Without any kind of expectations, without anything in my slate of things-to-do, my roommate and co-writer of a potential comedy troupe/series has fostered upon me a Very Lou Reed Kinda Christmas this year. Er. . . Hanukkah, in my case.
After scouring the record shops that he and I regularly frequent, he bought a copy of White Light/White Heat behind my back, and offered it to me on the fifth night of Hanukkah. Indeed, it is missing from my collection, but it’s one I did not think I would so readily miss. I bought the album on CD, and short of one awkward car-ride listen and several attempts to reconcile the album’s extremely polarizing nature (both within itself and in criticism of the Velvet Underground’s avant-garde improvisation and their lyrical content), I haven’t really had the chance sit down with it and judge it for what it is: The 293rd entry on Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 list of the ‘greatest albums ever made.’ For those of you playing at home, that means that (in the immediate sense), the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams is slightly worse than White Light/White Heat, which is marginally better than Bob Dylan and the Band releasing The Basement Tapes. But hey, it’s Rolling Stone, so take what you will, with many grains of salt.
After the Jump: A good reason why everyone should try heroin at least once, okay? Okay? Here we go.
As the A.V. Club’s Jason Heller noted, White Light/White Heat is “utterly uncompromising,” and there is no other description necessary for this album. Even at almost 45 years since its release, it is a record that demands attention. Perhaps not for attention to its innovative nature, but for being one of the earliest records for being so willing to push any and all kinds of buttons. Sure, its chock full of flat out great rock and roll, as well as some soothing element of folk-psych that doesn’t ruffle the feathers too harshly, but White Light/White Heat is still radical to listen to, even in 2012 — this year of supposed enlightenment and advancement over the tragically boring music of 2011. But let’s not talk about politics, friends. What I really mean is that it’s not really as challenging as its reputation purports it. In fact, it’s far more expansive than its reputation wants to offer, delivered tautly over 40 minutes and only six tracks.
Where The Velvet Underground & Nico was a somewhat forced spectacle of Andy Warhol’s prowess as a producer of the fine arts alongside some borderline avant-garde garage rockers, it was still a record of these brave musicians who took on New York City’s art scene with gusto and detached-but-present sense of debauchery. White Light/White Heat is truly the first album by the Velvet Underground, going beyond Warhol’s influence and the presence of Nico, but also being a record of such extreme defiance to the very idea of “mainstream music,” that it remains such a challenging listen regardless of its influence.
Forget for a moment, if you will, that old chestnut that Velvet Underground & Nico helped launch a thousand bands in its wake, despite its relative lack of mainstream success. And, forgive that Nico was a character shoe-horned into the Velvet Underground’s initial success — and really, for better or worse depending upon your perception of quality experimental rock. White Light/White Heat exists as a document of a band capable of these wild, jazz-like improvisations, but keeping in mind the equally wild and erratic qualities that could only come forth through a live rock show. The record, for all intents and purposes, is a live album made within the confines of a studio and the time allotted to let someone like Lou Reed scream out the lyrics of “Sister Ray” — much of the album was done in single takes, after all. More than uncompromising, it is a record that reveals a kind of truth about being young and living in New York City in the late ’60s, and being from the kind of ‘people are people’ gospel of the folk scene at the time. But it’s a standpoint that is exaggerated by its aggressively avant-garde sound. It doesn’t have the kind of commercial appeal that Basic Blues Magoos would have had at the some moment, and yet, for whatever reason, it is considered closer to rock ‘n’ roll canon than that record, despite the Blues Magoos (or any band of 60’s New York) being infinitely more accessible than this troubling, disturbing, uneven, under-produced, miserable record could ever be, even when comparing it to similarly “uncompromising” records of the era. Indeed, I would sooner play Trout Mask Replica — a record chock full of disturbing surrealist lyricism, irrational rhythm, and uncontrollable stray melodies — at a party with my closest friends than I would White Light/White Heat. And, damn me, this comes down entirely to a matter of how fuckin’ long it is!
Opening with a tribute to amphetamine, and the album’s title-track, is a misleading song. It is a reckless, near-ramshackle, rock n’roll basics tune that is far more inviting than the Velvet Underground’s last opening track, “Sunday Morning.” Beyond the matters of being ‘light’ or lacking the control that “Sunday Morning” does, it lays the basic blueprint for what the Velvet Underground is about, being the very concept of recreation in its extremes. Throughout White Light/White Heat in particular, there are no moments that simply so-so. Though many critics and fans alike consider “Here She Comes” as the lone moment of sane pop performance on the album, “White Light/White Heat” comes from a similar starting point: this is pop music, but it is done so that’s fun because it’s reckless, done as a record of not just a song, but of a moment. This is what the band is doing in this studio, and that we’ve done before on stage, but now we’re committing it. Also, we’re talking about drugs. So there’s that. Deal with it.
