I believe today was the third time I’ve listened to to this record in 2018. I’ve worn it out over the years, and 36 years since I first was able to lay my hands on it–it was out of print during my formative years–my enthusiasm for it is undimmed. For a time, it was my least favorite of the four regular-issue “true Velvets” studio albums (plus the deep, deep desert-island-pick 1969 Velvet Underground Live): I used to feel Nico’s presence and the last two tracks really marred it, as well as that Lou’s writing was far improved by The Velvet Underground and Loaded. In fact, I wondered why it seemed to be the most famous VU album of them all–they clearly got better, right?
My love for The Velvet Underground and Nico has evolved. Though my musical tastes are very wide-ranging, and though I have a hunger for any work of art about unexplored and taboo territory– epater la bourgeoisie, bring it on!–I am honestly one of the squarest, straightest dudes on the planet. The mere existence of BDSM culture makes me giggle; I’d never shoot anything into my arm (gimme a beer!); I’ve never encountered a dealer except for a few brief seconds up the street from Poe’s old walk-up in Baltimore (I giggled and waved him away); my gender and sexual identities might as well be birthmarks (for the record, sometimes I think they actually are for us, but sometimes most definitely not). I guess what I’m saying is, though I love Lou’s writing in general, and on this album appreciate its expressions of remorse, compassion, insecurity, desperation, catharsis, and epiphany, I’m definitely not as stimulated by the subject matter he presents on this album as I used to be. I also used to think his artistic persona was the pinnacle of cool, and that the personae he created for his songs were pure genius; just engaging with those inventive illusions was extremely exciting, since I had a slim chance of meeting such folks in reality. I am not demeaning these past enthusiasms–they are the output of genius, a genius I still think had more amazing creations ahead.
What I go to The Velvet Underground and Nico for these days is the noise, from Cale’s celeste on “Sunday Morning” to Nico’s three drones (I don’t hear them as singing, I hear them as pure sound) to my favorite rhythm guitars in music history (true for me throughout this group’s recordings) to the breaking glass and vacuum cleaner-like sounds in “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” Threaded throughout: that ominous Cale viola–on “Venus in Furs,” it sounds as if it’s advance fanfare for Yeats “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem. It’s the sound that’s most exciting, and most original, especially since its abrasions, distortions, and explosions are integrated into palatable pop structures (for the most part), including a Motown rip. I usually get up to turn up the stereo when “Death Song” and “European Son” approach; I admit I used to skip that pair fairly frequently, and now they’re fave raves.
More than anything else on this immortal record, the noises are what meaningfully jolt me out of myself these days. Pure pleasure might be counterrevolutionary; does that mean impure pleasure is revolutionary? In this case, the impurities are those committed against euphony, an artistic crime I’ve come to treasure that reminds me of the limits of a square and straight ear.
I also spent some time with Restless Records’ You’re Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson. Though it does not include Roky’s groundbreaking work with The 13th Floor Elevators, it’s a neat, well-selected single-disc tour of the man’s demented but often moving solo work. I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll say it again: Erickson is in the top strata of history’s white rock and roll singers–yep, he belongs with Jerry Lee, Elvis…name your own top four and just add this Austinian. His range extended from blood-curdling screams to sweet, lullabye-like Hollyisms; in the spaces between, he could drive an uptempo number to a Little Richard-level intensity, and always present was a hint of his Texas drawl–don’t you like to hear place in a singer’s attack? None of those qualities would have mattered much if he didn’t also write indelible, dream-invading songs that would have occurred to no one else. I imagine most folks would chalk up their unique strangeness to mental illness; I have no research to support this, but I’d like to believe that, at least on some level, Erickson was engaged in a conscious, intentional creative process that had nothing to do with his psychological state or the drugs that might have been in his system (at the time of creation, or prior). I might have actually reached for this compilation because its contents tend to make better sense in Trump’s America:
Hmmm…maybe not so loony after all, eh?
Called upon on my Facebook wall to “explain” Wayne Cochran, I got caught up in some clips of the mightily-coiffed Sixties stage-shaker, who mos def was James Brown-influenced (to say the least, perhaps) but definitely had his own kind of thing. Enjoy this quick Cochran playlist, and pass the hairspray: