and shrugs: "Sister Ray's jam came about right there in the studio - we didn't use any splices or anything. I had been listening to a lot of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and wanted to get something like that with a rock'n'roll feeling. And I think we were successful, but I also think that we carried that about as far as we could, for our abilities as a band that was basically rock'n'roll. Later, we continued to play that kind of music and I was really experimenting a lot with guitar, but most of the audiences in the clubs just weren't receptive to it at all."
But it wasn't only the outer-edge forays on Side Two which made White Light/White Heat a classic - each of the other songs was a solidly individualistic entity of its own, as distinct from the songs around it as from the dim gropings so many other groups were into at the time. The title track had steaming piano riffs and marvelous little rhymes that clicked through the funk with a perfect loose precision ("Watch that side, watch that side/Doncha know gon' be dead on arrival" or "Ohh, sputter butter, ev'body gone/Gon' see the mother") and "Lady Godiva's Operation" injected a coarse urbane humor into the grandeur of a Byrds-like guitar riff, "turning on the machines that -" (enter Lou's streetkid cackle to finish the line begun in rather effete tones by John Cale's cultured voice): "-sweetly pump air!"
Perhaps the most interesting piece was "The Gift". Lots of oppressively banal "stories" and spoken passages have clogged LP grooves in the last few years, but only "The Gift" remains to stand as a successful fusion of literature and programmed rhythm - despite the contrived black humor of the denouement, the total work is witty, well-written and just realistic enough to be right on target. As Lou says today: "I wrote `The Gift' while I was in college. I used to write lots of short stories, especially humorous pieces like that. So one night Cale and I were sitting around and he said, `Let's put one of those stories to music.' So we did and I still wasn't sure about it - I'm never sure about things I write for about two weeks - but I guess it turned out really good." If the rest of them are as good as he guessed this one to be, we can only hope he finds some publishers.
Just how many leagues ahead of predictability the Velvets are was brought home stunningly in their third album, as the simplicity and eloquence of such little masterpieces as "`Candy Says", "Some Kinda Love" and "I'm Set Free" permeated our consciousness as surely as the vast baroque architecture and deliberately placed sonic smog of "Sister Ray". But the sense of universality was new. Anybody should be able to see both themselves and others they've known in songs like "Candy Says"; as Lou Reed points out: "I've gotten to where I like `pretty' stuff better (than drive and distortion) because you can be more subtle, really say something and sort of soothe, which is what a lot of people seem to need right now. Like I think if you came in after a really hard day at work and played that third album, it might really do you good. A calmative, some people might even call it muzak, but I think it can function on both that and the intellectual or artistic levels at the same time. Like when I wrote `Jesus', I said, `My god, a hymn! and `Candy Says', which is probably the best song I've written, which describes a sort of person who's special, except that I think all of us have been through that in a way - young confused with the feeling that other people, or older people, know something you don't. And those and things like `Sunday Morning' have always been my favorite Velvet Underground songs; I wish somebody else somewhere would record them."
"That's the Story of My Life" is really the story of the paradoxical mood of our times boiled into a couple of short sentences. What other band would answer "the difference between wrong and right" with "both those words are dead" and finish without drawing a moral conclusion? The Velvets' music, far from the pretentious dogma so rampant since 1967, solicits both intellectual involvement and an independent judgement.
The only song on the third album which has been called a failure, "The Murder Mystery" was conceived as a very ambitious experiment. Though it finally doesn't work, the song is still interesting, as is Lou's explanation: " `The Murder Mystery' was intended as a kind of application of modern literary techniques to rock'n'roll. Like Burroughs and his fold-ins - I figured it'd have to work better here than on the printed page because here you've got a whole different dimension to work with in stereo sound, so the two verbal tracks overlap yet remain separate. Only the reproduction got kind of messed up so you can't even really understand the words if you separate the channels."
