Let’s hear it for 1967. This month (two days ago) in that year, Velvet Underground with Nico was released. Also known as Peel Slowly and See, it’s the album with the iconic banana on the cover, silkscreened by Warhol, that you were supposed to be able to peel slowly and reveal . . . a naked banana. And them’s good eatin’.
Today’s song was, in shortened form, released as a single in 1966. The album version is the only version I know (apart from the demos). I chose it today because it’s the definitive song featuring Nico’s vocals, as well as the kind of dirge-rock sound that VU patented. And so much since has come from there.
It’s in those tom-toms and tambourine of drummer Moe Tucker; it’s in the “prepared piano” of John Cale, who doubles on bass; it’s in the echo-y recording quality, with Nico double-tracked to sing with herself. That almost expressionless vocal with the Teutonic accent—it sounds both icy and crisis-y. Could anything be more perfect for a song about having to dress up for parties when costuming is so important? It could be your poor girl wanting to wear what’s required—think of proms, think of belle of the ball attire, or think of Goth accessorizing, maybe—but it could also be your poor TS having to put together a costume that would make him a her. In any case, what stays in play is that “hand-me-down gown / Of rags and silks / A costume / Fit for one who sits and cries / For all tomorrow’s parties.”
When Cale sings the vocal on the demos, it has a more madrigal-like feel, so that the costuming starts to seem like something vaguely medieval. That’s not unfitting either, for the Sixties, where being a folk princess was all the rage. But that’s not the case on the released version where Nico’s inflections seem to befit the reigning Ice Queen. All the more effective, then, that this song dwells on someone who will “cry behind the door.” Or “cry beh-hiiind dadore.” We get a glimpse of how Cinderella felt after midnight, y’know, with that pumpkin and one less glass shoe.
The song was also covered by Nick Cave (artist featured yesterday) on his very interesting LP Kicking Against the Pricks. One might surmise that all the artists he covers are “the pricks”—no, not that kind of prick, though maybe, if you like, but rather the “pricks” the Bible speaks of when Christ says to Saul that it is “hard to kick against the pricks”—or “goads.” Y’know, the annoying, stinging pricks that guide the ox where it must go . . . . So, let’s consider VU a “goad” for Nick, and for so many others (though, yeah, Lou could be a prick, and let’s not get started on Andy . . .). Anyway, here’s the link because Nick does it full justice with an even stronger sense of its dense, metronomic drone, and lots of cool effects.
The VU version is actually somewhat sweet. Which, oddly, is true of all the songs Nico sings on the LP. What makes those numbers particularly interesting, to me, is that they are like negative versions of the typical chanteuse type songs that girl singers were singing all over the radio back then (think of someone like Lulu, or Joey Heatherton, or Nancy Sinatra), all those blonde pop girl voices, and then if you add those Specter-produced tunes with girl groups. . . You can see how off-kilter Nico is, where, as here, she drones rather than croons. But it’s still got something so Sixties about it. Cue the montage of Mary Quant originals.
Time has only improved the first Velvet Underground album. When I first heard it in 1976 or 1977, I preferred the VU of Live ’69. The pressing I had left a bit to be desired. I can vouch for the re-issued mono LP as the best you can expect to find, now. The stereo re-issue for the VU CD box set is good too. There is no album that better establishes, aurally, the brave new world of rock to come. Velvet Underground with Nico is a one-time deal, like most works of art. Even though promulgated by Pop meister Warhol, who believed religiously in the work of art as mechanical reproduction, the first VU album, though certainly endlessly reproducible, in that sense, was impossible to duplicate, in the sense of “do another,” though it was, in so many ways, imitated.
For me, the sound of this album is like the sunshine you see in black-and-white movies from the mid-Sixties. It’s so gone, and yet it’s still there. And there is a little memory frisson that tells me I once shared that time, though not that place (New York). And that’s important because, if you were then, you know how nothing like this album already existed. Now, there’s so much “like” it, it’s kind of hard to see this clearing for all the trees around it. And yet it’s there, then. It’s the first album, the only album, by the Velvet Underground with Nico. And it’s forty-seven fucking years old.
|Nico, Andy Warhol, Moe Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, in CA|