Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Velvet Underground and the Making of Lou Reed

45 years ago this month, Lou Reed released his first solo album. A couple of years ago, I wrote this article about the latest box set of material surrounding 1969's The Velvet Underground, an album I suggest forecasts Reed's solo career. DA

Lester Bangs’ Rolling Stone review of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous 1969 album asked the question that seems to stand for most of the discussion that came after: “How do you define a group like this, who moved from ‘Heroin’ to ‘Jesus’ in two short years?” Even if he didn’t know what would soon be part of the conventional wisdom (John Cale had left the band, taking a great deal of noise with him), what follows is a smart review that paints a useful picture. Bangs notes the increasing focus on lyricism, spirituality and the Byrds influences that were, indeed, working to soften the band’s touch. He also oversimplifies in ways most discussion still oversimplifies not just the story of The Velvet Underground but the real issue here, Lou Reed as an artist.
It’s great fun but not particularly accurate when Bangs notes that the album’s new sense of compassion is alarming from Reed, “the malevolent Burroughsian Death Dwarf who had previously never written a complimentary song about anybody.” Two things here. First, nothing on The Velvet Underground can be reduced to “complimentary.” In “Some Kind of Love,” Marguerite is called a “bore” but “not without your charm.” So, there’s that. The great love song here, “Pale Blue Eyes,” continuously returns to the summation, “Mostly you just make me mad.” Reed's character also implies his lover’s strange and less than self-aware about the sins she shares with the singer. By contrast, the first album’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is pure love letter. For that matter, all of the World of Warhol characters on the first side of that debut are only interesting because of the compassion in the songwriting. Never mind that the grief in album closer “European Son” and the second album’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation” and “I Heard Her Call My Name” are a polar distance from insulting.
All of that said, Bangs is capturing a true contrast in tone. Just as there is truth in the ongoing assumptions that, with Cale gone, Reed was now pursuing shades of pop more accessible than the music on the first two albums. Of the Velvets initial collaborators, it is Reed who could and did write the lyric, “her life was saved by rock and roll,” a statement without a trace of irony. For all of his literary aspirations (and pretensions), Lou Reed believed in rock and roll.
So the real irony of The Velvet Underground album is that, left to his own devices (new bassist Doug Yule, original rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker have all spoken frankly about deferring to Cale and Reed when it came to the general direction of the band), Reed made what may be the least conventional of The Velvet Underground albums. The bulk of the more commercial material recorded alongside this work in 1969 (available in the new 67-cut Super Deluxe Velvet Underground set) was shelved until its release after Reed’s departure on 1970’s Loaded and 1985’s V.U. 
Of the three albums the original band crafted together, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico is the most conventionally structured—a sunny morning opener followed by fast rocker, mid-tempo rocker, fast rocker and trippy meditation (Side A) then a weirder second side softened by a couple of very catchy pop songs. It’s the seedy precursor to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1968’s White Light/White Heat is certainly the most aggressive modernist experiment—droning noise from start to finish—but in some ways that simply underscores John Cale’s longstanding relationship with the avant garde (in 1963 classical composer Aaron Copeland helped bring him to the United States and John Cage worked with him on an 18 hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations”). Today, it’s the one that sounds the most artsy and punk.  
Reed’s post-Cale album is not so easily placed in musical history. It starts ragged, in the middle of a conversation, with the sort of quiet number that might be an interlude on another album, and culminates in a lyrical puzzle followed by a borderline-suicidal lullaby. It’s decidedly not a pop album or a punk album or even a Byrds album. What it does sound like, though, is a Lou Reed album, a genre unto itself that presupposes almost nothing about structure or style.

