In 1968 John Sinclair of the band DC5 wrote that “rock and roll music is a weapon of cultural revolution.” But this overtly political attitude – emblematic of 1960’s music, or at least of the retelling of the story of sixties music – was becoming increasingly antithetical to a certain subset of the youth counterculture. Bob Dylan, who in the early 1960’s was the hero of protest music, regularly insisted by 1966 that he was no longer a “protest singer.” Yet the band that best exemplifies this reaction against overtly political music is the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground originally formed in 1965 on New York’s Lower East Side. Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison – the lead and rhythm guitarists, respectively – met at Syracuse University, where they lived across the hall from one another. John Cale, the band’s bassist, was born in Wales and studied music in London before coming to America. Maureen Tucker, the Velvets’ drummer, was the only non-university educated band member; like Reed and Morrison, she was from Long Island, and following high school she worked as a computer operator. Sterling Morrison, along with Reed, got into trouble with Syracuse’s mandatory ROTC. Cale also had disciplinary issues and was expelled from the Tanglewood Conservatory in the early 1960’s. Band members frequently experimented with drugs. In this respect, Reed, Morrison, Cale and Tucker were four angry, educated, middle-class white kids who were typical members of the youth counterculture.
The Velvets would come to embody this culture at once at its most aimless and its most artistic. Indeed, the Velvets’ unique musical style and lyrics reflect an insider understanding of the terrible loneliness that lay at the heart of the ostensibly community-based youth counterculture. In “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” as well as subsequent albums, “White Light / White Heat” (1968), “The Velvet Underground” (1969) and “Loaded” (1970), the Velvets explore the dark underside of the racial, political, and gender frustrations of the late 1960’s.
The Velvet Underground departed furthest from countercultural norm in their treatment of race. Over the course of four studio albums, only one song, “I’m Waiting for the Man,” described any aspect of black America. And the black America Lou Reed sings about isn’t very pretty or inviting: “Waiting for the Man” tells the story of a white kid going up to Harlem to buy drugs from a black drug dealer and the hostile response he receives. The singer finds himself in New York on Lexington Avenue and 125th Street (East Harlem) and is immediately accosted by the locals. “Hey, white boy, whatcha doin’ uptown,” they demand. “Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?” The song does not mythologize black-white relations: neither the white kid nor the blacks he encounters are pure of heart. There is an amoral nihilism at play; people go about their lives lacking any higher meaning, without belonging to any real group. The white kid just wants his fix – he doesn’t care about the ghetto, and the ghetto certainly doesn’t care about him.
The Velvets had a similarly apolitical and ambiguous message regarding new gender roles. The Velvets’ vision of the new feminist era is neither pretty nor staid. Spurning both feminist and anti-feminist paradigms, the Velvets’ music served as a critique of the repressed woman of the 1950’s as well as the fully liberated woman of the 1960’s. Lou Reed and his band-mates accepted that women had gained power, but they didn’t believe it to be the sort of power the feminist movement was after: it’s an almost devious, sexual power, with the capacity to cause immense emotional – and even physical – damage to themselves and their partners.
“Femme Fatale,” the third track on “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” is about a dangerously beautiful woman who seemingly exists only to torment the men in her life. “She builds you up to just put you down,” sings Lou Reed. “You better watch your step / she’s going to break your heart in two.” The woman is heartless, a master manipulator whose only goal is to inflict pain on the less-fair gender. “She’s going to smile to make you frown” Reed concludes. This “femme fatale” is a “free” woman only because she has embraced her own capacity – as a fully-formed, liberated woman, no less – to hurt her suitors and her lovers. Political and sexual freedom has transformed her into something of a demon.
“Venus in Furs,” immediately follows “Femme Fatale,” and further explores the shifting role of gender identity in the 1960’s. The song, written about a visit to a dominatrix, details a sadomasochistic experience. “Venus in Furs” begins with a regal beat, as a cello seems to celebrate the majesty and grandeur of the dominatrix. Here the Velvets truly bend traditional gender associations. Lou Reed sings: “Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather / Shiny leather in the dark / Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you / Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.” For most of America, sadomasochism was part of the dark underside of the gender revolution. But for the Velvet Underground, supposed sexual depravity was merely a means to sexual and spiritual rejuvenation. Indeed, only by visiting the dominatrix can the man “cure his heart”; only through nihilistic pain and suffering can the man – and the counterculture he may or may not represent – be healed.
