“Then one fine morning, she put on a New York station
And she couldn’t believe what she heard at all
She started dancing to that fine-fine music
Ahh, her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Rock ‘n’ roll.”
— Lou Reed
The news that Lou Reed, singer-songwriter and architect of the iconic ’60s band The Velvet Underground, died at the age of 71 today — on a Sunday Morning hopefully as gentle, beautiful, and tender as his song of the same name — strikes me both as sobering and strangely surreal as Reed’s best music. We don’t know all of the details yet beyond the fact that liver disease had reportedly claimed him despite a life-saving liver transplant last May. But there’s certainly no confusion about where Reed and the Velvets stand as artists and influences along the vast landscape of rock & roll: near the very top of a towering, jagged peak.
With a deadpan monotone barbed with a thorny edge of sarcasm that gave way to an air of hollowed-out self-loathing and jaded disaffection, Reed’s voice was ideally suited to chronicle his drug-and-drag noir tales (both lived and imagined), of shadowy protagonists slinking down shadowed hallways, darkened alleys, or penthouse crash pads, in search of sin, salvation, or both at the end of a needle. Meanwhile, the Velvets — which included guitarist Sterling Morrison; avant-garde viola master John Cale; drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker; and, initially, on its 1967 debut, the femme fatale chanteuse and German model Nico — held in their hands the perfect sound and sensibility to articulate Reed’s unsparing vision.
The Velvets were at once tough and disturbing; brazenly unfettered and unbound by the pop pigeonholing confines of genre: A palette-cleansing antidote to the paisley flower power psychedelia swirling around them, yet in their own way every bit as “psychedelic” as the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, or Jimi Hendrix. Their drug visions were cold hallucinations cut with a brutal clarity and a chilling sense of dread. They were also obsessively primitive and insular, and at times martially, monochromatically insistent ; as dolefully repetitive as the artistic works of their early benefactor, Andy Warhol.
I would argue — hell, I have argued — that their 1967 debut, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is every bit the landmark work as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” released that same year. It is nearly impossible to imagine a significant segment of what would come to (lamely) be called “college” or “alternative” rock during the 1980s and ’90s, had Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground not existed. Just off the top of my head, for instance, would the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dream Syndicate, Yo La Tengo, Spacemen 3, Galaxie 500, Mazzy Star, or scores of other bands have even been a glimmer in their creators’ imaginations without VU? I don’t think so.
My sentimental favorite of the Velvets’ brief but brilliant canon has always been their 1970 swan song album, “Loaded,” which to me was softer, prettier, more melancholic and wistful than their earlier efforts. Plus it had “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll,” two of my favorite (and in the case of the latter, most personally meaningful) rock songs of all-time. The album had been intended to be the band’s commercial breakthrough, a polished and more “pop” record than anything the Velvets had attempted. But troubled circumstances undercut those intentions, and the LP was ultimately instead relegated to the what-might-have-been file. By this time, Cale was out of the band and Tucker, pregnant at the time, was mostly absent from recording. Bass guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule and his drummer brother Billy had been brought aboard (Doug’s contributions, including lead vocals on several tracks, would prove substantial), and Reed had turned his gaze from “Loaded” to what would be a solo career that would carry with it some magnificent highs (“Transformer”), contrarian challenges (“Metal Machine Music”), and barely listenable lows (“Ecstasy”).
(As an aside, for a good chunk of his first decade as a solo artist, Reed served as both muse and adversary for the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, who sparred with Lou frequently in print and interviews. In fact, with the exception of hearing “Walk On The Wild Side” on the radio, I first became acquainted with much of Reed’s early solo output by devouring old back issues of “Creem” magazine, whose pages Bangs graced prolifically).
In tribute to Lou Reed’s extraordinary work and singular place in rock ‘n’ roll history, here’s an arts cover profile I wrote on the band back in 1997 for The State, a Knight-Ridder daily newspaper, around the time of a long overdue deluxe reissue of “Loaded.” Much like the band itself, the album had since been reappraised and widely regarded as a lost and essential classic. My piece was also timed to local concert appearances by Cale and Mo Tucker, the latter of whom I met after her show. I introduced myself as the reporter who had interviewed her in advance of her show, and she was kind enough to sign my original gatefold pressing of “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” When I handed her the album, she looked at the peeled banana on the cover and exclaimed, with what seemed genuine surprise, “Wow, you’ve got an original here!” As she signed my record, I beamed back at her. Yes, I remember thinking, I do.
