(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,

The pair found a second electric guitarist at the Seventh Avenue stop on the D train. Reed had last seen Sterling Morrison at a Lightnin’ Hopkins show in the Village the previous summer; Morrison had been finishing his BA at City College uptown, where he was headed. “[Lou] invited me over to this guy Rick’s place to get high and talk/play music,“ Morrison recalled. “The three of us kept going from that moment.”

Reed knew Morrison from college, when the two had sometimes jammed together. They don’t seem to have been close friends, but Lou knew that Sterling could play — and also perhaps that he was the quiet type who would eschew the spotlight. The burgeoning band didn’t need another star; it needed role players. In the end Morrison’s guitar became such an integral part of the VU’s sound that as a listener you often don’t notice it, but they would have been a very different band without it.

Biographical data on Morrison is thin. Here’s what we know:

  • He was born on Long Island on August 29, 1942.
  • He had four siblings, two boys and two girls.
  • He majored in English at the City College of New York. It was on a visit to Syracuse to see his friend Jim Tucker that he first met Lou Reed. (Tucker, by the way, had a sister named Maureen.)

The Reed/Cale/Morrison trio recorded a couple of times at 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, where Lou and John were now living.1At the first of these sessions they played “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “Black Angel’s Death Song,” and “Never Get Emotionally Involved with Man, Woman, Beast or Child” (a.k.a. “Buttercup Song”). But this tape appears to have been lost — or at least I couldn’t find it anywhere.

Which means that the first extant recording of the band that was not yet calling itself the Velvet Underground is the second Ludlow Street tape. Weirdly, I have never heard it until now — even though it was included in the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See, which at the time I declined to pay $100 for, in what now feels like a foolish economy.

The first song is an early, quite different, version of “Venus in Furs” with Cale on vocals:

This is very much in the style of the folky recordings on the demo we now know as Words & Music 1965. Interestingly, Cale at one point sings “Strike dear master and cure my heart” instead of “mistress/his heart,” making this version that much gayer than the subsequent album version (which is kinky but implicitly heterosexual, reflecting its source material). This is ironic as Cale is resolutely hetero — he says that Reed gave him “a few sexual nudges” but was rebuffed, with the resulting sexual tension fueling their collaborative/competitive relationship.

“What you call ‘cruel,’” the Goddess of Love vividly retorted, “is precisely the element of sensuality and cheerful love — which is a woman’s nature. She must give herself to whatever or whomever she loves and must love anything that pleases her.”

“Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?”

“Ah,” she countered, “we are faithful as long as we love, but you men demand that women be faithful without love and give ourselves without joy. Who is the cruel one here? The woman or the man? On the whole, you northerners take love too seriously. You talk about duties, when all that should count is pleasure.”

“Yes, Madam, but then we have very respectable and virtuous emotions and lasting relationships.”

“And yet,” Madam broke in, “that eternally restless, eternally unquenched desire for naked paganism, that love that is the supreme joy, that is divine serenity itself — those things are useless for you moderns, you children of reflection. That sort of love wreaks havoc on you.”

von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs

“Venus in Furs” seems tailor-made to go with the name “Velvet Underground” — though again, they were not yet called that. For awhile they were going by “the Warlocks”: a name also being used around this same time, says Wikipedia, by

a group formed in early 1965 from the remnants of a Palo Alto, California jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and members of The Wildwood Boys (Jerry Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, David Nelson, Robert Hunter, and Norm Van Maastricht)

That band, of course, would become the Grateful Dead, and although the two groups were to all appearances diametrically opposed, they were also weirdly simpatico in some ways. They would share a bill a few times in the late Sixties — another thing I wish I could go back in time and see.

The Reed/Cale/Morrison unit also called themselves the Falling Spikes, which has a certain élan, but feels a bit crude. As previously discussed, the name Velvet Underground was inspired by the book of that name, which someone in the band’s circle — possibly Tony Conrad — apparently picked up off the street. (I have a copy here but found it unreadable — suitably lurid, but insincere and judgemental and ultimately No Fun at All.)

We People of the Future know that they were not complete as a trio, and they seemed to sense this as well. For a brief time they were joined by one Marcia Lobel, who called herself Elektrah and provided the band’s first (albeit tenuous) connection to the world of Andy Warhol. (She had had small parts in a couple of Warhol films; in one she played Fidel Castro’s brother Raul.)

