This definitive edition of the Velvet Underground‘s second album was in the works before Lou Reed passed away earlier this year, but to hear this album again, and to hear it in the context of all these fascinating extras, is to find the best way to honor Reed’s legacy. It is a perfect distillation of Reed’s musical approach. It’s difficult but never (or almost never) intentionally so. It’s aggressive but never nihilistic. It’s noisy but within that noise is beautiful sounds, brilliant songs. In the wake of the more restrained Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat must have been a perplexing record to hear upon its release in January 1968. Nearly half a century later we’re still trying to figure it out, but this new edition gives us the most material to sift through, and perhaps the best pathway through this era in the band’s history. It reveals the band’s thorny, excellent vision for the album, and reminds us why music will miss a presence like Lou Reed for quite a while.
The Velvet Underground’s debut, a clear classic, is also an often controlled pop record. The connection to Andy Warhol would seem to have something to do with this, though all accounts claim he did little more than pay for the recordings. But his want to include Nico, and his sheer cult of personality, does seem to shape the record some. The muted cool of Nico’s voice, the dreamy sway of songs like “Sunday Morning” (a late addition to the record), and the band’s airtight melodies made for a record that was confrontational in subject matter, but often sweetly approachable. This restraint is what makes moments like “Venus in Furs” or the guitar chaos of “Heroin” so revelatory, so exciting. And it’s from that place that White Light/White Heat picks up.
The album covers six songs in 40 minutes, and though it starts with its catchy title track, right away we know something is different on this album. The back and forth vocals seem to mix the cool of the first record with Reed’s R&B fascination, yet the guitars crunch wildly, the keys strike like snakes, the cymbals crash like shattering glass. It’s a perfect pop song couched in punk thrills, a kind of furious energy that borders on formless but never quite unravels. It sets up later moments on the record, but not all the same. We can draw lines to the guitar lunacy of “I Heard Her Call My Name”, but also to the faintly tense repetition of “Here She Comes Now”, or even the twanging of riffs and rumbling drums on “Lady Godiva’s Operation”. These are, of course, the recognized “songs” on the record, the more approachable moments wrapped around the difficult story-song “The Gift” and the massive noise-jam of “Sister Ray”. But it’s these other moments that might better represent where the record broke from its predecessor, and how tensions within the band shaped this album. Reed and John Cale were struggling for control creatively, and Cale would leave soon after this record, but the competition inherent in the band makes them thrive here. The juxtaposition of Cale’s sweet Welsh accent and gauzy singing to Reed’s bleating sneer on “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is perfect. When Reed steps in halfway through the song to let us know that the nurse Cale is singing about is thinking “sweetly”, it turns that word and the song in its ear, as the perfect hooks tumble into a harrowing mash-up of sounds. Reed twists the melodies in his mouth, spitting them out sideways, meshing Cale’s avante-garde leanings with his own.
This same division comes up in the album’s two most infamous moments. “The Gift” is still the toughest thing to tangle with here, as Cale recites the story of Waldo Jeffers (written by Lou Reed for a class at Syracuse), who mails himself to his girlfriend, only to be stabbed to death when she tries to open the box. Cale’s delivery is more dramatic monologue than reading, but behind him the band knocks out a funkier version of its straight-ahead rock charge. The guitars bleed feedback and cry out notes later in the track, and in many moments it drowns out Cale. It’s perhaps a more obvious, and thus less satisfying, experiment than the other songs here, but somehow it works. This edition includes the vocals and the instrumental as separate bonus tracks, and though the vocals fall flat on their own the instrumental does feel like it needs that counterpoint to grind up against.
