On Velvet and Beyond

Velvet Underground_Universal1By Blaine Schultz

“I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are in case you don’t know.”

Lou Reed, who died October 27, wrote those lyrics early in his career with the Velvet Underground.  For better or worse, in many ways he lived them.

To many listeners the Velvets’ four studio and two live albums set the standard for intelligent rock and roll.  Debuting in 1967 amid the flower-power hippies, Reed’s outfit never stood a chance, resembling, as they did, renegade beatnik bikers.  Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention may have shared a label (Verve Records), but their cartoonish cynicism was no match for the Velvets’ dose of reality.

With a college background in literature, Reed always aimed higher (sorry).  “Heroin” played out as a non-judgmental depiction of the drug experience, with the music rising and falling to match the lyrics.  On other songs Reed chronicled the lives of New Yorkers he encountered as part of Andy Warhol’s social circle.

One can only imagine how that freak show was interpreted in those pre-internet days in the working class upper Midwest, if it even registered at all.

Reed’s musical background was steeped in R&B, doo-wop, and free jazz. It was the latter that gave him license to play some of the most imaginative, rude, intense and tender guitar parts recorded in rock and roll.

The band’s second album White Light/White Heat remains the non plus ultra of sound and fury in popular music.  Forty-five years down the road, and very few artists have even approached the seventeen-minute sustained blast of “Sister Ray.”  The album is being reissued in December as a three-disc set.  Maybe the world is finally catching up.

Leaving the Velvet Underground after 1970’s Loaded (which is not loaded with hits), Reed lay low before beginning a solo career.  His biggest chart success, “Walk on the Wild Side” came in 1972.  Hearing this song on WNAM radio, my teenage ears heard a catchy pop song, but didn’t anyone note the references to drag queens and blowjobs?

Around this time I started buying Creem from Doering’s Super Valu, our neighborhood grocery store in Menasha. Reading Lester Bangs’ interviews with Reed, it was hard to tell what was fact and what was a put-on. In these legendary articles, Bangs accused Reed of wasting his talent.  While there were high points, Reed’s solo albums careened stylistically, often coming off as too self-conscious for his own good.

In hindsight it was easy to see that Bangs made sense.  While the personality of the band evolved, each of the four Velvet Underground albums is distinctive.  During one memorable after-bar music discussion, I was championing the Velvets as the greatest, when a friend shut me down by asking, “Which Velvet Underground do you mean?” Touché.

Yet when he was on, Reed nailed it.  The Berlin LP and songs such as “Coney Island Baby,” “Street Hassle,” and “The Bells” proved Reed just might need a challenge. When punk rock hit, Reed was fairly hailed as a godfather.

In 1982 Reed got his challenge from guitarist Robert Quine.  As a fan he made bootleg recordings of the Velvet Underground (Later released as The Quine Tapes). With Quine on board, Reed agreed to take his guitar playing seriously again.  The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts found a revitalized Reed writing some of his strongest material and going toe-to-toe with Quine on dueling Stratocasters.

Did this music strike a nerve?  With some friends, I made the trek from Eau Claire to Milwaukee on a weeknight to see Reed and Quine perform.  I long ago forgot about losing a night of sleep, but the show is etched in my mind.

Sans Quine, Reed’s output was back on the roller coaster until 1989’s New York, a tour de force that is as vital as this morning’s NY Times.  The following year Reed reunited with Velvets collaborator John Cale, releasing Songs for Drella, a tribute to Andy Warhol.

Against all odds the Velvet Underground regrouped, and the European tour was captured with a live album and VHS release.  While Reed’s heavy-handed leadership would ultimately sink the ship, just take a listen to the seven-minute “Hey Mr. Rain” to hear the alchemy this band was still capable of conjuring.  On this track Reed’s guitar and Cale’s viola venture into the rarified air of Coltrane/Dolphy or Reinhardt/Grappelli

Reed’s final decade found him working hard as ever, releasing live albums (including the full Berlin album), setting music to the words of Edgar Allen Poe, and collaborating with the likes of Metallica and his wife Laurie Anderson. He even recorded music for his daily Tai Chi.

Appleton native Jon Blick is dj-ing the Thursday morning graveyard shift on Milwaukee radio station WMSE 91.7. As the clock turned to Halloween, Blick opened his pledge drive show with three Reed cuts and said if it were not for Reed’s music, this station would sound very different––from the dj’s to the local bands to the “alternative” music scene that was fertilized by Reed’s music.

Sha la la, man. Thanks, Lou.

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