One night around 1969, the Velvet Underground were taking a break between sets at a club
somewhere in Middle America. They had just finished songwriter Lou Reed’s nightmare paean to
addiction, “Heroin,” when the club owner angrily approached Reed and the rest of the band.
“If you play that drug song again, you’re fired,” the owner told Reed. The band returned to
the stage for its second set and, of course, immediately played “Heroin”for the second time. And got
“If the legacy of the Velvet Underground was about anything, it was about claiming the right
to say what you feel,” remembered Velvets bassist Doug Yule in an interview from his home in
Washington State. “In the 1950’s and early 60’s, there were certain parameters to rock and roll. But
by the late 1960’s, we were starting to push the boundaries of what you were allowed to sing and
what you were allowed to think.”
The Velvet Underground was, first and foremost, always about pushing boundaries — of
what was considered acceptable subject matter; of conventional pop song structures; and, finally, of
what rock music could — and should — be. Uncompromising, unflinching, and undimmed by the
passage of time, the Velvets remain one of the most significant rock n’ roll bands in history,
arguably as essential to rock’s core vocabulary as the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. The
stark lyrical realism of Reed’s urban portraits, coupled with the Velvets’ remarkable facility for
dramatic musical extremes, culminated in some of rock’s unequivocal masterpieces: “I’m Waiting
For The Man”; “Pale Blue Eyes;” and of course “Sweet Jane,” which features perhaps the most
copied guitar chord progression of all-time. The band’s influence and aesthetic can be found in much
of today’s alternative music, genetically programmed into bands like Sonic Youth and Yo La
A 1993 reunion tour and the release two years of ago of “Peel Slowly and See,” a five-disc
box set collecting all four of VU’s studio albums plus various demos, outtakes and live versions,
only reiterated the band’s status (which was finally — albeit belatedly — recognized by the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame when it was inducted in 1995). Reed, of course, has never left the public eye as a
solo performer. But now, with Rhino Records about to release a deluxe two-disc version of the
outfit’s final studio album, “Loaded (Fully Loaded),” and two of the Velvets — drummer Maureen
Tucker and multi-instrumentalist John Cale — scheduled to perform in the Carolinas next week, the
imposing shadow cast by the band looms nearly as large as it did 30 years ago.
In separate interviews, both Tucker and Yule said they had no idea that the Velvets’ music
would reverberate as loudly or as long as it has — especially given the band’s resounding
commercial failure during its four-year run between 1966 and 1970.
“No, of course not,” said Tucker in a telephone interview from her south Georgia home.
“But I think it’s endured because it was good stuff, even though some of it, technically-speaking,
had lousy sound by today’s standards. But I love the sound of our records. Now there’s so much
technological polish to everything, and God forbid that there should be a mistake on an album. I
think technology has almost ruined rock and roll.”
Tucker says that for the Velvets reunion tour, “my vote was to go buy some crappy amps
and play with no monitors, like we used to. But of course, I got voted down.”
“You know, I haven’t a clue,” said Yule when asked why the Velvets’ music has, in fact,
only gained power since the group disbanded. “Back then, people would follow us around from gig
to gig and critics would hear our albums and say this is unique and then that would be the last you’d
hear of it.” Yule does believe, however, that the Velvets were among a crop of artists that included
“Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, people who were pushing the envelope” of rock and articulating a
distinct and original vision.
As just about everybody who has seen the famous “banana” cover adorning their 1967 debut
album knows, the Velvets first emerged as the proteges of New York Underground Pop artist Andy
Warhol, who recruited them to supply live soundtracks to his multimedia film “happenings.”
