"Lou Reed Rising," A 1976 Essay On The Late Legend

Excerpted from his new book, Critical Mass, James Wolcott covers Lou Reed in a 1976 issue of The Village Voice.

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments—they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else).

I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of “White Light/White Heat” in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime—they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s “The Sound of the City” and Carl Belz’s “The Story of Rock,” and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering . . . of insufferable navel-gazing guitars”—it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of “Loaded” is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead—all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now . . . it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the East Village Other. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness—intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis . . . don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha . . . don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the “Sgt. Pepper” era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music—its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness—are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation—they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people—about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy—what John Cale called “controlled distortion”—is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by Wiltiom Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to “Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1,” particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called “Modern Lovers” and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.
Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of “Loaded” and the Boston of “Modern Lovers.” Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:
There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

When Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day. . . .”) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include “Transformer” (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side”), two live collections, “Sally Can’t Dance,” “Berlin” (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and “Metal Machine Music,” a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets—transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke. . . .” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi. . . .

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded “Berlin”), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.
In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copeland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: “Vintage Violence,” “Church of Anthrax” (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), “Fear,” “Slow Dazzle,” and, most recently, “Helen of Troy.” Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of “The Night Porter,” Cale went the rock-Dada route—performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention—“Helen of Troy” is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew—the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy—and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release “Helen of Troy” in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari—pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of “The Video Primer,” has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin . . . be the death of me . . .”), the colorless bleakness of the video image . . . a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them—as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television—electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin . . . listeining to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.

Village Voice, March 1, 1976

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