We are stuck. Really. We’re stuck here, contained within our own time and space. Whether it’s specific or large – an hour comprised of minutes or a generation and culture – we’re all bound to the present. But for a people so firmly planted in the here and now, we spend a lot of our time talking of the past and future, the direction we’re heading in and the places we just left. To look back and try to understand any past epoch or person can be challenging. The view usually gets filtered through our own experience and diluted by the distance from whatever person or event we’re talking about. But there are instances when we can understand our predecessors better with each day we move forward. Through our maturity and progression, from understanding and learning, we feel we come closer to the truth of our past icons, and in turn, they inch nearer to us.
To try and sum up the 1960s in a neat string of words would be nearly impossible. It was, to say the least, a turbulent time of change and growth. Like mountains lifting from a flatland to form a peak, it was period of friction and infighting that propelled ascension and a cultural shift. As socio-political culture pushed forward, so did our culture’s music. To form a better understanding of the 1960s, both the music culture and the cultural mood that music spawned from, you need more than idealized images of Woodstock or the “Summer of Love, ” the fiery and summary politics of protest music or the utopian yearnings of the Beatles and John Lennon. You need something else a bit more sordid and dark, infected with fear and paranoia. You need something not revolutionary in terms of what it’s asking, but what it’s doing. You need the Velvet Underground. The Velvets were the apolitical voice of the fringe that spoke not of idealism and progression, but were unashamed truth tellers of everyday life sunk into a disfigured sequence of drugs, chaos, and creation. The Velvets were not just a part of the counter-culture, its vérité spirit rejected the mainstream, not by taking a stance in opposition to it, but by avoiding a dialogue altogether and simply being something else. There is a day. And there is a night.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground have a place in rock history that is nearly untouchable. Though never the commercial success that some of its peers like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or the Doors were, the Velvet Underground are certainly as vaunted and influential as all these bands, and with their relative anonymity, much more intriguing.
The mid 60s saw the start of the Velvets as an underground hit and a small pulse in the music scene. The group’s live act was an experiment in spectacle and a barrage of stimuli. The show featured live dancers cracking whips, light shows, experimental film footage and of course, the early musings of the Velvet Underground. The performance was dubbed the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” It was a plethora of art, unease and underbelly entertainment that challenged the audience’s sense of aesthetic rather than catered to it. The performances were crafted by pop-art icon Andy Warhol. It was these shows at Max’s Kansas City, the new headquarters of Warhol and his droogs, that showcased the Velvet Underground. As house band, The Velvets had an opportunity to create a following and a presence in the New York scene.
Warhol’s influence on the band extended beyond the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He had an ostensible producer’s credit for the Velvets first album. Though his most notable influence was the presence of Nico, the German model and chanteuse. Her idyllic voice was like a dry wine carefully poured throughout the record. She was subtlety sexy and coy, alluring though static. And she was the only thing coy about the Velvet Underground. As Pete Hogan notes in The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground, DJs and radio stations largely ignored the band’s first album. The song “Heroin” was banned from radio and, in turn, the album as a whole was deemed unfit for the masses. It wasn’t a tongue in cheek impression of drug culture like the more playful “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” or “Coming Into Los Angeles,” by Arlo Guthrie, where the imagined drug smuggling plot lines are more fantasy than fact for Guthrie. Drugs were without a doubt a large part of the Velvets motif and influence on their sound. It also alienated them because of their willingness to talk about a dirtier side to drug use.
In 1953 it took the persistence of Allen Ginsberg and his chance meeting of a publisher’s nephew during a stint in a psych hospital to find someone willing to publish William Burrough’s novel, Junkie. In the fourteen year since Junkie was published, not much had changed had changed with America’s relationship to heroin. It was a scarlet letter even for artists to talk about the drug’s use.
Of course, there were larger themes for the Velvets than drugs. Just look at the lyrics from “Venus In Furs,” featuring the lesser-known (compared to Reed) genius of John Cale, the man responsible for the hypnotic drone of strings on “Venus,” when Reed sings, “taste the whip/in love not given lightly/taste the whip/now bleed for me.” These unguarded lyrics are knife points, piercing and gleaming, menacing in their truth and ugliness; they sum up a major theme for the Velvets of pain and pleasure occurring simultaneously through excess devoid of shame. Reed’s lyrics maintain a poetry later rejected by bands dealing with the same subject, like the Exploited’s “Sex and Violence.”
The Velvets next record was more aggressive and avant-garde than the first. White Light/White Heat could be considered a vital step towards the American punk rock of the 1970s. This record was inspired by another drug, speed, nicknamed “white light.” The album is also a near fuck you to Andy Warhol and the first record. White Light is fast and frantic, it’s ugly, it breaks conventions with an 18–minute track about a transvestite heroin pusher, the eponymous “Sister Ray,” who seduces a group of sailors only to have their orgy interrupted by meddling police officers. That’s Lou Reed’s given interpretation of the song anyway. There’s also a short story recitation put to music, and the botched lobotomy or sex change chronicled in “Lady Godiva’s Operation.” To say the record is unconventional is to say very little in five syllables.
The Velvets were merchants of a world that was hidden below the congealed skin of mass culture. But some of the emotions that Reed and company dealt with: fear, paranoia, cynicism, hedonism, and of course, pleasure, were all emotions that mirror the mainstream of the 1960s. Chicago Daily News writer Michaelo Williams said, after seeing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, “it is an assemblage that actually vibrates with menace, cynicism, and perversion. To experience it is to be brutalized, helpless.“ The 60s were very much a scary time. That cynicism and menace was apparent through out the decade. The assassination of a president and civil rights leaders; the Vietnam War and maybe more importantly, the draft; the hot and bloody friction of integration, all of this was a reminder of the impermanence of life and the struggles necessary for cultural change. But for all that fear and unease we always like to look back on the 1960s with a fond, tie-dye eye. The 1960s act as the standard of comparison for our own culture. From our musical idols being sacrilegious in the face of the Beatles. Or, our youth being pejoratively compared with the politically conscious students who pushed their idealism through the walls of Congress and stuck it right in Dick Nixon’s craw. But that is only one side of the coin, and perhaps only a piece of what the 1960s were. For every flower child there was a Mayor Daley to counter, with a legion of storm-trooper police units willing to pound that flower child into the dirt. And for every LSD-induced connection to the sublime, there was a junkie curled up in an alley of New York’s cosmic grime. The Velvet underground are a visceral reminder of what else was going on outside of San Francisco, a cold water wake up to the dreams you have of what you can no longer grasp.