But I think if we take Bangs’ original question and tackled it from a different angle, we might make more sense of the progression. How do you define a band that can follow “Heroin” with “Jesus” at all? I don’t find it a remarkable achievement that there’s a space of two years between that noisy drug reverie and that delicately sung prayer. The achievement is the effort to go deep—first, into the drug experience itself and, second, into the intimacy of a call for spiritual help. In fact, they fit well together, “Jesus” nicely suiting what one of Reed’s favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe, once called “the after-dream of a reveler on opium—the bitter lapsing into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.” After that high in “Heroin” when Reed calls out, “I feel just like Jesus’s son,” a come-to-Jesus is no doubt on the way.

And not a literal come-to-Jesus because, unlike Bob Dylan, Lou Reed made no famous conversions away from Judaism. This is simply a prayer, in American vernacular, as is the whole of The Velvet Underground, at the very least a plea for hope. In an exploding counterculture based upon new technologies and mass media, Lou Reed appeals for legitimate understanding, acceptance and intimacy.

The quietest of moments are its hallmark, beginning at the prayerful volume of pillow talk. Lou Reed’s “Closet Mix” of this album went on the original LP, which emphasizes subtleties of breath only possible with lips close to the ear. On album opener “Candy Says,” Reed uses Doug Yule’s considerably sweeter voice to convey the quiet fears of the woman in the song. Much is made of the fact that the Candy in the song is trans-gendered Candy Darling, an actress and writer on the Warhol scene (and that certainly explains the emphasis in the lyric). But the song’s concerns are as universal as self loathing, and that’s what makes it work, regardless of the listener’s familiarity with Warhol’s Factory.
Over the most delicate guitar, bass and brushes, Candy confesses that she hates her body. She doubts and fears the choices she has to make, so she distracts herself every way she can. She confesses these things to the listener with the heartbreaking dream of a question: “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?”
Chugging rhythm guitars and propulsive drums offer the rock and roll response on “What Goes On.” Lou Reed’s sandpaper vocal plays all the characters in this dialogue that reads like a rough draft for the next album’s more narrative “Rock and Roll.” One speaker asks “What’s going on in your mind?” and the other answers, “I think that I am upside down.” The music insists upon the refrain that concludes each movement, “You know it will be alright.” As the Velvet Underground always did so well, the band makes the main argument--pushing forward with the urgency of the rhythm, the wild energy of the soloing guitar and the serene certainty of organ making sure that this moment is worth living to help guarantee the next.

“Some Kind of Love” is the third conversation in a row—on the regular mix with a wonderful dialogue between Morrison’s and Reed’s guitars, on “The Closet Mix” with only Reed’s searching notes to make the point. Marguerita’s explains to Tom the impossibility of her fidelity, and Tom tells her that her adventurousness shows a certain lack of creativity. Though they never come to any long term agreement, the couple uses the argument for foreplay, and the sensuality of the guitar, the cowbell, and Reed’s lip biting vocal all suggest that’ll be all right for the time being.
Still, what follows is the remorse of lost love. If “Pale Blue Eyes” isn’t the most beautiful song Lou Reed ever wrote, it belongs in that conversation. And it is a conversation, if only a conversation with a memory. The instrumentation is quiet and simple—sparkling guitar over chorded organ punctuated by regular flicks of tambourine. Again, the feeling is as universal as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” mourning a relationship and celebrating its beauty at the same time. No line captures the infinite moments of romantic love better than this refrain, “linger on, your pale blue eyes.” 
“Jesus” follows those memories as a scene of quiet desperation. Two notes bounce back and forth on guitar against light chording while Reed and Yule sing with a quiet reverence that won’t wake the neighbors. It’s a prayer for new footing and “my proper place.” Of course, this song might be placed almost anywhere in the Velvet Underground line up because the characters Reed sings about tend to not know where they fit in, a modernist theme if ever there was one--at the end of this side-long effort to communicate that which doesn’t fit into polite conversation. Like so many writers before him, Reed believed that the secret self and the social self were at war, that society was designed to run on lies. “Jesus” is a prayer for a more compassionate world, where all these fears and lies can be brought out in the open.
Another chugging rocker (the Velvet Underground’s specialty, though this one’s decidedly acoustic), “Beginning to See the Light,” suggests old time gospel redemption.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the group sung refrain here comes closest to actually sounding like the country-rock Byrds, who all but created roots-rock incorporating old time gospel elements into a counterculture world view.
What is interesting about that refrain is the way it sums up the social mask The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed would wear so frequently it led to their exotic oversimplification—“Here we go again, playing the fool again/Here we go again, acting hard again.” And there is an irony here that complicates the song considerably. Though this song is about some level of self- acceptance—“I met myself in a dream, and I just want to tell you everything was all right"—it’s also about the light shining on ugly truths. That “Jesus” prayer does not typically get answered, and at the end of the song, the singer’s left asking over and over again, “How does it feel to be loved?”
“I’m Set Free” takes the concept of redemption down another dark hallway. Tucker’s tom toms herald the significance of the hippie declaration of the title. But the kicker is that the singer’s liberation has come through some form of death. He’s let go of past dreams, he’s had a vision of his himself as a decapitated fool, and he’s now “set free to find a new illusion.”

