By Don Allred
The first time I ever heard of the Velvet Underground, back in the '60s, I asked myself, "What kind of an underground rock band would feel the need to actually call itself the Anything Underground?" I was a tough-minded teenager, new to the very idea of underground rock (also of rock), and the much-vaunted Warhol connection just made them more suspect. He was a P.T. Barnum figure to me, and enjoyably so: having fun with the media, gently demonstrating how to keep a straight face, for reporters sticking a microphone in it, while setting him up with the same old stupid questions (objective journalism). An in-joke anybody could be in on----anybody with a brain, that is. So not nearly everybody, really. But like it said in the Bible, "He that hath ears, let him hear."
So, right on, Andy; rock on in your way----not so differently than in the Beatles and Monkees, when it came to predicting forthcoming books, movies, comics, posters, lunchboxes, your own brand of egg salad sandwiches----but keep your old silver fingers off of actual rock bands. This one seemed designed to shock the straights, titillate the tourists, and, much worse (this was also, ultimately, the one problem with Warhol), play the fools, like cop show caricatures of kooky artso troublemakers, who were really just more overt, inadvertently over-playing (greedy, anxious, clumsy, frequently arrested adolescent) perverts, or, even worse, obliging imitations of same, confirming prejudices----way below Madison Avenue hipsters, a much smoother class of stereotypical con artist. And not far enough from those who would recite gibberish in Washington Square, then dive for the quarters pitched by our parents on family vacations (a painfully indelible scene in my fellow boondocker Barry Hannah's Geronimo Rex.)
I always ( there's a good chance that means once) heard the debut album in a roomful of chattering friends, so it was their fault that I was left with the lasting impression that Lou Reed ("Lurid", get it?) and his partners were indeed out to confirm my suspicions, especially with the jab of "Heroin": when they got to "feel just like Jesus' son"----that was it, here's your quarter, now turn off the strobe lights so I can read this here National Enquirer, m-a-a-a-n.
Later I met some junkies, and started to understand the song. They might indeed go off on all sorts of tangents----including, "Look at wicked me, wh-e-e-e", "Look at wicked me, boo-hoo"----but always ended up bumping into something----which might well be, "And I guess that I just don't know", before bobbing off in another direction at the balloon farm, which was everywhere.
A little later, I discovered Creem, where any discussion might lead to the Velvet Underground, and I found myself buying or trading for Loaded. When Reed mentioned, as Jack and "Sweet Jane" 's mood (and, hopefully, make-out) music, " 'The March of The Wooden Soldiers'----your protest guests?"----that last was an aside, a stage throw-away (like a stage whisper), between the beats, right before going back to the sweet street kitty stalk 'n' pounce----the '70s were settling into wartime, despite all the amputations and the protestations----so Pop Art was a reality after all, and I was hooked. (And didn't Woody Guthrie say something to the effect that a songwriter should be able to get up in the morning, open a newspaper, point his guitar at some story, and write a song about it? If that paper was the Times, the Daily Worker, Women's Wear Daily or the National Enquirer, so be it.)
I'd recently decided that I was too moody to become a psychiatric social worker, and thus was ready to seize on the charged smog of Loaded's elliptical momentum----somebody had suggested I should become a city planner, whatever that was, so I'd switched my major to Urban Studies, while also stimulated by the model complex on the cover of Cannibals and Christians (Mailer, who had majored in Engineering at Harvard and once planned to be an architect, co-designed this beautiful mega-D lattice, with pieces of Lego or whatever it was---he could do that and write!). Loaded, in combo with my old portable stereo, set up a grid of flats and volumes, squares and other shapes, in all shades, though brightness remained filtered by the haze. So? Just turn the treble all the way up, and let it all hang out.
There was also an association with the board game played by miners in the frozen bowels of Mars, and in Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It was like sort of like Monopoly,especially if Monopoly included a drug called Cand-D, and a Barbie-type doll called Perky Pat, whom you could go riding with in a sports car, under the trees and over the squares. Loaded's layout experienced its own kind of Urban Renewal program, its own (with a tip of the hat to or from Andy/Paul Morrissey's Flesh, and the interludes of Tennessee Williams) "New Age", its own "Sweet Nuthin' " too. Its characters were real enough, and surrounded, though never crowded, by Lou's crew and their regard, eye to eye or sidewise----oh, sweet group therapy; sweet, long gone Psychiatric Social Work syllabi----and what about distinctively rocking social workers Kevin Coyne, Ian Curtis, Paul Morrissey, Richard Riegel, Sonny Sharrock? Maybe I was wrong?! Nah.
"And as I walk down life's highway/Hand in hand with myself/I realize/How many paths/Have come between."