Though White Light/White Heat might be born out of moments like “Heroin” — both in sound and in subject matter — its by no means retreading the same ground. If “Heroin” was about the spike, White Light/White Heat is about the vein, the blood in it, the body it’s attached to, the obsession and excess that can break it all down. From Waldo Jeffers untimely death due to his own insecurities and wandering imagination, to Lady Godiva hitting the operation table, to the strangely childish sexuality of someone who is, say, “too busy sucking on my ding-dong”, this is not about the drug but about the chaos of the body. Lou Reed’s guitar shows us that break, where the order falls apart, where “my mind split open”, as it does on “I Heard Her Call My Name”, just before the guitar feedback drowns everything out. Nowhere is this internal disorder more apparent than “Sister Ray”, a song that chugs along for over 17 minutes, while every player fights to be heard. Cale’s organs sound like goddamn air raid sirens at moments. Reed’s lean vocals spit out each word with some mix of relish and disgust. Sterling Morrison’s bass rumbles so loudly you can almost hear the tape shaking in its reel, while Maureen Tucker’s drums feel steady, heavy, until they speed up at intervals, pushing the band forward whether they were ready or not.
This combination of order and chaos fits the band perfectly, and is all over this record and the recordings that surround it. Lou Reed’s love for R&B clashes with his fascination with free jazz. He even claims Ornette Coleman as an influence on the “I Heard Her Call My Name” solo. All the band’s players here honor tradition by skewing it in some way. And they found cohesion by, well, trying to play over each other. This edition honors that version of the band, one that didn’t care to be contrarian but just saw pop music differently. This, perhaps, is why White Light/White Heat peaked at 199 on the charts. It was a hard record, and not hard in a way that is easily identifiable. But it wasn’t like the band didn’t want to sell records, didn’t want to be popular. The single versions of “White Light/White Heat” and “Here She Comes Now” are included here, and decidedly cleaned up compared to their album counterparts. You can hear the Velvet Underground going for the mainstream. And yet they don’t make it. “White Light/White Heat” still devolves into stumbling fuzz in the end, and “Here She Comes Now” still has that sort of unresolved tension, however distant, that is as unsettling as it is beautiful. In these moments, and other great outtakes here like the viola-heavy “Hey Mr. Reed” and the bouncy early version “Beginning to See the Light” (both some of the final recordings featuring Cale) turn down the brash volume and signal the more art-pop leanings of the records that would follow.
That tension — between high art and true pop(ular) music — always drove the Velvet Underground and is the other deep later of tension and opposition that runs through this excellent record. The mono version of the record included here is almost worth the price of admission on its own, as it both amps up the claustrophobia of these songs and pushes those contrasting elements close together. The space of the stereo version is satisfying as well, but the mono feels closer to the band’s intentions, not to separate the elements, not to create binaries, but to throw them together and see what kind of bruises, what kind of scars develop. Also included here is the fascinating Gymnasium Tape, a live recording of the band in 1967 at a short-lived club in New York called the Gym. Pieces of this have come out before, but as an entire document it encapsulates a lot about the band’s approach.
The band sounds like it’s working these songs out on stage, months before the White Light/White Heat sessions began. The set opens and closes with instrumentals. The first is a furious version of “Booker T”, which is often the title wrongly given to the backing music on “The Gift”. The last song is a more meditative but no less fiery version of what would become “The Gift”. It’s not quite as controlled as the album version, things break apart quicker, but it’s got the same swampy thump under it all. We also get rare versions of “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” and “Guess I’m Falling in Love” against established tunes like “Waiting for the Man”, which reminds us just how much of Reed’s R&B influence shaped songs from the first record. “Sister Ray” is as huge as ever here, and there’s a zeal in the exploration the band dives into on the stage, and some curious differences, especially some shifts in gender that deviate from the hetero-normative pronouns of the album version and render it all the more subversive.
The recording is muddled in spots, sometimes coated in an almost white noise of treble, but it’s fuzzy nature is part of its charm, and part of the story this tells, of a band that was always practicing, always experimenting, even on stage, and how they translated that to this challenging record. But White Light/White Heat is less a lofty experiment that keeps the listener out than a curious twisting of structures and conventions that lures them in. It’s songwriting and storytelling. It’s melody- and noise-making. It’s high art and low-brow punk. It’s all these things and none of them at once, as incongruous and inventive and fascinating as the man at the center of it all, Lou Reed. And if he made harder records later, none of them spoke to who he was as an artist, and what he would become, more than this one did.