But the song I remember most particularly was one they did at a strange San Diego concert in 1968. They were on with Quicksilver Messenger Service, and much of the audience was apathetic or put off; they wanted those California acid-vibes instead of what they took for cold New York negativism. Lou Reed, himself, came out from the dressing room and walked around in the audience with his hands in his pockets, a slight, calm figure with a noncommital expression on his face. Seemingly, nobody noticed him, because nobody said anything to him - although almost everybody in that place was so busy being cool they could barely get up the gumption to dance, so it probably doesn't matter. My girl and I wanted to go up and say something to Lou, shake his hand and tell him how much we dug his music, but I was afraid. I thought he would be some maniac with rustly eyeballs or something, the image made me nervous so we didn't approach him, even though she said: "It seems to me like that was all they really wanted, for someone to just come up and tell them they appreciate what they're doing." And as usual she was right, as Lou confirmed when I talked to him.
That was quite a night, though. In a way it was the ultimate Velvet Underground concert. The audience was terrible; those that weren't downright hostile kept interrupting the announcements between songs to yell out what they wanted to hear, like "How about `Heroin'!" and even "Play 'Searchin' For My Mainline'!" But right in the middle of all these bad vibes, the Velvets launched into a new song that was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my concert career. Lou announced it as "Sister Ray, Part Two", but it sounded nothing like the previous song. It was built on the most dolorous riff imaginable, just a few scales rising and falling mournfully, somewhat like "Venus In Furs" but less creaky, more deliberate and eloquent. The lyrics, many of which Lou made up as he went along, seemed like some fantasy from an urban inferno: "Sweet Sister Ray went to a movie/The floor was painted red and the walls were green/'Ooohh,' she cried/'This is the strangest movie I've ever seen ... ' ". But it was the chorus that was the most moving: "Ohhhh, sweet rock and roll - it'll cleanse your soul ... "
That's classic, and no other group in America could have (or would have) written and sung those words. In a way, there are some very old-fashioned emotions in the Velvets' music. There is a strain of reverence that recurs, from "Heroin" to the song just described to "Jesus" to "Ohh! Sweet Nothin's". The yearning, hymnlike quality is the same - it's just that the focus has shifted over the years. As Lou said recently: "I think a lot of our music is about growing up, in a way. It's nice to be mature, to be able to meet things rationally sometimes instead of with all this nervous sort of emotionalism."
Between The Velvet Underground and the long awaited Loaded lay a year and a half of hassles, conflicts, splits and realignments, sick rumors and ultimate triumphs. First on the slate was a parting of the ways with MGM; at the time each faction claimed the other was fired, but recent developments would seem to support the Velvets both in their claim and their actions. Christ, who else did the company have? I talked on the phone for upwards of an hour one day with a girl representing MGM in Los Angeles, and she was not at all sanguine about the parting "What do you want to know about them for? They're terrible!"
"Well, I thought 'Heroin' was something of a sixties classic."
"'Yeah, that was all right but the group itself ... ugh! In the first place, no chick should ever play the drums. That is just not a woman's instrument. And the chick that plays 'em looks even more like a man than the lead singer looks like a woman."
Which reminded me of the time I met the Velvets in person. It's funny, but somehow you never expect people to be what they most simply are. You expect something larger than life, one way or the other; genius bemused on its lofty perch or betes noires, drugs and ruthless cynicism and destruction barely tangible, like silt in the air. But when you shake hands and sit down to chat - son of a gun! They're average people! Just like everybody used to think that all jazz musicians were junkies, and never got up to change the baby's diapers in the middle of the night or anything. The Velvet Underground were outgoing individuals who claimed to use no drugs now, and were far more literate and intellectually inclined than your average run of pop groups. Lou Reed sat and talked with a relaxed intensity, clarifying where they'd been and what they still hoped to accomplish, together with their constant plans for achieving large-scale success without pandering in any direction; Sterling Morrison laid back with a lovely lady wrapped around him and a tolerant smile on his face, benignly consigning all the competition to oblivion; "'Well, the Band is fine if you wanna go back to some rural agrarian society and sit on the front porch every night ... I mean, you know. I just can't understand this whole 'back to nature' thing - shit, I go lay on the beach at Coney Island and I get some nature and Maureen chuckles, Maureen who has a certain emotional vulnerability about her that is most feminine and rarer than ever today, hurt in a way but also like somebody's kid sister, in fact like Lou Reed's kid sister.
