“Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass…” – Lou Reed, excerpt from Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
Back in the late 90’s I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He had just gotten his hands on Peel Slowly And See, a 5 disc box set of The Velvet Underground. This gorgeous beast was everything a box set should be: the whole studio album discography jam packed with extras and a booklet with photos and in-depth liner notes. I was curious because I had been reading about the Velvets in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gilian McCain. Despite the book’s tedious focus on the debauchery and substance abuse, I was fascinated to learn about the early days of what influenced the alternative rock music I listened to in my youth. I had also been wondering where exactly the line of demarcation had been drawn between the music my parents liked and the music my sister and I liked. In my opinion, The Velvet Underground were a big part of that; their rejection of the flower power hippy scene was writ large both in their music and their dark, gritty lyrics. When Dave put on the first disc, I wasn’t that impressed with John Cale’s folky demo version of “Venus in Furs”. A few weeks later I gave the Velvets another chance. Dave put on “I’m Waiting For The Man” and boom, I loved it instantly. Right then and there I became a fan of the Velvets.
When I finally got my copy of Peel Slowly And See, it all made sense: the dark lyrics, the noisy experimentalism, the raunchy guitars, all showed a line between the Velvets and the bands I listened to at that time. Later when my sister and I were watching the Nine Inch Nails home video Closure, I noticed Lou Reed speaking high praises to Trent Reznor backstage. Not only was I thinking “Oh snap! It’s Lou Reed!” but I also realized had it not been for Reed’s lyrics and John Cale’s scorched earth violin riffing on the song “Heroin” we might not have had songs like “Hurt” or “Eraser”.
I should mention that I was also in a band with my friend Dave at the time. We played really, really small shows, but were were both bit by the bug, and eager to play live as much as possible. Yes, I know “White Light/White Heat” is about methamphetamine, but for me it was all about the thrill of being on stage under those hot white lights and playing your heart out. I would play that song on my tape deck on my way to band practice, fantasizing about doing a gig. Despite being a 15 minute noise therapy session for a frustrated band, I adored the vicious strut of “Sister Ray”. Even when the chunky riffage makes room for John Cale’s electric organ solo, the song hits you like heavy metal thunder. While the third album didn’t do it for me as much, it still had gems like “Candy Says” (sung by bassist Doug Yule), “Pale Blue Eyes” and “What Goes On”. Their last album Loaded, left me dumbfounded as to why on earth bright and brilliant numbers like “Sweet Jane” and “Who Loves The Sun?” didn’t break the band through to the mainstream. When loading and unloading gear for band practices and gigs I would mutter a line form “Sweet Jane” to myself: “and me I’m in a rock n’ roll band!”
At the same time I started listening to the Velvets, I had long been aware that my family was planning to move to Massachusetts. It felt good to connect with the music of the King of New York before I had to go. Despite the snooty attitudes New York City folk have towards anyone who lives “upstate” (read: anywhere two inches north of the city) I still feel proud to be from New York state and not just because NYC has long been an epicenter of art, culture, and commerce. I feel proud to be from the same state that gave the world a band who provided a glimpse into hidden worlds most didn’t know about or refused to acknowledge. I don’t care if you were born in one of the five boroughs and regard me as some suburban bumpkin; if you still skip over listening to “Candy Says” because the loneliness and heartache of it’s transgender protagonist reminds you of your cisgender privilege, you have missed Reed’s point entirely.
I don’t think Lou Reed wrote these lyrics to simply shock us; he invited us to see the humanity in the characters occupying the unfamiliar corners of our world. The Velvet Underground were not hippies by any means, but I do think Lou wanted us to show more compassion.
Thanks for the lessons Lou.
The King of New York Is dead. Long live the king.