The Right Kind of Pain
- The Velvet Underground by Richard Witts
Equinox, 171 pp, £10.99, September 2006, ISBN 1 904768 27 X
Equinox is publishing a series of books called ‘Icons of Pop Music’. The volumes will be designed for ‘undergraduates and the general reader’. Ordinarily, I couldn’t think of anything less auspicious. Everyone likes the autobiographies of even the most inarticulate musicians; at least they can explain how they make the songs. But pop criticism can’t seem to escape the thrall of these biographies, and rarely has much to add. It won’t forsake the impulse to praise figures who no longer need to be praised. Historical pop figures are remembered as either too good or too bad to need defending; it’s guaranteed that anyone willing to read a volume on King Crimson, say, or Crosby, Stills and Nash, is already on board. Then there is the curse of Dylanology, such a blight on pop criticism: worship of lyrics as ‘poetry’, modelled on pop’s least representative major figure. This sort of writing fails the reality of pop: its special alchemy of lyrics that look like junk on the page, and music that seems underdeveloped when transcribed to a musical staff. Then there is the curse of arid musicology; and of Rolling Stone-ism, the gonzo rock journalist who thinks he is a rock star. Perhaps worst of all, there is the curse of the rhetoric of social action and ‘revolution’, a faith-based illusion that pop songs clearly manifest social history, or an exaggerated sense of what pop achieves in the world. In truth, most critics aren’t verbally equipped to describe any band’s vivid effects on its main audience: the listener at home, alone in his room.
Further books are scheduled in the series: on Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Björk. Each of these musicians is a virtuoso of one or another aspect of pop. Yet the first book to appear, by Richard Witts, tackles the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground were decidedly not these kinds of virtuoso. There are confirmed music fans who can’t bear to listen to the songs considered their most characteristic (‘Heroin’, ‘Sister Ray’). With a decidedly slim catalogue (four studio albums) but an outsized posthumous reputation, they are not an easy act to place in the history of popular music. Nor is it easy to identify the band as a unit, since members came and went. ‘The Velvet Underground,’ Witts says outright, ‘has always been a bit of a mess.’
These liabilities are all somehow turned to strengths in Witts’s little marvel of a book. I began with suspicion, but it won me over completely: it is careful, funny, refreshing, usefully revisionist about the Velvets, and a corrective to all sorts of illnesses in the genre. Witts, author of a biography of Nico and interviewer at one time or another (for Radio 3) of all the principals in the band except Lou Reed, could just as easily have produced a fan letter or a recitation of myths. Instead, he manages to defamiliarise the band and its career, while communicating all the necessary information. This is the true double task of the pop critic-historian, and Witts goes to creative, sometimes comic lengths to accomplish it.
Sometimes, for example, he treats the band as if they were a foreign object to be studied by a numerically minded scientist: he starts counting, and creates charts, lists and outlines of reasons to favour particular aspects of their work. The chart of the various incarnations of the band is useful – the list of the lengths of service of every member is surprising and illuminating – but after a while, you begin to sense that Witts is up to something other than clarifying his points. When he illustrates the unsurprising fact that many of the band members were close in age – don’t almost all rock bands start with congeners in their early twenties? – with a half-page list of pop stars born year by year between 1938 and 1945, it’s cryptic and funny. The subsequent chronology of Sterling Morrison’s educational career is just window-dressing. But I love it when Witts lists the obligations of a songwriter, showing that Lou Reed qualifies as a good one:
1. observe and describe characters in situations;
2. use simple words to convey rich thoughts;
3. deal frankly with those people otherwise dispossessed of song;
4. carry a hint of the subconscious at play, of shrewd implications about personal identity and social anxieties;
5. possess a dry humour, finely balanced between satire and cynicism.
Towards the end of the book, there are puzzling Y-shaped figures mapping out the band members’ possible subcultural and artistic affiliations. The charts are used judiciously even when their content seems completely insane. One starts to look for meaning in peripheral details, to view the music within untried chronologies and lines of influence. It loosens one’s grip on the conventional Velvet Underground story – a story which, incidentally, Witts tells fruitfully out of order.
