Around this time of year, the merits of best-of lists start to be discussed in music-nut circles almost as much as music. All I know is if it hadn’t been for my public library and two or three books proclaiming The Top However-Many Albums Of All Time, I might never have gotten into The Velvet Underground. There, underneath Sgt. Pepper’s and Dark Side and maybe a few other classic rock bastions, was The Velvet Underground & Nico, without fail. When I think about it now, I’m a little perplexed as to why I liked it when I took the record out from the library and played it, because I hadn’t really even gotten into punk rock yet. Yet to me, a 14-year-old in 1990 or so, despite its somewhat grotesque production values and the weirdo lady singer, it sounded contemporary. I had no historical perspective on music yet; it didn’t occur to me to be shocked that it was 23 years old. I liked it, but I didn’t get it.
In the ensuing 23 years or so since I discovered it, I still don't think I get it. I don't get The Velvet Underground. As hard as I try, I can only come so close to conceiving of what a bunch of junk-addled überhipsters from mid-60s New York City could possibly have been trying to convey. Sure, over time, a small-town Midwestern kid can begin to empathize on a deeper subconscious or intellectual or political level with the words and music of Lou Reed, but he probably can't ever fathom what could possibly have been going through Lou Reed's head when he wrote any of those songs. Still, it hit me on some level even as a kid; I'm sure a part of it was pure intrigue, but surely the infectiousness of "I'm Waiting For The Man" was a big part of it. After all, the entirety of underground rock from the 80s is basically just a rewrite of that song. And how can you not get shivers from "Heroin" in a straight-up musical sense? It doesn't matter that nothing like this had ever been heard in 1967, nor that I'll never know what it's like to shoot that drug into my veins; I love the song for every single aspect of it.
I'll have to blame Phish for preventing me from seeing the venomous irony of "Rock And Roll" for so long; it's like the "Born In The USA" of the jam band world, and it never dawned on me until recently that Lou could be smirking haughtily through that entire song. But it doesn't stop feeling like a celebration even when you can't stop hearing the sarcasm dripping from the line "Her life was saved by rock and roll". It's just that what we're actually celebrating is the triumph of human intellect, even the human spirit if you want to go that far, free will rather than some outside force, reality over fantasy. If you can make art this powerful out of mocking a populist movement, you're basically creating a community of your own, which is what VU did. Yes, it exposed dark aspects of American counterculture in a way no one had done before, but it also brought disdain for mainstream culture into the mainstream. It became an unspoken movement, and despite its own intentions, it saved rock and roll.
The impact of VU on music is probably too massive to be taken in on a personal scale; most people aren't emotionally devastated by electromagnetism, either. I've been a fan of Transformer for a long time, but it was New York that made Lou Reed seem briefly human to me. His bluntness on that album is much more universal, and his voice so much more earnest and dynamic, than on anything VU did. When I heard "Straw Man" I could hardly believe this was the same guy that "sang" "Heroin". It was as if the detached curmudgeon was tired of people not getting it and decided to spell out everything he hated about American culture without artifice. You can listen to this album today and shudder at how little has changed since he explicitly spat at the racism, materialism, blind aggression, environmental ignorance and overall wastefulness and apathy running rampant in U.S. culture in the late 1980s. There are a lot of intensely sentimental themes strewn throughout the social commentary, though, and you could argue that this has always been one of Reed's strengths, but New York, and particularly the one-of-a-kind "Last Great American Whale", is still what connects most deeply with me. I can't bring myself to type my favorite line from that song, but the whole thing twists me into so many different emotional states that it was exceedingly difficult to listen to today. When I look at the song at face value, it still doesn't make much sense to me why it affects me so powerfully.I was only fortunate enough to see Lou live one time--Lollapalooza 2009. There are surely hordes of music writers who consider him an intolerable elitist grouch; having never had the chance to interview him, I can only laugh at his attacks on others who did, but of course he emerged for his festival set ten minutes late and played twenty minutes past when he was supposed to be done, much to the dismay of Band Of Horses. Rude, perhaps, but then again, he is Lou fucking Reed. He put together a set that basically encompassed his entire career in just over an hour, including an extended noise jam that sent plenty of people scampering away; all I could think was there might be no such thing as an extended noise jam if it wasn't for Lou Reed. As far as I'm concerned, there might be no decent music at all today if it wasn't for him. I stood there basking in the cacophony of dissonance like the world was just beginning, staring at Lou Reed in awe. There is a guy who made most of my favorite music possible. This, I get.