There is nothing revelatory about the Velvet Underground’s work as ‘art-rock.’ There are, maybe, ten songs of their entire catalog that could be considered legit ‘art-rock,’ and simply as a matter of generosity, because even their stabs at being ‘avant-garde,’ ultimately consider the inevitable marriage of jazz improvisation to rock ‘n’ roll abrasiveness, with both ideas having an invested knowledge in doing things that are ‘incorrect.’ I am not saying that the Velvet Underground were frauds that got lucky — that’s a heresy I’m not willing to take up. But when it comes to a this album’s more extreme experiments, being “The Gift” and “Sister Ray,” they still manage to display a fine mix of pop songcraft and rock’s basic structures. “The Gift,” in particular, being an improvised, bass-and-fuzz heavy jam while John Cale reads a short story Reed wrote in his college days, still manages to land at a proper cadence, even while what may be the most depressing story every written goes on in your stereo’s left channel. (It must be said: “The Gift” is perfect college writing — guaranteed he got an ‘A-‘ on that from his writing prof, I’m sure.) “Lady Godiva’s Operation” works in a similar fashion, but with more organization and an actual melody to be sung — primarily by Cale again with some rejoinders by Reed — but isn’t necessarily too pushing beyond that, besides Cale resorting to imitating operation tools that come off more comical than threatening or serious.
It may be that “Here She Comes Now” is about Lou Reed’s guitar. And I like that theory, based entirely on Reed’s tendency to shout ‘Here she comes now!’ before a solo during their live sets at the time, because it would not only be the lone moment on the album that is straightforward pop, but the most innocent of all the songs. Yet, leave it to the audience that has built up the Velvet Underground’s reputation to think that it’s something much more sinister, but that just may be what they were going for. But, of course, it’s a song from a band whose reputation outweighs whatever realities they were going for, so it’s kind of telling that this was the lone VU song Nirvana covered, or that it’s been sampled by a French ambient-pop artist (below).
“I Heard Her Call My Name” was also done in a take trying to capitalize on the spirit of their live shows. This is a track unfairly considered difficult because of its atonal qualities (the over-distorted guitar solos) and Lou Reed’s frantic, speedy recitation of the lyrics. But rarely do the Velvet Underground’s rhythmic section get any credit for keeping it all sane: Maureen Tucker is a fantastic, time-keeper-style drummer, free of the flashy fills that so many believe to be key to being even a ‘good’ drummer. Instead, her insistent, constant beat-keeping actually manages to reign in on the insanity of the wild soloing that captures some of the true heart at the era’s best psych bands. In the song’s intro, it’s not hard to think of the uncontrollable noise as being a cousin to something like the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind” — with the insistent beat behind it being similarly propulsive. But by the second verse, Reed shouts out hey-eys and extends his phrases the way any other Little Richard-worshiping teenager might try to ape in the comfort of their own bedroom mirrors. Even with a finish that’s based in in Reed’s endless streaks of stabs at guitar friction and metallic mistakes, it ends in a far more organized place than where it began — the extended feedback noise ending in a fade out done in the studio, comfortably enough to say ‘this is where it should have ended.’
But then, what to make of the epic, legendary tale of unending debauchery of “Sister Ray?” Perhaps more than any other song, this is the one Velvet Underground tale lurid enough to give the bands its reputation to casual fans and casual critics alike for being obsessed strictly with morbid, disturbing, socially unacceptable topics. At a seemingly interminable length of 17:25, the song lets the Velvets stretch out their noise-jazz experiments to the max, with John Cale switching from his traditional bass/cello position to an electric organ. In some moments, he can find the sweetest brief line of melody to make it seem like the song could be reigned in around him — and with two competing, mistake-embracing guitars from Reed and Morrison, it’s the only other sound besides the cloudy, hazy mess of the guitars, Tucker’s snare beat, and Lou Reed’s shouted and slurred lyrics.
Much like the music’s free-improvisational style, the length of “Sister Ray” is what allows Reed to cram everything about his lyrical interests at once. It’s subtle and even satirical (“Shoots him dead on the floor / Oh don’t you know you shouldn’t do that / don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?”), to the outright filthy and immature (the often repeated lyric, “suckin’ on a ding-dong.”) Of course, you could piece it all together, and hope that you’re hip enough to pick up on the lingo to know what a ‘main line’ is.
But unlike most bands of this ilk, there is no rallying point other than to embrace the noise and fracture. Rather than come to a focal point like most jams, it simply ends. Sure, there’s a point where it could have collected itself into a great, albeit, twisted pop song, but it simply dies. It may have been part of the point — the alternative zeitgeist of the times to the alternative hippie culture and uptight mainstream — but that’s a point made time and time again. Listening to this record umpteen times through the past two weeks has revealed more of the Velvet Underground’s commonground with the mainstream. It’s easy to focus on how they changed music and call it revolutionary, but it’s even more difficult to get anyone to admit that part of being so wildly different is to find the ins with the In-Crowd, and working to be so subversive. Fanboys and fangirls out there are quick to celebrate the differences that are legendary — and indeed they are — but what’s at the heart of White Light/White Heat are a collection of fragments of all the popular records of the bands’ peers in 1968. It’s a little garage, it’s a little traditional rock and roll, it’s psychedelic, it’s free-form jazz. It’s noisy, it’s folky, it’s got stories just as much as it does catchy choruses. It’s a constructed pop-album as much as it’s also a long jam on the second side of your favorite band’s live album. It’s an album that takes everything great about rock and roll’s own ceaseless exploration of co-opting other music and genres, and adds the sense of uncertainly and confusion to rock music’s built-in confidence and swagger. White Light/White Heat is a record whose reputation is greater than the simple argument of being rock and its most primitive.
Cut past the noise, and what you have is something for everyone.