Graded on a Curve: The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat

Remembering Sterling Morrison, born on August 29, 1942, who passed on August 30, 1995.Ed.

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.”

As a result the band’s sophomore effort is one ugly slab of vinyl, and I’m shocked to learn that this flower of evil actually wormed its nasty way onto Billboard’s top 200, albeit at 199. The LP’s unremitting unpalatability is marred only by the short, strange, but melodic “Here She Comes Now.” How it ever made it onto the LP I’ll never know. It’s actually kinda pretty, although not in the way that “Sunday Morning” and “Who Loves the Sun” are pretty. It’s an odd little droning thing, and basically gets completely overshadowed by the LP’s louder and more chaotic songs, with their outré and lurid tropes about drugs, debauchery, and murder.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation”—about a transsexual woman’s botched lobotomy—may not be pretty but it’s far from ugly, and starts on a melodic if droning note only to get stranger as it nears its end, as Reed’s vocals are roughly patched in over Cale’s lead vocals to give the song a deranged, collage-like bent. It’s strange and hilarious and I’ve heard that Reed snuck into the studio in the dead of night to overdub his vocals just to piss Cale off, but I’ve been unable to find any substantiation of this scurrilous allegation. That said, Lou would conduct such midnight maneuvers in the future, destroying productive musical relationships in the process, so it’s plausible. Reed tended to get paranoid whenever somebody else was in the limelight, and he wasn’t above sabotaging the work of others to make sure he was at the center of all things.

As for the title cut, it’s the most traditional rock song on the LP, which is why the band—which must have been deluded—actually released it as a single. With its overt drug references, it’s hard to figure out exactly who the Velvet Underground expected to give it airplay, and it tanked, royally. As did “I Heard Her Call My Name,” which—unbelievably—was also released as a single. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, but it’s also as pure a piece of sonic pandemonium as you’re ever likely to hear, and I would be surprised if anybody ever played it on the radio, except at 3 a.m. maybe at a tiny radio station forcibly taken over by speed-addled noise freaks. I would love to know how many copies it sold. My guess would be about five.

Everybody knows everything there is to know about the Velvet Underground, so I’ll skip the history lesson and get right to the point—White Light/White Heat is anathema to most normal ears, and a room-clearer if ever there was one. An adventurous normally adjusted human might be able to tolerate side one, but side two? Fuhgetaboutit. I happen to find the LP eminently listenable, but had I been a typical music fan in the late sixties I’d have probably hated it, and said something like, “Take this shit off and put on some Canned Heat.”

Just how noisy is it? So noisy that even the LP’s producer, Tom Wilson, cracked and fled the studio during the band’s recording of “Sister Ray.” I’m guessing he twitched his way to the nearest bar and downed 19 whiskey sours one after the other, in order to gather up the courage to go back. I’m also guessing the bartender said something to the effect of, “You look like you just saw a ghost,” to which Wilson responded, “A ghost? Ghosts are nothing. I just heard the downfall of Western Civilization.”

Anyway, besides the quiet “Here She Comes Now” and the very bass and drums heavy “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” White Light/White Heat includes the “The Gift,” which was based on a short story Reed wrote during his days at Syracuse University about a lovelorn youth who, lacking the funds to travel by conventional means to see his distant amour, happens upon the idea of mailing himself to her in a box. The story has a macabre and hilarious ending, but how often do you want to hear the same story?

So what you end up doing—or what I end up doing, anyway—is ignoring Cale’s deadpan vocals and listening to the music behind it, which includes a huge and fuzzed-out bass, some great drumming by Tucker, and lots of really cool dissonant and feedback-heavy guitar by Reed, all of which succeed in establishing an irresistibly earth-shaking drone. Why Reed later turned over lead guitar duties to others (Robert Quine for instance) is beyond me, as he makes some fantastic noise on the instrument, and is proved on this one and especially “I Heard Her Call My Name.”

