If you want to write the story of the Velvet Underground, you have to begin far beyond any of the physical things that actually happened. You first have to look at New York City, the mother which spawned them, which gave them its inner fire, creating an umbilical attachment of emotion to a monstrous hulk of urban sprawl. You have to walk its streets, ride its subways, see it bustling and alive in the day, cold and haunted at night. And you have to love it, embrace and recognize its strange power, for there, if anywhere, will you find the roots
Deep in the recesses of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lies an unpublished, typewritten essay on popular music written in 1966 by Lou Reed, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the Velvet Underground. He discusses the differences between the rock music produced on the East Coast versus the West Coast, how the places themselves dictate the type of music produced there. “California is full of meaningful causes”, writes Reed, “New York filled with meaningless noises, which could be its redeeming grace”. Reed sees the California scene, characterized by bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, as composed of a bunch of drugged-up suburban kids looking for a false salvation in hallucinogenics and psychedelics. Reed seethes with disdain at such misguided and pretentious audacity. Referring to the Beatles’ recent experimentations with pot and LSD, he summarily dismisses such exploits with a blunt, searing vengeance: “What a Bore”
Life in New York, on the other hand, is more hardheaded, less idealistic. Unlike the collective utopia of the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, “in New York a person is forced into the seclusion of his own individuality”. In Reed’s view, this seclusion, this utter isolation among such bustling vitality, has wonderful creative effects: This apparent inverse psychology is the recourse—the last resort, as it were—of noticeable and notable East-oriented particulars whose conditioned awareness of the vast and vacuous, over-wrought concrete cardboard executive jungle of the East Coast megalopolis, in which Nothing is the only back-handed benefit, spawns a sort of “Everything comes of Nothing” sense and stimulus for accomplishment.
In this essay, Lou Reed verbalizes and elucidates the central idea that runs throughout all the music of the Velvet Underground. He senses that there is some higher meaning lurking in the vast, sprawling, urban monster that is New York City. He clearly sees New York as the site of creation, of redemption, and of salvation. Unlike the California freaks with their flowery visions of peace and love, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground probe that vast “Nothing” for the unexpected gems it has to offer. Founded in New York, bred in New York, born of New York, the Velvet Underground, in their albeit brief existence from 1965 through 1970, explored the horrifying sins and the glorious salvations possible on the New York streets.
So if the Velvet Underground did not in reality represent the ultimate urban evil of New York City, if they were not simply an appendage of Andy Warhol’s freak parade, if they were not just noisemakers in funny clothes with funny voices, then what exactly did the Velvet Underground do that was so important? It is true that the Velvet Underground certainly painted a grim picture of life in New York City. But they did so with a greater end in mind. The struggle, the great drama in the music of the Velvet Underground, is to somehow prevail in an environment as hostile, as imposing, as destructive as New York. Only by examining the music, and not the hype, does the pivotal role played by New York City in the mindset of the Velvet Underground clearly come into focus.
In the early music of the Velvet Underground, the city represents the site of all of the trials and tribulations of human existence. The city is experience, whether that experience be idyllic and peaceful or chaotic and disturbing. It is the “East Coast megalopolis”, as Reed calls it in his 1966 essay, whose very size and domineering grandeur compels the individual to create and survive or languor and die. Music critic John Rockwell characterizes the Velvet Underground’s relation to New York as embodying, “the desperation of surviving and winning recognition for your work in a harsh, industrialized, rundown, seemingly indifferent environment”. In an interview with Clinton Heylin, Velvet Underground bassist and viola player John Cale put is this way:
There was commitment there. That was the powerful advantage that all of Lou’s lyrics had. All Bob Dylan was singing was questions—How many miles? and all that. I didn’t want any more questions. Give me some tough social situations and show that answers are possible. And sure enough, “Heroin” was one of them. It wasn’t sorry for itself.