When I met them, I thought to come on cool, so when the subject of drugs came up, I smiled very knowingly, "'Well, I think you can take any drug, just so long as you don't take it too much or too often." And Lou Reed blandly replied, "Well, yeah, if you wanna be a smorgasbord schmuck.." And people kept coming around, heads, groupies, a thirtyish couple who reminded me of the kind of pre-hippie heads who used to make a big deal out of turning on and going to see 8%, smiling, "Well, we saw Julian Burroughs when we were in Paris and he said to send you all his regards ... " The Velvets in the middle of all this mildly amused, Lou setting Maureen on his knee, "Well, whaddaya think, kid, you wanna go get a pizza??"
The MGM girl went on, "The lead singer is the most absolutely spaced person I have ever met in my entire life. I think he was on speed all the time they were here. And on top of all that, he had the nerve to tell me what a fucked-up company MGM is, how much he hates the way we're handling 'em, and why don't we give 'em any promotion - he's sitting there running down the people who are giving me a paycheck every week! What am I supposed to do, agree with him? ... They gotta manager in New York that thinks they're the greatest thing in history. I'll give you his number, call him up, he'll talk your ear off about 'em for five hours ... "
So I called up personable Steve Sesnick, who came on just a tad like the classical stereotype of the fast-talking high-powered promoter, but was informative; yes, they had left MGM and were in the process of signing with Atlantic. MGM was fucked; he repeated what the band had told me, that they were given exactly one day to record each of their first three albums. Now that they'd gotten out of the Mike Curb-murk into better business arrangements, things were really going to soar. He had a vision for the band, "'We're, what we're doing, is wee're so far ahead of everybody else, and have been for five years - that we're just way out there where ... way out in infinity ... "
That was a year ago, when all us fans in the hinterlands were gettin' anxious, going to the record store every day and expecting to see that Atlantic album, a great class label which help some fools take the Velvets seriously at last, old Ertegun/Wexler benchmark production and snazz packaging, the whole works. It was finally gonna happen. A lot of us thought it was about to happen when the local AM station bought a format called Funderground and "Heroin" made number one (why, it even beat out "Alice's Restaurant"!!) and a lot of other people got set (when the third album was released) for New York's contribution to the rock of ages to assume their deserved place in the public pantheon. But now it had to happen; the Velvets were playing live again, at Max's Kansas City in their old hometown, a celebrated summer long gig that knocked New York flat on its ass and spread the word cross-country. Legendary sets, some say the best live dance music by a white rock'n'roll band ever caught and caught it is because there are tapes circulating in the East that would make a fantastic next Cotillion album (especially with conditions what they now be), or the bootleg of all time, if some enterprising madman were willing to invest a few vats of vinyl. All summer long the Velvets kicked out the jams, and more, because for every wailing, wiry firestorm there were some "Sweet Nothin's" just down the track. It was a triumph. They went in to make their fourth album in New York's Atlantic studios. Now the time was finally on for the Velvets, rock'n'roll princes right out of history if ever once seen clearly, and Lou Reed, non-poseur poet - craftsman that could become a Dylan for the 70's without even becoming self-conscious about it. The public was tired of its arch-superstars with their identical, impersonal funk-laden albums, their arrogant concert boredom and charisma of distance.
The Velvets went in and recorded. Slowly and at ease for the first time, learning. Holdups. Rumors that the producer (Adrian Barbour, maybe) wasn't showing up for sessions all that regularly. Some vague conflict. Other rumors had the album finished, the Velvets dissatisfied, back for more work. Perfectionist. Meanwhile there's some several thousand crazy kids (Velvet fans ain't no Mongol horde, but they'd_ rip the locks from doors and doors from jams to hear that music) out there across Southern California-and the Corn Belt and up haulin' hod in North Dakota all jumpin' in ecstasy waitin' on the next big blast of Long Island sireen thunder. Rise and shine to "Heroin" in '67, "Sister Ray" pacing the long nights and lunging nerves of '68, "Set Free" in '69 - these kids gotta have that music, man, they grew up with it whether you believe it or not, went on and through and off the chemical nightmare with that music scoring the process all the way, livid one year and lucid the next. Nobody who remembers all those songs and then waited all that time for Number Four could stand to wait much longer; just like they're not gonna stand for the prospect of no ascension from "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll". Something had to give.