The Velvet Underground consisted in its main incarnation of four players. Lou Reed was the songwriter, singer, guitarist and attitudiniser extraordinaire. John Cale, an initiate of the minimalist and dissonant avant-garde under the tutelage of New York composer LaMonte Young, was the band’s violist and played bass guitar. Maureen ‘Mo’ Tucker, a self-taught teenage percussionist, played standing up, without cymbals or pedals, and was one of only a very few female drummers in rock. Sterling Morrison, the band’s fine second guitarist, has always been underappreciated, partly because he maintained he was just ‘in it for the fun’, but mostly because he had little to do with the constant tension and creative drama between Reed and Cale. (Unlike the two alpha males of the group, who maintained lifelong music careers, Morrison after leaving the band became a professor of medieval English and a tugboat captain.) Cale came from Wales; all the rest from Long Island.
The band played together without outside interference for just one month – December 1965. They had begun a short-lived residency at Manhattan’s Café Bizarre, when an already enormously famous Andy Warhol (and his canny manager, Paul Morrissey) arrived to offer them a deal. Warhol was in need of music. He, or Morrissey, seems to have known of the group through the overlap between the underground film world and the avant-garde musicians who worked as accompanists. Warhol put them on a small retainer so they could pay their rent, made them a fixture in his ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ sound-and-light Happenings (the band was partly hidden behind Edie Sedgwick doing the watusi and Gerard Malanga dancing with whips), had them accompany his own amateur films, and generously purchased studio time for them to record an album. (He supplied the famous ‘Banana’ cover for the first album, prominently signed ‘Andy Warhol’ and without the band’s name anywhere to be seen – you had to look at the back of the LP to find it.) Warhol, or Morrissey, also inflicted Nico on them, a statuesque blonde Hungarian-German model and songstress with a heavily accented, Weimar-era vocal delivery. Nico had won the Factory crowd over with her celebrity and drive, not her singing. She had European film-world credentials, having had a part in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and following useful love affairs with Alain Delon, Bob Dylan and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, was determined to get into music one way or another.
The Velvet Underground managed to sneak away from Warhol without utterly alienating him, and became a real rock band, albeit an unusual one, with ever-changing personnel. They lasted one album with Nico, a year and a half with Warhol, two albums (nearly four years) with Cale, and four albums and close to six years with Reed, who wrote all the lyrics. Reed himself finally retired, leaving the remaining players to limp on without him; he moved back to Long Island, in Witts’s words, ‘weighed down by the total failure of the Velvets, to work as a typist for his father’s accounting firm’. This makes for a romantic finale, but Reed was back in New York within the year, declaring himself a poet. By 1971 he had recorded a solo album, releasing it and one more in 1972, plus the grim song cycle Berlin in 1973. Cale during the same period had produced and played on Nico’s early albums (from 1967 and 1969), released solo records in 1970 and 1972, and in 1973 the much admired Paris, 1919. The never-repudiated Warhol connection and Reed’s, Cale’s and Nico’s steady careers kept the Velvet Underground in public memory; they never evaporated as other failed art-rock bands did. But their unique work gradually became weighed down with a reputation as the inspiration for all varieties of US punk and indie rock, and they are now widely understood as having been punk musicians avant la lettre.
I remember my own first exposure to the Velvet Underground. As a music-avid pre-teenager in the mid-1980s, I was listening to a Boston commercial radio station which still had the last of the city’s famous independent DJs, a man named Charles Laquidara, who played what he liked from vinyl LPs and was always looking to impress the mass audience. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘After the break, I’m going to play a song by the Velvet Underground. But here’s the thing. It’s seven minutes long. And – it’s called “Heroin”.’
