Friday, November 08, 2013

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground

This month's band is a bit out of order, if I were sticking to my rough chronology - but events have intervened, so let's look at the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed.

I became a fan after college; that was late, I suppose, but it took a while to get where I was going. I started listening to a lot of things after college that I'd missed before - contemporary stuff like the Feelies, Replacements and Husker Du; punk, especially the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, the Ramones; and older underground music - the Velvets, Stooges, etc... All of it felt like I had finally reached the place I wanted to be. All of those bands, really, made me feel that way - like I was hearing something that I had imagined but didn't know existed until now... And the best of these was the Velvet Underground.

There were reasons. Reed's lyrics, obviously - they were a different matter than anyone else I'd listened to. Stories, full of characters, situations, described, in clear and evocative ways. They were naughty of course (shiny shiny boots of leather...), but more than that, I loved their descriptive power, their way of describing things that might be happening somewhere. I was not, then, the movie geek I would become - but I had the makings; and Reed's songs operate almost like little movies. They are built, after all, around stories and people - vignettes, scenes - and images - "Severin, down on your bended knee..." - conversations, actions, things seen. Not all - but the imagery in Reed's songs is still more vivid than almost anyone else (at least of the songwriters I knew then) - "I wish that I was born a thousand years ago..." They are a tour of a world - they are like a sketchbook, with commentary... they feel documentary. And the man can turn a phrase....

But I don't know - was it the words? or the music? Because the music blew me away just as much. Nothing else quite sounds like that - listening to the first Velvet Underground record, especially, is like watching old Godard films - the more you know about music (or films) the more familiar they seem, because everyone since then seems to be stealing a little of it - but almost no one since then has come close to taking the chances they took. There's nothing quite like that set of drones and pretty melodies, the dissonance and pulsing rhythms, the ebb and flow of the music, between songs, inside songs. They are beautiful, genuinely unsettling, and build up to real honest to god rock and roll climaxes. It crushed me in the late 80s, and has the same effect now.

And then there is this - it had the same effect in 1973 or 4. I have a memory - I don't know if I trust it - of hearing Walk on the Wild Side on the radio, on AM, I think, when it was a hit, I think. I try to place the memory - I can, almost - I was in my bedroom, it was back when I shared a room with my brothers - I think I remember details, playing with some kind of plastic cowboys and Indians or soldiers or something on an old dresser... and Lou Reed came on the radio and brought me up short. That's a very strange song to hear as a kid, used to the Carpenters and Wings and maybe Elton John. It didn't sound like anything I had ever heard - or anything I would hear for a couple years afterwards, I think. But even then - it was fantastic. It would bring me up short, when I heard it - the way it sounds... It's a fairly simple rock song in a sense, but nothing about it is simple. From the chunky acoustic guitar, the twin bass lines, the brushed drums, Lou's voice, to the colored girls on the chorus, and the sax solo - it didn't sound like anything else. I don't know how often I heard it, in those early days - but I must have loved it. When I started hearing it later, I remembered it, and could sing along with it.... Now - when I first heard it, I had no clue what it was about. When I heard it later - well, yes. But by that time I had heard plenty of "dirty" songs - you know - Love is the Drug; Sweet Emotion; things like that... That time around I got Walk on the Wild side. But from the start - the sound of it burrowed into my head and waited until I was old enough to get it.

What I did get, from the beginning, was the line about the colored girls singing. I recognized the irony - the joke, about white musicians using black musicians and voices to give their songs authenticity and a touch of beauty. I could tell this song was doing that, and making fun of it at the same time. And I thought that was very cool. And I think I recognized it in a lot of Reed's music - the stuff I heard in the 70s and 80s especially. The AOR stations I listened to played Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll from Rock and Roll Animal a lot - those guitar solos are as familiar as Jimmy Page or Tommy Iommi's... they were odd - sounding nothing like Walk on the Wild Side (which got played a bit); then later, other stations would occasionally play something from the Velvets - which sounded nothing like either. And when I started listening to the Velvet Underground records - well - that's another of Lou's many virtues. He was something of a musical chameleon. He played in many styles - played with styles - adopting the slick rock and roll of Rock and Roll Animal, going off into the experimental strangeness of Metal Machine Music - you could never quite tell how seriously he meant to take it... though I suspect a big part of the point is that you don't really have to choose, seriousness or irony. You should be able to hold both in your mind at the same time - and when it's good, it's good.

And so one more thing, still on the musical legacy of Reed and the Velvets. It sometimes seems that all of my favorite songs in the last 30 years have been variations on Heroin. Seriously - Bad? Atmosphere? Marquee Moon? The Cross? Nirvana made people talk about the soft/hard thing - it wasn't new - it isn't even really unique to the Velvets, but they did something different. Songs like Behind Blue Eyes, Stairway to Heaven have a similar structure, but they seem so much more conventional. The main difference, I think, is that the Velvets work the structure around a drone - most of the other bands weren't doing that. (Oddly enough, the one big English band that did love drones, as much as the Velvets, is the Beatles - all those fake-Indian songs, or Tomorrow Never Knows?) But after the Velvets, people picked up on it - whole National Musical Styles picked up on it - take Krautrock.... They made drones an integral part of rock. That's something right there.

It's also something that really depended on John Cale and Mo Tucker, too - I've made this post mostly about Lou Reed, for obvious reasons - but they were a great band. Cale brought a lot of the musical sophistication and strangeness - and Tucker brought that sound, that 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 drum pattern, that makes every song seem to race. YOu can't beat them.

All right - now to the top 10. I could have stuck to The Velvet Underground, but I think I will make this a combined list - Velvets and Lou by himself. Here then - my 10 favorite songs:

1. Some Kinds of Love - the possibilities are endless...
2. Heroin
3. Street Hassle - tramps like us, we were born to pay...
4. What Goes On - this song, especially the live versions, chugging along the way it does, could go on forever, and I would be happy; it is all you need. Lou and Sterling do yeoman work, keeping those rhythm guitars going for 10 minutes at a stretch.
5. Walk on the Wild Side
6. Rock and Roll - another song that comes in half a dozen variations, all of them thrilling
7. Sweet Jane
8. All Tomorrow's Parties
9. Pale Blue Eyes
10. Venus in Furs

And now some video - start with Walk on the Wild Side, live in France, full glam - which in Lou's case translates into something like horror movie makeup:

And Street Hassle, video made of Warhol films...

Loutallica! doing Sweet Jane.

80s Lou, doing Rock and Roll at Amnesty International. I read a Christian rock newsletter that described Lou Reed at this concert (and the Meters if such a thing can be imagined) as "disposable pop music." This remains one of the touchstones in my life for bad music criticism.

The Gift, from the Velvet's reunion tour:

And Heroin, also from the reunion (nice shots of Mo and CAle, as well as Lou - though Sterling gets short shrift from the editors, I'm sorry to say):

One more - Romeo had Juliet - since, for all my talk about the Velvet Underground, Lou kept churning them out for a long time. The one time I saw Lou play, was after the New York record - he held his own with the Feelies, which no one else has ever done... Also - this is the first record I could not find of vinyl, and had to buy on CD. It marked the end of something there...

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