Something did. The strangest rumors started floating around. The first one was that Lou Reed was dead, that his manager had murdered him for reasons unknown and neither of them had been seen for several days. Nobody quite believed it but speculation was rife. On and off and on again as one shadowy tale tumbled into another; Lou Reed freaked out, flipped out, was incommunicado, and cracked under pressure and split for parts unknown, had freaked out and gone home to Long Island to live with his parents. "Oh well," said one cheerful cynic, "he writes all his best songs on Long Island anyway."
Which shows you just what kind of fine friends you get among your brethren and sistren along the showbiz mainline if you ever really do freak out. Jimi's dead, another star done gone. Janis kicks it and it hurts even if you didn't like her music, Lou Reed flips out and skips back to filial security, oh well, at least he's alive. I was having fantasies about him staying on speed for the entire duration of the Max's engagement and falling in frothing fits and seared nerves to heal for another onslaught. Never mind what they tell you with their own mouths - "White Light/White Heat" plays on, so's not quite dead on arrival. Who shrinks from believing the worst? Who's ingenuous enough to risk getting caught believing any better?
The bald facts of the matter are that Lou Reed did not in any way flip or freak out, with or without drugs, even though it was such a hot rumour that Circus Magazine (among others) picked it up, and Rock Magazine, writing months after the fog of misunderstanding and misinformation had cleared, had him "disconnected from objective reality."
What happened, according to New York publicist Danny Fields, writers like Lenny Kaye and Lisa Robinson and anyone else close enough to the actual situation not to he taken in by the smokescreen, was that a conflict developed, or had been developing for a long time, between Lou and manager Sesnick. Apparently, Sesnick wanted the group to move in certain directions (perhaps way out into ... infinity); Lou had other ideas and no compromise was possible. So Lou left and did indeed go to Long Island, while the other members of the band, for reasons unknown, stuck with Sesnick. Even though every song they have ever written was, in significant part, Lou Reed work and most of them flat Lou Reed originals; even though Lou was the leader and guiding spirit of the band and always had been, much like Jagger with the Stones, not only singing lead on the vast majority of songs but developing most of the band's sonic innovations including that wiry, unprecedented style of solo guitar attack used in "Ray" and "Heard Her Call My Name", which he taught the other members of the band and in which he, himself, played the best recorded solos. In other words, Lou Reed is the total spirit and driving force behind the Velvet Underground, as has been perfectly obvious for years to seemingly everyone but their "visionary" manager. When Cale was there, they might have gotten along without Lou, because they were twin titans, the crowding of whose talents split the original Velvets much the same way that (to indulge a little sacrilege) Steve Stills and Neil Young burst the Buffalo Springfield. But now, without Lou, without Cale, relative newcomer Doug Yule seemingly at the helm, they could be little more than Danny Fields' nickname for the new group, "The Velveteen Underground".
(Or "Crushed Velvet"-ed.)
But it doesn't end there. As soon as Lou left, Sesnick started going around making statements to the effect that, yeah, they were gonna have a great band now that The Problem (which was his interpretation of Lou) was out of the way. Coincidentally, he also started dropping a story around town that the real reason for Lou's departure was that he had freaked out and had to get out of the main jetstream of the New York pop scene until he could handle things a little better.
With the unerring instincts that mark him a true standard-bearer in the Mathew Katz tradition, he went on to claim not only that Lou did not write most of the songs or shape the group's sound crucially, not only was the anti-egocentric practise of the Velvet Underground of marking their songs as collectively authored used to fuck Lou over and downgrade his reputation as a composer, but, according to Danny Fields, Sesnick even had the balls to start claiming that he wrote some of the songs himself!
Meanwhile, Lou Reed, sitting at home in Long Island, probably watching "Hollywood Squares", shows neither his face nor says a word.