“Heroin” is the most controversial and most often misunderstood song in the Velvet Underground catalog. Far from glorifying the use of drugs, “Heroin” is the internal monologue of a junky, exploring the psychology of personal destruction and drug abuse. In Lou Reed’s horrifying vision, using heroin is really an attempt at a kind of perverse salvation, a relief or escape through death. “I have made a big decision”, sings Reed over a slow, elegiac guitar and viola line, “I’m gonna try to nullify my life”. Over a thumping, driving beat paralleling the pounding heart of a junky on his heroin high, Reed conceives the nullification of his life in terms of escaping from the city, singing:
Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils of this town
And of himself and those around
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know
The narrator erroneously believes that drugs will liberate him from the strict confines of the city and the hordes of people surrounding him. As the song builds, the droning, electric viola becomes more harsh and dissonant as the beat gets louder and louder and Reed’s visions of New York become more and more nightmarish:
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care any more
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds
The vital point about “Heroin”, however, is that the song is not about drugs but rather about the natural desire to escape from all the pain and uncertainty of life. The site for this trial, this grand test of endurance and fortitude, is the street, is New York City. More importantly, Reed, the song’s lyricist, paradoxically sings a long, elaborate, eloquent song about how much he doesn’t care. The quest in “Heroin” may be literally away from the city, but in spirit is more towards a full sense of self and identity. Lou Reed never left New York City—the grand spiritual quest must be played out on its streets, not on some imaginary “great big clipper ship” or in some fanciful, nonexistent land. In Lou Reed’s imagination, New York City is the place—the stakes are high and only the tough can make it. In the words of Frank Sinatra, “If you can make it there….”
The Velvet Underground’s entire first album brims with images of the city, positing it as a rough, unforgiving place, as a site of experimentation and perseverance. “Run Run Run”, a chugging, rumbling guitar track, operates in much the same way as “Sister Ray”—it presents a cast of New York characters trying to make it on the streets. The key difference, however, is that “Run Run Run” steeps the degenerate street life in religious imagery of sin and salvation:
Teenage Mary said to Uncle Dave
I sold my soul, must be saved
Gonna take a walk down Union Square
You never know who you gonna find there
While a Guliani-era New Yorker may find it hard to believe, in Reed’s time, walking down to Union Square was a dangerous, and hence exhilarating, activity. The sense of the unknown, the mysterious, the unpredictable, factors into Reed’s conception of the city as the place where things happen, where Teenage Mary’s soul can be saved. “Run, Run, Run” tells the tale of another salvation seeker as well, Beardless Harry:
Beardless Harry, what a waste
Couldn’t even get a small-town taste
Rode the trolleys, down to Forty-Seven
Figured if he was good, he’d get himself to heaven
Again, New York, and not the “small-town”, is where the down and out can strike it big. Whether or not this is true in reality is of no importance—in his creative imagination, Reed envisioned the streets of the city of the place where such redemption is at least possible.
Part of Reed’s fascination with the possibilities of life in the city no doubt comes from the fact that he himself is not a native Manhattanite. While born in Brooklyn, Reed grew up in Freeport, Long Island. “We could hear all that music coming from New York City”, Sterling Morrison recounts in an interview, “And what New York represented to me as a kid from Long Island—it was way beyond Oz”. The city, therefore, represents an exotic paradise of thrills and chills, only a short train-ride away. He grew up close enough to the city to recognize its transformative possibilities, yet far enough away to still consider himself an outsider. In all the Velvet Underground material, you can hear a naïve wonder in Reed’s conception of New York. In essence, he was a perpetual tourist. In “Sheltered Life”, a demo recording put down between the Velvet Underground’s first and second albums, Reed playfully acknowledges the extent to which he saw the city as an endless panorama of experience and wisdom which he continually reveled in:
Never walked about the streets at night
Never got into an uptown fight
Never smoked a hooker, never saw a rug
Couldn’t even squash a beetle bug
Guess it’s true I’m gonna have to change my ways
Guess it’s true what all the people say
Yeah, I know it’s true
Guess I’ve lived a sheltered life
Reed betrays a wide-eyed wonder with the endless possibility of the city. The song is cheeky, funny, and even features a light-hearted kazoo solo. Coming as it does after the dark, nightmare visions of New York on The Velvet Underground and Nico, “Sheltered Life” prefigures a major change in the treatment of New York City in the work of the Velvet Underground. Instead of becoming the tough battleground where you could earn your salvation if you had the iron resolve and determination necessary, the city becomes more of an Oz-like landscape of magical possibility and grandeur.
