Music

The Velvet Underground's 'Grey Album' and the Delineation of a Decade

Photo: Public Domain / Publicity photo circulated to press by MGM Records/Verve (1968) / Wikimedia Commons

The Velvet Underground's 1969 self-titled release, known as the "Grey Album", blazes boldly 50 years later, and retains the same sonic relevance as a Laura Nyro or Nick Drake record: artworks utterly of their moment, that sound like they could have been made yesterday.

The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground

MGM

March 1969

The acclaimed New York gallerist Tony Shafrazi once commented: "I was asked in 1969 by Lucy Lippard to define art. I think, at the time, I said that art was a matter of life and death". His is an answer characterized by extremes, and, too, one directly reflective of the extreme state of the world. 1969 marked the undoubted transitional moment of the 20th century—the year when the counterculture reached a fever pitch, and, where by December's end, as Joan Didion brilliantly wrote in her oft-quoted The White Album, "the tension broke…the paranoia was fulfilled". It was the year of Woodstock, Manson, Altamont, Nixon, Stonewall, the Moon Landing—a confluence of progress, and unrest, epitomizing the complicated sociological realities, and aftermaths, of not only the year but the entire decade.

Art would imitate life, too, as tame pop standards unraveled under the siege of folk, rock, and psychedelia, the "young kids" transforming Billboard charts, overthrowing major movie studios, and saturating television airwaves. Their backlash against "high-brow" entertainment, and its perpetuation of traditional, and restrictive, social mores, had mobilized from grassroots mutiny to unprecedented global insurrection; Shafrazi, and countless others with him had prophesied right.

Such an irreplicable period in history is commonly linked to the musical milieu of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Joan Baez (among others), all of whom became and remain honorific poster children of the "free love" generation. Dissimilarly, the New York-based Velvet Underground lurked on the lower rungs of chart success, churning out a catalogue of albums that would, in spite of the little commercial success they received contemporaneously, become distinctly emblematic of the deep-seated cultural implications of the time.

No work of theirs captures that better than The Velvet Underground, their third studio effort dubbed "The Grey Album" (due to its monochromatic cover), which turns 50 this year. Harmonious and discordant in equal measure, with a dichotomous blend of garage rock convention and avant-garde abstraction, "The Grey Album" shattered yet uncharted boundaries in its sagacious and subversive reflection of a year, and decade, characterized by conflict and transformation.

Rock "Anti-Stars" in 1969

With their Andy Warhol-produced debut The Velvet Underground & Nico dubbed "the most prophetic rock album ever made" by Rolling Stone, it is hard to argue the impact the Velvets have had on contemporary music, with a radically experimental sound—somehow epitomizing the rebellious '60s zeitgeist and at the same time staunchly departing from the era's familiarities—that has exerted outsize influence on artists of all genres. Their unapologetic unwillingness to conform, and even greater willingness to create, blazed trails for late '70s punk rock and new wave pop, and made possible the careers of most major millennial and Gen Z indie rockers (Julian Casablancas and King Princess among their manifold modern-day descendants).

With four LPs that inventively meld rock, pop, experimental, and psychedelic genres, it is at first difficult to conceive the band's inability at finding mainstream success in their time. This contemplation, a half-century ahead of the album's premiere, arrives not long after this summer's release of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, an L.A. cinematic fever dream circa 1969, soaked with the beats of Los Bravos, Neil Diamond, and the Mamas and the Papas, which spends most of its runtime immortalizing on film the dominant tastes and elements of the "California Dreamin'" sentiment—thrusting a wistful mirror against the social, political, and aesthetic realities of the hippie movement, whose West Coast occupancy (with touchstone festivals like Monterey) had, by 1969, distilled itself across the entire nation.

This sun-soaked sector, as validated by Tarantino's extolled, albeit problematic, vision, remains the poster child for the broader counter-cultural milieu, with rudimentary "Summer of Love" iconography still populating media airwaves; Instagram remains abloom with photos of influencers aimlessly donning flower crowns, fringed shawls, and tinted glasses for midsummer music festivals and high school spirit weeks—essentialist images, scraping only the surface, that wade perpetually in the public ether.