Look closely at the back of your Loaded album; an almost-empty recording studio, but who is that lone cat sitting over there at the piano? Some tireless genius so dedicated he stays on to work it on out even after everybody else has packed up and gone home? Is it Leon Russell? Elton John? No, no - it's - why it's jolly old Doug Yule, I do believe! Gee, Doug, I sure never knew you were bustin' your ass like that! And what else do we see here? The line up ... "Dashing Doug Yule, stalwart Sterling Morrison, lazy Lou Reed, looks like he fell into the minor leagues, followed of course by milky-cheeked Moe Tucker. And look at all those instruments after Doug's name ... my, my, and playing lead guitar too, when all the time, I thought ... one never knows do one?
Doug Yule is probably a very nice guy, and undoubtedly he's an, extraordinary musician or Lou would never have hired him in the first place. But honest to God, this is the most outrageous misrepresentation and spit in the face of a great artist that I've ever seen on an album jacket. They don't come right out and say that this is a Doug Yule Production, they know they can't get away with that, but the implication is clear. It seemed like a nice gesture when the third album credited all songs to the band by group name - no ego problems or prima donnas here. It's fine for a group to think of itself as a thoroughly integrated, undifferentiated sound unit; God knows we've enough Jeff Becks. But when that spirit of cooperation is used to pull a fast one with every bit of artistic integrity the group stands for, you've got to indict not only the meglomaniac who conceived this tangle of idiotic, hopeless schemes but the musicians who let themselves be carried along with it as well.
I couldn't believe this story when I first heard it, and if it's as authentic as it seems, a lot of people are being used.
But in all those polemics, rumors, charges and chicaneries, real or imagined, there is one almost forgotten man: Lou Reed, himself, whom I spoke with long distance in the study of his father's law office in Long Island. And while everybody else on the line is fuming that either Sesnick is insane, or just, well, slightly unhinged by years of buzzsaw salesmanship, Lou. refuses to fuel the fray, sling indictments or invective, but instead lays out the story as he sees it very calmly and carefully:
"I'm not going to make any accusations or blame anybody for what's happened to the Velvets because it's nobody's fault.
It's just the way the business is. So some of the stories that've been circulating, I can see how people would've gotten these ideas because of the circumstances under which I left. I just walked out, because we didn't have any money, I didn't want to tour again - I can't get any writing done on tour, and the grind is terrible - and like some other members of the band, I've wondered for a long time if we were ever going to be accepted on a scale large enough to make us a `Success'
"I can see why some of those rumors, like the one about me supposedly freaking out, might have gotten started, because I've been in kind of semi-hiding here. But they're directly the opposite from the truth. In fact, I'm probably one of the most anti-drug people around ... I don't mean that I wanna tell anybody else what to do, though, you know, because I think people resent that and it's none of my business anyway. I'm anti-drug in the sense that I think drugs are bad for Lou Reed. And I know a lot of people, like a lot of people I've known, experiment with a lot of these things as methods to solve problems or find outlets or whatever, but, when you find that they don't really work very good, you move on to something else. Like I haven't got any answers but the same ones everybody else has: yoga, health foods, all of that ... Lester, don't you think there might be some truth in the idea that marijuana leads to harder drugs?"
I hedged, venturing that I didn't know about that, but I did think that staying loaded on grass all the time tended to make you a perhaps innocous, but nevertheless unproductive, semi-vegetable. Still, I said, it's nice to jag off once in a while.
"Well, yeah," said Lou Reed, "it's great to have an outlet . . . kind of like going on vacation. But when you're on vacation all the time ... you're never home, I guess."
All of this constitutes the atmosphere, then, of the season of Loaded, the fourth and arguable finest Velvet Underground album (though I'll still take White Light/White Heat on pure sabre-toothed Energy Beyond the Highest Energies ever dreamed or garnered by any o' them Detroit killerboys or anybody else for that matter ... personal 17-minute exorcism preference.). Also, the absolutely final and unapproachable Rock And Roll Album of 1970. Which needed it and unputtered over Life Music like it as much as nay year since Gene Vincent kited off down the gulfstream. Also, and nobody believes it, except the band and Quickie Sesnick, the apparent final Velvet Underground album, period.
