The year is 1965. America saw Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Social Security Act, creating Medicare and Medicaid for the economy. On Oct. 28, the landmark of the parabolic St. Louis Arch is completed. The music world in New York saw a virtually unknown band named The Velvet Underground record an album produced by avant-garde artist Andy Warhol. That album holds now classic songs such as, “I’m Looking for My Man” and “Heroin.” Over 30 years later, The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Their front man, Lou Reed, has had a successful solo career since his days of post-Velvet rock in 1971. He will perform music from his acclaimed album “Songs and Noise” tour on Thursday, Nov. 2 at the Christopher Cohan Center. The show is presented by Cal Poly Arts and begins at 8 p.m.
Cal Poly English professor James Cushing was 14-years-old in 1967 and purchased the first Velvet Underground record entitled “Andy Warhol,” which was released that year.
“It was the first rock music album that ever scared me,” Cushing said. He has been a fan of The Velvets and Reed’s solo career ever since. “For the 14-year-old me, it was a combination invitation and warning that the adult world is exciting and full of wonders and terrors, order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, and it was really a totally transformitive experience. I could have been scared of The Doors too, but I don’t think I was because their music was more based in the blues,” Cushing said.
The Velvet Underground’s unique sound was first released on their debut record in 1967. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker founded the band. They took their name from a book with the same title by Michael Leigh about sadomasochism. A number of songs were written about the topic, including “Venus in Furs,” which appeared on the first record.
“The album was coming from a place in human experience and consciousness that I was clearly not ready for yet,” Cushing said. “There was something manifestly sexual about it that didn’t have anything to do with dreams of innocent romance. There was this sense of hard narcotics as a part of daily life.”
That first album was a very realistic record. This realism is also heard in the music throughout their five-year career, even though no two Velvet records sound alike and nothing sounded like that first album. The early sounds were different on purpose. Reed wanted Tucker to “do something unusual,” so she turned her bass drum on its side, used mallets instead of sticks and rarely hit cymbals.
“It’s a very primitive sound,” Cushing said. “She (Tucker) was the anti-Ginger Baker, she was the least flashy.”
Reed and Cale also explicitly agreed not to use any blues chord changes and also used alternate tunings in order to make the guitars fit in with Cale’s viola, which he played inside of a bass.
“It was as though they were coming from a place in which everything (in music had already happened),” said Cushing. “As if the blues explosion of the 1960s was already over and this is what was done afterwards. They were in a way ahead of the avant-garde.”
The tunes and melodies were something that had never been heard before. It was a sort of post-modern rock, but before the existence of the postmodern movement in the 1970s with the Talking Heads and veteran Frank Zappa records. That sound continued onward into their sophomore record, entitled “White Light/White Heat,” released in 1968.
“There’s something about getting used to the shock of (their music) that I think is an interesting preparation for life,” said Cushing, who remembers when his daughter, Iris, turned 13. He wrote her a letter saying that high school would be tough and she would have to deal with all this shit. He wanted to give her something useful, that she could appreciate. The gift? All The Velvet Underground records.
“I told her to take these and cherish them and when things get bad, put them on. Some of the worst trauma she ever had, “Sister Ray” and “I Heard Her Call My Name” would always cool her out. Just that psychotic intensity of everything being turned up to 11 by a group of people who just don’t care. And they were doing all this crazy stuff because they were following their true inner nature.”
Future records included a self-titled album in 1969 which had a soft, unmassaged feel. Important tracks include gentler, folk sounds on “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Beginning to See the Light.” In 1970, the band, with different members and a more poppy sound, released a fourth album entitled “Loaded.” Their label, Atlantic Records, wanted a clean album loaded with hits, but at the time none of the songs made a name for them. Reed left the band halfway through the recording, but was credited with the music as he originally wrote it. Reed began a solo career a year after leaving the band.
“Reed always gave credit to literary sources, not just to Delmore Schwartz (a friend and English professor at Syracuse where Reed graduated) and Joyce, but Hubert Selby Jr. as well,” said Cushing.
Reed said in some interviews that one of the things he was trying to do was to bring that kind of hard-bitten, literary beat sensibility into popular music.
“What’s he’s ultimately doing with the Selby and the sadomasochism and the drugs, not a shock value as some people say, but there are really different concepts of popular music; one of them to be an escape from life and the other to be the enabler of a deeper engagement of life,” said Cushing, who says at some usually in the mid-20s, a person has to decide if they want to escape from life or be a part of it.
“Music and the arts can help you do either thing just as well or both together, which is a neat trick if you can make it. I think Reed is like Dylan; the escape is not the goal, but rather a redemptive engagement. The Beatles may be escapists in the sense that when you hear one of their mature masterpieces, when it’s kind of lifted into their world and leaves behind one’s own world. With the Velvet’s, one doesn’t do that. One enters into a dark, dangerous street that has somehow been made safe by guitars.”
Though a fan for nearly 40 years, Cushing has never seen Lou Reed or The Velvet Underground live, but when this show came about, he made it a priority.
“One of the things to do before you die,” said Cushing. “Acquire a familiarity with all of The Velvet Underground studio albums.”
Tickets for Lou Reed are available by phone (805) 756-2787 or online at www.pacslo.org.
Freelance writer Nick Coury is a fan of Reed and The Velvets and was introduced to them at 14 when he bought “Loaded.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommended Lou Reed Albums:
– Transformer (1972)
– The Blue Mask (1983)
– New York (1989)
– Songs For Drella (with John Cale, 1990)
– Animal Serenade (live 2004)