It is a hackey little trick I’ve availed myself to multiple times in the past—although normally it is relied upon to add that sort of sui generis obliquity I so frothily lust after to add a masturbatory gilding to, say, analyzing the latest rambling Riff Raff single or some Chicago rapper, barely recognized outside of the Hog Butcher to The World, co-opting a recent Drake beat, rather than scooping down and rescuing me, in all of its glorious prosaic benevolence, from an assignment I had no business taking on and, to be brutally honest, a lack of the time and passion (the later of the two the infinitely more damaging and shameful) with which to rectify my situation—but please, allow me to start this all off with an indulgent little confession:
My understanding of, and regard for, The Velvet Underground is exceedingly superficial; I understand and esteem the band’s place in the Grand Evolutionary Scheme Of Things, but do not find that they bring to bear any kind of heavy onus or marked reverence upon my own head. Basically, I like some of their songs well enough (most notably “White Light/White Heat”, “When She Comes”, and “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, all found here, and “Venus in Furs”, of their august banana-faced debut, which I was first exposed to as the soundtrack to Arto Saari’s near-death experience framing of venerable UK skate god Tom Penny’s second section in Flip’s Sorry) and am little more than pleased that White Light/ White Heat has been reissued, if for no other reason then that writers with far greater ken and verve than myself proclaim it to be a precursor to punk music—which, since my machinations for popularity through a middle school cover band feel through, I have not cared much about except for it leading to post-punk—and all punk begot, and that some of the most intriguing aspects of the study of popular music comes from these first, divergent elements, an understanding of which and exposure to adds variables to the equation, components to the formula.
The problem lies in my dispassion for the Hermetic; I do not care, as so many guitar worshippers do, to gather the disparate threadbare strings of the various genres and sub genres and supremely archaic, one-vinyl-printing-ever-in-a-Lower-East-Side-flop-house, heroin-powder-in-the grooves, endlessly influential yet seldom heard (the fuck?) LP and follow them, as Theseus did, out of the Labyrinth; I would rather dance in the sunshine and salted Mediterranean air, never darkening the entry way of Daedalus’ convolution to begin with, and if that causes the six string slurpers, didactics, crusty Brahmins, and genuflectors gathered at the base of the Rock to believe me a Cretan, then so be it.
Which is not say that all this isn’t important; the ragged fuzz and shark skin, the piercing migraine notes, the soupçon of sex and drugs, the very fucking bleeding edge that The Velvets perched upon out there has since been carried as something of the avant garde Good News; you can hear it from apostles like the Buzzcocks and the New York Dolls, Suicide and The Pixies and whomever else one can choose, which, really, is just more a testament to the Velvets’ (and, more specifically, Lou Reed and John Cale’s) influences than the ability of rock writers and listeners to transfer elements of their favorites into the sounds of the followers.
Rail some amphetamines (the song, is after all, about meth), lacquer on some lipstick, and rub a dirt and glitter patina onto “White Light/White Heat” and one arrives at “Looking For A Kiss”; except for the replacement of syrup with salacious entendre, “Here She Comes” could sound like an un-corseted cut from a Los Campesinos! album, simply in need of a pulling upon the strings and a brief scrub. Which is, of course, the point: one could hardly consider a band influential if one did not hear echoes of said band throughout time, and, w/r/t the Velvet’s seminality, a simple purveyance of the original White Light/White Heat would prove the more than adequate and pragmatic option.
That could be done here—in both mono and stereo!—but it is with the other odds and ends which Universal will hope to entice the buyer; these include the aforementioned duel nature of the original six song album and the studio session death throes of the John Cale/Lou Reed collaboration: ‘Temptation Inside Your Heart’ is a dancer, of sorts, with a solid groove and asides which somehow manage to sanguinely nestle inside the throb, all highlighted by a fragile little harmony line, like a pan flute made of junkie’s wind pipes, while ‘Stephanie Says’ carries that melancholic bob of ‘Here She Comes’ with a frosting of character study, albeit one far less interesting than the one provided on ‘Lady Godiva.’
Also included is a live performance at New York City venue the Gymnasium from Cale’s archives. John Cale, in David Fricke’s “Overload: The Story of White Light/White Heat” for Mojo (which informed a great bit of this review and should be considered requisite reading, being a fine complement to the album, concerned more with the construction and thematic architecture and built upon input from the Velvets themselves, not beholden to the pomp and circumstance and opinions-as-Truths more venerational writers and critics apply to the album, and in addition is quite beautifully laid out, from a design perspective, although it is a bit press kit-y, in an ignorable way) said that, at the time of White Light/White Heat’s conception, the Velvets “… were a touring band. And the sound we could get on stage—we wanted to get that on the record.” To be provided, a few months before it was laid to press, “Sister Ray” raw and alive whilst being pinned down—with the piercing screams to prove it—is to be able to judge, for one’s self, whether or not Cale and company lived up to this ideal; Reed would have of course insisted they had.
Any and all reissues and deluxe editions, composed as they are primarily of idiosyncratic tics and subtle variations, drafts and gaffs and flawed, living creatures, are, in essence, paradoxically museum and gift shop all at once, naked cash grabs and warm hearted, full throated, and hard-on’d appreciations, lionizations, and restoration efforts; they embody music’s best and worst aspects, the repackaging—literally, in this case—of art works and the fetishization of zealousness (fansploitation?), all whilst owing their existences solely to this ugly, wonderful love they suck upon like marrow. The deluxe edition of White Light/White Heat is, of course, no different. The album in and of itself is a must listen, a difficult yet elucidating dip into the primal goo from which sprang legions of popular culture, a knowledge worthy of drowning and suffering for to acquire, incongruously Odinic; but the rest is made for listeners like Lester Bangs, for whom kneeling at the Rock was not enough, and those directly beneath him, the apostles and zealots and true, wonderful fans, The Velvet Underground equivalent, at over three hours long, to hanging, spear in flank, from the limbs of the most important tree.