#13: The Velvet Underground, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" (1967)

13 VU & Nico.jpg

I think of Lou Reed the way I think of this novel I read once called The Spook Who Sat By the Door. In it, the first black inductee into the CIA in the mid 1960s compliantly takes a desk job, doing his work in Langley without fuss, eventually gaining all the skills he needs in combat and subterfuge. Once he can quit without raising a fuss, he moves back to his home of Chicago, and starts a paramilitary group that revolts and liberates urban Black America. They made a film of it a few years later—and much like The Velvet Underground & Nico, the suits at the top had trouble figuring out how to market this work of art. It veered so far away from what they expected, in directions they weren’t prepared to navigate. People just stared at the thing, dumbfounded.

Sunday morning brings the dawn in
It's just a restless feeling by my side

Lou Reed, as it turns out, cranked out pop tunes at a label called Pickwick Records for others to record—rather like I used to imagine George Jetson making sprockets—before he released this album, and several tracks of the album have melodies that sound almost broom-clean and inoffensive, like they could have been written and performed by any other competent pop band of the day if they were cursed with a too-cool attitude and blessed with shit equipment. It’s as if Lou Reed wanted a censor from the label to hear the melody to “Sunday Morning,” nod approvingly, and walk off to lunch before track two.

Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind

Even “I’m Waiting For the Man,” the second track on the album, took several listens before I understood its context when I first heard it as a college freshman. It’s got a consistent, upbeat tempo, a feel like it’s too cool for its own listener. It almost flies by you, which is the right move for a song written in 1967 about a drug deal. In his pop-friendly songs, Lou Reed doesn’t sing to beat you over the head with lyrical meaning. It’s there if you want it:

I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, one, two, five
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I'm waiting for my man

A few pop-friendly songs are sprinkled elsewhere in the album—“Femme Fatale,” “Run Run Run,” “There She Goes Again.” It’s not hard to feel what the band felt when their producer, Andy Warhol, insisted that they take on German model Nico as a member of the group for this album. She feels tacked-on in a couple of her tracks, in the way, an imposition and a concession. She’s there to give the band a feel that Warhol thought would make them more marketable. She isn’t there organically—and while she obviously has agency in this and obviously doesn’t quite work, I can’t help but feel real empathy for her and the difficulties. I feel like she’s doing her best in a group that didn’t have the same vision for their music.

This is also how I feel about Velvet Underground’s place in the market. The first time I heard the album, years and years ago, I interpreted the pop-heavy songs as an exercise in pretension, even banality. This had to be partly due to its association with Andy Warhol’s crowd. I thought of the corporatism I perceived with the Campbell’s soup can paintings and such, and projected the contempt I felt for it onto the Velvet Underground. When Warhol got popularized, a lot of folks tried to see a Marxist-leaning motivation in his works. They assumed he was critiquing American consumerism, trying to subvert it somehow—that there was something more beyond the cans. I hear from people close to Warhol that he instead admired modernity as he conceived of it. He simply liked the soup, and the convenience and succinctness it represented. He thought this was the best of all possible worlds, and couldn’t see past it. When his work caught fire, he had his assistants silkscreening soup cans and celebrity faces as cogs in a runaway machine, and funneled the profits into ventures like the Velvet Underground.

Unlike with Warhol, who produced The Velvet Underground & Nico, I think there really is a hidden transcript available for people who peel slowly and see, as the album cover suggests with its removable banana sticker. A closer listen, undertaken by an older version of me, revealed the genius of the system Lou Reed has engineered to hide bare feeling. It’s leaking out the pain in spurts—regularly, in manageable chunks, until they crescendo into “Heroin.” This is all about pretending you’re not broken until the odd moment where you get called out, and I think Lou Reed knows it. The system is working as designed. There was a kind of woundedness, a gore that the contemporary market of rock wouldn’t bear to see. Lou is trying to get you to look at it the way Allen Ginsberg wanted you to see his generation’s best minds “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Eventually I looked it up, by the way, and my memory was wrong. George Jetson worked one hour, twice a week. He wasn’t a workhorse. His was a fully-automated luxury type of future—depicted in the ‘60s on prime time television, when that promise still came easy. He made sprockets the way I’ve been writing poetry these last few years.