Released in 1970, the Velvet Underground album Loaded, their final official release, stands in direct opposition to The Velvet Underground and Nico. Whereas their first album overflows with ominous, gloomy, horrifying images of the city, their final record brims with fanciful, dream-like images of the city. Picking up where “Sheltered Life” left off, Loaded paints a bright, vibrant picture of the city as the site of spontaneous, instantaneous, almost religious salvation and redemption. The salvation need not be as difficult and painful as in the early Velvet Underground material, but is rather given like manna from heaven. The ecstasy is more spiritual than physical, more figurative than literal. The covers of the two records make it glaringly clear that something has changed in the Velvet Underground’s mindset. The Velvet Underground and Nico features the garish, obnoxious, lurid peelable Warhol banana. The tone is confrontational, campy, and anything but sincere. Loaded features a illustration of a subway entrance, with mysterious bright pink and white smoke rising from underground in a luminous and intoxicating haze. The cover of Loaded both gives the viewer a literal city image at the same time as it surrounds that fairly conventional image with an otherworldly mystery and wonder. The tone is not sinister, but rather wistful and optimistic.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” stands as Lou Reed’s definitive expression of his idyllic, almost magical view of the possibilities of life in New York City. This bright, rolling, effervescent rock and roll song is the musical equivalent of Sterling Morrison’s characterization of New York as the City of Oz that produced all the great music coming through their Long Island radios. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” tells the story of a disgruntled, unsatisfied suburbanite and what happens to her when she hears the glorious music coming from the Emerald City of Manhattan:
Jenny said when she was just five years old
There was nothing happenin’ at all
Every time she put on the radio
There was nothin’ goin’ down at all
Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station
You know she don’t believe what she heard at all
She started shakin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
New York City holds a mythic, magical, rapturous power, which, much like the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, can instantly seize an ardent believer and provide instantaneous salvation. The luminous pink smoke coming from the subway station on the cover of Loaded, embodied in the radio waves of a rock and roll station, drifts out of the city and into the quiet suburban life of Jenny, changing her forever. In Lou Reed’s vision, the freedom of New York and the freedom of rock and roll music are one and the same. Each provides an outlet, an escape from the stifling middle class conformity of life in the suburbs.
The power of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, more than anything, lies in the fact that it is telling the story of both Jenny’s salvation as well as Lou Reed’s. Lou Reed came to New York City from the suburbs with the ardent will and desire to live a rock ‘n’ roll life. In the music he wrote with the Velvet Underground, he explored all the different facets of a sin and salvation in the city that saved him. For the narrator of “Heroin”, the attempted salvation is drugs; in “Run Run Run”, the various characters attempt to find the secret in the mysterious, dangerous meeting places in the city; for the wet-behind-the-ears speaker in “Sheltered Life”, salvation is sought in experiencing all the city has to offer, from the bright lights to the hookers; finally, for both Jenny and Lou Reed, the key to salvation in the city is realizing that it is the home of rock and roll. Rock and roll, in fact, encompasses all the other forms of salvation explored in the songs of the Velvet Underground: it is sexy, dangerous, risqué, liberating, exciting, mysterious, and, more than anything, distinctly urban.
The key to understanding the Velvet Underground is to look past all the preconceptions and prejudices surrounding their legacy, both in terms of them as representatives of the evils of New York City as well as mere appendages of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, and approaching the music on its own terms. Lester Bangs succinctly summarizes the spiritual odyssey at the heart of all the Velvet Underground’s music:
Can this be the same bunch of junkie-faggot-sadomasochist-speed freaks who roared their anger and their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like strings of epithets? Yes. Yes, it can, and this is perhaps the most important lesson [of] the Velvet Underground: the power of the human soul to transcend its darker levels. The only aspect Bangs leaves out is that the drama of the human soul attempting to transcend its darker levels is played out on the streets of New York City. While those who labeled them as dangerous, scary, Andy Warhol-esque New Yorkers certainly missed this point, Lou Reed knew it right from the start. Before the Velvet Underground had achieved one iota of success, Reed writes in that unpublished 1966 essay about “the vast and vacuous, over-wrought concrete cardboard executive jungle of the East Coast” which acts as a glorious “stimulus for accomplishment”. In other words, Lou Reed concedes that all the struggles of the his characters, all their illicit travels and unprecedented explorations, all their ecstatic trials and tribulations, are all driven by and exist in direct relation to New York City. The most forceful refutation of the litany of negative reactions to the music and attitude of the Velvet Underground is that this drama on the city streets does not resolve on the terror-stricken note of “Heroin” but rather on the wildly ecstatic and joyous note of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Despite all of its horrible diversions and byways, New York City is ultimately a mythic land of bounteous plenty where the cares and troubles of the outside world melt away in a euphoric rock ‘n’ roll beat. As Reed so joyously sings in a voice of reckless abandon and overflowing optimism:
Despite all the computations
You could just dance to that rock ‘n’ roll station
And it was alright
It’s alright now