The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of those albums about which a lot has been written. Most of it, I haven’t read. I know the Brian Eno quip about how only a few thousand people bought it, but each one started a band. Other than that, I haven’t taken the class. I’ve listened to the songs an awful lot over the years, but that’s all. Consequently, I’m a bit self-conscious of the fact that I am highly unlikely to have an original thought about it.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s what’s in my head. One of the most striking things about this record, to me, is the fact that it was released in 1967. Yet not only does it sound (almost) completely contemporary, it would be a challenging and avant-garde album even today. Not only was it way ahead of its time, I think it’s still pretty well ahead of ours.
Musically, I identify 1967 with Jefferson Airplane, Sgt. Pepper’s, the Summer Of Love. Yet this record seems like it came from another planet altogether, and perhaps it did. The album radiates New York City, and mostly not the pretty parts either. The Velvet Underground’s New York feels like the yin to 1967 San Francisco’s yang. Where the Frisco vibe was laid-back, open, and loving, New York is tense, paranoid, and angry. Where the hippies wanted to save the world with peace, Lou Reed’s characters mostly want to annihilate themselves or each other. And where the primary theme of the Summer Of Love is freedom, the primary theme of this album is pressure. Both states can produce remarkable accomplishments, and in 1967, both did.
They’re worlds apart musically as well. Where the California sound was all about pretty chiming and blues tropes, The Velvet Underground & Nico is redolent with atonal shrieks, shatters, bangs, and staggers. The song structures are often bizarre — take “European Son”, whose lyrics run out about seven minutes before its music does. Much of that music careens crazily up and down non-traditional scales, veering into feedback and hyperactive hemidemisemiquavers, in front of a guitar strumming over and over and over on the same chord, until it’s more of a drone than a rhythm. In fact, some kind of drone comes up in a lot of the VU’s songs on this collection — it’s behind “Venus In Furs”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Heroin”, “Femme Fatale”, and more. It’s kind of their signature sound here.
Speaking of drone, let’s talk about Nico. This may be heretical, but I’m not sure her presence is a net gain for the record. Her vocals are certainly interesting, and often surprising, but their effect on the songs tends to be odd and distancing, generally to the detriment of the overall experience. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” fares the worst — it’s far and away the sweetest song on the album, but her frosty tone dampens its warmth, and her heavy German accent makes the gorgeous words harder to understand. Similarly, the lyrics to “All Tomorrow’s Parties” read on the page as compassionate, or at least pitying, but out of Nico’s mouth they sound contemptuous. That tone works better on “Femme Fatale”, which really is a sneering song, one that perhaps sounds a smidgen less misogynist when sung by a woman.
On the other hand, Lou Reed inhabits these characters with a marvelous intensity. That little laugh in “Heroin”, after “it’s my wife and it’s my life”, encapsulates the junkie’s longed-for detachment, finally achieved via a spike in the vein. Or how the obsequious “Oh pardon me sir, it’s furthest from my mind” in “Waiting For The Man” brings across the nervousness of the character while slyly upending the more common racial accusation.
“Venus In Furs” is probably the song that captivated me most this time around. While plenty of the other tunes explore darkness, this song finds a beauty and even a healing in sexual masochism. It has to be one of the first sympathetic portrayals of BDSM in rock — even now not a terribly crowded field in any medium. “Strike dear mistress, and cure his heart” pierces straight to the center of a crucial truth for submissive masochists — that the touch of the whip brings relief, release, and comfort. Sure, endorphins are a part of it, but on an emotional level that willing submission to pain allows them to befriend it, even control it, rather than letting it control them.
That’s a different kind of insight for a 1967 album, and the Velvet Underground pull it off so brilliantly. Almost makes me want to start a band.