How to Listen to The Velvet Underground
Come gather 'round, chilluns, wherever you roam; cause Tom's about to dispense some of his vast store of wisdom to you all.
That's right, take a seat everyone. You! The hottie in the back there. Come sit in the front row. Okay . . . are we all settled in? Good. Because someday, years and years from now, I guarantee you'll want to thank me for this.
You see, I'm now about to tell you how to listen to The Velvet Underground.
Now I can hear some of you saying, "What is he on this afternoon? Cheez, all you do is put one of their CDs in the player, press 'Play', and your ears do the rest. What's so friggin' complex about that, Tom?" Well, on the surface you'd have a point if you spoke so impertinently, but you wouldn't get anything out of it listening to them that way, you little know-it-alls. It's all about the right kind of conditions, the proper environment and atmosphere. A friend of mine once wrote about how he used to listen to their first album lying out in the sun in his backyard. I practically threw up when I read that. Jesus, he might as well have listened to the thing with the sound turned all the way down for all the good it did him. No, more than any other group of musical artists I can think of (anyone says 'Kraftwerk' and I'll boot you the hell out of here; exile you over to Green CineDaily . . . or, God help us, 'a_film_by'; which would be beyond cruel), The Velvet Underground has to be experienced under specific conditions, one or two of them environmental in nature, for the prospective listener to truly become as one with their music.
1) Start at the Beginning.
I mean that. Don't go mucking about by starting your exploration with "Sister Ray" or "O Sweet Nuthin" on your first go-round or you're gonna miss something crucial right off the bat. Begin with track one, "Sunday Morning" . . . as exquisite an expression of coming down from the rigors of a truly wild and hellacious night with a blasted psyche as has ever been rendered . . . on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" (yes, yes, yes; that's the one with the Warhol cover and everything) and listen all the way through in one sitting. That won't be too hard because if ever there was an album I found difficult to pull myself away from, no matter how many times I'd already listened to it, it was that. I won't go so far as to say there's something wrong with you if you don't feel the same gravity holding you down . . . well, maybe I would, but I wouldn't say it out loud. I do believe that only a waterhead could listen to "All Tomorrow's Parties" or "I'll Be Your Mirror" (a song that makes me damn near weep whenever I hear it . . . just try and call me a pussy, I dare you!!) and go looking for that bag of Doritos you know you had around here somewhere. After you've done that, move onto the next album . . . and the next . . . and the next. Though it's one of the great tragedies of Western Art that there weren't more 'next's for the Velvet Underground.
2) Do It in the Wee Small Hours.
That's right. None of this one in the afternoon bull or unwinding with it during the cocktail hour. If you wanna listen to something during those hours there's always Josh Groban, and you're welcome to him. The best, most optimal time to listen to Velvet Underground recordings is between 3 and 6 AM. Why, you ask? Because, geniuses, it's when virtually everyone on earth is somehow farther away from you than any other time of day. This is intended to facilitate the essential one-on-one nature of the relationship between their music and the individual listener. Lou Reed, long after the Velvet Underground had touched comparatively few lives so very very profoundly, said "You think, yeah, why would anyone buy despondency? But in those days, I thought there was a certain kind of aloneness going on and I felt I wasn't the only one feeling that". It's virtually a Scientific principle: The impact of The Velvet Underground lessens in direct proportion to the number of people listening to a single recording at any one time. When I became a Velvet Underground fanatic in my late teens I would play their LPs (that's right children, this was back when recordings were issued on 12 inch vinyl discs. We used to call them LPs in those days) for friends, and even on those occasions when one of them reacted favorably, I could detect there was something missing from their appreciation. I know what it is now: The music wasn't connecting with them the way it should have, the way it could have if it had been able to reach into their souls as single cell individuals. All the best art speaks to us directly and, by that very principle, it underscores our fundamental isolation. So if you're one of those people who's kidded themselves successfully into believing they're not alone in this life when it comes down to cases, then the only way you're going to have an outside shot at blasting through the layers of your own self-deception which will prevent you from truly appreciating what The Velvet Underground had to offer is to listen to their music during that time of night when one's personal illusions are at their most hollow.
3) Make Sure You're Drunk or Stoned or Both.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not recommending you be inebriated to the point of losing consciousness; not at all. That's counter-productive as hell. In fact, it's best if you were at the height of your disorientation some hours before listening. You should be just drunk enough to feel your dislocation and yet also feel everything that was pleasant about it slipping away from you slowly. But don't get the idea that I'm making this suggestion out of the same mindset that caused people in the 60s to listen to dogshit like The Grateful Dead after having dropped acid. No siree. The Velvet Underground was never that kind of band; catering to the escapist impulses of an audience subconsciously buying into mass-market, corporeal counter-culture. When Lou Reed wrote about drugs he wasn't mining it for its potential to shock a so-called establishment that has never been worth shocking; not once did he depersonalize the matter like that. No, he wrote about their joys and their horrors both. Songs like "Heroin", as with every other song he wrote for the Velvets regardless of their ostensible subject, were about lived human experience. In point of fact, in an epoch where it seemed as though an alternate American culture had become one gigantic pose, the Velvet Underground simply refused to be a part of it. Their committment to musical and lyrical honesty may have caused them to pay dearly in terms of bleak sales figures, but it produced music that hasn't aged a second and earned them the undying respect of the only people who count: Those who listen to music with both ears, an open mind and a heart filled with the agony only real love can give birth to. You have to be longing for something genuine in this world to touch you if you want to experience the Velvet Underground to the very marrow of your soul; which is precisely what their music will do. Coming down from being drunk or stoned leaves one quite open for such longings of the spirit.
I can hear the recess bell ringing. Be back here in your seats afterwards.
This entry was posted by Tom Sutpen