To call the Velvet Underground ahead of their time has become one of those phrases that have been repeated into meaninglessness. It’s what lazy writers reflexively say when they think they don’t need to unpack or defend their position. But when I approach with focus and try to find some new angle or insight, I still find myself saying simply that the Velvets were light years ahead of everyone else. They produced records that sounded like they’d been made inside a filthy closet – hence, the heretical “Closet Mix” of their album. Mainly though, it was the door-opening, literate and subversive songwriting. Lou Reed wrote, with unvarnished intimacy, about things that were then considered very much unspeakable. Even though the late 60’s were saturated with triumphalist anthems about love and personal freedom, and quasi-religious talk about pharmaceutical redemption, there wasn’t very much real talk. No one spoke of a love that was cloaked in shame and self-flagellation, or of the intimate connections that occurred in a void between people who couldn’t meet each others’ eyes or know each others’ names, or that those moments could be beautiful and worthy of a love song. Fifty years later, it still sounds unsettling, in the sense that you’ve opened a door onto something secret and private and tantalizing and unheard of. It’s purely poetic justice that my preferred mix is the Closet Mix.
This is the jam you put on at parties and/or work as a test to find out who your real friends are. (It’s a trick. You have no real friends.) The Velvet Underground, leaning heavily on their underground-ness, used long violently loud jam sessions like this one to alienate as much of their audience as they could before getting booted out of whatever venue they were playing. It was certainly the first time in the realm of rock music that topics like mainlining drugs and sucking on a ding-dong were topics of conversation, at least in as blunt a manner. No euphemisms or clever entendres for Lou Reed, he calls it sucking dick for heroin in plain English. The Velvets did end up with the distinction that all of the fans they did acquire, all went on to become degenerate drug fiends and sex perverts in their own right. And so the moral corruption of social fibers, or whatever.
In 1967 a few dozen people stumbled upon an LP with a lewd banana on the sleeve, and got their heads all turnt by the revolutionary sound of the Velvet Underground. They all went on to form groundbreaking bands of their own, as the old adage goes. By the time my generation rolled around, kids were absorbing The Velvet Underground from lovingly packaged box sets, not to mention hundreds of bands that have aped their influence. Going back to the original source, it still tastes as fresh as that banana (which was, of course, more than just a banana.) Everything about it remains on-point, from the distorted noises that could only have been made by highly skilled musicians only pretending to have never seen an instrument before, to the storytelling, to the iconography. Especially, I think, Lou Reed’s storytelling. It may be garbled in delivery and veiled in feedback, but it speaks plainly. You may have never set foot in Union Square, and if you have it probably wasn’t in 1967 and it was nothing like it was in Lou Reed’s day, but you probably know of a rough part of town where the junkies hang out. You may have been there and you may even have wondered what their stories are. And if you’ve never seen a corner of that world, this is a record that opens up a window there.
“‘Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.” – Lou Reed
Lou Reed has the final word. His life was saved by Rock & Roll, and he paid it forward with so many lives saved. Rock music is the message that life doesn’t have to be what it is. You don’t have to live, or be, or believe, the things you were born into; there are other ways of being. You can create another life, another self. Of course movies and TV don’t do that for you; those mediums are explicitly fiction. They are fantasy, they are escape. All they offer is the pretense of being someone else. Rock & Roll isn’t fiction. It’s real life. It’s a way of being. Rock musicians are the opposite of movie actors; they can only be themselves. Even if that self goes under a stage name and a drag revue’s worth of glitter, it’s still just that person telling their own story. And you can do that too. You might die doing it, but at least you life will be saved.
“Thought of you as my mountaintop, thought of you as my peak…”
When I think about my personal cache of great love songs, an awful lot of them are by Lou Reed, and this one is way up there on top. Reed is one writer who really knew how to press all the emotion buttons; from righteous anger, jealous rage, and drugged-up swagger to self-doubt and regret to this, the most rueful and tender love. For me, as a fan, the knowledge that Reed was actually a monumental jerk in his younger days, well, it makes the music even better. Lou Reed wrote as a man who knew his own dark heart, and struggled with it. That gives his work a complexity that people with more cheerful worldviews just don’t have – and who among us can claim to be cheerful and well-adjusted all the time? Maybe not everyone will admit it, but we all know our own dark hearts. We know that sometimes, we’ve been monumental jerks, and we all have that one person who walked away from us because of it. I know I can relate to a song by an asshole who knows he fucked up a lot more than a song by a well-adjusted guy enjoying his happy marriage.
The Velvet Underground at their most unfathomable. And here is where modern technology fails you. If you are listening on some handheld device – phone, iPod, tablet, Sony Walkman, etc – you will hear an incomprehensible soup of muddled voices and the persistent clunking of a piano. For this you need a real, old school stereo system, set up so that each of the four tracks has its own speaker. Thus the left and right tracks will each be clearly audible and you will be able, with a bit of concentration, to switch your attention back and forth, tuning in and out as you please. You will be able to distinguish how Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule and Moe Tucker are each performing a different piece of poetry, each set to a different tune. Like dueling banjos for beat poetry, yes? Completely avant-garde, dada, experimental and far out. Though it hasn’t held up well to digital technology, the intended effect, when correctly achieved, is really quite nifty.
