Lou and the Velvets’ White Light/White Heat poked its head through the music world to the unsuspecting and apathetic hippie flowerpower movement of early ’68. Let’s imagine the album was actually an extraterrestrial alien, like the one that apparently landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1948. People who had heard of it became intensely interested by its presence. Yet, the government, or in the Velvets’ case, radio, covered up any evidence of its existence—forever restricting said specimen from reaching the masses and injecting only limited, yet profound interest into those who knew. What if, as some suggest, other life forms could be more advanced than us and teach us invaluable knowledge we are presently incapable of comprehending? The Velvet Underground is like those alien lifeforms. The only difference is fans find it fortunate that the band remained out of radio’s over-saturating grasp, thus maintaining that otherworldly presence.
The Velvet Underground is the antithesis to the hippie peace movement. It pushed the punk decadence of earlier rock experiments in adolescent lust and drugs (The Troggs, Kinks) to 11. Where as acid and free love motivated the West Coast scene, the Velvets’ music represented full throttle violence and destruction fueled by amphetamines, which worked to stimulate the body and summon Dionysian pleasure through art and performance. Nothing was grimier or more injected with real urban decadence than the 17-minute epic closing track “Sister Ray,” from their second album.
While Jim Morrison, another decadent, sung about existential angst and the need to shun reality through booze and abstract poetic escapism, Lou Reed sung about personal experience, like searching for his main line, while the music veered into repetitive Eastern motifs and sheer free jazz chaos. “Sister Ray” is responsible for much in rock ‘n’ roll’s development.
Now let’s plunge deeper into the song’s soul to decipher what it could possibly mean for music today. First, the song is a testament to alienation, specifically from trends in pop and rock music. The Velvets were never the norm. Reed wasn’t singing about the pain of losing a love; instead, he “described” in improvisation the annoyance of not being able to get high. “Sister Ray” also made it ok for rock bands to tinker with noise and feedback that extended beyond the two or four minute pop song. It introduced the repetition and simplicity that would become standard in punk rock when it broke through nine years later (it’s also hard to imagine some pre-punkers like Iggy Pop without “Sister Ray”). On a lighter note, through a cover version, we were able to experience the hilarity of Joy Division’s serious and emotional singer Ian Curtis say “Ding Dong.”
With all its simplicity, however, it’s easy to forget how incredibly complex and free the latter half of the song becomes. John Cale, who was a classically trained violist, contributes some unforgettable organ work. Around the 11-minute mark, while the song careens in its wallowing uppers-induced free jazz freakout, Cale’s organ takes the forefront, blazing through with a squawking howl that oscillates between hypnotic Eastern repetition and pure rock ‘n’ roll riffage. The song reaches its spine-tingling resolution to complete chaos. What starts out as a simple late night drug trip transgresses into a musical epiphany of free jazz and spiritual upheaval. All that we thought we knew about rock had been shattered. The final three minutes plunge deep into the white noise of the album’s moniker, before ultimately recovering Reed’s lyrical smatterings and a recognizable, yet still frenzied rhythmic groove. After the album, Cale left the band and the Velvets forever lost its off-the-deep-end experimentalism. Of course, the group still had one of the best-known songwriters in Reed, who guided the band into the subdued beauty of its self-titled third album. “Sister Ray,” meanwhile, had cleared the way for rock’s countless possibilities.
Today, the question stands: what type of bands, after establishing themselves with a singular sound, have the gall to explore uncharted waters and their deepest fears like The Velvets did in ’68? Can you imagine the backlash Modest Mouse would get for dabbling in Enya-style new age reflection music? Or what about the new Radiohead album featuring Thom Yorke lyrics about getting his ding-dong sucked? And who wouldn’t love to see Dave Matthews try his hand at some doom metal? The point is: few acts today, if any, are afraid to alienate some fans by creating something new and perhaps genre-bending. Liars did it with They Were Wrong, So We Drowned after the band awed dance-punk hipsterdom with its first album. Radiohead also did it with Kid A when they were on the verge of becoming the next U2. Surely, other examples of this kind of sound tinkering exist, but why can’t there be more quite as daring and offensive as “Sister Ray?”