In his memoir What’s Welsh for Zen Cale calls her “Electra.” (Maybe he never had to write her name down?) He says,

I got Electra to join the Falling Spikes. We played several gigs with her, including a couple at Café Wha. But every turn was frustrated by her. She claimed she wanted to be in the band and perform with us, but every time we got close to actually doing anything, she would freak out and delay everything until we got her straightened out. She had this dazzling smile that would suddenly turn extremely vicious. One time we did play, she played the guitar so hard all her fingers were bleeding. The fact that she hadn’t stopped and seemed oblivious to the pain gave us grounds for considerable concern about her stability.

The Velvets’ first drummer was Angus MacLise, who had been Cale’s bandmate in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. MacLise was an Artist with a capital A. He does not appear on the Ludlow Street demos because he could not be relied upon to turn up at any particular time; when the band started performing live, he would quit/be fired because he refused to be told when to start playing and when to stop.

Only then would they seek and finally find The Drummer.

As I read over this I realize I haven’t said much about “Venus in Furs” itself, which as we all know is based on the novel of that name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who invented masochism. (OK, he didn’t invent it; it was named after him by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, author of the psychiatric reference Psychopathia Sexualis.2) Venus in Furs is the story (nested within several framing devices) of a young man named Severin, who systematically subjugates himself to his imperious, free-spirited mistress, Wanda.

I’d now like to turn the floor over to Joe Harvard,3author of the 33 1/3–series book on The Velvet Underground and Nico.4

Masoch himself based the novel in part on an incident from his own life. In 1869 he signed a contract with the writer Fanny Pistor in which he pledged himself as her slave for six months, with a stipulation that when she was dispensing discipline she would, whenever possible, wear furs. Filmmaker Joel Schlemowitz, who made a film based on the novel, wrote:

“Sacher-Masoch’s imagination was very taken with romanticizing life, not just in the characters in his writing, but in his own life. Through real-life events he created as much fanciful invention as in a novel, and in turn, in this novel, he takes his own life and turns it back again, into a sublime example of creating a grand, romantic myth out of his own life.”

In those last phrases, Schlemowitz might be describing Lou Reed as much as Sacher-Masoch. “Venus in Furs” is thus a song composed by a writer who bases most of his work on his own life, based on a book that is based on its own writer’s life. In other words, “Venus in Furs” is art mimicking art mimicking life (or life mimicking art mimicking life, depending on whether you see songwriting as “life” or “art”).

Sterling Morrison is on record saying that “Venus” is his favorite VU song, though he seems to be specifically talking about the album version, with its droning, throbbing, overpowering arrangement. The early version evokes a more genteel kind of decadence, which is possibly more in tune with von Sacher-Masoch’s European sensibility. Or perhaps not. Who can say?

It was a large oil painting in the intense colors and robust manner of the Belgian school; its subject was odd enough. A beautiful woman, with a sunny smile on her fine face, with rich, classically knotted hair covered with white powder like a soft frost: naked in a dark fur, she reclined on a sofa, leaning on her left arm, her right hand playing with a whip, her bare foot casually propped on the man, who lay before her like a slave, like a dog. And this man, who revealed salient but well-shaped features infused with brooding melancholy and devoted passion, this man, who peered up at her with the burning, enraptured eyes of a martyr, this man, who served as a footstool for her feet — this man was Severin.
—von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs

“Venus in Furs” is a rare case of Lou Reed writing from a specific source rather than from his own experience (though certainly he had some kind of connection to S&M — I mean, he tried everything). Though the subject matter is titillating, Lou’s lyric is elliptical.

Severin, Severin, speak so slightly
Severin, down on your bended knee
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now bleed for me

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

—Reed, “Venus in Furs”

The key line, I think, is “taste the whip, in love not given lightly.” No transgressive relationship — and remember, homosexuality at the time was “the love that dare not speak its name” — can afford to be casual. Lou understood and accepted it all.

And ultimately that’s what made the Velvets what they were: They embraced every kind of love and sex, every kind of drug, and every kind of rock’n’roll — from the gentlest lilt to the paint-peelingest noise. We’ll taste them all in time; but that’s enough, more than enough, for now.

[Wanda] “All attempts at using vows, contacts and holy ceremonies have failed to bring permanence into the most changeable aspect of changeable human existence, namely love. Can you deny that our Christian world is rotting?”

[Severin] “But…”

[Wanda] “But you mean to say that the individual who rebels against the institutions of society is ostracized, stigmatized, stoned. Fine. I dare to try.”

—von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs