#293: The Velvet Underground, "White Light/White Heat" (1968)

You know who Foster Campbell is even if you don’t know him by name. You met him once in a hookah bar, or that time you got lost on the subway, or at an unsanctioned boxing match where you lost 250 dollars on a fight you are pretty sure was rigged.

He’s the guy who’s allowed to bring open containers into baseball parks, the guy who’s been sleeping on your friend’s couch for a month but your friend says he doesn’t know him. He knocked your sister up once. He went to school with your cousin.

I first met him when I was at a house party in this weird neighborhood, which is sort of Foster Campbell‘s natural habitat. Lefty, who got that name by doing things with his right hand you don’t even want to know about, had brought me to the party insisting I would love the scene. I think some things we had done together recently had given Lefty the wrong impression of what I was into, but I went anyway.

There were pictures of Easter Island heads on the wall and beautiful women walked around in their underwear and bathrobes and frowned. I’m not sure if they were hired to do so, or if they lived there and had just not been informed that there was a party going on around them. Neither would have surprised me. There was a guy painting a picture on an actual easel and he pretended not to notice the glue-huffing and dry-humping that was going on right next to him. Lefty ended up making out with this cisgender chick in the front hallway and I sort of hung around the untouched booze that was organized alphabetically on the kitchen table.

None of it would have bothered me too much if that record hadn’t been playing on the turntable. It was either Galaxie 500’s On Fire or a local band who was doing a pretty good impression of the Music Machine’s (Turn On) The Music Machine. Everyone was doing that garage rock thing that summer. The bass was humming and writhing and it sounded like it was recorded in a used Volkswagen. I went out back to sit on the porch and look out over the other buildings and other porches on the block, the ant farm of connected paths, alleyways, and backyards that make up every Chicago neighborhood.

He was already out there when I stepped onto the porch. And by “he” I mean Foster Campbell. I knew it was him, because I had heard he was coming to this party. Lefty might have said something about it, or maybe I heard someone talk about it when we first showed up.

You know what he was wearing. You’ve met him. He had a cool piercing, but not one that was too obvious or desperate. A tattoo snuck out from under his clothes. He seemed rumpled and like he needed a haircut, but he was still great looking.

I could have sat down across from him, but I wanted to lean against the siding so I could look out over the neighborhood and watch other people on their own porches. Something told me he wouldn’t mind if I sat down right next to him.

“I love that T-shirt,” he said. “I saw it when I first walked in. Hilarious.”

“Hey thanks,” I said and looked down at it as if I had to remind myself of which shirt I was wearing, though wearing it had been a very deliberate and tortured decision.

“Got a smoke?” he asked.

“I don’t smoke,” I told him.

“You didn’t come out here to smoke?” he asked. “I’ve been waiting for 30 minutes to bum one.”

“I’m pretty sure you can smoke inside.”

“No one smokes anymore,” he said and sighed the same way my dad did when he lamented how often basketball players traveled.

“I had to get out of there,” I explained. “I just couldn’t take that record anymore.”

“You don’t like the Velvet Underground?” he asked.

“I thought it was the Wipers or someone like that.”

“Naw way,” he said. “It’s Lou.”

“It sounds like they didn’t bother to rehearse,” I said, trying to dismiss the record.

“Who wants to rehearse when you’re in a band?”

The argument made some kind of strange sense coming from him. There was a puzzle-logic to it that made me want to hear the rest of the record. He bobbed his head along to the manic tempo and tapped his thigh to the slapping sounds that constituted the drum beat.

“This is the best one,” he said.

Minute one of “Sister Ray” must have been recorded at the perfect frequency for that apartment because when the 17-minute ode to drugs, oral sex, and obliviousness began it felt like we were on an elevator getting shot into space. My stomach lurched and my mouth dried up. I was sure that when I looked over the side of the porch I was going to see the Earth shrink and disappear. He nodded his head and smiled at me.

That’s when I decided to do it. That’s when I leaned over and tried to kiss him. He pulled back and looked at me with the sad eyes that had made me want to kiss him in the first place, but now made me want to punch him.

“Are you trying to kiss me?” he asked.

“The fact that you are asking me that is a pretty bad sign.”

“I sort of have a girlfriend,” he explained and kept his eyes on me in case I tried something else.

“Yeah,” I said, turning away from him and looking back out onto the labyrinth of Chicago backyards while Lou Reed sought a mainline, “I do too.”

The insistent guitars were my frustration. The cranky, thrumming organ was my embarrassment. We sat with that song playing for a long time. Longer than its Ulyssian run-time, it seemed.

When the record ended someone put on Joe McPhee’s Nation Time and the spell was broken. I looked over at Foster Campbell and smiled. He smiled back, but I could tell he was waiting for me to leave. It was my responsibility to go, I realized. I had been the one who had done something dumb and made everything all awkward and uncomfortable for us both. I stood up and pretended to stretch. He continued smiling, but not in a mean way. He didn’t look like a sly fox, pitying the dogs who could not catch him. He smiled in the kind and polite way you did on Valentine’s Day in third grade while everyone in class stuffed envelopes and tiny treats into the shoebox you had lovingly decorated with construction paper hearts and glitter glue.

I found Lefty and we left the party with a group of cute college kids who claimed to be the West Suburban College Debate Society. I tried to forget about Foster Campbell, but everyone talked about him all the way back to Lefty’s place.

When I think about that record now I always think of Foster Campbell and I wonder what happened to him. I’ve heard he’s working in a railyard in Wilmington and that he maybe owns a consignment shop in Tallahassee. Sometimes I wish I knew for sure. I’d like to ask him what he thinks about the jarring and spliced voices shouting back and forth during “Lady Godiva” or what the hell he thinks John Cale was talking about in “The Gift.” Mostly I just wish I smoked back then.

When you run into him, don’t mention that I was talking about him. He probably knows already, but still.

That party isn’t something I like to talk about all that much. Or even think about. You’re probably thinking, "What's the big deal? Who hasn’t made out with Foster Campbell?"

My answer to that is: Well, me, for one.

—Matt Meade