Critics like to say the Velvet Underground is the second most influential band of the '60s behind the Beatles, which is fine enough if you believe the Rolling Stones or the Who or even the Jefferson Airplane didn't spawn their own evil brood in equal numbers. There's the old saw about how nobody bought the VU's records but those who did formed bands right afterward, which is true enough if you think R.E.M. wasn't first a Byrds cover band with a mediocre guitar player.
But such is the so-called legacy of a legendary band your parents and your postman and the guy sacking your groceries never heard of: Long after their demise in 1971 and so shortly after guitarist Sterling Morrison's death August 30 from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the VU loom larger than they ever did during their brief existence, so much so there's a tendency to make them out as the great lost link between the '60s and punk, between what never was and can never be. On the occasion of the release of Peel Slowly and See, the five-disc boxed set that chronicles the history of the VU from first demo to demise, history--which once had no time for Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker--is being rewritten to make way for them, rescuing them from famous obscurity.
The fact is, the VU weren't as influential as the critics like to write, if only because there was no way would-be acolytes could imitate what the band was doing; they were making it up as they went, creating as they destroyed, reinventing rock and roll until it bore little resemblance to what came before. It was music, as Lou Reed once said, for "kids in the back row"--presumably the kids who made out and shot up when no one was looking, the thugs in the leather jackets and sunglasses whose lives were "saved by rock and roll," the losers and loners who moved to the Village from Long Island and read poetry and played guitar.
In the end, Lou Reed was as pretentious and phony as any coffeehouse poseur or art-school folkie in 1967: "Heroin," considered among the most genius of Reed's masterpieces, was written during his days at Syracuse University (a good two years or so before it debuted on The Velvet Underground and Nico) and was as much an attempt to emulate the smacked-up hipster writing of Jack Kerouac as it was the words of a young man struggling to describe his burgeoning addiction. Same goes for "I'm Waiting for the Man," another deadpan junkie anthem that romanticized the dangerous and revealed the hidden truth: "Feeling more sick and dirty more dead than alive."
But Reed's were stories untold before in pop songwriting--tales of sadomasochism and drug use, drag queens and aging actresses, unkind love and sickening loneliness, Christ and the new age. Reed wrote of the "poor girl" in the hand-me-down dress who waited for "All Tomorrow's Parties"; the "daytime fantasies of sexual abandon" that haunted Waldo Jeffers in "The Gift"; Jenny's life being saved by that "Rock 'N' Roll" coming from a New York radio station; the life that went on "After Hours" and out of view.
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If Chuck Berry (one of Reed's early heroes) captured the teen experience in his music and communicated it to the rest of the world, and if Bob Dylan proved to Lou it was all right to make the plain poetic, then Reed was their bastard progeny--the disturbed and dissatisfied product of shock therapy and drug use who continually redefined himself through noise and language. "At worst," he once said of the VU, "we were antedated realists. At best, we just hit a little more home than some things."
Matt Kadane of Bedhead, a band whose music contains the most beautiful of VU echoes in its sound, explains his affinity for the Velvet Underground in these terms: "They meant something to me because their lyrics spoke to me and the music spoke to me. Their songs weren't about the typical things rock songs were about; they made me think about things I had thought about in a different way."
But what made (and makes) the Velvet Underground so special was (is) the band's ability to match the music to the words so spectacularly and so perfectly. The majestic drone of The Velvet Underground and Nico, the unbridled buzz of White Light/White Heat, the unexpected loveliness of The Velvet Underground, the fragile pop poetry of Loaded--the music on each album made tangible the intangible words of Lou Reed, gave warmth and depth to the most cruel and inhuman of images, made you shiver like a fevered child underneath layers of blankets.
They were songs that whispered and roared and whispered again; they were painful to listen to because they were intimate and revelatory, pop songs performed on viola and violent guitars turned inside out to expose something more human and hopeless and perhaps more ugly. The metallic, majestic drone of The Velvet Underground and Nico even now sounds so unreal because you can't imagine how anyone could blend this inhuman voice (Reed's or Nico's--what was the difference?) with this surging noise that might have been beautiful if it weren't so ungodly ugly. And how it ever gave way to the proto-metal White Light/White Heat--and then to the lovely The Velvet Underground, which contains "Candy Says" and "Pale Blue Eyes"--is a question only John Cale can answer.