*

I remember walking down the side streets at night in Washington, DC about twelve years ago with The Velvet Underground & Nico blaring in my headphones. I’d just left another party where everyone else—including friends I knew and loved—was much more comfortable in their skin than I was. They’d drink more whiskey, smoke more weed, flirt without being a visible wreck about it once it started to work. Hell, they could talk about sports and not sound like dolts. That was never me—even if I managed to pull one of these off, it was performance. I emulated people I thought of as successful. In the end, once I no longer had the energy to pretend, I felt alone.

The route back to our apartment was sometimes three miles home when there wasn’t a bus route available or affordable. I was used to trekking on foot across the city in a way that would give me both exhaustion and anxiety now. At the time, though, I just felt like a loser. I felt like I had tried, and failed, and was trying to see purpose or nobility in any part of that failure. It suited me. I’d tried to be thin and well dressed. Failing that, well-liked, funny, or just not alone. When it felt like I couldn’t make those stick, I settled for getting high—and failed at that, too.

I’ve been lucky enough not to break all my connections with friends and loved ones. I’ve been lucky enough that none of my demons have ruined me completely. I know people that have. For them, time must not seem cyclical. It must erupt and then peter out, like the tempo and drum line in “Heroin,” over and over. I’ve always wanted to believe that progress is an essential part of time—we get stronger, smarter, better. We grow, we heal. Nothing like an addiction to bend that lie to the truth. You will do this—and when you are tired of it, revolted by it, seduced by hope, you might still do this.

Even the name Velvet Underground suggests something refined, luxurious and pointless in the midst of something serious, looming, something both terrible and necessary. All along, while the eyes are seeking, while ears are to the ground, we sing joyfully about “Sunday Morning.” So long, at least, as the heart is not willing to listen to the words that try to blend in and pass by. But inside, we are scarred and in denial about it. With songs about BDSM, drug deals, and the thrill and lows of addiction, the Velvet Underground helped make rock a little more like poetry—and a little more acceptable for artists not to simply pretend to be the lie that sold records.

*

“Heroin” gives me the feeling of being unmoored under clouded skies. Without allies, without understanding, without a center to ground you or the motivation to push past it. I guess I just don’t know. This is how I’ve felt about my writing for the better part of a decade. Sure, I’ll have spurts of a month or two where I’m productive, writing poems and sending them out feverishly for publication, hitting the cafe with my laptop on weekends. I’ve written essays for publications like this one. I wrote my now-wife a chapbook of poems as part of my marriage proposal last year. But these were the exception. My default position is fear—namely, of failure. It’s paralyzing, and corrosive. You soak up the time with Netflix, Reddit, gaming. You forget that you said “tomorrow” yesterday.

Better part of a decade. I’ve been that way ever since I fell out hard at the end of my MFA program in 2012. I wanted to follow a path similar to that of colleagues I thought were on the way to success as young writers. That meant publishing books, entering contests, maybe getting a teaching job. Maybe for me, it’d involve a little more political activism than most, but that wasn’t essential to the forty-year plan. Nearer to graduation, I learned that a lot, if not most, start out teaching several sections of English composition, for peanuts, without health insurance (if they get the job). I learned how many were stuck in adjunct positions for which tenure was a dream, and how saturated the market was for writers looking for a place in academia. I know people since that have done it or are still doing it. For financial and health reasons, I couldn’t make that choice for myself.

All along, I had issues with the elitism I saw among some in the poetry community. Even with the influence of the great professors and students I met, I wasn’t sure there was any way to democratize my poetry and make a living doing it—and I didn’t want to try to monetize it if it was only going to be read by people privileged enough to teach it or study it. I was angry with a society that would kick the Occupy movement to the ground and expect so many of us to plead contentment with meager wages and nonexistent healthcare. Hell, I was terrified, and driven semi-underground. Most of that I might have weathered, though, if that had been the sum of it.

Sometimes, a wild narcissist appears—one who takes you under his wing for a while, shows you how to accomplish feats you didn’t know the first thing about, dominates the conversation in every room, encourages you to build trust and dependence in the dynamic between you and them. Then, when you’re no longer useful, they’re gone—and you’re left with confusion, some righteous anger, and a complex that assures you that you can’t do it without them. When it all imploded, several people were affected pretty deeply. All of them had an impact on my writing and my sense of myself as an artist, and I wasn’t even the most hurt.