Still later, I got Paul Nelson's astute edit, Live In Texas '69 (the VU were the Beatles upside down, in a different sense than Big Star: the Beatles retired from phenomenal shows into obsessive, bar-raising studio arts and crafts, long on quality and even more so on quantity; the VU made all their money playing out, from Downtown to the sticks, and left their few, equally satisfying legit studio albums as bootleggy latchkey children, sounding like they were on, down in, under and behind the couch---while actual Velvets bootlegs, studio and live, could go all over the place, incl. not so far from early West Coast jamsters [Lou: "California trash"]). This group-posthumous two-platter set served up more therapy with leader Lou, as sung, vocalized, and also spoken: "We saw your Cowboys yesterday….you should give other people just a little chance---at football, anyway.") And best of all, in "Some Kind of Love", Margarita dropped science on Tom: "La-tee-tah-tah-tah/'Well of course you're a boh-ah/'But at that you're not chahmless'/'For a bore is a straight line/That---finds a wealth in confusion!' " Yes! Hope for us all, for meeee! "Between thought and expression/Let us know kiss the culprit"----or was it "carpet"? Either way; that, and even " 'Oh I don't know, just what it's all about/'Put on your red pajamas mama, and we'll soon find out'(not sure if "mama" 's in there, but could be Margarita, still counseling Tom, as likely as vice versa) were now just (greatly appreciated) gravy (for "jelly on your shoulder" and all): fleet follow-up after the breakthrough.
So, there was that sense of community----and more, as the band with the counter-countercultural "No Blues" policy now let more of its actual (no getting round the term) roots out----not slumming below the Mason-Dixon, just confirming the Times Square Tex-Mex and other migratory suggestions brushing by in "Sister Ray", or the Johnny Winter-hoarse coursing of "Head Held High", the wistful yodel and deft lasso of "Lonesome Cowboy Bill", the jiggling balance and level aim of "Train Comin' Round The Bend"----all three on Loaded----but this live thing was something else again, not least in the riskily extended "What Goes On", which left that self-titled album's ether in the dust, for a slightly clumsy pursuit of Bo Diddley, getting close enough, as they always did, sooner or later (what the heck, the debut even went gold, something like thirty years after its release). And teen bar band/song-plotter Lou had absorbed his Chuck Berry, among other denizens: "Take me back down South where I belong/You know eveah-thing I doo! is wrong/You know it's too, too much baby", flirting with the truth again.
The sense of musical community was also trans-subgenre, transgenre, also transgendering by and as association, whatever that might mean. In the American Studies tradition, these traveling songsters were kissin' cousins to the equally resourceful Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and other circuit riders/breakers along the Northwest Passage. This of course was several years before Gun Club, the Cramps, or that line-up of the Flesheaters which included members of X, the Blasters, and I think Los Lobos, honking skronking in the b-movie boogie swamp (in the club, at some length, and as such, still on YouTube, last time I checked). Which, come to think of it, was also true of electric Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, Henry Threadgill (when he suddenly got to Jelly Roll Morton, especially). Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Steinski, DJ Shadow, any number of other DJs, at least for a moment,
Parliafunkadelictment, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, various artists from all over the world and the past 114 years or so of recording, discovered and rediscovered; also Bob Dylan---- all
gratifying, at least for while, sweet spots no other kinds of musical artists can can quite reach, as far as I'm concerned.
But yall knew that, and of course the great anticlimax continued, with more spills, chills, and peaks in his case, for the rest of his life after VU, and mine too: some sure things blown, some improbabilities in full bloom----luck almost as good as luck gets, everything (and I mean everything) else aside. Both of us struggling with the aspirations, compulsions, and what I'd like to think is the basic and/or well-groomed perversity, the wild-on-a-leash side of creativity, the paths of generation and regeneration, of this way to the egress and beyond----erm, anyway, he was out there, showing up periodically, seldom or often, for a while---I never know him (Lou Reed), music aside, but he became as close and distant as any friend. In different ways, of course----I'd never think of expecting anything from or for him, except music's power of association. But the fact that he kept going----"Growing Up In Public" and not---- for so very long, and with an improbable degree of recurring quality product, was never to be taken for granted, was always some kind of reassurance, some kinda (okay, I don't know how else to end it) love.
"Our house is very beautiful tonight…"
(updates: you prob saw this, but just in case: Laurie A. on life w Lou R.
his prose poem to Delmore Schwartz[check the comments too]http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/244148#article
a great pic, intriguing comments, links:
Curtis and Morrissey were added to the roll of social workers,
per Richard Riegel's response:
Technically I wasn't a social worker
[someone who coordinates services
for a client], but rather an "income maintenance" worker, i.e., the one
responsible for the client receiving the correct financial assistance.
"Six years a county welfare caseworker, twenty-four years a state
quality control reviewer" [as Moll Flanders might have recited her
resume], and I made regular home visits to clients on both jobs, so
sometimes ended up doing a certain amount of social work anyway.
Since we're on this topic, my parallel-universe connection to The Factory
(besides looking like Warhol after my hair turned white) is that Paul
Morrissey was a welfare caseworker for NYC when he was first frequenting
the place, would stop by in the evenings after work and regale Andy
with stories about weird clients he'd visited that day. An auteur in
the making, in Morrissey's case.
Also, I noted in the Control movie about Joy Division that Ian Curtis had a day job
as an employment counselor for people with disabilities in some Brit social services
agency. I always identify with Curtis in the scenes when he's wearing a
tie and sitting behind a desk, r'n'r can wait until tonight, my scene
exactly that same 1979. RR's own thoughts on LR:
Many more worthy links are in rockcritics.com's reed obits section.)