The music of the Velvet Underground exists far outside of this imagery. While many argue that their third LP marked their greatest attempt at a mainstream sound in the wake of their first two records' once-lambasted experimentations, "The Grey Album" relays to listeners a vision of 1969 "non-normative", and yet, a vision perhaps more accurate, and more telling, than any other album that came out that year.

Said argument relies on an understanding of what TVU really was: a conglomeration of rock "anti"-stars, and by extension, the musical rendering of a cultural, and countercultural, antithesis. Their sonic sentiment rejected corporate America's co-optation of the free love generation, which by the decade's end had turned into a mainstream and marketable commodity (look no further than Coca-Cola's "Hilltop" commercial)—and in that way, is a "counter" to the counterculture. "The Grey Album" evades commoditization, even in spite of its move towards increased conventionality. It is a piece of self-reflection, of creative and formative singularity (and solitude), with a beauty and melancholy that outsmarts rock, pop, and folk conventions—tearing down hegemonic cultural bourgeoisie, and, too, foreseeing the end of flower power before flower power came to an end.

Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

This, of course, is not to suggest that "The Grey Album" completely evades a countercultural ethos. It is unquestionably a record of mutiny; progressivism and revolt in its DIY DNA. It stands apart, however, as a stripped-down coup seemingly bereft of true material motives (it is by no coincidence that the album's sole single, "What Goes On," never touched the charts), and most importantly, as an artwork with an almost preemptive awareness of '70s fatalism, while providing listeners with a sense of comfort amid the impending societal languor. As noted by Rolling Stone staffer Jordan Runtagh, the band "remains the quintessential emblem of a certain brand of countercultural cool. Not the Haight-Ashbury or Sgt. Pepper kind but an eerier, artier, more NYC-rooted strain…[with] awareness of the new, the possible and the darker edge of humanity".

By the end of the 1960s, said grimmer sentiment had manifested in much of literature and contemporary filmmaking, notably with the writings of Didion, Truman Capote, and Kurt Vonnegut (among others), and in movies like The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and Five Easy Pieces (1970)—the latter dubbed by director Carlos Reygadas as "the film every beatnik would have loved to make…[a] perfect express[ion] [of the] feeling about living intensely but without a sense of purpose". In pop music, such an attitude was hard to locate thematically, and even as late as 1972, it seemed the industry was still clinging to a certain '60s zeal: such galvanizing political manifestos as "For What It's Worth" and "War!" had evolved into glass-half-full chart-toppers like John Lennon's "Imagine" and Melanie Safka's "Brand New Key," which made way for a saccharine brand of pop at the decade's center. Music akin to The Velvet Underground's sound wouldn't find mainstream visibility until the late 1970s, when punk and new wave acts like Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith Group began earning pop's respect. The difference: those bands were descendants of TVU, not contemporaries.

As the "outcasts' outcasts", products of the mid-60s downtown art scene perpetually sidelined to the studios and back alleys of New York, The Velvets did not associate with increasingly-mainstreamed forms of artistic and sociopolitical insurgency during their tenure, and went largely ignored by the greater public as a result. Descending on the mores of 1969 from an almost prescient angle, their work tread against the conservative sovereignty that made way for the resulting counterculture, and, too, against the counterculture that was itself to become self-destructively sovereign, an "ethic" described by Patti Smith in the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech as the era's "stark, elusive balloon...burst[ing] upon a deflated scene...trampling the flowers of peacemakers" (see here on YouTube). As surmised by journalist Colin Hogg, "Hippies must have hated them...instead of California dreaming, Reed's songs, delivered in his nasal sing-speak sneer, addressed drugs and dealers and the bruises and cruelties of love," a sentiment that lead San Francisco promoter Bill Graham to tell the band moments before a performance, "I hope you fuckers bomb".

