The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967
I have to start this one by asking for some folks to weigh in on the argument that has flared up in my NRBQ post comments (lesson learned-- don't let a post sit alone for more than a week, or people will start picking at its flesh like carrion). Here's the question: how should you judge my 20K selections? Some feel that you need to look at the band's total recorded output and look at the percentage included: for example, band A releases 50 songs, I include 45, 90%; band B records 500 songs, I include 100, 20%. Result-- I prefer Band A. Others feel that you look at the absolute value number: 100 is more than 45, so I prefer Band B. Thoughts? Couldn't care less? Inquiring minds want to know.
It's appropriate to ask that question at the start of this post, as this band has one of the most significant absolute value scores of all time. The famous line about this album is that only 500 people bought it when it first came out, but they ALL started bands the next day. A band that sold fewer than 50,000 albums while it was together, it has come to be regarded as one of the most significant bands in rock history.
I'll admit to having hot and cold moments with the Velvets. There are times when all I want to listen to are these early VU albums-- I find them sonically arresting and evocative and really pretty magical. I feel transported when I listen to this record in the right mood in a way that most music can't pull off. There are even times when Nico's voice doesn't completely bum me out. I know the first four Velvet Underground records about as well as I know any other four albums.
And then... there are times when these records sound too amateurish to me. These were records made quickly with little money by neophytes, and sometimes the ragged tempos and missed notes and pitchy vocals grate, and I wish that the band had practiced some more. There are times when Nico sounds like a complete joke and embarrassment to me, and the cult that has surrounded Lou Reed and all his efforts is laughable. SOME of Lou Reed's stuff is terrific. SOME of it is among the worst music ever made by someone with talent. The fact that there are people right now writing voluminous defenses of Metal Machine Music and Mistrial makes me sort of hate the Velvet Underground.
All that said, I never feel anything but complete and total love for this track, my favorite of Lou Reed's and one of my all-time favorite songs period.
Let's talk about that backing track. Mo Turner's drumming here matches the music perfectly-- the steady, propulsive eighth notes through the song are just what the doctor ordered. No fills, no changes to the rhythm, just the occasional rise in volume and then return to the beat. It becomes hypnotic after a while, and it's an example of her completely original but unskilled style fitting music perfectly. I also love the crush of banged piano throughout; it sounds like there are six hands playing at once, and above it floats Sterling Morrison's gentle little guitar figure. The combination of pounding rhythm and airy soloing fits the subject matter like a glove.
This song is about scoring heroin in Harlem. It could so easily be cliched; white boy from a private university wants to play bohemian and hang with his negro brethren. It has never felt that way to me, though, even if I think Lou Reed is sometimes exactly that kind of poseur. It's the brilliant simplicity of the lyrics that keeps it effective, and frankly unsettling:
I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I'm waiting for my man
I love the "my man" reference. The "man" is his dealer, and you know that they have no relationship outside goods and services, but this kid is buying more than drugs-- he's buying access to some kind of artistic authenticity that is going to betray and destroy him. He needs to believe that he's special to his dealer, that he's welcome in this world. I also think the "twenty-six dollars" is genius. The specificity of that sum: drug dealers don't make change, and drug addicts know exactly how much money they need for the next fix. It lets us know that the voice in the song isn't playing around with heroin-- he's got a habit, and he's in trouble. He's also ashamed and self-loathing. Matching that lyric with the brash, exciting backing track is a thrilling effect.
Lex and 125th today, peddling a different kind of drug: I'm lovin' it!
This kid is also smart-- he knows that he's out of place and at the mercy of this guy. Passing strangers ask him "Hey, white boy, what you doin' uptown?" and his dealer is "never early, he's always late / First thing you learn is you always gotta wait." The powerlessness of the vocal is out of place with power of the backing track. Again, I love that incongruity.
The song ends with the singer high and temporarily without concerns:
Baby don't you holler, darlin' don't you bawl and shout
I'm feeling good, you know I'm gonna work it on out
I'm feeling good, I'm feeling oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but that's just some other time
I'm waiting for my man
Then song then slowly fades without a solo and with a few random bass flourishes. Two chords, back and forth, never changing: just like the addict's wheel of misfortune. What an incredible song! Consider that the #1 song in America the week this song came out was "Dedicated To The One I Love" by The Mamas and the Papas, and you'll get a sense of how groundbreaking and out of step this album was with its moment. It was telling stories that wouldn't go mainstream for several more years. This song transcends any concerns I have about the band's inflated importance or its reliance on connections to Warhol to be worth remembering. Do you like punk rock's brash, insolent honesty and directness? Then thank this track for helping to get that ball rolling.