The Velvet Underground And Nico

1967

I finally went to the doctor in December and asked him about the pain in my right side – anywhere from my hip to my ankle. After various further appointments and an X-Ray, I was told I have “significant osteoarthritis” in my hip and I will need to see a specialist. I may need a hip replacement. Over the past few months, I haven’t been in quite as much pain – obviously I’m hoping that by just ignoring the pain, it will go away. In the “current inconvenience”, I’m not going to go anywhere near a hospital if I can help it. In the meantime, putting on my socks continues to be a challenge. For a few years, I’ve had pain in my back. It gets worse when I lean forward so writing this, I need to remember to lean back and not crouch over the keyboard. I walk Bruno for 3 miles every day and by the end of the walk my back is hurting. I sometimes get a very mild form of tinnitus in my left ear. It can occasionally be more severe but most of the time I’m not aware of it. I’m nearly 66 and I guess that this is all just par for the course and I can’t complain (but I do).

One of the reasons that I think I get tinnitus is that I like loud music. I used to have a set of headphones and it was very exciting to play music at the maximum volume allowed by the amplifier. (It’s funny how the fashion for headphones has changed over the years. The first set I got fitted snugly over my ears and drowned out all extraneous noise. Obviously, in time these made you look very old and out of date but recently “noise-cancelling headphones” are very popular and in the last couple of years I’ve noticed quite a few 18 year olds coming into my lessons wearing them). I also liked to play music quite loudly in the car when driving by myself. Another way in which I may have permanently damaged my left ear is by standing next to speakers in gigs. Because I’m not tall, when getting to a standing gig, there was never any point in standing in the middle of the crowd because six feet six guys would elbow their way in front of me just as the band were about to play their first song. So I tended to move round to the left hand speaker and stand right in front of it. There were normally fewer people there and I often got a pretty good sight of the band. I never really saw the point of going to see live music if I could only see the back of the heads of tall people. The downside is that the sound was obviously quite loud in these spots and I wonder if that was a cause of a slight loss of hearing.

On one occasion, I was playing “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground so loudly in the car that I nearly crashed. It was the bit near the end where John Cale’s viola threatens to screech its way out of the tape deck and park itself in between your eyes. I was so beside myself with excitement that I wasn’t paying attention to the double bend that my Lada was attempting to negotiate.

The Velvet Underground had a changing lineup over the years but in 1967 it consisted of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. At the suggestion of Andy Warhol, Nico sung on three of the songs. Andy Warhol was credited as producer but a lot of the production of the record was by Tom Wilson who had previously produced a lot of Bob Dylan’s early records.

The first song is “Sunday Morning” which was only added at the last moment when Tom Wilson suggested that they needed another song featuring Nico on lead vocals. He hoped it would be a single. The song’s theme was suggested by Andy Warhol. Lou Reed reported that “Andy said, ‘Why don’t you just make it a song about paranoia?’ I thought that was great so I came up with ‘Watch out, the world’s behind you, there’s always someone watching you,’ which I feel is the ultimate paranoid statement in that the world cares enough to watch you.”

Track 2 is “I’m Waiting For The Man”. The song is about waiting on a street corner in Harlem, near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, in New York City and purchasing $26 worth of heroin. There is a pounding barrel-house piano on this song, played by John Cale.

“Femme Fatale” was written about Edie Sedgwick, who was an acolyte of Andy Warhol, appearing in 14 films in 1966. Three Bob Dylan songs (“Just Like A Woman”, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” and “Fourth Time Around”) were allegedly written about her. She also inspired songs by Primal Scream, The Cult and Dream Academy. Sterling Morrison is quoted as saying “Nico, whose native language is minority French, would say “The name of this song is ‘Fahm Fatahl’.”

“Venus In Furs” was inspired by the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the song includes sexual themes of sadomasochism, bondage and submission. In 1993, the song was used as the soundtrack for a British advertisement for Dunlop Tyres.