Suitably impressed, I went and got a cassette tape to record it. Here was the famous viola drone, the endlessly repeated guitar figure, Lou Reed stretching out three syllables as far as they would go, the string screeches, the galloping changes in tempo. ‘A song called “Heroin”!’ I thought, with a 12-year-old’s admiration for anything outré, trying it on. ‘Seven minutes!’ Yet even a 12-year-old could appreciate, by the time the thing ended, that the song was walking a thin line between communicated experience and gimmickry. It’s a masterpiece, but a stupid masterpiece, like some of rock’s other great achievements. It certainly didn’t make sense on the radio. It made a little more sense on my tape player, when I was alone in my room. The song was doing something, but I didn’t have any illusions, even then, that it was taking you on a heroin journey.
To pull the Velvet Underground out of the realm of cliché and get to their musical essence, Witts makes two strategic – and controversial – decisions. One is to focus exclusively on the period of the band when John Cale was still in it. This might have seemed more reasonable if Cale had clearly written any of the songs (he is only credited with a few collaborations with Reed), or if it didn’t mean that this ‘summary’ book covered just two albums out of the band’s four releases. ‘I would fit the things Lou played right into my world,’ Cale said, and Witts interprets the statement straightforwardly, referring to ‘Cale’s settings of Reed’s songs’. He seems to assume that Cale was the arranger and that Reed, left to his own devices, would have set everything as mid-tempo folk rock.
The other decision is to resist the tendency to hear the Velvet Underground through music that came later, by insisting that the Velvets be seen in light of the 1950s, not the 1970s and 1980s. For Witts, the Velvet Underground were a backwards-looking band. It was their eccentric untimeliness, he argues, that accounted for their commercial unsuccess (despite the remarkable publicity launch with Warhol) and floated them free of their time to become so iconic later. The 1960s Velvets manifested atavisms of the 1950s that had survived in the New York art-world. These fused a 1950s Beat-existentialist sensibility (acquired by Reed at Syracuse University) with a recycling of the 1910s and 1920s avant-garde (learned by Cale from Fluxus artists in New York). It was ‘the confluence of a songwriter imbued with 1950s existentialism’ and ‘an arranger attracted to the performative actions of neo-Dadaism’. Their untimeliness furnished an odd sound, but also a special credential, by which later bands looking to overthrow the Flower Power generation could assert allegiance to an alternative musical paternity.
It is this contention of untimeliness that I’m most curious to dispute. It’s not clear to me that, following Witts’s own clues and leads, it doesn’t make more sense to freshen our perception of the Velvets by putting them back into their own time, but to ignore geography and direct influence and place them precisely where they aren’t supposed to belong – in, say, California. Suppose one connects them, following chronologies rather than personal histories, to a part of the California scene they are held to oppose, but with which they share an uncannily similar history.
I’m thinking of the Grateful Dead. In the musical-historical imagination – with its New York v. California, but especially its punk v. hippie oppositions – the Dead ought to be the exact antithesis of the Velvet Underground. I can testify to the vehemence of this, again, from my own juvenile experience. By my teen years I had somehow wound up in a punk rock milieu, on one side of one of those yawning divides of style by which teenagers define themselves. We wore T-shirts of the White Light/White Heat album cover, which could not have existed when the album was originally released. Mere mention of liking the Grateful Dead was grounds for ostracism. In the punk rock schema, the Velvets were Papa (and Mama) punks, while the Dead were Papa hippies – and punks hate hippies.
Yet when you look at the state of both bands at their contemporaneous founding moments in 1965-66, you find that the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks. And both were quickly taken up by other cultural movements and artists from other genres to furnish ‘house bands’ for collective projects. On the West Coast, Ken Kesey hired the Dead to provide music for his acid tests (part of a post-Beat San Francisco world that included the washed-up Neal Cassady, muse of Kerouac’s On the Road).