Lou Reed wasn’t known for being much of an activist, and the Velvet Underground aren’t remembered as a socially conscious band, except in the most general smash-the-norm sense. I have not read any mention or praise for Reed’s importance and influence in the sphere of sexual and identity politics. In the plainest words; if it hadn’t been for Lou Reed’s songs I would not have learned that trans* people exist, or that being gay is a lifestyle, or that kinkiness is an option, and most importantly, that all of those things are alright. I’m sure I would have learned those things eventually, but I learned those things because Lou Reed was there to matter of factly inform me (and whole a lot of other young people over the years) that someone can pluck their eyebrows, shave their legs, and then he is a she, and it’s all right. That doesn’t seem terribly important in the grand scheme of things, but as activists are still forced to remind us, representation is important. It doesn’t take much to either normalize or demonize a lifestyle or behavior or whole group of people in an impressionable mind. All it takes is someone whose opinion we trust saying that something is either alright or it’s not. Lou Reed was not the first person to write about using drugs, or describe the appearance of a drag queen, or mention gay sex, but he wrote about those things in a non-judgmental, honest way that made everything he talked about seem recognizable and normal.
Reed studied both journalism and poetry at Syracuse, and the combination of those two seemingly opposite art forms became the basis of his writing style. He also had the good fortune to fly in some unorthodox circles. Hanging out at Andy Warhol’s factory introduced him to the cast of fabulous outcasts whom he’d document throughout his career. Warhol collected odd characters like crazy ladies collect cats, if crazy cat ladies were in the habit of making their cats star in meandering, dull movies. Some of those characters never made it past footnote status; a few, like the star-crossed Edie Sedgwick, became genuine icons. Some, hovering somewhere between obscurity and cultish semi-fame, are best remembered as subjects of Lou Reed songs. Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn; self-created women who insisted on their superstardom in a world that denied that people like them had any right to exist. Candy Darling is dead. Holly Woodlawn is still kicking around, and must by now be resigned to being best known for a few lines in a song, though she’s justifiably a bit peeved that those lines document her leg-shaving activities. But that song – as well as this one, and others – was a torchlight against an almost universally transphobic culture. Walk on the Wild Side, Candy Says, and Lady Godiva’s Operation were, and remain, an anomaly in introducing trans* women as interesting human beings with dignity, feelings and personal histories, rather than dude-looks-like-a-lady punchlines (or worse.) Those songs cast a sympathetic gaze on people whom society to this day refuses to accept as normal, and that normalizing gaze helped make at least a few listeners more open minded.
Now in this particular song, who is this character and what is going on with her? Unlike some other songs, this one does not give anyone’s real name, probably because it’s not about any specific real person, or at least not one we know of. A common interpretation is that the titular lady is getting a sex-change, but though that’s an easy conclusion to come to based on the title alone and a glancing familiarity with some of the singer’s other works, it’s patently bullshit. Gender reassignment surgery has come a long way since the sixties, but at no point did it ever involve slicing into the brain. It’s pretty clear that Lady Godiva is undergoing a lobotomy. If it were anything else, she wouldn’t be screaming as the anesthetic takes hold. Also note that in the first half of the song, which describes Lady Godiva and her affinity for curly-haired boys, she is clearly gendered as a ‘she’. In the latter half, as she enters the hostile surgical environment, the point of view seems to change, with the patient reduced to being described as a body – a dehumanized ‘it’ – and finally completely misgendered by the sloppy doctor as ‘he’. This is a very subtle narrative curve, easily missed in a rather cacophonous song, what with John Cale’s canny but distracting impersonation of a breathing apparatus. I think it’s a very important thing to take not of, however, both as an example of Reed’s literary skill and his empathetic grasp of the connection between correct pronouns and identity itself. Lady Godiva is being stripped of her identity, both literally as her brain is mutilated, and on another level as her pronouns are forcibly replaced with incorrect ones. On a historical note; up until well into the 1970’s lobotomies were a popular ‘cure’ for a wide variety of ailments, from serious cases of psychosis to learning disabilities to ill-defined conditions like ‘hysteria’. Though I don’t know whether it was ever popularly used for such, I can easily imagine overzealous doctors touting it as a cure for homosexuality, cross-dressing and other cases of ‘sexual deviancy’. Also important to note; as a teenager Lou Reed himself was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy because his family suspected him of being gay. He wasn’t, but received the punishment anyway. So it is not so much of a stretch to assume that Lady Godiva is actually Reed’s alter-ego, or, not making that assumption, that she is at the very least a probable acquaintance who shared a similar experience. I imagine that the experience of being stigmatized and physically punished after being branded ‘not-right’ in some arbitrary way lies at the root Reed’s lifelong sympathy and affection towards outsiders and stigmatized persons, and his ability to write beautiful songs in honor of people not generally accepted as being beautiful, or even as being people.
(Photo by Stephen Shore)