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the velvet underground

The first twelve albums to appear on the Rolling Stone Top 500 were "successful" by most reasonable standards. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and the Rolling Stones were, among other things, popular artists. The Clash wasn't at that level of popularity, but the whole awful "only band that matters" ad campaign suggests how highly they were regarded by the time of London Calling. Elvis Presley's work for Sun might not have had the worldwide impact of "Heartbreak Hotel," but it made enough of an impression to get him the RCA contract. I don't know enough about jazz to claim that Kind of Blue fits into this picture, but it seems to have had enormous impact in the jazz world from the moment it appeared.

The #13 album on the RS list is The Velvet Underground and Nico. The highest this record got on the charts was #171; none of the other original VU albums got even that high. This was not a popular band. I mention this not only because their subsequent notoriety might confuse people who assume an act as influential as the Velvets must have been fairly popular, but also because the Velvet Underground are my favorite rock and roll band of all time, and in general my taste runs closer to the popular than to the avant garde. Having said all of this, it's important to note the oft-stated claim that the Velvets may not have sold many albums, but everyone who bought one went out and formed a band of their own.

How great was the Velvet Underground? In their original existence, they released four studio albums. All four made the RS 500 (besides the debut, there's White Light/White Heat at #292, the self-titled third album at #314, and Loaded at #109). The All Music Guide gives their highest 5-star rating to every one of those albums, and also gives 5 stars to a mid-70s release of live material from 1969, a mid-80s rarities collection, and a mid-90s box set. Acclaimed Music, which collates critics lists from everywhere, places Velvet Underground and Nico as the 5th-most acclaimed album of all time ... the other three original studio albums all finish in the top 200 ... and places the band at #21 in the most-acclaimed artist list (just ahead of Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley). Robert Christgau gave an "A" grade to all three of the original albums he reviewed, as well as an "A" for the rarities album and an "A-" for three other posthumous releases. In the 21st century, three decades after the band broke up, Velvet Underground albums are still coming out, like Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes.

And I haven't even mentioned Vaclav Havel yet. One of those few copies of Velvet Underground and Nico showed up in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The impact of that album on Czech culture can be noted by the fact that the overthrow of the Communists in the late-80s was known as the "Velvet Revolution." Havel, who was named the first president of the emergent Czech Republic, told Velvet's songwriter Lou Reed, upon meeting him for the first time, "Did you know that I am president because of you?"

The Velvet Underground and Nico made an impression on me from the start. I'm not exactly certain how I heard about it, although since it came out at about the same time that "underground" radio was emerging, it's likely I just heard it on KMPX. I'm pretty sure my brother had a copy, although by then he didn't live at home. I had only just entered my suburban teens, and the very idea of a song called "Heroin" was enough to impress me, not to mention "I'm Waiting for the Man" (who will sell me drugs), "Venus in Furs" (S&M), and "The Black Angel's Death Song" ... this wasn't just another hippie band singing about love and LSD.

Elliott Murphy, in his excellent liner notes to the posthumous Live 1969 release, got it just right:

The Velvet Underground must have scared a lot of people. What goes through a mother's mind when she asks her fifteen-year-old daughter, "What's the name of that song you're listening to?" and her daughter replies, "Heroin."
The Velvet Underground and Nico introduced me to a world I didn't know existed. And the music kicked ass ... given their influence on punk rock, everyone knows the Velvets were capable of an ungodly skronky racket, but they were equally adept at quiet songs that were rarely as soft as they sounded.

And they weren't done. White Light/White Heat was almost all skronk ... and in the days when albums consisted of two sides, Side Two was about the most astonishing thing I'd ever heard. Only two songs were on Side Two. First was "I Heard Her Call My Name," wherein Lou Reed plays what is possibly the greatest guitar solos in recorded history (Reed has always been an exemplary rhythm guitarist, but this is something else entirely) ... and when Lou blurts out "and then my MIND split open" and his guitar shows us what he means, it's transcendent. And on and on he goes, until everyone else in the band except drummer Maureen Tucker has given up, and still he blazes. You think there's no reason to continue ... either you hate it with a passion, which is understandable, or you're so enthralled that you figure it's OK if you never hear another note of music again. At which time, you're confronted with the other song on Side Two, the infamous "Sister Ray," 17 1/2 minutes of two, maybe three, chords, endlessly droning, while Lou wanders in once in awhile to tell the story of ... well, who the hell knows?

Cecil's got his new piece
He cocks and shoots it between three & four
He aims it at the Sailor
Shoots him down dead on the floor
Aw, you shouldn't do that
Don't you know you'll stain the carpet
Now don't you know you'll stain the carpet
And by the way have you got a dollar
Oh, no man, I haven't got the time-time
Too busy sucking on a ding-dong
He's busy sucking on my ding-dong
Aw, she does just like Sister Ray said
I'm searching for my mainline
I said I c-c-c-couldn't hit it sideways
I said I c-c-c-couldn't hit it sideways
Aw, just like Sister Ray says
After this, the third album, called simply The Velvet Underground, was a shock. What could shock anyone at that point, you might ask. How about the quietest album the band ever recorded? This is probably my favorite of the original VU albums, in part because it's proof of how effortlessly they pulled off not only the skronky blast but the moody quiet. Not that they don't also rock out ... the Feelies built a large part of their career reworking "What Goes On" ... but there are few moments as precious as Mo Tucker singing "After Hours" to close out the album ("Oh, someday I know, someone will look into my eyes and say hello, you're my very special one ... All the people are dancing and they're having such fun. I wish it could happen to me"). And "Pale Blue Eyes" is simply the most beautiful song Lou Reed has ever written:
If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see
I'd put you in the mirror I put in front of me
I'd put in front of me
Linger on, your pale blue eyes
Linger on, your pale blue eyes
Loaded was the last album, and for me, the least of the original four. Even this album, though, includes two classics, "Sweet Jane" and the song that must have inspired Vaclav Havel, "Rock and Roll" ("her life was saved by rock and roll").

This is one of the longest blog posts I've ever offered up, and even so, I've barely touched the surface of the Velvet Underground. (Props to Maureen Tucker's drumming ... if I had the music theory chops, I'd explain what she does, but I don't and I can't ... I'd say there's an almost complete lack of funk, she never hits the backbeat, she just endlessly beats the basic rhythm, it's v.amazing, plus how many female drummers were there before Mo Tucker?) I said at the beginning that the Velvets are my favorite band, even though they were never "popular," but to me, they were always popular. It's one of the features of a solipsistic life: I assume the whole world is like my world, and in my world the Velvet Underground were popular ever since that first album. There has never been a time in the last 37 years when the Velvet Underground weren't a part of my musical life. That's popular enough for me.



I'm in school with children who've never heard of VU, Havel, and some of them don't know Lou Reed.

What did we do wrong?


I am so proud that my cousin, Moe, is so inspirational to the intellectual underdogs of society. My son, with a form of autism, also listens to VU and the groups that have emulated them, and "his music", as he loves to call it, is a great comfort and empowering to him. His genius is drawing, so "his world" is filled with art and music.

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