The Palo Alto acid test, the first to involve a real stage, took place in November 1965. (Kesey had earlier had the Dead, then still the Warlocks, playing in a San Jose living-room with everyone dosed.) In New York, meanwhile, Warhol took up the Velvets as a vehicle for his Factory events and a featured role in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which had various incarnations between January 1966 and its first broad public invitation in April, each of which also involved some combination of Warhol’s dancing fools, slide-projector gels, light shows, silent films and chaos. (Warhol took first billing in all advertisements, above the Velvets, though presumably he just stood around and watched.) Both bands’ music depended on a tight association with drugs – LSD for the Dead, heroin for the Velvets (plus amphetamines, at least on White Light/White Heat) – but the musicians drew fewer distinctions in their personal lives: Reed had done acid in college, while Jerry Garcia wound up later with a heavy-duty heroin habit. Each band’s early development was paid for by benefactors from the scenes of communal presentation: the Velvets had Warhol; the Dead had Owsley Stanley, supplier of LSD for the acid tests. Each first album seemed to make drugs part of the sound. This was the heroin ‘wrapped in fur’ slowdown for the Velvets, including the literal slowing down of the tapes in mastering (which Witts seems to prove by analysing the pitches of the recorded tunings); for the Dead, surprisingly, it was an amphetamine-fuelled recording of all the songs on their first album at ridiculously fast tempos. The Velvet Underground’s first Lou Reed-sung single, ‘Sunday Morning’, appeared in December 1966; the Dead’s first single, ‘The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)’, sung by Jerry Garcia, appeared in February 1967. One could go on tracing parallels like this.
The most striking fact is that, like the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground started out as a platform for extremely long, wandering, repetitive, live improvisations, appropriate to multimedia events. It’s eye-opening each time the Velvets’ principals insist in interviews that they were far better as a live band than in anything captured on record. Yet they all do. David Fricke, in his notes accompanying Peel Slowly and See, the Polygram reissue of their four albums with out-takes, quotes Morrison, Reed and Tucker all complaining about the failure to capture their live work, and he alludes to unrecorded work like ‘Sweet Sister Ray’, a sometimes forty-minute-long improvisational prelude to live performances of ‘Sister Ray’. The Dead cultivated a ‘taping’ culture of audiophiles who recorded each and every performance, which got people to imagine that the essence of listening to the Dead lay in ‘being there’ – and, at the far extreme, created a unique audience of people willing to listen to forty performances of ‘Dark Star’ to find the passages of improvisational transcendence in each. To listen carefully to the VU’s members is to imagine that there could have been an alternate world in which people would have listened to forty versions of ‘Sister Ray’ for similar moments of transcendence, or to thirty-minute improvisations like ‘Melody Laughter’ (edited down to ten minutes and featured on Peel Slowly and See), made up of feedback, guitar, organ and vocals from Nico. But the Velvets had few tapers. What they should have had instead were Warhol’s film-makers, but they had more interest in themselves and their Happenings than in the Velvet Underground: they never filmed a whole performance.
Both bands originally imagined themselves as the ‘Warlocks’ essentially because each had a vision of enchantment, underlaid with darkness. (They both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks.) Both bands offered a particular kind of alternatively experienced rather than danced-to or sung-along-to pop music, whose relation to the audience would be primarily hypnotic. It’s always been clear that the song ‘Heroin’, with its speedings up and slowings down, was supposed to capture a particular kind of experience, but never that the experience was meant to be infinitely expandable, that it lent itself to improvisation, or that it was perhaps meant to occur live, not on record. The ‘aim of the band on the whole was to hypnotise audiences so that their subconscious would take over’, Witts quotes from Cale’s autobiography. ‘It was an attempt to control the unconscious with the hypnotic.’ This accounts for the drone, and the songs built on long vamps of two chords (generally the tonic and subdominant of the blues, as Witts explains in one of his musicological asides). The hypothesis, Witts explains, is that ‘drones, as the ear attunes to their nuances, induce over time a psychological state fusing consciousness and unconsciousness.’ The logical consequence is that the Velvet Underground were not necessarily anti-psychedelic as such (though that was what they said), but instead insisted on a different, less sunny affect-world than was associated with West Coast psychedelia: ‘We thought that the solution lay in providing hard drugs for everyone,’ Cale told Witts in a BBC interview, but ‘there is already a very strong psychedelic element in sustained sound, which is what we had … so we thought that putting viola [drones] behind guitars and echo was one way of creating this enormous space … which was itself a psychedelic experience.’
