Smile Politely

Deja V.U.

It’s nothing at all. White light. I am tired. I am weary. I could sleep 4000 years, a thousand dreams that would await me.

Every so often, searching for my mainline, I play The Velvet Underground, a rock group whose records I have owned for forty years. The Velvet Underground never gets old to me: the first album with Nico, White Light/White Heat, Loaded, the redundant eponymous one later. Those four, mostly. The Velvet Underground are like The Beatles. I have never been a heroin addict, but I have read the works of William Burroughs, word by cut-up word, so I consider myself entitled. Plus, I saw The Velvet Underground perform live. More about that later.

Sunday morning, I listened to the first album again, The Velvet Underground and Nico. I remember buying it in the record store in 1967 on the strength of the album jacket designed by Andy Warhol. I wanted to take off the cellophane and see what was behind the big yellow banana peel on the cover.

“Peel slowly and see,” taunted the label next to the banana peel. I was careful not to peel it all the way off, wanting to retain the art’s integrity. There, under the peel, it was: a big pink banana. Probably not the best symbol for Urbana School District #116 at this juncture in history, but at the time, it made perfect sense. Art was anything you could get away with. Stripping away the banana peel was like stripping away the previous twenty years of sexual repression and conformity.

The Velvet Underground opened the floodgates and did not give a damn about what happened next. From the opening xylophone riff (sampled recently to great effect by Girl Talk), “Sunday Morning” kicks off the album with deceptive sweetness and melancholy, a lullaby for the young already with “wasted years.” Whoever was singing obviously skipped church. Something awful must have happened on Saturday night, perhaps a failed suicide attempt.

We didn’t learn until years later that the voice wasn’t a woman’s at all. It wasn’t Nico with a frog in her throat, but Lou Reed with the sound speeded up. This perverse and tricksterish misrepresentation came right out of the Warhol playbook.

“I’m Waiting for My Man” sets the true tone of the album. This was Harlem, a cold lonely spot on the gritty New York city streets in winter. There was fear and desperation in the nippy air, racial tension (“Hey, white boy. What you doin’ uptown?”), and whatever illicit deal was going down as the staccato music played like an accelerated heartbeat, it was not the flowers and hippies, peace and love, West Coast attitude we had come to expect. It would be ten years before the punks down the road picked up on the soured thrill of the truly forbidden. The Beats were back as though hippies never happened.

In “Femme Fatale,” we are finally introduced to the real Nico, a Germanic iceberg, tall, blonde, distant as Antarctica, with an accent that said “I will bite you.” As scarily feminine as Nico appeared, she might have been gender altered. The same could be said in reverse for Maureen (“Moe”) Tucker, the drummer who was hired when the original drummer refused to play for paying audiences. Tucker played standing up, pounding on tom-toms and looking like a man. Later, after the band broke up, she went to work for Wal-Mart.

By the time we reach “Venus in Furs,” Lou Reed is speaking/singing of a scenario that was beyond the pale. Masochism, sadism, sexual perversity without apologies, the whip on shiny leather, ennui beyond belief. “Taste the whip, now bleed for me.” That did it. The Velvet Underground were vampires.

“Run Run Run.” Lou Reed tells tales from the street, something he capitalized on later in solo work like “Walk on the Wild Side.” “I sold my soul, I must be saved. Run run run run, it’s the death of you.” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” gave us Nico again in the throes of decadence, sounding for all the world like a Nazi social director.

And then, there it was, calling a spade a spade, “Heroin.” The Velvet Underground wasn’t preaching against it, they were describing how it makes you feel just like Jesus’ son. We were used to Country Joe singing about flowers and porpoise lips and acid trips. The Velvets were explaining, and describing, without apologies, for seven minutes, how smack was like Cheetos.

By the time the album ended, when John Cale’s viola had screeched its way into our brains and Nico had foretold of her life’s dismal circumstances (addiction, bizarre relationship with son, death by bicycle), 1968 had been properly terrified and chastised.

The wrap-up song, “European Son,” breaks through to the other side in ways that made Jim Morrison seem like an artsy dilettante. At the one minute point exactly, the sound of breaking mirrors and motorcycle crashes doesn’t even faze the propulsion of the rhythm, which continues, again for seven minutes, with feedback and scratching guitars into a complete loss of rhythm, the last note coming like the explosion of Agent Orange in the forest.

The Velvet Underground and Nico gave us the deliciousness of the lower depths, the reminder of pain, of loss, of some weird sins to relax with. They were the needed yin to the yang of the hippies, the reminder of the other side of the idealism that was already by that point rapidly sinking into commercialism, being soaked up by the cultural sponge, just as Herbert Marcuse predicted in One Dimensional Man.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. It was just a box of rain, a sweet nothing, nothing at all. Like everything else, The Velvet Underground and Nico has become institutionalized, tamed, #13 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and added into the National Recording Registry by the Librarian of Congress. No way it can claim to be underground any more.

Still, who cares? Mostly I return to V.U. because of the nothingness, the Zen emptiness it preaches. “Sunday Morning” reminds us from the beginning of that nothingness (and references to nothing occur in 18 of the 81 verses of the Tao Te Ching).

From verse 20:

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care,
I alone am expressionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

Now, about that live performance. I saw the Velvet Underground perform at the Electric Theatre in Chicago (4812 N. Clark, $4 admission) in 1968. This fact alone should clinch my entitlement on the high end of the scale of validated hipness. Just let me know when I start sounding like your grandfather praising Rosemary Clooney, OK? (Maybe it’s too late.)

I’m not sure what is at the site of the Electric Theatre now. Maybe a funeral parlor. Anyway, at the time, it was a place with cushioned rooms, smoking allowed, and a state of the art strobe and slide show. I know I was disappointed that Nico didn’t show up, and Moe scared me a little, standing there like a robot playing tom-toms.

And the music? Well, as the cliche goes about people of the Sixties, I know I must have been there because I don’t remember a thing.

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