Have you ever driven over what you thought was a speed bump, only to discover later it was your grandmother? I know, I know, so have I. Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s partly her fault for falling face down in the street like that, and then failing (those old hips shatter like china!) to get back up. And the rest of the blame lies with the fact that you weren’t paying attention, but instead singing “too busy sucking on a ding dong” along with Loud Reed on “Sister Ray,” the centerpiece of the Velvet Underground’s magnum dopus, 1968’s White Light/White Heat.
Like many people I know and despise, I’ve gone through phases with the Velvet Underground. Their 1967 debut will be my favorite for a while, then I’ll switch allegiance to White Light/White Heat, and then I’ll go turncoat and spend a year or so listening only to Loaded. But I have given the matter a lot of thought, and have decided that White Light/White Heat is VU’s best LP, because it alone gets to the point, the point being that life is an absurd and awful place, and the only real and valid goal of art is to communicate said absurdity and awfulness in as absurd and awful a manner as possible.
Lou Reed was a Janus-faced fellow, an Apollonian and a Dionysian by turns, and as capable of producing songs of formalist beauty (“Pale Blue Eyes”) as he was of creating songs of seemingly chaotic ugliness (“I Heard Her Call My Name”). Me, I’ve decided (having spent the past year in an anteroom of Hell) I prefer the ugliness and chaos, and all of the nihilistic accoutrements that come with them. And on White Light/White Heat Reed was definitely in chaos mode.
As for vocalist/multi-instrumentalist John Cale, who would leave the Velvets after White Light/White Heat, he preferred the chaos to the beauty for aesthetic reasons having to do with his avant-garde predilections. Meanwhile, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker were simply along for the ride. That said, they weren’t unwilling participants in the creation of the masterpiece of malignity and malice that is White Light/White Heat. Morrison summed up the band’s collective gestalt at the time by saying, “We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction. In the White Light/White Heat era, our lives were chaos. That’s what’s reflected in the record.”