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
On a sailor's suit and cap

I graduated right in the midst of this, and even on the day I received my degree, with family in attendance, needing to feel joyful for the cameras and those who drove so far, I felt a hollowness. The fallout of this re-framed everything for me. I realized the power of what I’d been subjected to, how oblivious I’d been under while its thrall. Mostly, I felt a fool, and developed major trust issues. Those doubts, perhaps without logical reason, extended to the writing world, and my participation in it.

I know that Warhol built a collective around himself, gathering people he thought were interesting or useful and either promoting their efforts or attempting to craft them along the lines he saw fit. It’s the sort of community that can either feed you inspiration and opportunities, or prove you don’t belong. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is allegedly about one of his get-togethers. Warhol clearly thought Lou Reed and John Cale were talented, and wished them the best in shepherding the formation of the Velvet Underground’s first album. But he pushed the Velvet Underground towards pop-friendly songs, booked them in venues friendly to the Factory art scene. He grafted a well-meaning but mismatched “chanteuse,” Nico, onto the band. All of it suggested that Warhol wanted them to be successful on his terms.

I wouldn’t write a word for months after I received my MFA, keeping in touch with only a handful of students and professors. I moved home into my old bedroom, sunk myself into television, video games, and post-rock music. When my savings ran out, I got a job with the state government, the most available employment I could find with health benefits and stable prospects. A year after that I moved out, kept climbing up the state career ladder, and met the woman who would become my wife. All along, writing never became more than an occasional act, never something I engaged in for more than a month or so at a time, with six fallow months or more in between. Spurts of hope and activity, trying to regain lost ground, followed by disillusionment, and a fear of failure. Inevitably, I’d let that urge to write poetry dry up until an opportunity or appeal from a friend forced my hand. It never became necessary again, and I think that’s because I’ve been willing it to stay gone.

Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils of this town
And of himself and those around

I’ve never fully nailed down this fear that keeps me paralyzed, locked in the same pattern of “short attack, long retreat.” Is it self-centered? Is it proof that I’m not over what happened seven years ago? Could be. I went to a reading by the poet Carolyn Forché a couple months ago—a big step, because she is a legend to me, and it felt like a way to begin participating in this community once again. In the audience, I saw someone a few rows ahead that looked, from the back, exactly like the person I’d hoped not to see. At that moment, I had an anxiety attack that I tried to hold back from being visible to everyone sitting near. Even the momentary, misguided notion that it might be him roiled me with fear, anger, shame.

Maybe it could be that the fantasy I have of making a difference in the world, making an impact with my writing, is only sustainable in my mind if I never really commit to it. Or, after all these years, part of me is still convinced that I can’t make it without dependence on a close artistic community, a mentor, or even an idol of the poet I wanted to be. Maybe it’s because I was projecting the hypocrisy I saw in a few people onto all of the school-centered poetry world, as a way of shielding myself from being burned again.

When the album didn’t catch fire, I’m to understand the Velvet Underground fired Andy Warhol. I’m honestly a bit jealous that they got the chance. Afterward, their subsequent albums didn’t receive major acclaim or popularity for years—but the copies that sold? They were sold to the right people. Brian Eno reportedly once said that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought the record went out and started a band.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door went anonymous and laid low for as long as it took, I suppose. By the book’s end, they were impossible to ignore.

*

I bought my wife a record player for Mother’s Day this year, since her old one broke during our move and she still keeps an LP collection. Our son is three, loves music, and can’t buy his own presents yet, so I talked it over with him, and a turntable with a Prince album seemed the way to go. That’s her favorite musician, and it tracks with how I see her. My wife is incisive, empathetic, bold and unafraid to tell you how she feels. She’s been broken in her own ways, too, having known the power of a narcissist to warp you. She’s healed in the broken places—but even that requires recognition that scars count as healing. She is my living embodiment of what poetry did for me once, what Rainer Maria Rilke expressed in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

I know that during one of the tracks for the album, Nico tried over and over to record her vocals and each time, she couldn’t get her voice quite right. She can bellow like the best of them, but her bandmates wanted this to be vulnerable and comforting. In the wake of repeated failures, she started to cry, tried to give up. The rest of the band said she should give it one more go and if it didn’t work, fuck it. They’d move on. On the last chance, she did it perfectly. Funny enough, Andy Warhol originally wanted the Velvet Underground to put a big scratch in the middle of the record that would lead it to skip over and over when Nico sung the refrain, I’ll be your mirror.

It would do that forever, unless you moved the needle yourself.

—Benjamin Walker