The Velvet Underground was no one's cup of tea: "the original alternative band...because we were shunned into it," as remembered by guitarist Sterling Morrison. But from detachment was borne the power to view a specific climate with an outsider's objectivity, making the band indelibly prophetic: guitar-strumming Didions of their time, whose discography finds literary kinship with a work like Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Reflecting the decade's complex and incongruous morale, "The Grey Album" boldly opines that beauty and torment are not only two sides of the same coin, but can only exist as mutually constitutive phenomena.

Photo: Public Domain / Publicity photo circulated to press by MGM Records/Verve (1966) / Wikimedia Commons

A-Side: A Close Reading

Beauty and torment are the most appropriate adjectives to grant "The Grey Album", which kicks off its ten tracks with one of the most tormentingly beautiful songs ever put to vinyl. In reference to actress and Warhol superstar Candy Darling, "Candy Says" sees Doug Yule's lullaby vocals traverse yet uncharted musical territory: the realities of the trans female experience, specifically in a transphobic climate safeguarded by the guise of the sexual revolution. The song presents a complex and sympathetic narrative, the soapbox upon which seemingly Darling herself, via Yule's generous croon, can expound on the agony she is forced to face amid callous gender constructs, of the way others lambast her simple wish to live as her complete and authentic self—and simultaneously, a heedfulness of the bluebirds that fly over her shoulder, that leaves her asking: "what do you think I'd see, if I could walk away from me?"

In a culture where trans and genderqueer folx face not only physical violence but equally-damaging epistemic aggression in the form of cultural erasure, Reed's lyrics blaze a proto-progressive trail both utterly Candy and undeniably universal, reflecting one woman's lived experience onto a broader public (young and old alike) long kept in the shadows. Reed himself stated: "[the song] was about something more profound and universal, a universal feeling I think all of us have at some point. We look in the mirror and we don't like what we see...I don't know a person alive who doesn't feel that way". Thus, "Candy Says" becomes more than simply elegiac: it is one of the most quietly audacious openings to any album ever, with the Velvets striking at a source of personal tumult scourging a demographic already disillusioned by the false trappings of their conformist upbringings. Resultantly, they allow a trans female artist a chance at then-unprecedented visibility: to, through one song, become the poster child of a generation.

Yet, such "poster child" aestheticizing contributes to the greater problem of the fetishization, and appropriation, of the trans experience in modern media, alarmingly exacerbated by two cisgendered men (Yule and Reed) self-righteously appointing themselves a trans woman's musical surrogate. In those days, Darling herself was little more than an aesthetic object for Warhol's Factory scene, and perhaps "Candy Says" aims to deconstruct the problematic "artist-muse" narrative that had been built around her. In doing so, however, she becomes the Velvets' muse, which brings us back to square one.

Where the song remains revolutionary is in its willingness to broach a conversation about trans and gender-nonconforming folx in the first place. It can be made analogous to Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (another late-'60s pop cultural masterwork), which, while miles away from the gold standard in gay male literary representation, still remains insurrectionary, and important, as one of the first major novels to make space for gay male characters at all; as Simon Doonan writes, "Members of the gay community...were thrilled to find themselves, at long last, unleashed with such gusto onto an international stage".

Likewise, at a time when the word "transgender" remained a widely-unknown, virtually-nonexistent term, Reed and company managed to achieve something game-changing with their opening track, even if our augmented awareness since its release has earned it rightful criticism. After all, movers-and-shakers of 1960s-era show business prided themselves on countercultural work that still lent them a safety net; when an entire nation is up-in-arms about a war, or specific moral code, it is easy to "push boundaries" while still reaping the comforts of mass solidarity. Contrarily, the Velvets emerged as underdog anarchists in their willingness to put forth material that questioned, and mobilized, on a deeper and profoundly humanist level.

