I would love to claim I was a Velvet Underground fan from the beginning, just like everyone else seems to be implying in their tributes to Lou Reed. But I was listening to the Monkees in 1967 (still do, but that’s not the point) and almost 12 year old me would have had no idea what to make of the squall of guitar feedback I later came to appreciate so much.
Like many others of my generation, I first heard the Velvet Underground’s songs on Lou Reed’s live album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. But those bombastic versions (backed by Alice Cooper’s future band) became all but unlistenable to me once I discovered they were mere parodies of the original versions on Velvet Underground & Nico.
“Heroin” quickly became my favorite song. I drove my college roommates crazy by beginning each day blasting it:
The VU did not just change the music I listened to. They also led me deeper into fine art, especially pop art. I read everything I could find about Andy Warhol and his Factory scene, with which the band was briefly associated. Warhol designed the cover of their debut:
I finally found a copy of Velvet Underground & Nico with a peel-able banana (but no Eric Emerson photo; stereo, not mono) on my 33rd birthday.
As loud and screeching as it sometimes was, the feedback on Velvet Underground songs was mild compared to Lou Reed’s solo album, Metal Machine Music. Depending upon the interview, Reed has claimed it was a masterpiece or a prank or perhaps both. The album is noise, literally, just noise for over an hour. That’s it.
I owned the album (actually, two copies of it; it’s a record collector thing) for years. I would occasionally put it on, but never lasted more than a couple minutes. A friend asked me to make him a tape of the then out of print album, so I decided to listen to the whole thing as I duped it. I happened to be reading James Gleick’s Chaos at the time. Reed’s noise feeding back on itself was the perfect soundtrack for Gleick’s explanation of the role of turbulence in Chaos Theory and suddenly, for one brief moment, the entire universe made perfect sense to me. I knew what Zen Buddhists meant by satori.
Some years ago I was on a first date. As the evening drew to a close, I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to see the woman again. In her favor, she knew more good indie music than most women I met. She even claimed to like the Velvet Underground. However, when I mentioned that the recently released The Quine Tapes contained three different versions of “Sister Ray,” one of the Velvets’ more outrageous jams, which totaled more than an hour, she said that was her idea of hell. I never saw her again.
Not that I have known many women who did appreciate “Sister Ray,” or that any of those few made a good match. One asked me to put on some VU one evening. I played “Sweet Sister Ray,” a long, looping intro the Velvets apparently performed just once:
She liked the song a lot, but me, not so much.
One of the more bizarre placements of VU music was “Heroin” in Nissan’s “Night Light” ad:
They used the instrumental intro, so the drug was never mentioned, but a few weeks later, Lou Reed’s guitar was gone.