The Velvet Underground: A Genealogy of a Favorite Band

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[This essay was originally published in Stereo Embers Magazine]

In the car the other day, rock music blaring at inappropriately loud volumes as it always is, my nine-year-old son somehow made himself heard over the frenzied outro of “Baba O’Riley.” “Papa, what’s your favorite band?” he shouted. It was a simple question deserving of a simple answer. But somehow the question felt weighty to me. Would I be shaping his preferences by my answer? Notwithstanding my parental edict that only rock music is to be played in any shared living space, I sometimes fret about imposing on him my passion for rock ‘n’ roll.

So I told him I had many favorites and couldn’t pick just one. “Come on, Papa,” he said, “just tell me.” “It’s a hard question,” I protested. “It depends on lots of things like how I’m feeling or where I am or even what the weather is.” “Papa, just tell me!” he insisted. Beaten down by the aggressive relentlessness that only a nine-year-old can muster, I succumbed. “The Velvet Underground,” I blurted out.

It was a Rorschach moment. I self-identify as a Deadhead, my son has been promised every Rolling Stones record upon becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” is to our household as “It’s A Small World” is to Disneyland. But when pressed, I named the Velvet Underground, a band my son had never heard me mention. But it is, unequivocally, the Velvet Underground.

A great band – a favorite band – is one that grows up with us, the meaning and significance of its music changing as we change. It is a band whose music remains fresh through the years as we regard it from different angles at different times in our lives, in the way a canyon wall looks different over the arc of the day in response to the bending sunlight. That is true of all great art. And it is certainly true of the music of the Velvet Underground. At different times in my life it has been the music of expansion and creativity; of death and grief; and of place and connection.

I was first introduced to the music of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground by my older brother when I was in high school. It was as if I had stumbled through the looking-glass into a magical underworld of sex, drugs, and odd-ball personas, conjured by dissonant guitars and electric violas. Lou Reed was the prophet of New York’s dirty underbelly and told stories about a world I did not see as a privileged kid on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I lived in my parents’ world of corporate lawyers and Wall Street bankers, of stately Hamptons summer homes, and of blue blazers with crests on the breast pocket.

Listening to the Velvet Underground in high school was like boarding a magic, graffiti-laden subway car to a revitalizing underworld of social delinquency, raw energy and unleashed desire. VU did not just create music; they created an atmosphere, a world-view, an aesthetic. The shrill, chalkboard scratch of “Venus in Furs” sounded like nothing that came before it (nor like much after it). Listening to it produced not just an aural or emotional response, but a physical one: you felt cold, exposed and on edge, like you were descending deep into the earth to a dark, forbidden place. The lyrics, an homage to sadomasochism and bondage, confirmed your suspicions. But it was exciting to be in that place, and inspiring to know it existed in the real world beyond the confines of your adolescent bedroom. While many of his contemporaries concerned themselves with writing love songs, Lou Reed (who could certainly pen a love song with the best of them) brought entirely new worlds to life.

My friends and I would start every Saturday night in my room listening to tracks 2 and 3 of VU’s Loaded album: “Sweet Jane” immediately followed by “Rock and Roll.” We listened at ear-splitting volumes, ignoring my parents’ pleas to turn it down, and formed a mini, pre-grunge mosh pit, throwing ourselves into each other for the full 7 minutes and 57 seconds until we could barely stand. The Velvet Underground created a space for us to know, amidst the crushing academic and social expectations placed on us seemingly at birth, that:

Despite all the computations
You could just dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station
And it was alright.

At least for one night, our lives, too, had been “saved by rock and roll.”

About the same time I started listening to the Velvet Underground, I took up the guitar. The first song I learned by ear was “Sweet Jane.” Those four chords, melded together in that sublime progression, were my entry into a new world of personnel expression. Hearing the chords emanating from my Roland cube amp was a revelation – “Wow, I am playing rock music!” I eventually found the courage to perform “Sweet Jane” with a friend at our school talent show. We thought we nailed it until our science teacher told us afterwards that one of those four chords was in fact a minor chord. But it didn’t matter. We still felt like rock stars.

