#272: White Light/White Heat, Velvet Underground
We’ve seen several VU albums on this journey down the RS 500 List. The Banana Album, featuring the sometimes-pitchy Nico. Their dream-addled self-titled record. And of course Loaded, the smoke-in-a-subway record, the one that saves people’s lives with rock and roll.
I don’t always love their music but I’m forever in love with Lou Reed, who studied creative writing at Syracuse and wrote strange short stories. He passed away in 2013, the year I went to college to study creative writing to write strange short stories. At the time I was more into Transformer, but White Light/White Heat is a much better showcase of his prose talents.
And it’s weird. John Cale called it a “rabid record,” and the RS blurb calls it “their most extreme disc.” I like when bands get very avant garde, and I especially like it when they’re inspired by I will admit, it did feel like I was listening to Naked Lunch: The Soundtrack at times.
“White Light/White Heat” is a drug reference to the feeling you get when you take amphetamines, which Reed famously loved. It’s an insane marriage of unwieldy joy (doo wop and barbershop quartet) and sheer panic (fuzzy noise rock). It’s a great song, but it doesn’t make me want to take meth, that’s for sure.
Several songs are actually re-purposed short stories that Reed wrote in college, set to rumbling electric guitars. “The Gift” is both the driest and the funniest: it’s an absurd tale of a man who ships himself to his girlfriend, then gets killed as she opens the package. Every line is funny and deadpan — even the dialogue between the two female characters is delightful. And I love when Lou Reed smashes a cantaloupe open to represent a knife cutting through Waldo’s head. That was great.
“Lady Godiva’s Operation,” another story from Reed, is even darker: it’s a melodic tune about a botched sex-reassignment surgery, that becomes startling when Lou Reed starts interjecting over John Cale’s lead vocal. The pretty songs are few and far between on this vicious album. They were like little oases of sanity.
The other pretty one is “Here She Comes Now,” a song I only know because Nirvana covered it. It’s the only Velvet song I think they could have possibly covered, a song that rambles like a drug addict no matter who is singing it, with inscrutable, repetitive lyrics. She looks so good/She’s made outta wood. Is it a statuesque woman, or Reed’s Ostrich guitar??? We’ll never know.
For the most part, though, this record is heavy, heavy, heavy. “I Heard Her Call My Name” starts out as a chaotic blues song then slowly transforms into stress-ridden metal tune, with a badass guitar solo that would fit in on a Metallica record.
The heaviest is “Sister Ray,” a 17-minute song about a drug-orgy where somebody is murdered. (Guess who wrote a short story about that in college? It’s either me or Lou Reed, and one of us is a famous rock star.) It’s a song that somehow never stops being groovy, even when it gets terrifying and improvisational. Also, you get to hear Lou Reed scream with extreme vulgarity about people’s ding-dongs, which is just … amazing.
But “Sister Ray” is one of those divisive tracks that reveals a lot about the listeners. For instance: my boyfriend pointedly left the room when this track reached the seven-minute mark. On the other hand, I had some moments with it. It freaked me out, it made me want to dance, it made me sing along. And yet … it weighed me down. Heavy, heavy, heavy. Rock that’s meant to make you think, to soak your brain in thinking-juice.
Dear reader, on my fourth go-round of White Light/White Heat, I got a strong, irresistible urge to listen to Meatloaf. So I put on “Paradise in the Dashboard Light,” his magnum opus. I can’t wax poetic about Meatloaf in a Velvet Underground review, but I want to. When “The Gift” came back on, my soul fell about ten feet to the ground — or maybe even farther, to the velvet underground. (Har dee har har.)
It’s not that Meatloaf is somehow better than Lou Reed (perish the thought), it’s just that you can’t argue with your own instincts. My spirit was in need of some lightness, and Meatloaf was the only cure. I guess you can expose yourself to greatness all you want, but you can’t fight your true nature.
Goodbye, Velvet Underground. I hardly knew ye.