Monday, December 24, 2007

No. 292: White Light/White Heat

Band: The Velvet Underground
Album: White Light/White Heat
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: If nothing, it's my favorite VU album. In an odd juxtaposition, the record has both the longest (“Sister Ray”) and also the most punk things (“I Heard Her Call My Name”) the Velvets ever die.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not accessible, on any level. It's a tough record to enjoy if you're not ready for it. Seventeen minutes of a blues riff and lyrics about cross-dressing and heroin does not make for radio-friendly listening. Similarly, “The Gift” is macabre and an experiment.
Best song: I'd suggest “The Gift,” if only because of Cale's haunting reading. “Lady Godiva's Operation,” also sung by Cale, is similarly awesome.
Worst song: I don't love “Her She Comes Now.”
Is it awesome?: Yes. Absolutely.

Coming off the band's heavy involvement with Andy Warhol and Nico, the Velvets toured all around the country, improvising and experimenting with feedback. The result? “White Light/White Heat.”

I love this album, personally. The subject matter of nearly every song is creepy or dirty, both adjectives that could easily describe Lou Reed in every way. “Lady Godiva's Operation” is a sweet-sounding song that is lyrically about a drag queen's botched operation that turns into a lobotomy. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is full of guitars that are dragged out and nasty. The title track is a frenetic rush of guitars and a lyric glorifying the use of crank, while a pounding player-style piano finishs the song.

“The Gift” is unlike any Velvets song in both the way the song is constructed (a short story written by Reed and read by Cale) and the way it was recorded (Cale in one channel with the band in the other). The song was recorded that way in order for listeners to either enjoy the music or just Cale's reading of the story. Which, really, is kind of cool.

The album, of course, is famous for “Sister Ray.” The song's base – a bluesy jam called “Booker T.” that the Velvets had worked on during their first tour – rolls along as the band improvs on the guitar, organ and drums. The lyrics, of course, are standard Reed fare; Heroin, transvestites and sex. It's 17 minutes of awesome; Long and interesting as ever.


Oddly enough, the album hit the Billboard 200 charts and got as high as... 199. That's kind of cool.


padraig said...

The self-titled album is my favorite (aside from Live: 1969 - the 9 minute version of "What Goes On" is an absolute killer) but WL/Wh is up there. It's like it's SO inaccessible that it reduces my brain to mush and 17 minutes of three banging chords and Lou Reed warbling about his ding-dong is pure freaking magic. It's hard to fathom that it came out on major label in 1968 - I mean, just five years after the FBI investigated the Kingsmen cause they thought "Louie Louie" had a line about giving head, Lou Reed is miserably grating on about transexual hookers and speed more or less unhindered.

Justin said...

I wrote my Senior Lit Thesis on the Velvet Underground, comparing their music and lyrics to the Decadent Literature movements of 18th & 19th Century France and England. Beautiful and repellent and noisy and profane and oddly compelling stuff on both fronts.

I think I'll go look for that essay now.