(Interlude: Enter the Velvet Underground)

This blog’s been going for a little over a year and a half now and after 48 posts, we have finally arrived at the advent of the Velvet Underground. That moves us into a new phase and there will be a bit of a hiatus while I do some research.

Recently I walked into Pegasus Books in Berkeley and there on the shelf was a brand-new Lou Reed biography, King of New York by Will Hermes. My first reaction, I must admit, was to sigh — not another one. But I guess I’ll have to get it; the excerpt in the Times was great, and I’d hate to miss something.

Also by way of preparation, I got myself a copy of the 1963 paperback that supplied the band name. Just the cover of this thing is a piece of work:

The title page says this:

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Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams

It was quite jarring to first hear “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” Cale takes over on vocals for this one and provides the percussive tapping while Reed plays acoustic guitar. After hearing the preceding folk and blues-styled performances, suddenly it doesn’t sound like a reflection of any genre — it sounds like the Velvet Underground.
—Don Fleming & Jason Stern, liner notes to Lou Reed: Words & Music 1965

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” is a title that Lou Reed flat-out stole from the standard written in the 1030s by Harry Barris, Ted Koehler, and Billy Moll. The original recording was by Bing Crosby:

But anyone who’s anyone cut a version at some point — Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Barbra Streisand, and Sarah Vaughn, just to name a few.

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The lyrics for this are nowhere to be found online, and some are incomprehensible, but here’s my best guess:

They went and took my Uncle Joe
We ain’t see (?) no more
The man said everything is fine
Don’t you worry bout the old coal mine
Guess it looks like I’m gonna have to work for a while
I guess I’m gonna have to go and join the stockpile (x5)
Looks like I’m gonna have to work for a while
I guess I’m gonna have to go and join the stockpile

I asked my mother if she’d give me a dime
And she wouldn’t even go and tell me the time
I tell her I didn’t (?) though
The concrete and the icy snow
Guess I’m gonna have to work for a while
I guess I’m gonna have to go and join the stockpile

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Pale Blue Eyes (1)

I debated whether to write about this here, as I am planning to deal with the other future Velvet Underground songs on Lou Reed: Words & Music, May 1965 (“I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin”) in the context of the first VU album. But “Pale Blue Eyes” is an outlier, as it would not see the light of day until 1969 and the Couch Album.

“PBE” was one of many songs inspired by Lou’s college girlfriend Shelley Albin. (For a refresher on Shelley, you can check out this post from May 2022.) Shelley’s eyes were actually hazel, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I guess. This is what the artist does, for better or worse: “I know your eyes aren’t blue, but blue is better for my song. So they’re blue now.”

The 1965 version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is recognizably the same song as the one we know, but with a lot of differences. The backing (as with all these demo recordings) is minimal, just acoustic guitar and harmonica. The guitar part is spare and hypnotic, and one wonders if maybe it’s John Cale’s doing. Certainly that’s Cale on harmonies, which sometimes stray disconcertingly close to yodel territory.

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Buzz Buzz Buzz

It’s hard to believe that this goofy slice of The Blooz was written by the same guy, and at around the same time, as “Heroin,” “Waiting for the Man,” and “Venus in Furs.” I mean, what would Lester Bangs have said?

Lester, for those unfamiliar, was a rock ctitic who wrote for Rolling Stone until he was canned for “disrespecting musicians,” then for Creem magazine. He was Lou Reed’s biggest fan and harshest critic. He idolized the Velvet Underground — “modern music starts with the Velvets,” he said — and in the Seventies wrote a series of unsparingly frank State of the Lou articles, including one called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.”

We are too early in the timeline here for Lester, who didn’t really get going until about 1969. But this quote from “Death Dwarves” should probably be plastered across the masthead of this blog, just by way of countering the inevitable Stockholm syndrome that will occur when you write about someone over a long period of time:

A hero is a goddam stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own.

Lou Reed was not perfect, certainly not personally, and not artistically either. “Buzz Buzz Buzz” is pretty weak sauce — not objectionable, necessarily, just derivative and lightweight. It’s fun to hear once, then can go back on the shelf with the rest of the false starts and dead ends.