“Run Run Run” describes a number of characters living in New York City, including Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry, all of whom are detailed using or seeking drugs. In the song, Marguerita Passion tried to sell her soul in order to get “a fix”, while Seasick Sarah “turned blue”, causing her angels to panic.

“All Tomorrow’s Parties” features Nico’s singing and was written about the clique surrounding Andy Warhol. It was his favourite Velvet Underground song.

“Heroin” gives a vivid description of the use of heroin. Obviously, I have no idea how accurate this depiction is. It might or might not be questionable whether a song “should” describe the use of hard drugs in such a graphic way. “I don’t know just where I’m going/But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can/’Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/When I put a spike into my vein/And I’ll tell ya, things aren’t quite the same/When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son”. Speaking as an outsider, I would say that this doesn’t glorify the use of heroin but it does explain why someone might want to use it. The fact that the use of heroin is not condemned in the song may well have been an issue for some. “‘Cause when the smack begins to flow/Then I really don’t care anymore/Ah, when the heroin is in my blood/And that blood is in my head/Then thank God that I’m as good as dead/Then thank your God that I’m not aware/And thank God that I just don’t care/And I guess I just don’t know.” The intensity of this song is wonderful; John Cale’s viola presumably mimics the experience of getting high – a rush of dangerous pleasure. As I said, I nearly crashed my Lada.

“There She Goes Again” has a more traditional rock feel. Sterling Morrison said “Metronomically, we were a pretty accurate band. If we were speeding up or slowing down, it was by design. If you listen to the solo break on “There She Goes Again,” it slows down—slower and slower and slower. And then when it comes back into the “bye-bye-byes” it’s double the original tempo, a tremendous leap to twice the speed”. As with every Lou Reed vocal on the record, his voice is wonderfully expressive. Did Lou Reed ever actually sing or did he simply speak poetically?

“I’ll Be Your Mirror” is sung by Nico. It’s superficially gentle but her voice is always menacing and hints of an unhappy soul lurking just below the surface. Sterling Morrison again: “She kept singing “I’ll Be Your Mirror” in her strident voice. Dissatisfied, we kept making her do it over and over again until she broke down and burst into tears. At that point we said, “Oh, try it just one more time and then fuck it — if it doesn’t work this time, we’re not going to do the song.” Nico sat down and did it exactly right”.

“The Black Angels Death Song” is seriously weird featuring John Cale’s crazy viola throughout the song. Lou Reed said that “the idea here was to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning”. For example “Red-lined with the time infused with the choice of the mind on ice skates scraping chunks from the bells cut mouth bleeding razor’s forgetting the pain antiseptic remains cool goodbye so you fly to the cozy brown snow of the east”. To me this presages “The Murder Mystery” on their third album where the idea was to say something positive in the right channel and simultaneously say something negative in the left channel. This song sounds very strange and considering it was released at the beginning of the “Summer Of Love” is not exactly in tune with the zeitgeist (which I guess made them very happy).

The last song is “European Son (to Delmore Schwartz)” although the bit in parentheses was dropped for all re-releases. Delmore Schwartz was a poet and friend of Lou Reed and he hated it, especially the lines “You killed your European son/You spit on those under twenty-one/But now your blue car’s gone/You better say so long/Hey hey, bye bye bye.” I wonder why he hated it. He died soon after the record’s release. It is nearly 8 minutes long and after a couple of verses and the sound of breaking glass, launches into free form feedback anticipating the 17 minute “Sister Ray” on their next record.

The Number 1 singles in the USA around the time that “The Velvet Underground And Nico” was released were “Penny Lane” by The Beatles, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Somethin’ Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra and “Grooving” by The Young Rascals. This record was entirely at odds with the current sunny optimistic, marijuana inspired music that was popular at the time. It peaked in the Billboard charts at number 171. Famously, Brian Eno later said that while the album initially only sold approximately 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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