This would be the meaning of the odd simultaneity of approach between the Velvets and the Dead when they started out: 1966 was a moment in the history of popular music when the phenomenology of popular song was changing, partly under outside ‘art-cultural’ influences (the Merry Pranksters, Warhol’s Factory), and partly, one presumes, because of increases in amplification, the widespread ‘electrification’ of folk music (Dylan, Reed’s hero, went electric in 1965), and evidence from Liverpool to Los Angeles of a wish to record or augment the effects of drugs vocally and musically (the Beatles, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors etc).
While both groups initially aimed to hypnotise with their music, lyrically they were worlds apart. Lyrics are fate in pop. Bands become committed in funny ways to the lyrical content and thematics of their work, perhaps through the loop of the expectations of their audiences, perhaps because they’re singing them every night themselves. Grateful Dead lyrics, from the beginning, however carelessly put together, were about roads and rivers. They drew from blues and bluegrass a promise of continual rambling – with the occasional respite of dew-bejewelled meadows, barefoot dancing, and rolling in the rushes down by the riverside. It’s no accident that their first single was ‘The Golden Road’, that their signature song (apart from the tripped-out ‘Dark Star’) was ‘Truckin’’, and that the band matured, from 1970 onwards, by turning the endless-trip LSD premise into an endless-travelling touring premise, summed up in the ultimate Dead-lyric cliché: ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been.’ Velvet Underground lyrics, by contrast, are about not going outdoors, and the wish for pleasurable self-destruction (‘I thank God that I’m good as dead’). Curiously, no one in the Velvet Underground ever died of drugs, while the West Coast scene was ravaged (Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and sometime-scenester Jimi Hendrix; the Grateful Dead’s Pigpen was more of an alcohol casualty, dying aged 27 in 1973). The Velvets’ self-destruction was a matter of personality clashes and departures. These would have been easy enough to overcome if the core band had really wanted to go on, or to be a different kind of band. What could not have been overcome was the anti-expansive drive of the Velvet Underground’s themes, the feeling that their music really could only transpire in private, and in places that a fan base couldn’t visit. The Dead were fated by their lyrics to travel, which they did, creating a unique phenomenon of mass social affiliation across thirty years of steady touring (with just a one-year hiatus in 1975), and playing, much of the time, to an even mix of loving aficionados and grotesque burn-outs. (The 1977 movie, The Grateful Dead, nicely portrays both camps.) The Velvet Underground were fated by their lyrics never to attain a live audience, but to be passed on, from hand to hand, on record.
When the Velvet Underground do leave the house, it’s an occasion for anxiety, paranoia and pursuit. There’s the famous edgy embarrassment of a ‘white boy’ standing on a Harlem street corner until he can be taken into a brownstone to buy drugs (‘I’m Waiting for the Man’). But it’s not necessarily a good idea to go out at all: ‘Run run run run run/Chasin’ after you/Hey, wha’d you do?’ (‘Run Run Run’). Being indoors, on the other hand, at night, is truly comforting: ‘If you close the door/the night could last for ever/leave the sunshine out/and say hello to never’ (‘Afterhours’, one of their gentlest songs). The imagination of the Velvet Underground dwells in bedrooms, residence-hotel rooms, at parties and afterparties – or wishing for parties (alone, once again, in one’s bedroom).
