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.
Bah! A petticoated pig in lipstick, this. 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.
Kronomyth 2.0: WHITE NOISE. The Velvet’s first album was remarkable for its bruised beauty. White Light/White Heat is notorious for its brutal rejection of beauty and decency. For years, critics have called this a classic album, defending its noisy experimentation as art. In my opinion, any art that occurs on the Velvet’s second album is accidental. The band is completely out of control, content now to be merchants of chaos. In its defense, White Light/White Heat is an intense listening experience not soon forgotten. But there’s not one song on here that doesn’t sound like an acid-laced outtake from their first album. This isn’t an album of music, it’s an ode to noise and intoxicated impulse. Over the years, each song has earned its infamy: “White Light/White Heat” presented in amphetamine overdrive; the bizarre short story “The Gift” recited by John Cale against bleak, unchanging scenery; a surreal duet between Cale and Reed that centers around a botched operation to remove a brain tumor; the unexpectedly uncomplicated “Here She Comes Now;” the explosive “I Heard Her Call My Name;” all of it obliterated from memory by that black hole opus, a seventeen-minute “Sister Ray” that wears you down and washes over you like filthy rain. In retrospect, you can see how critics might have been convinced to put a crown on White Light/White Heat too. This isn’t art pushed to the breaking point, though. It’s broken art. Reed, Cale and the rest of the band had gone to a dark place from which return was impossible. And so John Cale left the band, effectively ending one of rock’s most interesting partnerships. Literally, the difference between this and Cale’s next record (Vintage Violence) is night and day. As the most bizarre and confrontational of the Velvet’s records, White Light/White Heat will continue to draw to itself the legions of disaffected noisemongers that every generation breeds in its dimly lit corners. And maybe it is a brilliant record after all, but you didn’t hear it from me.
Kronomyth 2.0: NIGHT MÈRE. The first fifty seconds of The Marble Index isn’t really the beginning of anything. Rather, it’s the end of everything you know: a kind of psychological air lock between reality and Nico’s unreal nightmare world. In the next moments, Nico presents the listener with the album’s challenge: Can you follow me? Can you follow my distresses? It’s a serious question, as Nico’s sonic nightmares are not for the faint of heart. Each song on The Marble Index is a dark dream in miniature: children (or is it us?) hiding from a dancing demon (“No One Is There”), the body of Julius Caesar lying in a bucolic setting (“Julius Caesar”), the mist of history chasing us across the centuries (“Frozen Warnings”), the loneliness of seeking self in the world (“Facing The Wind”). This dreamworld, so alien to us, is disturbingly familiar to Nico. In “Ari’s Song,” the dream-mother/protector conveys her strength to her son with the words “Only dreams can send you where you want to be.” Nico and her harmonium are the beacon in this dark world populated by John Cale’s furtive shapes and sounds. The use of seemingly extraneous bumps and thumps in the music (e.g., “Lawns of Dawns,” “Facing The World”) give the impression of an active reality filtered through the subconscious, as if Nico’s body were being moved while dreaming. With a modicum of strings and sounds, Cale creates strange worlds that range from beautifully surreal (“Frozen Warnings”) to crushingly oppressive (“Evening of Light”). As a singer, as a songwriter, as an artist, The Marble Index is Nico’s grand achievement. It remains one of the most frightening monoliths made by man or woman, a poetic Stonehenge of mystery and power.
“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” – Brian Eno, in a 1982 interview with The Los Angeles Times, as verified by Quote Investigator.
Kronomyth 3.0: THE VELVET OVERLORD. With Nico and John Cale out of the picture, Lou Reed was the unquestioned overlord of the Underground, opening the door for him to deliver the sweetest, strangest record you’ve ever heard. Remember how you felt the first time you heard “Sunday Morning?” Apparently, that was just a warm-up for “Candy Says” (sung with complete innocence by Doug Yule) and “Pale Blue Eyes.” The Eno quote above may have referred to VU’s first record, but when it came time to pilfer from The Velvet Underground, this is where the artists of tomorrow came. Without “What Goes On,” there is no “Mother Whale Eyeless” and those transcendently strange rockers from Eno. Without “I’m Set Free,” The Pixies and songs like “Velouria” aren’t nearly so magical. Artists and critics may have liked to say that they preferred “Sister Ray,” but I suspect most of them played “Beginning To See The Light” and “That’s The Story of My Life” behind closed doors. As charming a record as it is, The Velvet Underground isn’t a sell out. “The Murder Mystery” proves that Lou Reed didn’t need John Cale to create art (in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of including it here), and you just need to scratch the surface of songs like “Candy Says,” “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free” to see the darkness underneath. Without Cale as a creative foil (a role that Yule doesn’t try to fill), the dual guitars of Reed and Sterling Morrison become more prominent, a style that would carry over into Reed’s solo career. It’s tempting to see The Velvet Underground as a Lou Reed solo record, which makes the opening and closing cameos from Yule and Maureen Tucker (on the wonderful “Afterhours”) all the more essential. Somehow, the record finds a balance between its members despite the magnetic presence of Reed, something The Pixies were able to achieve as well (though not easily, it seems). Truth be told, I expected The Velvet Underground to be a letdown after the loss of Cale. Instead, it’s a liberation. One thing worth mentioning is the yin/yang relationship that this record has with Nico’s The Marble Index. Where Nico challenges you to follow her distresses in a dark dreamworld, Reed comes back with the report, “I met myself in a dream and I just want to tell you everything was alright.” Here’s to hoping they’re both seeing the light now.