The rollicking little country rocker that follows, “The Story of My Life,” is a return to the conversation format of the album’s first side. A character named Billy (we know today was a Factory photographer, but again, such trivia matters little) says that the concept of “wrong and right” are meaningless. If he’s learned nothing else, he’s learned that. It’s a nihilistic perspective that’s made to not sound cynical. And maybe in the context of an album about society’s tendency to silence differences, it can rightfully be heard as modestly liberated.

Reed then closes with a couple of different kinds of statements of support for the Velvet Underground itself. On “The Murder Mystery,” Sterling Morrison reads a poem in one channel while Lou Reed reads its sister poem in the right channel. Reed’s voice moves deliberately, like the bass; Morrison’s runs fast, alongside the guitar. The verses feature urgent guitar runs and drum punctuation followed by meandering organ and guitar refrains on which Doug Yule and Maureen Tucker sing short verses. You can actually follow each poem by turning the balance fully to one side or another, or you can listen to the whole as a piece of music with largely unintelligible lyrics. One side contemplates the romantic dead ends of political adventurism while the other side contemplates the futile compulsions of poetry itself. In the context of this album, though, the song’s the very definition of making space for what can’t be easily understood—a test of the ears that grows more colorful and dynamic with each listen.

Brokenness, alienation and experimentation, these are the aesthetics of modernism and the themes of this album, but the whole of this album is invested in a fundamental belief in music offering a way to put together the pieces and make new kinds of connections. And if modernism had dominated the “high arts” at least since World War I, it’s telling that Reed reaches back to Tin Pan Alley pop for the final number, “After Hours,” featuring Maureen Tucker with a vocal all-but-child-like in its innocence. There’s an equivalence made here. Next to the grand experiment of “The Murder Mystery,” this ditty of a song breaks all walls down with a simplicity that goes right for the heart. At a key point, Tucker sings over an acoustic guitar that may as well be a uke, “Oh, someday I know, someone will look into my eyes and will say….” The guitar drops out, and she continues in echoed a capella, “Hello, you’re my very special one.” As gentle a moment as it is, it’s liable to make a listener smile and tear over at the same time, all the more poignant because this woman sounds like she wants to give up (or hide away forever), repeating her desire to “never have to see the day again.” She’s the character in every one of these songs, beat up by life but still, in prayers and stolen moments of love, hoping for something better.
What makes The Velvet Underground, at its heart, the first Lou Reed album, is an intimacy inextricably tied to his character that Reed was only fully able to explore when he was freed from the push pull of his relationship with Cale. That intimacy came with a mix of vulnerability and realism Reed no doubt saw as essential to gaining anything like truth through rock and roll. And what made Lou Reed great was that he believed in the power of the music—“despite all the amputation….you could dance to a rock and roll station. And it was all right.” More than anything on the band’s first two albums, The Velvet Underground shows the logic behind this signature understanding.