The Over/Under: The Velvet Underground

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All right, troops, once more, and then to hell with it: To peg a piece of music as “overrated” isn’t necessarily to denigrate it, only to suggest that in the popular mind it’s come to be: a) regarded more highly than it ought to be, or b) held in higher esteem than other pieces equally, or more, deserving of praise. We hate to belabor the point, but when MAGNET’s Eric Waggoner filed an Over/Under on Big Star, two actual death wishes popped up in the comments section. (Big Star, fercryinoutloud. And we’d thought power-pop fans were such a docile bunch.) One disgruntled correspondent predicted that some on-staff “imbecile” would soon tackle the Velvet Underground, and while we recognize blatant goading when we see it, truth be told, that one was already in the hopper. Since this season brings a spate of new Velvets-related critical studies, coffee table art books and historical overviews, the time seems right for revisiting the VU’s catalog. Bearing in mind that this is one of the few rock groups that rarely recorded a wrong note, a quarter-century of enshrinement has made critical assessment of the Velvets a little rote and conventional. So with gun and bullwhip at the ready, we climb into the pop-culture cage to tease the bear. How it upsets our mothers to hear us called imbeciles.

:: The Five Most Overrated Velvet Underground Songs
1. “I’m Waiting For The Man” (1967)

Let’s tempt fury right off the bat. “I’m Waiting For The Man” is one of the Velvets’ accepted masterpieces, a chugging, propulsive paean to scoring heroin in uptown New York. It’s catchy, it’s grimy, and its direct language sets it apart from virtually every preceding rock song about narcotics use, though blues and folk music had long mined similar territory in equally explicit terms. But something sounds off here, and it’s embedded in the song’s overly theatrical presentation of characters like the dealer in “PR shoes/And a big straw hat,” and the black corner-boy who catcalls to the narrator, “Hey white boy/You chasin’ our women around?” (You remember how openly black people used to taunt white people on the street in 1967, don’t you?) There’s a heady reek of tourism in “I’m Waiting For The Man,” a sense that the narrator riding the Lexington IRT up to 125th sees himself doing something awfully big and bad—especially for a white boy—and that he’s more than half enamored of his own scummy persona. But all that stuff is true, comes the reply: The concrete-jungle setting, the furtive climb up the brownstone stairwell, the interminable wait for the dealer and the giddy ride back (presumably to the Factory, to hang out with the rest of that ofay Warhol crowd). Well, maybe so. But aesthetically speaking, it doesn’t matter whether a story’s true, what matters is whether we believe it’s true, and in a body of work that boasts a number of genuinely disturbing songs about all kinds of nefarious activity, “I’m Waiting For The Man” sounds the most mannered, and therefore the least convincing, of the Velvets’ odes to the underground.

2. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (1967)
To be charitable, fashion model Nico (née Christa Päffgen), whom Andy Warhol tapped to sing with the Velvets during their Factory stint, had a voice of limited emotional range. While Nico’s chilly delivery works to great effect on the Velvets’ crueler songs, such as “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” it’s a dead flop on “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” a light, sugary confection better suited to pop sentimentalists like the Turtles or the Lovin’ Spoonful than the VU. Written on the heels of Reed’s service as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” while a perfectly OK love ditty, is the most formulaic song the Velvets ever recorded. Doug Yule would later take the vocals on live albums 1969 and Live At Max’s Kansas City, sounding only slightly embarrassed, where Nico sounded completely unbelievable.

3. “Sister Ray” (1968)
Like most VU fans, I love everything about “Sister Ray.” I love the conceit, I love how the moronic thing just keeps going and going, and I love the story about how the recording session turned into a competition to see which band member could drown out the others. And still, a little part of me knows it’s the Velvets’ most masturbatory moment. Despite its gleefully trashy narrative about a transvestite/sailor orgy eventually broken up by the cops, its considerable impact is primarily a result of its 17-plus-minute length. Testing the audience’s endurance later became a hallmark of live performances of the song, which sometimes approached the 40-minute mark. With the exception of Moe Tucker aggressively double-timing and turning the beat around, the recorded version mostly just keeps standing there and punching through the same rhythms and chord changes. It’s a herculean feat and a revelation the first time you hear it. But unlike other outré songs in the Velvets’ catalog, “Sister Ray” approaches an exercise in volume for volume’s sake and doesn’t reveal much besides the band’s sheer stamina on repeated listening.

4. “Pale Blue Eyes” (1969)
The delicate “Pale Blue Eyes” has been memorized by every guitar-stroking shy boy who ever bought the VU’s understated, introspective third record. It’s been covered by R.E.M., Crowded House and Hole, among others, and it’s sometimes been called Lou Reed’s best love song. No one seems to mention that even judged by the standards of the Velvets’ exceedingly limited hearts-and-flowers output, this is one of Reed’s most impenetrable lyrics, a hodgepodge of wonky expressions of puppy love and oddly stilted compliments. (“It was good what we did yesterday/And I’d do it once again”: What woman could resist a smooth line like that?) Again, it’s a decent cut, but it too often eclipses other songs that offer vastly more interesting takes on troubled romance, such as “Here She Comes Now” and “Some Kinda Love,” just for openers.