Reed’s private mix of the very intimate third album (the album recorded once Cale, with his painful soundscapes, had been kicked out) was called the ‘closet’ mix by Sterling Morrison because he felt Reed had made the album sound as if it had been recorded in one. But even the Cale-era abrasive material, as it appeared on record, had its closet character. The songs became the equivalent of ‘closet drama’, that minor vein of dramatic literature which is written in the form of a play to be performed but is really meant, or fated, to be read at home and in private – or, at its most public, read to someone, as one might listen to certain albums only among intimates. What binds fans to the Velvet Underground – fans in private – is this closet character in a band that was supposed to be the epitome of cool: a fantasy of an underground world of S&M dungeons and shooting galleries that offers pleasures similar to those to be had from ‘underground’ books in the hip-Gothic tradition of Sade, Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr and whoever serves as a present-day inheritor (Chuck Palahniuk?). Reed rewrote these books, in essence, as songs. The most famous literal example is ‘Venus in Furs’, a musical setting of a book remembered primarily because the condition of masochism was named after its author. Reed writes in the protagonist of Sacher-Masoch’s book (Severin) and its principal action (flagellation and waiting for flagellation), and the Velvets provide a musical setting. If two Broadway producers decided to stage an adaptation of Venus in Furs, Reed’s version could be the opening production number.
The ‘closet’ also carried a different connotation for the band. Because of the association with Warhol, the boyish girl drummer and the gorgeous Nico who sang like a man, Witts reports that the Velvets were ‘tarred with a big, gay brush’ for contemporaries. Reed, in truth, was bisexual; the electroshock therapy he suffered at Creedmore State Psychiatric Hospital in his teens was, he has said, intended to curb homosexual desires. Witts relates an apparently commonplace double entendre reading of ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ in which the speaker isn’t waiting for a drug dealer but a male lover. (‘Hey white boy, you been chasin’ our women around?/Pardon me, sir, it’s furthest from my mind/I’m just waiting for this dear, dear friend of mine.’) In fact, the Velvets’ music is profoundly asexual, though not unerotic – as the Grateful Dead’s music is asexual, too – because the focus remains autoerotic, picking up the synaesthetic experience of the listener, in the perception of his own body, hypnotised by the music and lyrically transported into surrogate experiences: being watched, being whipped, being drugged.
One thing that isn’t much acknowledged in the Velvet Underground’s early fantasy-experience world, maybe because it is neither macho-drugged (‘’cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/when I put a spike into my vein’ and ‘I feel just like Jesus’s son’ in ‘Heroin’) nor Warhol-campy (‘And what costume shall/ the poor girl wear?’ in ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’), is the level of sheer theatrical gore. After opening with the overdriven ecstatic anxiety of the title song, the first side of White Light/White Heat goes immediately to a spoken story of sexual desire that ends with a pair of metal box cutters plunged into the lover’s head (‘The Gift’), then a groovy song about an operation performed without anaesthetic (‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’). There’s a fair amount of blood spilled, a lot of Grand Guignol – and a heavy dose of juvenile idiocy – in these songs. It’s worth thinking about why this has been tolerated, even admired in the case of the Velvet Underground, rather than just seeming like a prank. I think it must have to do with the singular way in which their lyrical themes and musical means reach an inevitable, perfect congruence.
This congruence – which elevates any pop band above the ordinary – had to do, for them, with the pleasures of physical pain and a theatrical Sadeanism (different from actual sadism) that could be made musical as well as lyrical. This is the significance of Cale’s contribution. Witts has a remarkable chapter on Cale, which essentially suggests that everything Cale brought to the band, technically and philosophically, was taken directly from LaMonte Young and his wife Marian Zazeela. Young and Zazeela were coterie-oriented avant-gardists who wanted to advance music and liberate minds through new instrumental means. It’s not unusual to identify Cale with the avant-garde, nor with Young, his teacher, but it’s pretty shocking to be told that Cale’s Velvets-era avant-gardism was really nothing but Young’s techniques. The drones were Young’s, the ways of retuning, the attempts to maintain single notes for two hours at a time. Even the black and white costumes and sunglasses, with coloured slide-projections cast on the performers, seems to have been a Zazeela idea that Warhol stole. Witts gets down to specific references: ‘In “European Son”, Cale drags a chair across the studio in the manner of Young’s Poem. In “I’m Waiting for the Man” he plays piano clusters in an amphetamine-frenzied version of [Young’s] X for Henry Flynt.’