As did my brother and I one beer-fueled night at the old Nightingale Bar on 13th Street and Second Avenue when we sang “Sweet Jane” with the band. In a failed effort to stifle our annoyingly persistent song request, the band said they would play it if we sang. To their dismay (to say nothing of the other patrons), we obliged, jumping up on stage and sharing the microphone for perhaps the worst public performance of that song in its long history.

For me and countless others, the music of the Velvet Underground was, and is, foundational to adolescence. It offers escape from a world of confinement, creating a portal to the outside world at a time when we feel walled-in, inspiring creativity at a time when we need inspiration.

But unlike a lot of music from adolescence that loses force over time (Cheap Trick comes to mind for me), VU’s music takes on a whole new resonance at various touchpoints in our lives. When I was in college, my father died. He was 48. Lung cancer, although he was not a smoker. In the numbingly surreal years immediately following his death, the music of the Velvet Underground was the music I affirmatively put on, and the music that played uninvited in my head, when I retreated into myself. Lou Reed knew that internal state of retreat in all its complexity — as both a space of existential beauty and as a prison. He spoke of those moments of retreat as our truest moments, to be welcomed, even if they proved devastating. The narrator in “Heroin,” in describing a fix, lives the tension, occupying a space of both exaltation (“I feel just like Jesus’ son”) and hopelessness (“I’m gonna try to nullify my life”).

The moment of internal retreat was my smack. When it flowed, it allowed me to be who I was, not who I thought I was supposed to be. It was a place where I didn’t have to say “I’m okay” when people asked how I was doing. Where I could struggle with unsettling questions of life and death, meaning and purpose, love and loneliness. Where I came to know that not even my mother or brother could understand my loss — nor I theirs — that we are all, ultimately, alone.

The Velvet Underground’s music nurtured that space, penetrated it in way people could not, and offered a lifeline out:

I find it hard to believe you don’t know
The beauty that you are
But if you don’t, let me be your eyes
A hand in your darkness, so you won’t be afraid

Interestingly, it was “Sweet Jane,” a song of unbridled joy throughout my high school years, that became the primary soundtrack of my internal grief.

One of my first acts upon returning to college from New York after my father’s funeral was to plug in my guitar and play those four chords to “Sweet Jane” over and over and over again. To me that day, “Sweet Jane” was New York – it was cold, it was wind, it was hard earth, it was a hole six feet in the ground, it was dirt being shoveled into the hole, it was worms slowly devouring what was in the hole, it was my mother sobbing, it was my brother stone-faced, it was my grandparents reversing the natural order and burying their son, it was me unraveled and alone.

I couldn’t stop playing those four chords. I must have sat there for an hour, like a metronome, back and forth, back and forth. Those four chords kept me afloat, kept me from falling in that hole myself. I played those four chords every way I could think of: I played them thrashing, I played them plodding; I played them deafening, I played them hushed; I played them with distortion, I played them raw; I played them with rage, I played them with submission; I played them with the conviction that “life is just to die”; and I played them because I didn’t know what else to do.

Although I am certain I didn’t recognize it at the time, I needed “Sweet Jane” to re-connect me to the kid dancing around my room in high school – to a me untouched by death and confusion and grief. I needed to feel the innocence of that time again, to go back through the portal to my room and friends and father. By casting an invisible patina of joy over a crippling sadness, “Sweet Jane” helped stop the world from spinning; helped tether me when I felt as if I was floating away, an astronaut on a spacewalk, miles above the earth.

Living in California now, many years removed from my father’s death, I hear in the Velvet Underground’s music not only joy and grief, but place. I hear New York City. Lou Reed is as much a symbol of New York as the Statue of Liberty. And for a native New Yorker, there is no more grounding music than that of the Velvet Underground. To hear “I’m Waiting For The Man,” with its raw, clattering, staccato-like backbone, is to hear the deafening shrill of the subway. It transports me “up to Lexington, one-two-five,” where, as a kid, I was occasionally propositioned by the dealers after missing my subway stop on the express line. That connection to place has become important to me in recent years. It is a curious thing since I fled New York, physically and emotionally, many years ago.