The opening track of “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” the aptly-named “Sunday Afternoon,” is a morosely cheerful song. Overproduced, and opening with the cheerful sounds of a celeste’s bell-tones, “Sunday Morning” is replete with irony; it sounds very much like a happy-go-lucky Beach Boys song performed with a nasty hangover. Lou Reed opens flatly, “Sunday morning, praise the dawning” – an ostensibly cheerful sentiment – but before long his true message comes to the fore: “I’ve got a restless feeling / I don’t want to know.” On some level, Reed is making fun of pop music, using the form to create an ethereal echo, a violent refraction of the sunny ethos of hippie culture. Reed continues, “Sunday morning and I’m falling.” Here Reed encapsulates the restlessness of the counterculture: his own faux-cheer, like that of the New Left and the hippies, is easily pierced. Reed’s initial optimism is tainted by a larger sense of dread and unease.
“Doubt has replaced hopefulness,” Tom Hayden wrote in the Port Huron Statement. “Watch out, the world’s behind you,” echoes an anxious, uneasy Lou Reed in “Sunday Morning.” The Port Huron Statement – essentially the New Left’s founding statement of principles, written in 1962 – contained the following admonition:
The very isolation of the individual – from power and community and ability to aspire – means the rise of a democracy without publics. The great mass of people [are] structurally remote and psychologically hesitant with respect to democratic institutions.
It is this sense of remoteness from the political process that the Velvets echoed so deeply in their music. The Velvets and the SDS understood the same thing: without a participatory political community all that remained was the individual. Indeed, six years after the Port Huron Statement was first issued, this dread of powerlessness remained.
If politics and communal identity couldn’t provide meaning for the great mass of their intended audience, what, then, for the Velvet Underground, could replace it? The answer seems pretty clear: music can provide escape. In “Sweet Jane” (off of “Loaded,” the Velvets’ last recorded album), Lou Reed sings of Jack and Jane, two would-be lovers. As the “protest kids” are outside, Jack and Jane find meaning by listening to music on the radio. They “like to go out dancing,” and use music as an escape. Music is their only solace from the dread and hopelessness of the rest of society. “Life is just to die,” adds Reed, in a final, nihilistic flourish. But before death, there’s always music.
Drugs provided the other dark and semi-nihilistic path to meaning. In “Heroin,”
the beat waxes and wanes according to the rush of the “high,” giving charged meaning to the song as well as to its subject. As the singer puts a “spike into [his] vein,” he sings, “I’m gonna try for the kingdom if I can.” The apex of existence is to crush it entirely: “I’m gonna try to nullify my life,” declares Reed, just as he reaches the peak of his high, just as he achieves the “kingdom” he was trying for.
“White Light White Heat” similarly describes the thrills and pitfalls of drug use, though with specific reference to speed. As a piano wails away behind a heavy bass beat, Reed sings that “white light lightens up my eyes / it fills me up with surprise.” Speed is thrilling; it’s moving and powerful. But by the song’s end Reed is crashing. He sings: “Sputter mutter gonna go kill their mother.” Death and thoughts of death are the final result of drug experimentation, as Reed depicts the dark side of the hippie drug culture. This duality of drugs – their capacity for both good and bad – is apparent within the larger experience of the 1960’s. Drugs that had created an aura of peace and love at Woodstock instead resulted in fear and death at Altamont.
Ultimately, the Velvet Underground portrayed a counterculture adrift, at once romantic and nihilistic, self-destructive and well-meaning. The Velvets frequently critiqued that culture’s most dearly-held stereotypes, holding up a cynical lens to the idealistic politics of 1960’s. On some level, the Velvets served as a perverted reality-check on the counterculture that had spawned them. In the beautiful and melancholic “Oh Sweet Nuthin’,” – the final song off their final studio album – Reed portrays the counterculture at its most aimless: his subjects are “thrown out in the street,” don’t have “a shirt on their back,” and “can’t tell the night from day.” “Oh sweet nuthin’,” Reed sings again and again, giving way from the idealism to despair.
In 1969 Julius Lester, a former SNCC activist, expressed similar fears. He wrote that “the ‘movement’ of the Seventies will be comprised of bitter, disillusioned idealists who lost the dream.” The Velvet Underground provided a window into the despair of people like Lester. Indeed, when the anti-war movement and the New Left and the Summer of Love collapsed and the hippies and leftists and ex-protesters turned into 1970’s punks and hipsters, they had the Velvet Underground to thank for articulating their sense of powerlessness and transforming it into an individualistic sense of cool. And for us today, helpless to affect the disastrous course our leaders have chosen, the Velvet Underground’s message has a special resonance: the best politics might be no politics at all.