“Anyone should be able to play these songs, that’s what I like about them.”
— Lou Reed
The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of those debut albums where the band got absolutely everything right. It is at once primitive in its execution and epic in its aspirations, dark yet infused with a deadpan humor that suggests we take none of this too seriously. It is voyeuristic, yet often confessional. Everything that the Velvets were and everything they were to become was right there, in that one slab of glorious vinyl. The raucous, chugging, feedback-stoked display of White Light/White Heat was there, in “I’m Waiting for the Man”, in the rushing conclusion of “Heroin”, and in the closing “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son.” The fragile, doomed beauty of 1969’s Velvet Underground was there in the deceptively tranquil sounding opener “Sunday Morning”, and in the songs featuring Nico: “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. And the flat-out rock and roll found on the group’s last album, Loaded, was there in “I’m Waiting for the Man” and the slightly askew “There She Goes Again”.
I knew this would always be one of my favorite albums from the moment I heard it. Since I was only five years old at the time it was first released, I became familiar with it later, during my junior high school years. My group of friends cultivated a very rock snob aesthetic and it was only a matter of time before we stumbled upon the Velvets both because of the writing of rock critics like Robert Christigau and Lester Bangs and because of their association with Andy Warhol. But it was the description in Lillian Roxan’s Rock Encyclopedia that initially set me in search of their music: “Theirs was the dim world of drugs and sexual perversion, of heroin addiction and the desperate loss of hope that goes with it. Their concern was with death and violence . . . Oozing evil and lubricity, they made every other group look like kid stuff, and they made a lot of people nervous . . .” I bought a two-album Velvet Underground anthology on MGM records that featured an Andy Warhol cover consisting of a series of drawings of a set of lips closing around a straw inserted into a Coke bottle. Most of the songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico were there, along with representative samplings of their other albums. But nothing quite prepares one for the album itself, with its masterful sequencing of songs.
Initially the tracks were recorded in a single day with $1500 of time at the decrepit Scepter Records studios. The group redid “Heroin”, “Venus in Furs”, and “I’m Waiting for the Man” with Tom Wilson when they signed on with Verve Records. “Sunday Morning”, which Wilson thought might make a decent single for the band, was recorded in New York. So there is a bit of tension between the tracks done at Scepter with Andy Warhol (who is credited as producer) pretty much just rolling tape and the tracks redone with a couple of days time at a good studio. The music is every bit as primitive, but on the redone tracks it is turned up, and details come to the fore that might not have been clear originally. The Scepter tracks have a more casual feeling to them, a tossed off vibe that makes them seem almost spontaneous.
Once I heard The Velvet Underground & Nico, I knew I would never have any affinity with the music and aesthetic of the West Coast. Never would I be able to tout the artfulness of Van Dyke Parks or Pet Sounds with a straight face. I would never be able to fathom the hold that the Grateful Dead had on the hearts and minds of acid-dropping Deadheads. Nor would I be able to tolerate the seriousness and high-art pretensions of British prog rock. Falling under the spell of this album set one on a collision course with a very special set of music to come, music whose lineage invariably led one back to the back alleys, shooting galleries, and S&M dungeons of this album. The original Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Stooges, Joy Division, Bowie, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Dream Syndicate, the Cowboy Junkies — all of these bands manifest some or all of the Velvet Underground’s vision and aesthetic.
But it is easy to misunderstand all this. Lou Reed is sometimes considered “the godfather of punk rock” because he supposedly made it possible for taboo subjects to be the subject of rock songs. In addition, the Velvets certainly embraced a minimalist musical aesthetic. But what Reed and the Velvets really did was to make it possible for their chosen topics to be taken seriously and for the listener to get beyond the mere shock of subject matter and perhaps empathize with the characters involved a la Hubert Selby. The minimalism, the concentration on taboo subject matter, was all about transcendence. On all of their recordings nihilism is there, beckoning, but it is not embraced as the answer. In the Velvets’ world love exists and is real, but it is frightening to love in a world that is harsh and which seeks to destroy you. Love is an answer, just as drugs, sex, violence, and narcissism are answers. I think it becomes explicit in Reed’s solo work that love is the only possible answer that actually leads anywhere, but the implication is there even on this first Velvets album.
One way or another human beings will find, must have, transcendence, and here is chronicled many of the ways that it can be found. “Heroin” is one of the most beautiful songs on the album, summing up the addict’s dilemma, explaining the allure of the drug, pulling the listener along on the incredible rush of intoxication followed by the disoriented, nodding state where nothing at all matters. Reed’s junkie is painfully self-aware: “Heroin / Be the death of me / Heroin / It’s my life and it’s my wife”. Nor is there any judgment of the empty life of the society party girl in “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Nico’s famous “Teutonic” delivery (she was actually born in Budapest, Hungary) seems to emphasize emptiness and a certain sense of despair, but there is empathy (maybe even sympathy) in the lyrics: “And what costume shall the poor girl wear / To all tomorrow’s parties / A hand-me-down dress from who knows where / To all tomorrow’s parties.” The music, with John Cale’s ringing modal piano drone and the sitar-like guitar work by Reed that results from all the strings being tuned to the same note, is sumptuous and decadent. Maureen Tucker’s drums and Sterling Morrison’s bass provide the tabla. The air is filled with delicate incense; one can imagine the “poor girl” in her boudoir, the silk pillows and perfume, the faint scent of opium and decay, the windows shut against the waning late afternoon sun. Perhaps she has only just awakened from her previous evening’s debauchery. In fact, it is she who sings the opening song of the album, “Sunday Morning”. Nico was slated to sing the song, but Reed later decided to do the vocal himself. The result is that we instead watch her rising from slumber and hear her thoughts from Lou the narrator. “Sunday Morning” is a paranoid little ode, one in which there is always something to atone for, something done that lies just outside the bounds of memory.
In the end, The Velvet Underground & Nico is as affirming an album as has ever been released. While it is very much a product of its time and place, it still imparts its message to anyone who cares to listen. I’m not sure the same can be said about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in the end it’s what you take away from an album that determines its importance to you, not whether it was the first to use a sitar or cover certain subject matter. I still feel the rattle of a subway and smell the overheated trash of a city summer when I hear “I’m Waiting for the Man”, sigh when I hear Nico sing “Femme Fatale” or “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, shudder when Lou Reed sings “I have made a very big decision / I’m going to try for the kingdom if I can . . .” I still believe in the ability of rock and popular music to have a profound effect on the listener. I still believe that life, with all its ugliness and horror, is a pretty beautiful thing.