I Heart V.U.

The Velvet Underground (1965-1970)

— what a group. They were the pillars of Manhattan, and they confirmed many truths:

  • Mistakes are good.
  • Intricacy should be simple. It does not have to be limited to the concoctions of pure adornment.
  • “The nub sustained is the true epic.” – Professor Hans Proebing
  • Rock & roll achieves its highest meaning through performance.
  • There are a few select bands whose entire output can be said to inform each individual piece, and vice versa. The V.U. are one.


Some other things that made the group stand out:

  • They were realists.
  • Their rhythm and outlook were one.
  • They had a push ‘n’ pull that did not let up. They were poets of noise because they harmonized “bad” noise, and their signature was “non-diminished intensity through repetition.” They expanded rock & roll by stripping it down to essentials. (The same cannot be said for Lou Reed’s solo career.)


  • They were unabashedly white. The music was devoid of blackface; it was an antidote to the banality of rock. As such, their cool, arrant chic (on-stage and off) saw the phony spectacle of white shuck and jive for what it was.
  • Stressing all accents equally, they innovated the forcebeat — a stuffless, elemental vacuum.


  • If The Velvet Underground & Nico is an album of absinthe, White Light/White Heat is a fist full of mylar. (It’s a potboiler.) 1969 Live is a piece of buried treasure — as if the music had to ferment before the final ecstatic uncorking.
  • “We collide because we glide.” – Vivica Nasty, the star of V*gina Hills and Two C*cks For Sister Sara
  • John Cale (the dada noodle) and Mo Tucker (the heartbeat drum) are the poles around Lou Reed and his ostrich guitar. Sterling Morrison’s guitar is, well, sterling.


  • Each album is warmer than the last. By the time of Loaded, the V.U. were sliding into the sun.
  • The money was bad, but the lack of production is the best thing about them. That, or the fact that they have so much principle.

Lou Reed

The Velvet Underground was a special kind of dialogue (a New York conversation) in which a band of players and parts came and went at their own speed, but the focus remained the same: the triumph of the underdog. It was never just Lou.

But you couldn’t tell him that. In the 1970s, Lou was the transformer who grew up in public – a rock & roll suicide. He surrounded himself with sycophants, and he lost the plot. It was the sound of one hand clapping. There was a lot of candy floss, a lot of drugs, and a lot of product. He’d been happier with the V.U., bumping decadence, not standing for it. Oh Lou: the 70s was a long trip to A.A., and a slow decline from sing-speak to singing.

Still, the bitch is smart. He gave noir to rock; he made a trade in vicarious street life. It works because he’s a jude who, for different reasons (look them up), has the awareness and the access to put his irony in bold: He feels like a brother on the down-low, a black with the rap, but he knows that he’s a white lit, so he feels like s*it.

Truth is, Lou is nothing without his friends. (Andy Warhol taught him the art of celebrity, and David Bowie [the world’s most talented groupie] got him the bonhomie at RCA.) He also needs an editor. (He may try too hard, or not at all.) But that’s what makes Lou an item. He builds you up just to let you down. You keep on hoping he’ll walk back to Max’s Kansas City and bring the house down.

When I saw him at the Berkeley Community Theater in 2000, he did. It was the loudest show of my life. Lou was happy, the band was top, and he didn’t play in front of them. All in all, it was a good night.

He’s clean, and the base is back.


  • Lou is haunted by the V.U. Built for a stadium, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal is one of his best (live) albums, but four of the five songs are Velvets, and it clarifies the old work without making it sound fresh. (The V.U. was a stadium.) Most of the good bits on his records are V.U. covers, or songs that consciously draw on the myth — like the better part of Transformer, or Songs For Drella.


  • Berlin is hard to pin down. It’s almost a black joke, and “The Kids” and “The Bed” almost put it over. But the whole thing is lame. The sound is overripe and the “concept” lags. Lou, though, demands experience. As Jack Valenti would say, “Not for the squeamish or faint of heart.”
  • When the V.U. did “Sister Ray,” the permutations of ugly made it thump. When Lou did Metal Machine Music, the static was D.O.A., a complete wash. The record sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t tempt the airs. It’s boring. At the time, though, Metal Machine was the cap on his image.
  • Lou has never been fickle. His listeners have. Coney Island Baby “apologized” for Metal Machine, but it’s kind of depressing. On the German CD I have, the bottomless mix turns him into the ghost of the horse’s mouth; it lugs the fallout of emotional well-being in a way that’s deceptively warm and gentle. Lou is faking effortless digestion, and he’s suiting down for the bottom-line anger with himself.
  • Every now and then Lou has a tune that works, a tune that’s divorced from the hard stuff he did as a kid. (Rock & roll is the noise of mad youth. Therefore it’s arguably something to get over. If the bard has mellowed, his pen will do the same. See Lou, after The Blue Mask.) Sad songs are a line of growth: “Billy,” “Street Hassle,” “Magic And Loss.” It’s a long way from “Makeup” (1972) to “Women” (1982), whose guitar is a bid for peace. But the road to “Egg Cream” (1996) is much shorter. Lou always had a sense of humor.

About Jack Cormack

Email Jack at jackyboy916@gmail.com.