The classical avant-garde even today is sometimes content to play down the pain, annoyance, boredom and nuisance of the willed adherence to dissonance, atonality, minimalism and extended settings which were hallmarks of many of its best effects over the last century. You are supposed to be a good and educated listener, which means listening through annoyance for transcendence. The Velvet Underground, however (in Cale’s revision of LaMonte Young, and in his new partnership with Reed), was able to reposition avant-garde annoyance and aural pain as part of a thematics of being bad: of being, that is, a ‘good’ listener who could know the joy of vicariously being ‘bad’. Aural pain went with lyrics about willed pain to produce an ‘avant-garde’ musical correlative to squalor, masochism, sexual deviance and drugs – and an experience for listeners that today’s lifestyle gurus might call ‘aspirational’.
The success of the Velvet Underground under Cale would then be that it provided what it promised: the right kind of pain. It would be one thing to hear the order to ‘tongue the thongs/the belt that does await you’ in ‘Venus in Furs’ if the lyrics were accompanied by folk guitar finger-picking. It’s quite another, much more effective thing to listen to these lyrics against Cale’s excruciating little freaks of viola. The Velvet Underground showed that aural pain becomes pleasure especially when listening to it constitutes an act of affiliation with a higher, because worse and more ‘transgressive’, standard of life. The person who doesn’t like being abused by Cale’s viola, or the badly recorded guitars of White Light/White Heat, is stupid, straight. The person who learns the pleasure of the abuse, who will listen to the 17 minutes of ‘Sister Ray’ and then put it on again, has ascended to a higher sphere – or rather descended into the underground – simply by the act of listening, with or without actual access to works, spoon, smack, transvestites, tenements, whips or leather boots.
‘Sister Ray’ is, for many people, the masterpiece of the Cale era, and the last song on his last (that is to say, his second) album with the band. In Reed’s ambiguous lyrics, ‘Sister Ray’ is about a few things for certain: drugs (‘I’m searchin’ for my mainline/I said I couldn’t hit it sideways’); conviviality with outsiders you might not have the good luck to meet (in the adventures of Doc and Sally, some sailors, Miss Rayon, a murderer and murderee, everything going down ‘just like Sister Ray says’); and blow jobs (‘She’s busy sucking on my ding-dong’). But really the song’s confusing space and situation (Reed has muttered to interviewers about transvestites and orgies, too) seem to be a means to connect to its sound-world, dominated by a battle between screeching guitars and organ. The ‘elite’ listener is rewarded with the discovery that he can tolerate and enjoy noise, cacophony, pain, improvisatory energy, rising volume and so forth – so that the common self-satisfactions of the avant-garde, of listeners to Stockhausen in air-conditioned white rooms, become the pride of slumming and the satisfactions of the rock listener.
This, you could say, is what the California bands were reluctant to do in their psychedelia: to hurt your ears with the newly available techniques, and to match this effect to an ethos of pain in the lyrics so that it all made sense. David Fricke recounts a story, apocryphal or not, that Bill Graham banned the Velvet Underground from the Fillmore West after they ended a performance by walking off stage leaving their guitars leaning against their speakers to create feedback (a standard exit for generations of future post-punk performers). West Coast bands did hurt your ears occasionally, but only by accident. There are more than enough things painful to the ears in early Jefferson Airplane, I find, and certainly in Hendrix. There are whole long passages of carefully orchestrated feedback by the Dead. But their purpose wasn’t pain. The insult Bill Graham discerned in the Velvets’ actions was their deliberate and impersonal causing of pain, by cutting off from the audience and leaving behind only certain remains – their guitars or, over the several decades since, their records – to do the job for them.