Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (2)

The version of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” from Ludlow Street is not very different from the Words & Music version, and I was going to skip it for that reason. But the actual recording is fascinating, less for the song itself — which Reed, Cale, and Morrison worry to death over numerous takes — than for the interactions captured along the way.

Right at the beginning, as John begins tapping out the song’s water-torture rhythm, Lou stops him. “Wait… introduction,” he admonishes.

The song is duly introduced and the guitars come in. (I assume that’s Lou playing chords and Sterling picking out the bassline.) But they make it only 50 seconds on the first try.

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I’m Waiting for the Man (1)

Written at about the same time and on the same subject, “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” naturally go together. But whereas the former was about the psychological/spiritual/philosophical aspects of the junkie life, the latter is about the logistics: The places you have to go and the people you have to deal with if you want to keep yourself supplied. In Lou Reed’s case that involved going up to Harlem, where he stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. My guess is that given his nocturnal lifestyle, he was the whitest of white people.

The power of this song is in its specificity: The narrator’s sweaty palm grasps $26, not $25 or $30. Probably all in singles. You can imagine the conversation that is going to ensue: No drug dealer asks for 26 dollars exactly; there’s going to be some sort of negotiation, and likely a shortfall that’s going to have to be made up some other way. Depending on the circumstances, blowjobs may or may not be on the table.

The location mentioned, Lexington & 125th, remains an active drug market to this day. As it happens, just last week a man was killed by being shoved onto the tracks at the East Harlem subway station at that corner.

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Heroin (1)

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide when, exactly, the Velvet Underground started. There are numerous ways of looking at it, but I keep coming back to the moment Lou Reed and John Cale ran into Sterling Morrison on the subway. Before that Lou and John had been playing as a duo, busking and cutting folky demos; had they continued down that path they might have ended up as the evil Simon and Garfunkel, and though this is something the world could have used, it wouldn’t have been worth it at the cost of the VU.

But once Sterling joined they became a band. Of course, they would not become exactly the band we think of as the VU until Moe Tucker arrived on the scene; that would be another acceptable answer to the question. As would the day of their first live performance, or the day they officially adopted the name. You can decide for yourself.

Progress on this blog has been slowed by my discovery of a formidable new resource: Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day. As implied by the title, this is an exhaustive chronological account of the band’s entire existence that runs to almost 1600 pages in the Kindle edition. They’re short pages, but still; it’s a mountain of material. Unterberger seems to have done a yeoman’s job of sorting through source material that’s often sketchy or downright contradictory. I will be spending some time with him in the days, weeks, probably years to come, but were I to attempt to absorb it all before continuing I would probably go blind. So: Onward!

When push comes to shove, there are two songs that define the Velvet Underground in most people’s minds: “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.”1

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Prominent Men

(Happy Birthday to John Cale, and to any other March 9 babies out there.)

As the years and decades have passed, and I’ve listened more and more to the grand geniuses of classic rock — your Velvets and Beatles, your Bowies and Hendrixes, your one and only Bob Dylan — it’s slowly dawned on me just how far ahead of everybody Zimmy was. Not necessarily in terms of music, per se; Dylan was and is a singing poet, not a sonic adventurer like the others named. But in terms of a certain kind of expression, one that allows you to be a popular musician playing popular music while still retaining some intellectual dignity, Dylan was the original and served as the north star for all who followed.

As previously mentioned, Dylan was only ten months older than Lou Reed, but his decision to drop out of college after one year and turn pro gave him a crucial head start. By the time Lou graduated from Syracuse and began pursuing a career — which initially involved writing songs for hire, a sort of rock’n’roll grad school — Dylan had established himself as the Voice of His Generation (TM). Lou chased him for awhile then, seeing how futile that was, gave up and started running in a whole different direction, terribly fast.

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Venus in Furs (1)

(Happy Birthday to Lou, and to others born on this auspicious day!)

I had a charming guest.

Opposite me, by the massive Renaissance fireplace, sat Venus: not, mind you, some demimondaine who, like Mademoiselle Cleopatra, had taken the pseudonym of Venus in her war against the enemy sex. No; my visitor was the Goddess of Love — in the flesh.

She sat in an easy chair after fanning up a crackling fire, and the reflections of red flames licked her pale face with its white eyes and, from time to time, her feet when she tried to warm them.

Her head was wonderful despite the dead stone eyes, but that was all I saw of her. The sublime being had wrapped her marble body in a huge fur and, shivering, had curled up like a cat.

“I don’t understand, dear Madam,” I cried. “It’s really not cold anymore; for the past two weeks we’ve had the most glorious spring weather. You’re obviously high-strung.”

“Thank you for your spring but no thanks.”

—Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs, 1870 (translation by Joachim Neugroschel)

When last we left Lou Reed and John Cale, they were playing as a duo, often busking around town. I wish I could’ve seen that, but this was 1965, so I was –2 at the time.

Then, says Will Hermes in The King of New York,

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