I never thought of being raised in Manhattan as unusual until I went to college in North Carolina and had the following conversation at least ten times my freshman year:

“Wow, you grew up in Manhattan? What was it like?”
“Uh, nice, I guess.”
“Did you live in a skyscraper?”
“You mean an apartment building?”
“Where did you play as a kid?”
“The sidewalk.”
“Were you ever mugged?”
“Routinely.”

It was only upon leaving New York for college that I got an inkling of other ways to live: slower, cleaner, quieter; more trees, less violence. When I came home for holidays, I began to notice things I hadn’t before, like how you don’t need sunglasses on a beautiful sunny day because of the ever-present shadows cast by those skyscrapers; or how the garbage bags piled high on the street create an outdoor Habitrail for rats.

In coming home to be with my father his last few months, I came to associate New York with death. He looked like a skeleton, like a World War II death camp prisoner, the skin on his face pulled tight, his eye sockets protruding, his arms brittle like twigs that might snap in the wind. My mind filled with indelible images of oxygen tanks, breathing tubes, and chemotherapy bags slowly dripping their benevolent poison. I can still see him walking through the lobby of our apartment building to the elevator, stopping every few feet to catch his breath, leaning against the wall for support, refusing assistance. And there are indelible sounds, too. Of wheezing; of shuffling bedroom slippers; of retching; of vomit splashing in the toilet; of an unfamiliar temper. Part of me blamed New York for his death. How did a non-smoker get lung cancer? It must have been the pollution, I told myself.

When I graduated from law school, I could not wait to leave New York. It had beaten me down. There would be no more late night fights with neighbors over deafening (and horrible) music during exam week; no more having to ask homeless people and potheads not to camp on the steps of my West Village walk-up. I took a job clerking for a judge in Charlottesville, Virginia. I didn’t know anybody and lived by myself on the outskirts of town. I ate a lot of pizza, watched a lot of “Party of Five,” and listened to a lot of Professor Be-Bop late night on WTJU. It was one of the best years of my life. I had escaped New York and was living in a beautiful place, the Blue Ridge mountains outside my window, not mountains of garbage. I listened to less and less of the Velvet Underground, my tastes that year skewing more towards Dave Matthews (a Charlottesville native who had just exploded) and towards grunge.

After the year in Charlottesville and four in Washington, DC, I moved to Oakland, CA, where I have now lived for the better part of 15 years. To me California was the antithesis of New York: New York represented death, California represented immortality. I avoided New York at all cost, afraid I would contract lung cancer if I spent too much time breathing its putrid air. I resisted the siren calls of my mother to return to New York, visiting as infrequently as I could get away with. When I did return, I would get chills in the cab from JFK to Manhattan and feel my neck muscles tighten. Back in California, I was cleansed. New York was out of my system. And I listened almost exclusively to the Grateful Dead.

Which makes my declaring the Velvet Underground my favorite band that much more puzzling. Even though the music of the Dead is a near constant companion, even though I listen religiously to the weekly call-in show for Deadheads on satellite radio, even though my first act as a father was to sing to my newborn son the Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” they were not the answer to my son’s question. In that Rorscharch moment, it was VU, a band not part of my regular rotation and that I had come to associate with New York and with death. Wasn’t that “Sweet Jane” I was playing for hours on end after my father’s funeral?

But reflecting on it now – being forced to reflect on it by my son’s question – I know that as much as I wanted for a time to believe otherwise, New York is in my DNA. And the music of the Velvet Underground connects me, in an almost physical way, to it. Which, distilled to its essence, is what a favorite band does. It defines who you are and connects you to place. As in the lyrics to “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” a favorite band “reflect[s] what you are, in case you don’t know.” It is “the wind, the rain and the sunset, the light on your door to show that you’re home.” The music of the Velvet Underground helps me to know myself, to situate myself in the world, wherever I may be.

My son recently asked me to add “Sweet Jane” to the repertoire of songs I sing to him at bedtime. After a few brutal renditions that made the duet with my brother at the Nightingale sound polished, he struck it from the list. I now no longer worry that divulging VU as my favorite band has unduly influenced him. And, of course, a favorite band can’t be imposed in any case. It is a life’s work to name it. My only hope is that his favorite band inspires him to venture beyond his physical world, to find beauty and solace in grief’s darkness, and to be at home wherever he is.

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