Risk-taking, of course, is the overarching motif of TVU's catalogue, but "The Grey Album" stands out here particularly in both its stripped-down abandon and gentle, mainstream guise, juggling polarized styles in the same way the album juggles lyrical content deemed, at the time, both acceptable (personal relationships, loss, religion) and starkly taboo (gender identity, human sexuality, drug use). Style and theme operate dichotomously together, too, particularly throughout the album's first half. Despite never losing a trademark edginess integral to the band's sound, the A-side communicates its broodingly complicated lyrics with a lilting, rock conventionality that creates an unsettling, if catchy, juxtaposition. Lyrical complexity oscillates beneath serene waters: gender identity, drug use, romantic turmoil, and spiritual crisis are evoked through a sonic high often ethereal, often digestible too. Reed and company aren't so much shouting afflictions as letting them slip, diaphanously, through closed teeth.

"What Goes On", with the greatest garage-rock appeal of any track, denotes a fast-tempo exercise in delirium, equal parts upbeat and meditative, before dissolving into the steadier rhythms of "Some Kinda Love," and then into the album's best tracks, where the hedonistic appeal of the preceding cuts returns us to more contemplative fare characterized by conflict and broken-hearted yearning—a rarity for a time in music focused mainly on the external pressures of protest and politics.

"Pale Blue Eyes" finds Reed at his most exposed, as he gingerly aches his way through a tone poem about love for a woman who has wed another man: "the fact that you are married, only proves you're my best friend. But it's truly, truly a sin. Linger on your pale blue eyes." With a penetrating mix of vulnerability and immediacy, the song instantly occupies veneration as one of the band's greatest achievements. Its dreamy-despondent flavor, and meditation on "sin," spills over into "Jesus," the final track to the A-side. Simple lyrics ("Jesus, help me find my proper place. Help me in my weakness, 'cause I've fallen out of grace. Jesus, Jesus"), mixed with an equal musical simplicity, reveal a masterwork of minimalism. Not unlike "Pale Blue Eyes," the song's marriage of surreality and bareness makes for a listening experience often undemanding yet profoundly affecting.

B-Side: A Close Reading

Affecting easy listening is a quality not so readily applicable to the rest of the album. Reed and company's mouths are fully agape in the second half, which shatters the hypnosis of songs like "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Jesus" with "Beginning to See the Light". Loud, unruly, and unapologetic, the opening to the Grey Album's B-side finds Reed jolted awake: no longer in genuflect, fists in the air instead. The Velvets are pissed and rearing: "Yeah, yeah, baby I'm beginning to see the light. Oh, some people work very hard, but still they never get it right." Reed tears himself out of the system: "There are problems in these times, but ooh, none of them are mine." He challenges the ruse "free love" had become: "Here we go again. I thought that you were my friend...How does it feel to be loved?" Teeming with sarcasm, punch, and personal illumination, "Beginning to See the Light" makes way for a B-side deepened by a ceiling-shattering discordance.

Discordance, of course, manifests itself in varying pitches. "I'm Set Free," the B-side's follow-up to its explosive kickoff, parrots the first half's rock accessibility. Then, mollification unspools into revelation: "freedom" is but a sun-dappled mirage. "I've been set free, and I've been bound, to the memories of yesterday's clouds...I'm set free to find a new illusion...I've been blinded..." Reed chants, before personalizing those affirmations in "That's the Story of My Life," a transient diversion, bizarrely folky enough to appease the endorphins. This midpoint traverses personal terrain, but the reality is stark and inevitable: we are building to a louder, broader manifesto, breaking open Reed's illusory shell of introspection.

Thus, we arrive at track nine, which can be made analogous to "Heroin" off of The Velvet Underground & Nico. A nearly 10-minute opus that weaves drums, organs, and Reed, Yule, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker each speaking separate, but overlapping, narratives, "The Murder Mystery" is a sinister latticework of avant-gardism realized by half-transparent, half-nebulous imagery, lending ample interpretation to the listener. With abstract lyricism: "ennui fort the passions, in order to justify most spurious desires...read all the books and the people worth reading and still see the muck on the sky of the ceiling… lower the queen and bend her over the tub, against the state, the country, the committee, hold her head under the water please for an hour... To Rembrandt and Oswald, to peanuts and ketchup, sanctimonious sycophants stir in the bushes, up to the stand with your foot on the bible... Contempt, contempt, and contempt for the boredom," the band forges ahead, stunning and stochastic, in their dual anti-culture, anti-counterculture subtext. If the "Grey Album", in its instrumental and lyrical skirmish, is a microcosm of the 1960s, "The Murder Mystery" is a microcosm of the "Grey Album"—it is the entire LP folded in on itself: charged poetics, unpredictable compositions, and rock conventions upheld and undone trademark avant-garde flourishes, mashed into a haunting frenzy of contrasts and chaos—akin to a murder scene.