5. “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” (1970)
This well-regarded number from the final canonical Velvets album, Loaded, figures prominently in the films High Fidelity and Away We Go, mostly at a moment of navel-gazing misery for one or another dismal character. Recently, it’s become a semi-obscure cover of choice for young-turk bands like My Morning Jacket. There’s a good reason for that; “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” is quickly sussed out. It’s built on an insistently mournful hook, it builds gradually to a melancholy climax, and then it fades to silence: Roll credits. In other words, it sets a mood perfectly, but that’s mostly all it does. The repeated “Ain’t got nothin’ at all” that serves as the song’s meditative touchstone gives the effect away. When you hear it in a movie, look for a sad-sack to make questionable life decisions.

:: The Five Most Underrated Velvet Underground Songs
1. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” (1967)

It’s easy to skip the next to last track on The Velvet Underground And Nico. But “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is the dark horse on that record, a sly amalgam of hypnotic folk melody, disconcerting absurdist imagery and squealing drone harmonics from John Cale. With a title evocative of an old English ballad, “Death Song” also underscores just how fuggin’ weird the Velvets were in their own time, when New York’s pop scene was eaten up with earnest folkies and even the rock crowd was drawing mostly from R&B and blues. It’s easy to forget that state of affairs now, but the kids who got pissed at Dylan for plugging in had their fuses utterly blown by the Velvets, who never missed a chance to confront an audience’s expectations.

2. “Lady Godiva’s Operation” (1968)
For sheer horrific power, I’ll put this track from White Light/White Heat up against anything else the Velvet Underground ever recorded. The story of a botched surgical procedure, likely the castration sequence in a male-to-female sex reassignment (“the growth [is] so much cabbage”; “One goes here/One goes there”), “Lady Godiva” opens with the title character drifting gently through her days, patting the heads of curly-haired boys but wishing for a deep life change. It closes with suffocation, paralysis, brain-death and the absolute snuffing out of every light in the world. Improvised surgical sounds are provided by the band—ventilators, drills and heart monitors—as Lady Godiva expires, slowly and agonizingly, on the table. Even set alongside Reed’s solo career, only the towering “The Blue Mask” matches “Lady Godiva’s Operation” as an unsparing vision of total destruction.

3. “The Murder Mystery” (1969)
I never understood why “The Murder Mystery” didn’t get the same accord as “Sister Ray.” Actually, I think I do: “The Murder Mystery” is more intricately structured and harder to parse, the closest the Velvets ever came to writing a concerto or symphony. An instrumental intro lays out the two main musical statements of the piece. The spoken/sung lyrics, divided among all members of the band and split cleanly into left and right channels, approach mere gibberish, but also touch on the Velvets’ primary topics—derangement of the senses, violence, body horror, and the nighttime rhythms of urban social life. The Velvets frequently indulged their Dionysian impulses, but “The Murder Mystery” is possibly their most artfully constructed piece of music, and it’s every bit as impressive as their more chaotic work.

4. “New Age” (1970)
As it appears on Loaded, this aching tale of failed dreams and tattered glory suffers marginally from Doug Yule’s stiff vocal. This version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, sung by Reed, presents the song in its most effective form, albeit with radically different lyrics. In both versions, “New Age” is one of the VU’s most quietly frightening songs, a brown study in isolation and exile culminating in what should be an uplifting, soulful rideout: “Something’s got a hold on me/And I don’t know what/It’s the beginning of a new age.” In context, though, it sounds like the narrator circling the drain one last time before getting flushed away, proving that the VU knew that desperation didn’t always have to be ear-splitting. It’s often as quiet as a phone that never rings.

5. “Hey Mr. Rain” (1968)
As documented in the concert film and album Live MCMXCIII, the Velvets’ 1992-1993 “reunion” tour mostly played it safe, giving European audiences a muzzled version of their 1960s-era volume and experimental bent. The exception is “Hey Mr. Rain,” which dates from Cale’s final days with the band but didn’t see release until Verve’s 1985 compilation Another View. An insistent stomper that would have fit nicely on White Light/White Heat, “Hey Mr. Rain” is one of Reed and Cale’s great dueling-strings workouts, and even in its studio version it’s a strangely spellbinding tune, mostly hewing to a 12-bar blues structure except for an unexpected third-line chord breakdown. Like “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” it’s a great example of how the Velvets could warp generic structures for their own purposes, and the version on Live MCMXCIII is the closest most of us will ever come to witnessing the raw power of the Velvet Underground live. So when your friends start barbering on about “Venus In Furs” or “All Tomorrow’s Parties” for the umpteenth time, steer them to “Hey Mr. Rain,” and give them a chance to rethink old opinions while rediscovering forgotten joys in the catalog. (You knew that was the whole point of the Over/Under feature, right? Of course you did. You’re not an imbecile.)

—Eric Waggoner

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