Kronomyth 1.0: BANANA REPUBLIC. The musical revolution of the late 1960s looked more like individual battles being fought by pockets of resistance. In California, they were rejecting the controlled expression of art. In England, they were rejecting the limitations of popular art. And in Andy Warhol’s New York pop factory, they were rejecting the conventional definition of art to find beauty in the unbeautiful. Velvet Underground & Nico is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of American rock music. There isn’t a single song on here that isn’t important, powerful and prescient. You could look at Andy Warhol’s soup can and question whether it was really art. You couldn’t listen to this record without understanding that the very definition of music had been inalterably revised. The unblinking intensity of “Venus in Furs,” the harrowing urban storytelling of “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the European art-film aesthetics of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the sonic experimentation of “European Son” mixed with mainstream pop music like oil and water. Fifty years later, it’s still shocking to hear this music. Upon its release, the album’s shockwaves extended only to a small cadre of saboteurs and iconoclasts. It would take years for the full effect of the Velvet Underground to reach the mainstream in the form of the popular punk/alternative movement of the late 80s. You can could write a book about this record and still miss some important nuance: the deconstruction of the Beach Boys on “Run, Run, Run” and its role in the coastal culture wars, Lou Reed’s blasé imagery of violence over the years (“There She Goes Again”), the death of the lead singer during “Heroin,” etc. For a highly experimental record, it’s a nearly perfect one. Personally, I would have preferred to hear Nico take the lead on “Sunday Morning,” or the band to explore “The Black Angel’s Death Song” more deeply, but I’m really inventing flaws that don’t exist. Velvet Underground & Nico isn’t simply one of the most important records from the 60s. It’s one of the most important from the 70s and 80s. They never made another one quite like it, although you can hear some of the same ideas in the band’s later work and, to a lesser extent, in the solo music of Nico.
Nico’s first solo album out of the Underground was a powerful declaration of artistic integrity… that the record label crapped all over in the form of encroaching and annoying strings and flutes. You can hear how special Chelsea Girl should have been on the simply adorned “Eulogy To Lenny Bruce.” Now, that isn’t to say that the orchestral touches don’t have a marzipan charm to them, especially on “These Days” and “Chelsea Girls.” In fact, listeners already familiar with “The Fairest of the Seasons” and “These Days,” both prominently featured in the film The Royal Tenenbaums, might have a hard time imagining this album without strings. But the added orchestration, done without the knowledge or consent of Nico, completely obscures her original artistic vision. I mean, who would listen to a line like “excrement filters through the brain, hatred bends the spine” (from “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”) and think yeah, a flute would go great right here? The genius of Nico is like a rose in the desert. Her music depends on aridity and a certain rigidity. Her later albums capture this, but they don’t feature the standout songwriting of Chelsea Girl. Jackson Browne’s contributions in particular shine, which is pretty amazing given the fact that the album’s other songwriters are named Lou Reed, John Cale and Bob Dylan. Chelsea Girl was supposed to be Nico’s coming out party, not Nico done up as some 60s party doll like New York’s answer to Marianne Faithfull. It’s still a beautiful record because all the ugliness is audible underneath, but it’s ultimately a flawed gem for the very reason that Tom Wilson and the labels tried to cover up the flaws. Someday, someone should release this album in an expanded avec/sans orchestra mix, if only to give Nico’s debut its due.
Nico’s kindertotenleider is an acquired taste. Arched high in a tower of her own design, her stilted plainchant (delivered in English and German) naked save for the bone-dry touches of harmonium, piano and violin, Nico might well be Europe’s answer to Yoko Ono. And yet Desertshore is an affecting album, sweet and sad, an emotional wasteland peopled with malformed musical creatures long since adapted to the harsh conditions. I’ve always believed that Nico was an underrated talent, doomed to be remembered by many as a footnote in the Velvet Underground’s tempestuous history. While John Cale produces and plays on Desertshore, this is not a continuation of the music found on Velvet Underground & Nico (only the closing “All That Is My Own” would come close to qualifying as a Velvets’ track). She is alone in the world of Desertshore; even when a child’s voice steps forward on “Le Petit Chevalier,” it’s as if from a dream remembered rather than the actions of a flesh-and-blood companion. Lyrically, Nico is more drawn to musical incantation than the observational style of Laurie Anderson, who otherwise started out on a very similar path. Both could be called minimalists, but Nico existed as a sort of banshee in the beau monde, while Anderson sought to turn the beat experience into a multimedia experience. Pulling individual songs from Desertshore misses the point, but “The Falconer” and “Mutterlein” (one of two tracks here that appeared in the Philippe Garrel film “La Cicatrice Interieure,” as did Nico herself) are a good indication of the disc’s merits.
Kronomyth 5.5: LAYERS OF AYERS. This album had been the source of speculation on my part for years as it represented such an unusual axis of talent. And no less a luminary than Dave Thompson has found in June 1, 1974 the nexus of art-rock royalty, or at least enough inspiration to write an entire book around it. On a superficial level, this is a live album featuring Kevin Ayers and his touring band at the time (The Soporifics) plus a constellation of stars who scored extremely high on the absurdity/profundity scale: Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Nico. (As if that weren’t enough, Mike Oldfield drops by for a lovely guitar solo on “Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Time Blues.”) Add to that a little bit of history (a rare and early glimpse of Eno on stage as a solo artist) and an unhealthy dose of drama (Cale had discovered Ayers sleeping with his wife the night before this performance), and you have the makings of a memorable evening. As to whether this represents a divinely orchestrated alignment of stars, well, not to me. Just the previous year, The Rainbow had hosted Eric Clapton’s return alongside members of The Who, Blind Faith, Traffic and The Faces. To your mainstream musical consumer, Ayers and his ad hoc freakshow must have seemed like amateur night by comparison. Of course, the two revues are worlds apart. The Clapton concert sought to recapture lost ground, while Ayers and his allies were writing a new rock manifesto. Eno handles the role of opening act surprisingly well; “Driving Me Backwards” comes off without a hitch and, though overdone, “Baby’s On Fire” does contain a scorching solo in the middle. Cale contributes what is handily the oddest version of “Heartbreak Hotel” you’ll ever hear, made all the richer by the personal context behind it. The first side ends, how else?, with a version of The Doors’ “The End” by Nico that delivers the goods as only Nico can. The second side of the elpee features a handful of tracks from Ayers that move adroitly from one to the other. The breezy “May I?” is a highlight; the performances suggest a cross between Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Bryan Ferry, with the caveat that Ayers is the prototype, not the copy. If June 1, 1974 isn’t as good as I expected, I expected a lot. My main knock on the album is that there isn’t more of it, and what there is of it (mostly Ayers) is what I was least interested in. A suitable appreciation of Ayers may come with time, however, so I reserve the right to gripe about too little Ayers layter.