“I Heard Her Call My Name” is my album fave, and one of my favorite songs of all time, for the simple reason that it’s totally and utterly berserk. It begins in media res, with Lou singing frenetically while playing a guitar so feral, raw, and heavily distorted that it could stop a stampeding rhino at fifty paces. Meanwhile the drums and bass keep a rapid thumping staccato pace, although Tucker complained later that the song “was ruined in the mix—the energy. You can’t hear anything but Lou [who], having a little ego trip at the time, turned himself so far up that there’s no rhythm, there’s no nothing.”

I love Mo Tucker but I think she’s wrong on this one—Lou occupied the front and center like a man possessed, and putting his vocals and guitar first give the song a monstrous impact. He sings about waking up with his eyeballs on his knees, hears a dead woman calling his name, and then sings, “My mind split open” at which point he plays a solo so scalding, frantic, and squealing it’s impossible to find the words to describe it. You have to hear it and be awed. Reed then repeats that “My mind split open” at the end of the second verse and tosses off an even more uncannily deranged solo, which I personally like better than any other solo in the history of rock with the exception of the one on The Pooh Sticks’ “I’m in You,” which opts for transcendence over cacophony and caterwaul.

And how does the band follow such a slice or rock brut? With “Sister Ray,” which is 17 and ½ minutes of brutal droning that pounds and pounds and covers every form of decadence (by 1967 LP standards, that is) known to man, including shooting dope, sucking dick, and a meaningless murder of a sailor “dressed in pink and leather” (which disturbs the song’s narrator greatly, causing him to sing, “Ah, you shouldn’t do that/Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?”).

Cale’s organ is spectacular, the rhythm section varies things up just enough to keep things interesting, and Lou (for once) doesn’t turn himself way up in the mix. I love the way he repeats words and phrases (he’s particularly vexed by his inability to hit his main line, and is continually repeating “I said I couldn’t hit it sideways”) His “Whip in on me Jim/Whip it on me Jim” is also great, as is his occasional stutter. I also like the moment when he slowly drags out the words “I was searching for my mainline/I couldn’t hit it sideways” at which point Cale comes in with more cool organ. As the tune reaches its very end the band speeds things up, leaving a trail of blood and debauchery behind them.

Forty-seven years after it was recorded, “Sister Ray” (I named a Chinese pug after the tune once) remains as radical and powerfully nihilistic as the day it was recorded, and when it comes to trumping it in terms of pure unadulterated racket, well, I just don’t think it’s been done. “Sister Ray” marks a high-water mark in uncompromising, “fuck you if you don’t like it” rock, and I don’t think it will ever be topped. It truly is the sound of a band happily plunging off the edge of everything that is decent and good and god-fearing, and it remains a black mark on Lou Reed’s permanent rock report card that he retreated from its amputations and total absence of commercial considerations in order to make records that somebody besides Lester Bangs and unapologetic NYC noise freaks might buy.

In short, Lou turned his back on experimental noise, effectively chasing Cale from the band (as Morrison noted, “Lou wanted something within a more pop context… [Cale] and I were more interested in blasting the house down”). The loss of Cale as a creative partner and foil was inestimable, and while there’s no arguing the fact that the band’s two subsequent studio LPs (1969’s The Velvet Underground and 1970’s Loaded) are great, both break no new creative ground or challenge a single shibboleth or taboo, and both are 100 percent certified ding-dong-sucking free. I sometimes wonder, listening to Reed’s lines in “Sweet Jane” about “evil mothers who will tell you life is just dirt,” whether Reed isn’t referring to (and writing off) his dark side and daemon, which gave us “I Heard Her Call My Name” and especially “Sister Ray.”

Reed is gone of course, and we’ll never know, but then again we’d have never gotten a straight answer out of the guy anyway. Some people are built to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, while others are so busy adopting poses that they long ago lost track of who they really are. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bitter. Reed wanted to succeed in the music business, and following the blueprint established by White Light/White Heat was a sure-fire way of ensuring he’d fail. It’s just that I ran over my grandmother thinking she was a speed bump, and now she’s deceased although to be completely honest I never much liked her anyway, and while I know I should blame myself I still blame “Sister Ray” and Lou Reed, who didn’t even bother to show up at her funeral.


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