by Mr. Noyes
I found out about the Velvet Underground in 1985, at some point after PolyGram issued the VU LP of outtakes. I was a teenager in rural Berks County, partying weekends in a backwoods spot my friends called Alaska. “Stephanie Says” made a lot of sense, but it was White Light/White Heat that made my mind split open. The guitars were insane, beyond what I’d thought possible. I’d only recently heard Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising and couldn’t really explain unconventional tunings. I’d only recently read Howl and had a vague inkling of a beat New York that had been. I knew just enough to hear something remarkable in “Sister Ray.” The junkie sailors and the fellatio were interesting, but it was the industrial groan and squeal of the electronic instruments, like some hellish vacuum cleaner sucking at a soul, and the hollowed snap and tumble of the primitivist drums—those were really interesting. And ecstatic.
Everyone always says that everyone who heard the Velvets went on to start their own band. I didn’t. I kept listening to the Velvets. I bought a cheap cassette reissue of their live 1969 double album. That version of “What Goes On” keeps on going on and going on. Lou Reed’s guitar hit a sweet spot among punk rock snarl, avant-garde repetition (a la Steve Reich), and a zoned-out effect I could feel inside my skull. It’s an anti-aesthetic, full of the sort of cultural collisions that fueled Black Arts poetry in Newark that year and the working class anger of the Detroit rock scene—see the Stooges and the MC5. But the Velvets got there first. “Heroin” came out on Verve, most famous as a jazz label, alongside records by Count Basie and Odetta. Lou scored more than junk in Harlem. Those first three Velvets records — I don’t think there’s any better soundtrack to the violence and weirdness of American life, c. 1966 to 1969. Maybe Coltrane or the Mothers of Invention. But the Velvets could do pop and devotional music and gentle balladry and face-melting noise, often on the same LP side. The Velvets made important music. They deserve an A-Z.
Idle Noise with Mike Eidle and Trixie Noyes plays on WKDU every Wednesday from 7-9a.m. This week they will have a Velvet Underground A-Z exploration of artists, covers, and songs related to the band. You can listen on 91.7 fm or at wkdu.org.