White Light/White Heat
is a six-song album by a New York band and an ugly album at that. It's not a matter of finding that hidden, inner beauty; there is no inner beauty on this album. White Light/White Heat
stands against beauty, like Frankenstein masquerading behind the withered portrait of Dorian Grey. And while beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, anything in the world can be quantified and standardized to a point-nine-nine-nine degree sense of objectivity, if so desired. Humans are easy to please. We're intrinsically attracted to certain ratios of size, distance, shape and symmetry.
That's why White Light/White Heat
is notable. Because society most commonly praises a homogenized beautiful. A plain, featureless beauty. It's an ideal that says beauty comes from error-free execution. And there's certainly no fun in that.
It is a little vexing, though. White Light/White Heat
parades against the idea of objective beauty and against those who might pursue it. But at the same time, it's regarded as objectively ugly. White Light/White Heat
is not symmetrical. It's uncommon and it's definitely not plain. To reiterate, it's one consciously ugly somnabitch. White Light/White Heat
lacks polish and grace, it features laissez faire production, and it shows a remarkable lack of commercial direction from all parties involved. And thank God for that. While White Light/White Heat
is notable for being ugly, it endures for the very same reason.
White Light/White Heat
is perhaps the premiere instance of rock and roll rubber necking. It's become the b'te noire of the peace and love generation, that one ***ed up denizen in the back of the class, clad in black, seething transvestite fumes, eyes engorged by murder and amphetamines. And at the same time, for a select few artists throughout the evolution of rock and roll, it represents the ultimate call to arms. White Light/White Heat
is an acute instance of creative self-destruction and musical hostility.
It would be unfair to characterize the album as such, however. This is not an album created by artistic rifts, but rather mere situations. In fact, perhaps no other band in the history of rock and roll has ever sound so very much on the same page as the Velvet Underground sound on White Light/White Heat
. Although the torrent-like sound of "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "White Light/White Heat" reflect the image of a band that wouldn't be together much longer, the apparent reality of the Velvet Underground at this moment in time is one of unified preservation. After all, the band had everything in a way: Poor record promotion, an unsupportive hometown crowd and a rocky split from Andy Warhol's Factory clique. It just happened to be the wrong way. And so the band is a unit through turmoil. As Sterling Morrison so succinctly puts it, "We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all going in the same direction."
Lou Reed calls the effect "power cubed," a kind of "what the !@#$ does that mean?" phrase that makes complete sense. "Sister Ray" must be "power cubed" manifested, right? In theory, "Sister Ray" might be the one song that perfectly encapsulates the career of the Velvet Underground. It's a throbbing, ever-changing mass of pretension that's utterly tactless in delivery and at the same time, complex, playful and full of nuance. Of course, the band stifles any attempt by the listener to elucidate anything other than, "SHE'S JUST SUCKIN' ON MY DING-DONG," but the song is as compelling a creature as any. A rush of rock and roll and a punch of cerebral slight of hand bundled up in a single elementary take in which every member of the band attempts to drown the other three out. But for a moment there, that groove is an unstoppable force.
The aforementioned "I Heard Her Call My Name" finds the band riding a similar crest of rock and roll noise, one that they could not have possibly controlled at that time, at least not from a technological standpoint. Reed imitates the acoustic squall of free-jazz in an electric medium, his bent-ass Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar contorted by a bevy of distortion effects that channel his cry of, "And then my mind split open!" The song succeeds as a curio for noise rock enthusiasts at the least. At best, it's a really fucked up rock and roll song, a perfect display of Reed's egomaniacal genius as he takes center stage at the expense of his cohorts.
"Here She Comes Now," on the other hand, essentially refutes all talk of ugly and anti-beauty as it is a very pretty song. The only one on the album, but it sounds perfectly at home. It works off the same perfunctory ambience as "Sunday Morning," that slightly shambolic pop sound which works so well for the Velvets. But it also plays a keen bridge between the harsh layers of experimentation that surround it. More than anything, it clues the listener in on the direction of future Velvets releases.
The Shelley-cum-Burroughs folk tale of "Lady Godiva's Operation" represents another facet of wild experimentation. Both this tune and "The Gift" show the Velvet Underground taking risks with recording techniques. On the former, John Cale sings lead for the first time on a Velvets song, bringing a regal feel to the song's slithering tones. However, Reed's back-up vocals jump into verse with the subtlety of a Dick Cheney headshot. I wanna cheer as the Velvets do something exciting and new but I've never cheered on the Love Boat and they claimed as much. And it's sad because there's a good song under the clumsy daring.
"The Gift" fares better, much better in fact. The goal was to create a dual channel experience. Don't like the story? You can listen to the music on the other channel without the words. Up for a morbid yarn? Switch up those channels and have some fun. Intent has little to do with execution, though. The final recording didn't work as planned, but Velvets devotees can listen to the intentions on the Peel Slowly and See
boxset. It works. But it's not like the song is unlistenable as is.
I suppose the same could be said about White Light/White Heat
in general. It's far from an unlistenable album; it's really quite good. For all the notoriety, it's tame by today's standards. And unlike many of the albums and bands it inspired, there's more than a trace of song writing talent here. But that's a given as Lou Reed has more song writing talent in his knee than that lot has spread amongst them.
So is it a sin that there's so little grace and beauty that can be gleaned from this sophomore album? To paraphrase a certain yellow, spiky haired girl, the Velvet Underground is the type of band best categorized as a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wearing wrap-around shades. To every person who has ever looked at pop music and caught a glimpse of hope that the thing so often espouses, the answer is probably yes. A horrible, horrible sin by a band capable of such stark beauty. Of course, those people are wrong. And so are the freakout fans who worship at the alter of noise, because they are willing to take sin at face value and enjoy it. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but any serious thought and contemplation will guide the listener to the conclusion that White Light/White Heat
has no scent, no taste, no nothing. Certainly other bands can stake a claim to punk rock roots but the Velvet Underground owns the reflexive nihilism of that pop music earthquake. And what comes after nihilism and the converse to all this anti-beauty talk, that's represented here, too. Don't confuse it with inner beauty. It's an allusion to beauty.
Or I could be wrong. Maybe White Light/White Heat
does have a certain inner beauty and I've completely missed the point. It wouldn't be the first time.