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The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (1968)

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of White Light/White Heat. Like to the day. It was released EXACTLY fifty years ago TODAY. Just want that to sink in. Now onto this week’s “Classic Album Tuesday”.

I got into The Velvet Underground when I was in college and have vivid memories of how the Velvet’s consumed my life for the better half of a year. It started during a “Class 3 Killstorm” which is an extreme way of saying it was during winter when it was snowy. Cooped up inside, I paged through my Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums magazine and decided it was time to go underground.

Listening to the Velvet Underground for the first time was unlike anything I had experienced. This was a band from a time where the most popular “bands” were The Turtles, The Monkees, and some England band called Beatles or something. Rock and roll was flowery and extravagant. Meanwhile, a group of moody burnouts plodded along in a New York basement. Who would have thought those burnouts would shape the future of rock and roll and my taste in music?

The Velvet Underground were loud, sloppy, and chocked full of attitude—along with a few other substances. No one bought their albums. They were too experimental and well, just weird. Yet in the years since they have influenced countless artists. It’s because their weirdness was ahead of its time. The Velvet Underground is often considered one of the first punk bands. Which makes sense because, after my year of the Velvet Underground, I got really into late ‘70s punk and then post-punk and so on. The Velvet’s were aggressive and didn’t give a shit about what was popular or what was acceptable in rock music. This sentiment is best expressed on the band’s sophomore release, you guessed it, White Light/White Heat.

Parting ways from the vision of Andy Warhol—including ditching German vocalist Nico—White Light/White Heat saw the band recording their first album on their terms and their terms alone. The Velvet’s wanted an album with more improvisation, an album where they would keep every blemish and mistake, and an album where John Cale could perform one of Loud Reed’s short stories to the tune of avant-garde fuzz rock. To make sense of the madness, Bob Dylan producer Tom Wilson came on board and the result was pure unadulterated Velvet Underground.

The title track opens the album and it’s a standard 2:50 rocker. It’s not unlike a song you might find on the band’s first album, with the exception being more dirt. Next is “The Gift”, as I mentioned earlier, which is an eight-minute short story about a guy who mails himself to his sweetheart only to be stabbed in the head when she opens the package with scissors. In college, I thought it would be awesome to make a short film set to this song. Only to find it had already been done a dozen times by far smarter and more pretentious film students than myself.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation” is another rocker. Cale sings lead while Lou Reed chimes in with dissonant phrases and black humor spattered about the track. The song is about a medical operation which is why in the albums liner notes you can see John Cale as listed as playing “medical instrument” on the track. Every good band has a good heart monitor player. Did you even listen to the last Kenny G. album?

My favorite track “Here She Comes Now” comes next. It’s the only song on White Light/White Heat that’s not hideous with angelic picked guitars and Cale’s tranquil viola. Yet the song still managed to get banned in several radio markets for repeatedly saying “She comes now, now”. Could it be? The most beautiful track on the album is about jiz? If true, that’s awesome.

“I Heard Her Call My Name” is a raucous sing-a-long but I’ve always felt it was just the appetizer to the album’s defining final track “Sister Ray”. How many other bands in 1968 recorded 17-minute-long jams about drugs and drag queens? Not many. This is a song that has the phrase “Too Busy Sucking on a ding dong” repeated several times. Not only that it was recorded in one take. The recording engineer didn’t even stay for the whole session. Needless to say, he wasn’t with whatever the Velvet’s were trying to do. Then again I don’t know what they were trying to do and I love it.

The track is buzzy and chaotic with no bass and John Cale playing a Vox organ plugged into a guitar amp. It’s crazy but shouldn’t that be what music is all about? The freedom to explore, to redefine what is and what isn’t, to create from the heart as opposed to one’s wallet. All I know is it meant a lot to one pasty young man one, particularly harsh winter season. Thanks, Velvet Underground and Happy 50th White Light/White Heat.

Favorite Tracks: “The Gift,” “Here She Comes Now,” “Sister Ray”