Be that as it may, though, thank god for trusty Loaded, which is not only a better album than Revolver but beats the last four Dylan albums all to hell and gone for my mind, in terms of what a Dylan album should be about and sound like if he would only do like I keep telling him. So I'll just hafta listen to Lou Reed, who is doing (just as ever since the Spring of Pepper) exactly what I wanta hear so I'll never have to tell him what to do and would feel cowed at the very thought of presuming so. Because Lou Reed, of all "poets", "songwriters", "balladeers" and energy jammers on the scene today, has a curious, unimpeachable dignity all his own, a dignity which simultaneously posits that he will hand you no bullshit and asks in turn only (I think) that this (call it person rather than "privacy", he respected. You'll never catch Lou pulling Tim Buckley's Little Boy Lost Into Byronic Agony act, if he becomes a solo artist, or cynically manipulating an audience to volunteer hysteria like certain honk blues and black soul artists, when he is playing with a band and driving down the notes on that souped up axe he flays. Lou Reed (nor the Velvets when they were unified) would never exploit his audience, to put it in simpler syllables. And the deal, see, is that you accept what's given without qualification. As long as it's good. Because the Velvets gave and gave for years on years and people sat in clubs pursing their lips in cued contempt; or used the music like meth to promulgate their own hysterias, which amounts to the same thing - inattention.
Loaded is one of the most lazily listenable albums since Moondance. By which I mean that you can kick youself back into your nook and relax, cause the Velvets do all the work for you. I suppose it's a necessary fashion in LPs today, times being what they are, that so many albums should be (either ineptly or quite intentionally) contrived in such a way that YOU, the poor weary listener, must stop acting the passive consumer and invest yourself in the album before you can get anything much out. Cuz what you take from these cryptical constructions depends most weightily upon what you've bought. Kinda like a packrat, if you get my psychedelic meaning. Or a novel by one of them shifty-eyed Tomas Pynchon characters - it's not just a problem in music. I mean, it's gettin' to be fuckin' work to listen to music today, what with all those symmetrical dozens of couplets pregnant with convolutions of meaning, or all that magic-fingered musicianship you've gotta listen to close cause Don't You Know Who That Is Playing That Solo? But the Velvets, running gleefully upstream, as always, to counter each trend in popular contrivance with their sane, healthy instincts, just keep getting easier to listen to and hear all the time. No sweat, dad. And even if they never musicate together again, it's still nice to know, just like ole Van Morrison and some several other nice but volative folks, they've plowed their Walpurgisnachts and all such classy European Art terms just to mellow down easy like a natural man wants to in his day.
Loaded is simultaneously a high-sighted art-statement and the best affirmation yet that, just like Lou said in, why I believe it was the Rolling Stone review of this same album, they are really still just a rock'n'roll band from Long Island. But whether you must descry the Artistes or the gullyjumpers just depends which of their manifold backyards yer playin' in. And sometimes they cross breed for a chunky solo right biff in the bazoois just delicated the slight degree by one frankly booshwah mauve boxing glove.
And what that syncromesh of half-struck metaphors means is that even though some of their more, shall we say, Elevated statements can be approached with all the attentive decorum proper to music of Significance (and they are that, too), they reflect Real Life rather then half-digested Soph Camp profundities, and more importantly, will also get your ya-yas out when you get tired of any and all meanings. Furthermore, they never let their little Humor Senses toddle off out of the range of a fast resort when the going threatens to get a little bit lugubrious. In fact, according to Lou, the two most bittersweet songs which strike the most "serious" notes on the album were originally conceived in somewhat lighter tones: "I originally intended to do almost all-of the vocals on this album, but I blew my voice out at Max's, so Doug took over on several of them, and the sense that the songs were handled and interpreted in got changed around a little - like "New Age", was supposed to be funny, a girl thinking she was like a movie queen and the guy down the block was Robert Mitchum. And "Sweet Nothing" was even more different - it was intended as a rather sly song making fun of some people that it describes and not at all as the sort of very serious statement it ultimately became."
