Records I Return To: White Light/White Heat
And then my mind split open.
It’s difficult to go back, after hearing a record like this. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it turns you on or not, but either way you’ll know that things like this exist. Things that demand your attention for good or ill, things that don’t even pretend to be perfect, things that will decentralise how you think about things. How the hell did they get this out on a major record label? It was the ‘60s, I guess, but at least it means that it’s still in print.
I’ve come to realise that, if you’re in a creative field, it’s important to read/watch/listen/look widely not just because it will undoubtedly teach you something about your art, but it will show you what you can get away with. I’ve talked about my own experiences with Naked Lunch before, and the same idea holds true here. When I first heard this record I was about 15 and more interested in music than I was literature (this quickly reversed when I realised I was better at writing than I was playing guitar), and it had a considerable effect on how I felt about music and art as a whole. It was difficult for me to get hold of records. I hadn’t figured out torrenting and for various reasons couldn’t just order stuff online. Youtube hadn’t taken off, Spotify didn’t exist. What I could find in HMV that was in one of the lists in Kurt Cobain’s journals is what I got. There were The Velvet Underground, right next to The Verve. Anything was possible, nothing was forbidden. Iron Maiden seemed awfully boring afterwards. Why, you could even write a 16 minute long song about a drug fuelled orgy that rested entirely on three chords, if you wanted to.
It was dangerous the same way The Stooges or The Ramones seemed dangerous the first time you heard them. People are actually allowed to do this? Yes they are, and you can, too. Not that that in itself wasn’t also dangerous; Sister Ray strays awfully close to self-indulgence (Reed would later get so close as to hop the fence entirely with Metal Machine Music. Performance art? Maybe. Masturbatory? Definitely.) Sister Ray killed any chance I had at the time of properly teaching myself guitar. I was more interested in noise. It was more fun than the circle of fifths.
Not that the musicianship on White Light/White Heat is at all lacking. The title track is a great, hot take, two and a bit minute rock and roll number that immediately drags you along with them out of a dark New York loft on to baking pavement, and despite the harsh edges still manages to feature a fantastic vocal harmony and piano backing that doesn’t really belong there but would severely weaken the song if it wasn’t. This is probably the most normal song on the record. There’s a reason this was on Reed’s setlists during the Rock N Roll Animal era.
The piano is worth mentioning again. To a kid like me who worked his way backwards from the ‘90s, through ‘80s hair metal to early ‘80/late ‘70s punk to Hendrix/Zeppelin/Sabbath and the ‘60s weirdness that begat them, piano, prepared or otherwise, or electric viola, or organ, on a rock and roll song, was pretty fucking weird and new. White Light/White Heat got to me before I ever heard any Jerry Lee Lewis, or really appreciated any of the slower, lusher stuff that Led Zeppelin did, and it was an incredible revelation to find that rock and roll was whatever instruments you happened to have and a certain way of using them. It would have been hard for me to appreciate Sonic Youth without The Velvet Underground preparing me for the noise and the weird tunings and odd instrumentation (one of Reed’s pet tunings was the Ostrich, DDDDDD, try it yourself, it’s pretty fun.)
Weird and new is definitely the name of the game. The Gift is my favourite audiobook masquerading as rock song. You can get away with doing this? Sure The Beatles separated the guitars and the bass in the stereo image, but narrating a story in one headphone while the guitar, bass and drums grind out a deceptively beautiful melody in the other? I had never heard anything like it and I immediately attempted to copy it myself, badly. Still, to me, this was fresh, and gave me an impetus to create/imitate in a far healthier manner than learning to play Smells Like Teen Spirit ever did. I wanted to write grim, weird short stories with shocking endings like that. I wanted to play droning, screeching melodies laced with feedback, like that.
The album sags a bit, in the middle. Lady Godiva’s Operation is an oddity made even odder by Lou’s constant interjection. I still don’t know if John Cale forgot his lines or if Lou was getting impatient, but it works, somehow. It certainly snaps your attention to (again, you can do that? I never heard that on my Iron Maiden records), but it doesn’t burn with quite the same almost malevolent energy as the first two tracks. Here She Comes Now is gorgeous but doesn’t quite feel like it fits. It’s short, it’s sweet, you won’t have any problems sitting through it, but thematically and texturally it would work much better on the third album, I imagine. And yet I don’t return to the self-titled third album very often, not because I don’t like it, but because it doesn’t have that same kind of sense of widening possibilities present on the first two albums.
Speaking of widening possibilities, having covered (various) drugs, addiction, prostitution, BDSM and Sunday mornings, the penultimate track is (most likely) about necrophilia. And it features an incredible guitar solo, not something you’d go to the Velvets for. Of course it’s done with their own sensibility. Listened to with the assumed logic of the rock guitar solo it sounds like a tangled mess of feedback and tremolo picking, but it makes much more sense when you remember that Reed was a big fan of Ornette Coleman. I didn’t know who Ornette Coleman was until I was looking up The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. If he made music that sounded anything like that then I definitely wanted to listen to him. Lou’s guitar playing (and Gregg Ginn’s), was what obliquely got me in to Jazz. I Heard Her Call My Name is weird, wonderful, worth listening to again and again for the solo alone, but you’d be missing Lou’s great frentic falsetto and some of his best rhythm playing on any record if you skipped to the good bit.
Sister Ray is of course the capstone. The epic. The monstrosity. The one that made the recording engineers walk out. It’s another story, like The Gift and Lady Godvia’s Operation, one that belies a literary sensibility that makes VU records relistenable like good books can be reread. You return to the stories you enjoy. I happen to enjoy this story of a murder at a brothel where some sailors are taking part in a drug fuelled orgy. It’s the little details that make it. A 16 minute long song would get boring otherwise, but it’s hard to be bored with Cale’s organ acrobatics, or Reed seeing how long he can hammer on and off a barre chord, while shouting about a ding dong. It’s easy to forget the VU had a sense of humour, but it’s hard not to laugh when, in the middle of an orgy, where a murder has just taken place, and the cops are on their way, someone is worried about the carpet getting stained. Reed was a gifted storyteller and it shows here, way before anything like Street Hassle, and it’s these stories that pushed boundaries and opened eyes just as much as the experimental musicianship.
I find White Light/White Heat worth coming back to again and again because of these grim, funny stories that are still funny on repeated listening. If you don’t get it, it’s self-indulgence. If you do get it, like I did, nearly a decade ago now, it’s very comforting to know that are people out there as weird as you, who make weird music and write weird stories like you want to hear, and not only did they get away with it, but people tried to rip them off wholesale. When I discovered there really was more than Led Zeppelin, my mind split open.