Eventually, Warhol paired the fledgling quartet (which also included guitarist Sterling Morrison)
with German model-turned-chanteuse Nico, who sang Reed’s songs in a haunting Marlene Dietrich
monotone. The resulting album, released the same year the Beatles issued “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely
Hearts Club Band” and simply titled “The Velvet Underground And Nico,” was striking for its
stripped-down turbulence and its chilling explorations of decadence, desire, and despair. It was, to
put it mildly, unlike anything else released during the so-called “Summer of Love.”
Tucker warmly recalled the band’s association with Warhol and his entourage of self-proclaimed superstars. “It was a party. The Factory (Warhol’s creative hub) was a fun place to go,”
she said. “It was like being in your living room because you’d go in, drink beers, and talk to your
Yule was a Boston-based musician who had, over time, become friendly with the Velvets. In
1968, when tensions between Reed and co-founder Cale forced the latter’s departure from the band
after two albums, Yule joined the outfit on bass — just in time for VU’s pastoral self-titled third
“They didn’t really intimidate me,” recalled Yule. “If I had met John Lennon at that time,
that would have been scary. And if I was joining (VU) today as a young person, I’d be scared to
death. But back then we were all just friends playing music together.”
Nevertheless, Yule says working with Reed could be daunting. “The biggest thing was
unpredictability,” said Yule. “You’d spend a week with him and think he was happy and walk in the
room the next day and find out he just fired you. He was very supportive of me, but didn’t show
much of himself.
“Lou was like a photographer with music,” continued Yule, “He pointed the camera
outward but never turned it back on himself. The closest I saw him get to doing that was during
“Heroin,” when he says and I guess I just don’t know,’ which was about his being on drugs. For
me, that was him at his most naked.”
Though she didn’t notice at the time, Tucker says the band’s dynamic — and it’s sound —
changed dramatically when Cale left and Yule came on board. It’s a contrast captured on the band’s
albums, where the experimental, confrontational edge that marked the Cale era is replaced by a
more introspective and subdued mood during Yule’s tenure.
“When Doug joined, we got a lot nicer,” Tucker said with a laugh. “That didn’t come out
the way it should have. But John was such a strong personality that, had he left even under the
friendliest of terms, it would have been difficult for us to carry on as we had before. John’s leaving
had a big effect on us.”
Although Yule considered himself a “junior member” of the band when it recorded its third
album, he made major musical contributions to “Loaded” (including lead vocals on four of the
album’s 10 tracks), VU’s most polished and accessible record. More than any other release,
“Loaded” revealed Reed’s Brill Building pop sensibilities that had always lurked underneath the
band’s forays into feedback-drenched avant-garde expression.
Despite the commercial hopes for the album and the bushel of tautly constructed songs to
help realize those aspirations, the Velvets were in disarray during the making of “Loaded.” Tucker,
on maternity leave, did not participate in the recording sessions. That the band chose to proceed
without her using a hodge-podge of drummers (including Yule’s brother Billy) was a mistake,
according to Yule. It’s a decision that Tucker hasn’t found easy to live with, either.
“I always thought that (“Loaded”) needed me,” Tucker said. “When I heard it I thought
wow,’ I really did make a contribution to the Velvets’ sound after all. I was disappointed at the
time.” Which begs the question, why didn’t the band wait for Tucker to record “Loaded”?
“This is only a pure guess,” she said, “but maybe Lou just really wanted to be done and leave the
Shortly after the album’s completion, Reed quit. He was almost immediately followed in his
departure by Sterling Morrison (who, in 1995, a mere two years after the band’s short-lived reunion
tour died of cancer). So it came as little surprise when “Loaded” hit record stores in September
1970, practically dead-on-arrival with no promotional efforts behind it. “(Loaded) is always looked
at as the band’s most commercial album and was, in fact, intended to be that,” said Yule. “But with
Lou leaving before it was released, it was as if the record company (Atlantic) said we’ve lost the
songwriter’ so let’s just release it and see what happens.”
Even during the last months Reed was with the band, its imminent dissolution seemed
palpable. “I remember playing Manchester, Vermont, and it was just miserable,” Yule recalled. “We
drove up in somebody’s van and stayed in a motel and played in a ski bar three nights straight. And
no one came to see us that weekend because there was no snow.”
Listen to “Loaded,” the fourth and final album by Lou Reed with the Velvet Underground, right here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NwKZ9ZsgGA