The nicest touch on the Loaded album, or at least the one that endears it most to me, is the fact that it contains not one but four Instant Rock & Roll Classics. Their names, surprise, are "Sweet Jane", "Rock & Roll", "Head Held High" and "Train Round the Bend". "Sweet Jane" and "Train Round the Bend" have a suggestion about them of the kind of thing Dylan might be doing today if he'd gone on as a rock'n'roll prince after Blonde on Blonde and elaborated that basic sheetmetal trainwhistle holler of his, instead of riverbeddin' down with a sheet of Cons-cool Nashville steels and dandyfyin' himself up as the very scarecrow ghost of Preacher Gary Cooper come a'callin'. And now he's a very sedate man love with his house in hills w/kids and chickens and ducks so what's out here in Mudville for him? The challenge in songs like "Train Round the Bend", that's what.
This one song is one of the most definitively (which includes unpretentiously) Amerikan pieces of music heard since "Mystery Train" or Roy Acuff's "Night Train to Memphis", both of which it's intrinsically related to not only as new ragweed-continent Train litercheer but also as musical construction. You bet it's an obvious song; why didn't you think of it? Just like you should have thought of "Not Fade Away" and "Lay Lady Lay" and lots of other inevitable, indestructible songs that when suddenly they're there it seems like they always were or shoulda been because they roll off the spool as natural as life itself and where they now set there was before a void which you just never noticed, because if you had, and been a genius-type void-filler like of Louie Reed, why then you woulda had all the glory.
It's riduculously late in the course of the Collective Listening Habits of the Western World to mention this now but take special note of that spiffily splintered steel-and-wire guitar counterpoint which underlays this little folk dittywahditty; telegraphic chatter counterpointing the golden flanks of the- lunging Super Chief lead guitar. And that vocal and those words! What a voice; the raggedy epiglottis denim jacket personification of wild Amerikid, like Neal Cassidy almost, loose and wild as the promise of a continent that's gone and was going when Jack Kerouac traversed it. Jack Kerouac would like this song, I'm sure, because it doesn't pander to the by now lethally banal idea of the jacket-flapping vagabond in Amerika - we've come all the way from Route 66 to Easy Rider in just a decade, but if you look at it from another angle we've come from Kerouac to "Train Round the Bend". And if that seems ludicrous to you, just reflect that both are true to the eternal often-trampled vision which comes out of a fierce crazy love of America and everything it represents or could or did.
This fine song is also a hoot at the current fad for gettin' back to the land just like what Sterling said, come to think about it: "Train round the bend/Takin me way from the country/I'm sick of the trees/Take me to the city . . . Wind in the country yer much too raw/Tryin' to be a farmer/But nothin' I planted ever seemed to grow/ ... I am just a city boy/don't mean to knock the country life/I miss the city streets and the neon lights/Uh see the train comin' round the bend." Yazoo! Lyrics of the Year. Oughta enshrine 'em in the Smithsonian Institution and play 'em for visiting furriners to show 'em what we are - better yet, play 'em the whole album.
What's more, and this is the real trick, they manage, in a day and age when it's all but impossible, to bring off a "folksy" thing like this with next to no hint of self-consciousness; and self consciousness is probably the number one affliction steeping the wild frame of American music today - just look at the Band for an example of a fine, dedicated group so mired in self-consciousness that it even touches their pinnacles like their second album.
And that is the level of self-consciousness behind their warm, earthy playing and singing. Even Creedence suffers tangibly from this, though not nearly as much. But "Train Round the Bend" is folklore and rock'n'roll of the highest order and in fulfilling both functions it pulls off a deft one you don't often see in these dog days. And, as if that wasn't enough, it also was apparently just a quick flash from the Muse, what they used to call a "head" arrangement. Sez Lou, "And `Train Round the Bend', which is about the Long Island Railway, was conceived and worked out entirely in the studio."
"Sweet Jane" is the most immediately striking, memorable song on the album. An arhythmic wash of high keening pastel notes, then the perennial guitars-as-rhythm-section pushing on and on with their own easy momentum. You want it to go on forever, or at least as long as it might have; Lou said that a whole middle instrumental section was somehow excised in the studio. And once again he sings with such smooth, joyous insolence, why, it's almost Negroid, folkses. The man is a sure master now of the voice we thought he was trying to train in '68.