But from darkness can only come illumination, perhaps not the kind that blinds us, either. No song proves said aim of "The Murder Mystery", and by extension, the entire album, better than "After Hours", the final track of the LP, sung by drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker. The lyrics themselves are morbid. Still, Tucker's vocal timidity and Morrison's sparse guitar evoke the lullaby quality of "Candy Says" and gossamer timbre of "Jesus", forcing us to reassess our face-value understanding of Reed's lyrics. In a work of unrest, unconventionality, and uncharted daringness, rife with subtext, thematic complexity, and double meanings, "After Hours" offers a source of respite that sustains the album's pattern of duality—dark lyrics contrasted against uncomplicated, even gentle delivery—but forces listeners to fully appreciate the song for its sonic beauty.

The Murder Mystery

It is a beauty here, however, that pervades lyrical implication, ultimately transforming meaning: Tucker isn't singing fatalism. She is simply talking about going to a nightclub, where she'll drink and dance and lose track of time, keeping her from seeing the sun rise and thereby extending "the night." The rest of the album has primed our ears for deep thinking, but it is here, at the tail end, that Reed and company turn the tables, and urge us not to take ourselves, or the music, so seriously.

But had the culture taken itself too seriously? Had the counterculture taken itself too seriously, too? Had both indulged in so much navel-gazing that they had effectively destroyed each other? By December of 1969, ideological conflict in America had reached a point of no return, a reality denoted by the shocking Tate-LaBianca massacre, and the captured-on-camera slaying of Altamont Free Concert attendee Meredith Hunter, with the former earning designation by Joan Didion as "the end of the Sixties." The Velvets have taken us on a similar journey, characterized by catharsis, freedom, unrest, and confusion.

And yet, in its final moments, they provide an ultimately comforting beacon of light with "After Hours." For an album mirroring so eerily (in its lyrics, in its instrumentals, and in its juxtaposition of the two) the dichotomous realities of a decade that ended with tragedy, its coda of optimism is a bold and subversive statement. As a reading of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," another artistic requiem of the 1960s, might tell us: we haven't been getting ourselves back to the garden. But we've got to, and we still can.

An Album for Posterity

The 1960s were a transitional period that, in spite of the surface-level imagery with which they are often attributed, evades essentialism. The Velvet Underground's 1969 "Grey Album" starkly delineates the intricacies of its year and its decade, and provides a form of creative and audience catharsis unique from most pop albums of the time. And unlike contemporaneous artists, whose work often imagined a metaphysical paradise removed from the grey gloom of reality (The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" leaps to mind—a classic indirectly rebutted a year later with Loaded's "Who Loves the Sun"), the Velvets cognized the ennui and championed the inseparable reality of "darkness" and "light". Beneath the flower crowns and Edenic disposition was a wealth of pain and self-destruction, a generation agonized by faux postwar mores and the deceptive "American Dream" credo in which they were raised. The Velvet Underground charged at that suffering head on, embracing and epitomizing the decade's dichotomous morale, and transformed disillusionment into deliverance.

And though undoubtedly a 1960s LP, its zeitgeist quality does not trap it in a fixed sociological domain. Even as a microcosm of the era from which it was born, "The Grey Album" is just as much 1969 as it is 2019, its period timbre distilled in haunting clarity, imbuing its dreamlike omniscience across decades and contexts. It blazes boldly 50 years later, and retains the same sonic relevance as a Laura Nyro or Nick Drake record: artworks utterly of their moment, that sound like they could have been made yesterday; perfect reflections of their time...that transcend time, too.

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