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Revisiting The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat

December 11, 2013  |  12:21pm
Revisiting The Velvet Underground's <i>White Light/White Heat</i>

The Velvet Underground & Nico was a stone NYC classic, but that shit didn’t sell. Maybe in 1967 the world wasn’t ready for gritty tales of junkies, pushers, hookers and cross-dressers set to dissonant guitars, or maybe everybody outside the five boroughs was distracted by all the damn hippies. Either way, all the critics writing all the glowing reviews couldn’t make the band’s debut a bestseller, and by most reports the band was not happy about this. Their relationship with producer/manager/conceptualizer Andy Warhol frayed beyond repair; Nico left the group, which in retrospect was inevitable.

The Velvets’ frustrations over this perceived failure define their follow-up, the next year, White Light/White Heat, which was almost antagonistic in its scribbly guitar dissonance and its noise-rock viscera. If their debut had related stories from the concrete jungle, then album number two would evoke that setting with as much grotty immediacy as possible. It didn’t just want to regale you with stories of danger and degradation. It wanted to sound dangerous and degraded. It wanted to get you high, steal your wallet and leave you on some unknown street corner.

Even on the new remaster for this 3xCD 45th Anniversary of White Light/White Heat (which also includes the album in mono, a bundle of rarities and a live set), the songs remain menacing, fragmented and convincingly distracted as they take on odd shapes and weird sizes. Clocking in at a thoroughly reasonable 2:45, the opening title track is only a feint. It’s immediately followed by the eight-minute “The Gift,” on which multi-instrumentalist/madman John Cale unknots a shaggydog story about a man who mails himself to his lover. It ends badly, as stories of sexual obsession usually do.

Throughout the album, the lyrics rarely fit the music—or vice versa. “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is all joints and elbows, sharp knives poking through a plastic sack. Even “Here She Comes Now,” arguably the closest thing on side one to a single, crams too many “now”s into its melody; overstuffed, it fades unceremoniously. Side two opens with shards of distorted guitar: “I Heard Her Call My Name” sounds like walking on glass. “Sister Ray” rambles to 17 minutes. The End.

White Light/White Heat thwarts the listener at every turn, as though it blames you for…something? Not buying The Velvet Underground & Nico? Given its innate hostility, the album is certainly not a useful point of entry into the Velvets’ catalog (that is, still, the debut). Instead, it’s a hardcore fans’ album—a belchy, squalid piece of noise-crusted rock-and-roll.

If that sounds harsh, well…it’s a hard album to enjoy, even hard to feel any affection for, yet it’s easy to appreciate the band’s achievements. In other words, White Light may not be a good album, but it just might be great. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t an even bigger flop, or that the band didn’t grouse over its failure to do what it was specifically designed not to do—i.e., placate any audience. You’d think they’d be prepared for the fallout, but Reed in particular was surprised it wasn’t a bigger hit. In Rolling Stone earlier this year, Reed referred to it as “the Statue of Liberty of punk, with the light on top…No one listened to it. But there it is, forever.”

Shocking? Alienation is its main subject as well as its primary mission. While the Velvets predicted both the Stooges and MC5, those bands emphasized songs as vehicles for their mayhem, even as they sought to trash those structures—to stretch them to the breaking point…and sometimes beyond. On White Light, the songs are a pretense: a means to a clangorous end. There is, of course, something truly visceral and even exciting about that sort of musical violence, something simultaneously unsettling and deeply rewarding. If The Velvet Underground & Nico made orderly verses and riffs out of the disorderly muck of their milieu, then White Light sounds like the junkie a day or two after relapse: all appetite and chaos.

Live, it sounds somehow more urgent, fiercer, franker. What makes this new anniversary set so essential isn’t the album proper—which is still available in single-disk and inexpensive vinyl editions for those who are merely curious instead of rabid—is the set of live tracks from the Velvets’ show from April 1967, just a month and change after the release of their debut and nine months before their follow-up. It’s an intriguing midpoint for the band, who still retain the pomp and vigor of their Warhol-era material yet aren’t timid about teasing their audience with some noise and feedback.

From one song to the next, the Velvets sound like a different band. There’s some credible boogie rock on “Booker T.” and some sharp blues-rock riffs on “Guess I’m Falling in Love.” Reed sounds more forceful, the guitars thornier and more tangled, the rhythm section steadier. Of course, the set ends with “Sister Ray” and “The Gift,” both of which ramble for even longer than their studio counterparts, as if to test their crowd’s patience. And yet, perhaps because there is a live audience for these performances, there seems to be greater purpose to the sprawl—a heightened sense of angst and aggression projected toward a real instead of an imagined listener. The emphasis is on the immediate moment, not on posterity. Even as the music spirals into murky dissonance, the Velvets sounds like they’re building these songs up rather than tearing them down: creating rather than destroying.

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