Once again the lyrics are right out of a young-old American Dream, Main Street this time, an easy time warp between our rockroll prince slouching on that corner dreaming of his hometide girl and how it was all maybe so much realer back when, Jane and Jack down by the fire before Fenders rang, just crisp in the laps of each other while the old radio plays on to no particular frenzy: "The March of the Wooden Soldiers", for "all you protest kids." Uncle Lou may not wave gratuitous peace fingers and fishy fists your way like Mickey Jagger but he still loves ya almost as much as he loves Jack and Jane in their oldtime lovers' Shangri-La. Or, as the author himself says: "Sweet Jane' sort of refers back to the 20s, and a romance - 'Jane is in her corset, Jack is in his vest.' " Posing the musical question, what's it like to fall in love?, and since "Hard" is only one word we have a little world realized, taking up where "Beginning to See the Light" left off. And maybe the next album will carry it to the next level, where lovesongs fear to tread.
Though Sweet Jane sounds like a girl, indeed; I wouldn't turn around and break it, nossir! And oh, those heart-bracing philosophizings: "Some people they like to go out dancing/And other peoples they have to work -just watch me now - /And there's even some evil mothahs (heh heh)/Who'll tell you that life is jeessst dirt!lYou know that women never really faint/And villians always blink their eyes/And children are the only ones who blush/And life is -- just to - die!/But anyone who had a heart/They wouldn't turn round and hate it ... " Ah, Lou, Lou, you wise old fart you, how does your benign countenance breathe such beatific verities so effortlessly? Elton John me this music, you students of Pedant Rock, and tell me whose wisdom's heartiest!
"Rock and Roll", of course, is simply the most definitive personification of the phrase in a year when fraud and antique quackery are loose in the land. Rather than subject us to yet another tacky period piece, the Velvets sing of our traditions in the context of a gleaming jetstream arrangement that represents some -sort of evolutionary pinnacle for them. The words are a perfect distillation of race memory - recall the first song you ever heard that jived your buns right there in the car, when Elvis and the Drifters sent out that vibrato-rumble you could tees right up through the cushions that made you want to leap and shout even as a child. And "Rock and Roll" not only tells you, it shows you. They should make it the theme song of the Voice of America - the Cold War would be won, finished in a single blast of fine, fine music that would have all of Eastern Europe dancing in the streets for sheer joy. Because if America has a gift to give, this is it: "Their lives were saved by - Rock an' Roll".
"Head Held High" is another slice of unpretentious contemporary folklore, universal memory of those endless injunctions to stand up straight, keep your shoulders back, met not with self-righteous posturing but Lou's hoot of sanity: "Just like I figured/They always disfigured with they heads held up high!" Another history-making line - in fact, if there's been a rock'n'roll album in the last decade with more classic lines per capita than Loaded, I haven't heard it. And the arrangement and delivery here are energy music personified: easy, unstrained thunder, rushing ahead in wild glee with the feeling that even greater power is held in reserve. You want it to roar on for the whole side, and dancing to it must have been one of the alltime workouts.
The rest of the songs are almost as fine, if not nearly so archetypal, as I don't need to tell you since you probably already know them by heart anyway. It's been a might dreary season musically, but Loaded just seems to go on and on, getting better and better the more thoroughly it's digested. It ain't no overnight sensation, and I'm confident we'll still be listening to it in ten years, right along with Highway 61 Revisited and Moondance. And there may never be another Velvet Underground album - the last I heard, the group (still sans Reed), was purportedly playing at some ski-lodge in Vermont - but you can bet that this music will go on, as surely as nothing could cut off that mighty guitar solo in "Oh! Sweet Nuthin' " at the height of its hurtling course. There will be more Lou Reed albums, make no mistake, just like there will be more John Lennon albums. Negotiations are, I think, being made with Atlantic right now. Corporations may dissolve. But despite all the amputations, the core rocks on.