Saturday, January 27, 2007


Spread at five year intervals from 40 years ago to 25 (the era of my childhood and youth), I've selected albums for each month to cover the years that, for me, trace the Golden Age of Rock (not rock'n'roll per se -- whose Golden Age was arguably the '50s, early '60s) to the debut of my age group. The Golden Age of Rock is essentially the era in which The Beatles and The Stones (aka, The British Invasion) came to maturity. The Beatles broke up and The Stones -- like all the great bands of that era -- went into decline, but that decline was in some ways delayed by the second Golden Age: the era of punk and New Wave that surfaced in the late '70s and played itself out in the early '80s. By the mid to late '80s the decline of that initial rock impetus was complete and the New Wave had, in most instances, been subsumed into the slick digital processed rock of the era. Grunge and lo-fi and a few notable mavericks kept the game alive into the '90s at which time many of papa's heroes enjoyed a resurgence. But that tale is best left to those who were college age at the time.

40 years ago: Jan. 1967
This is a landmark year for several reasons, not least of which is the appearance of this record: Andy Warhol presents The Velvet Underground with Nico (aka Peel Slowly and See). I was eight in 1967 so I can't claim that I experienced this album in its own time. Ten years later, toward the end of high school, this album offered itself to me as a discovery of where two mavericks, Lou Reed and John Cale, got their start in collaboration.

It took me ages to warm to Nico's vocals -- and I use the word "warm" for its appositeness to the feeling her voice creates in its resolute unwillingness to register any emotion. These days I can get as misty as anyone when I hear her icy Teutonic tones on the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums because in the interim the woman died (but not before I saw her live in New Jersey opening for Cale), but also because, more importantly, the sound of the songs on which she sings ("Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "I'll Be Your Mirror" -- the latter two trademark Lou meditations on "the girl" with nothing to wear and nothing to say and so no identity, who, as mirror, can only reflect what the others want her to be, but which is also a kind of ars poetica for the singer who will reflect only what he sees: what Cohen called "beautiful losers" losing the best way they can) define the late '60s ambiance of this album for me. It's all about trying to warm cold water flats in Chelsea with a colorful parade of personalities poised to be famous in the Underground . . . or in Warhol's Factory. How can you not feel nostalgic for a time, place and style you never got to experience but which left its aura on virtually everything hip bohemia would pine for ever after?

The Underground, that amorphous concept of the '60s, could breed so many self-styled creations that would later be called "alternatives" and yet maintain a kind of checklist of what's de rigueur, at least in NYC. And Lou checks 'em off: alienation, promiscuity, decadence for its own sake, hard drug use (definitely NOT psychedelic!), cross-dressing, homosexuality, S/M, a cult of beauty, a cult of death ("death is the mother of beauty"), intellectual and creative pretensions -- at a time when, as he says in a later song, "poets studied rules of verse and the ladies roll their eyes," his lyrics for "Black Angel's Death Song" retain a touch of Dada, while Cale's sonic contribution -- like the smashed glass in "European Son" -- adds elements of the actual avant-garde, rubbing shoulders for the first time with rock'n'roll.

Lou began his songwriting career as a doo-wopper and those roots are audible here, especially in the tracks Nico sings on, so that the album at times showcases a kind of Brill building apocalypse: like theater pieces that end-up off Off-Broadway, these songs would never make it with the masses and can only find their place in the Underground, where they gain immeasurably by maintaining allegiance to a brittle innocence on the edge.

My two favorites are "Sunday Morning" and "Waiting for My Man" -- one of the greatest A/B pairings imaginable -- think of it as the underground version of "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane": "Sunday Morning" gives us the angst (a big buzz-word apr├Ęs le guerre) of "the wasted year so close behind" while "all those streets you crossed not so long ago" signal not only the changes of the identity parade but also the Heraclitean flux of time's stream. Like Sisyphus' stone (in Camus' account), Sunday morning always comes 'round again and the crushing weight of the past resurfaces. The feeling is not so much "it's nothing to get hung about" as: what a bittersweet and wonderfully melancholic feel it is to get hung about it: "we must imagine Sisyphus happy" though "I got a feeling I don't want to know": a feeling that hangs over the day, precipitating the hard drug use that will recommence the cycle.

"Waiting" is much more upbeat because, like "Penny Lane," it's a story of the street, but in this case it isn't the whimsy of how surreal psychedelics make the quotidian as in McCartney's tune, but rather how anxiously the addict waits for his fix, while still presenting the danger ("hey white boy, what you doin' up town?") and the distress ("the first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait") as a kind of adrenalin rush that precedes the heroin rush ("he's got the works/gives you sweet taste") and then "you're feelin' fine/until tomorrow, but that's just some other time" -- the "tomorrow" that will surface sooner or later as "Sunday morning."

And of course there's "Heroin," one of the best songs Lou ever wrote, implying that drug addiction is expressive -- in part ego-assertion, in part escapist fantasy, in part social protest, in part an inner quest -- and, on this album, accompanied by Cale's electric viola pyrotechnics. As they say, "a must!"

When I'm rushing on my run/ and I feel just like Jesus' son
And I guess that I just don't know/ oh, and I guess I just don't know

--Lou Reed, "Heroin" (1967)


Andrew Shields said...

In a sense, "Heroin" is the better song, but "Waiting for My Man" is so much more fun to play! Coming out of a jam and hollering "baby don't you holler, darling don't you ball and shout" is about as good as it gets. :-)

Donald Brown said...

that should be "bawl and shout."