Next time you sit down to listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico, pay attention to the clothes, the appearance. They're important. There's the dope dealer dressed in black, the femme fatale with false-colored eyes, the whip wielding dominatrix in ermine and shiny leather boots, Seasick Sara in her hobnail boots, and that sad girl in a "hand-me-down dress from who knows where," heading out to all tomorrow's parties -- probably her last party. The dress will become a shroud. On a record where death oozes from every groove, everyone wears the clothes they'll be buried in. Welcome to a pageant for losers who are anything but beautiful.
As most of its fans know, one of the most influential records in rock history did not exactly have success written all over it. Comprised of writer and (mostly) lead singer Lou Reed, his co-founder John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker, the Velvets hoped to make a name for themselves by becoming the house band for Andy Warhol's psychedelic road show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol "produced" the band's first record, although his main impact appears to have been in adding Nico, a stunningly beautiful German model who had been part of the eye-candy in Fellini's La Dolce Vita a few years earlier. Call it bad singing, call it haunting beauty, but Nico's breathy vocals and imperfect grasp of English phrasing added a certain worldly dimension to several of the group's songs, which were already unique in both perspective and their varyingly sparing and daring execution.
But who cared? They were a gang of Lower East exiles trying to make a dent in a California world. As soon as it was released in March of 1967, the record tanked. As The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll points out, 1967 was "the heyday of Haight-Ashbury" and the number of psychedelic bands in the San Francisco Bay Area alone ranged anywhere between 500 and 1,500. Record buyers, also known as young people, were far too absorbed in the kind of life-is-a-druggy-blissful-wonder aesthetic typified by the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Love and -- of course -- the Beatles, whose Sgt, Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just come out. (This may account for Reed's animosity toward the Beatles' classic, as well as his opinion that it wasn't nearly as good as the Velvets' debut.) Only a comparative handful bothered to listen to this incredible downer, but as Brian Eno has said -- and every article about the band has quoted since -- everyone who did started a band. The band that was, arguably, the first "alternative" band, was an alternative to the prevailing festive mood. Rather than joining the party, their first album announced the party's over. It's the La Dolce Vita of rock.
With it's tinkling opening refrain, "Sunday Morning" sounds as if it could be playing on a music box in a little girl's room and, despite the fact that it is sung by Reed, the song's first-person perspective seems to be that of a little girl who grew up way too soon -- grown up, moved out, moved in and got trashed. She's waking up, probably after a party, probably hung over, and not at all hopeful about her prospects:
Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It's just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind
This is not a Sunday morning in which she'll be connecting with God or faith or peace. She approaches it with a sense of dread, dread for the fact that life is exhausted, played out, that there isn't a whole lot more living to do. In some sense, and whether this was on Lou Reed's mind or not, I don't know, but the song brings to mind Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning," in which a woman finds herself contrasting the reality of earth and (for Stevens) the imaginary world of Christianity. Stevens' poem is full of death, too; but in death, in the fact that nothing is permanent, that what lives, dies, Stevens finds the essence of beauty, that part of what makes a thing beautiful is that it won't last forever, that it's here today and gone tomorrow, just like human existence, and if there is no hope of heaven, there is the joy of earthly existence:
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.
Reed seems to be taking that same woman and yanking from her even that much hope. Reed returns to this theme a few songs later, with the brilliant "All Tomorrow's Parties" (a classic recording as well as a great song). Under the Teutonic spell of Nico's voice, the song is about a habituŽ of the party circuit with nothing to wear to her next appearance. The song takes a social dilemma and turns it into a question of eternity. All she has are the "silks and linens of yesterday's gowns." She has whored herself out, and she's no longer amusing, no longer of any interest to anyone. Her party days are up, and so is her life. The song frames her life in the course of a weekend bender: she starts out beautiful on Thursday and by Sunday she's a figure of ridicule, "for whom none will go mourning." By the final chorus, we finally know that by the next party she'll be a corpse. This may or may not be the same girl who shows up as the "little tease" in "Femme Fatale" or "There She Goes Again" or the "whiplash girl-child" -- kitten with a whip, perhaps? -- of "Venus in Furs." Women, weak and strong, play a role in a good half of the album's songs, but everyone on the record is vulnerable.
(Who is that girl? My guess is Edie Sedgwick. And if those songs, as well as "Femme Fatale" and "There She Goes Again" weren't directly about her, they absolutely were her prophecy. Of course, they were Nico's prophecy too.)
The songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico typify Reed's career somewhat: character sketches that find whatever eloquence is to be had in denizens of both street-life and high-life, on their way down. Sometimes, as in "I'm Waiting for the Man" the two mix: a white kid heads to the bad side of town to score some dope. The locals think he's there for cheap pussy: "Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?/ Hey white boy, chasing our women around?" He's there for another kind of thrill, and the song -- against a jabbing guitar riff and pounding piano -- focuses on both his anticipation and release. The songs that follow echo a similarly desperate desire for death by orgasm.
"I am tired, I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years," says the flagellant in "Venus in Furs." "I wish that/I was born a thousand years ago," says the junkie in "Heroin." Both want something just pleasantly lethal enough to push them over the edge for good.
"Venus in Furs" is a somewhat seedy song that's full of cliched S&M regalia (though they certainly weren't rock cliches in 1967). But the song goes beyond the familiar scenery: the flagellant, not unlike the party girl, is a victim of his own excess. Sex has turned into little more than a series of degradations; now he's at the final one, begging a dominarix for the pain that will remind him he is alive. The junkie in "Heroin" also wants to feel alive, to "feel like a man," but he also wants to "nullify my life." Getting high makes him feel not only madly heroic ("I feel just like Jesus' son") but also like he's flying off on some great adventure on a clipper ship. As he sings, the guitar races wildly ahead, mimicking the poison soaring through his veins and emptying out the pleasure centers of his brain.
Is there a salvation that lasts, beyond the usual tired forms? Reed suggests there is, in what I prefer to think of as the album's real closer. (I always skip the final two cuts, "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son," noisy, free-form experiments that serve to do little more than show where the band was headed, with the double-barrel sonic assault of White Light/White Heat.)
"I'll Be Your Mirror" is one of the tenderest songs in Reed's career and the sole hopeful note on a pretty sad record. Against a lilting melody, the voice here is one of reassurance; one lover to another promising to reflect what's best rather than what's worst -- the one person in life that not only sees through your pretense, but likes what she sees:
When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you
Granted, this may be one junkie talking to another, or maybe one recovering junkie talking to another. Maybe they met at a clinic. What's important is that one will be there when the other awakes, a reminder that there's some kind of genuine life beyond all tomorrow's parties.