By Jack Derricourt
I’ll never forget the day in ninth grade English when my friend Jimmy presented on The Velvet Underground. While all the other whelps had picked out movies, books and politicians to stammer about, the raucous mind in James’s skull pulsated to a different frequency: the group he talked about played songs that featured lobotomies and murder; they destroyed their amplifiers in an effort to find the right sound; they hooked up with the high priest of pop art; they were unlike anything I had ever heard of before.
The album Jimmy drew from heavily for all those delightful factoids is possibly the most exciting of the Velvets’ oeuvre: those dark songs and broken amplifiers appear on 1968’s White Light/White Heat, a testament to the infernal recesses of rock and roll. The album is avant-garde composer and viola player John Cale’s last effort with the band, and his presence looms large between the grooves of the record. Cale’s voice unleashes the New York gothic tale of “The Gift,” where a naive boyfriend sends himself by post to his sweetheart, only to have his packaging (and forehead) opened with an axe upon arrival. The avant-gardist pulls heavy vocal duty on “Lady Godiva” as well, though Lou Reed’s sneering, contrapuntal vocals are blaringly delicious. The masterpiece that is “Sister Ray” is steered dramatically by Cale’s organ playing—distorted percussion that makes Al Kooper’s licks on “Like a Rolling Stone” sound like “Chopsticks.”
While the band revolutionized the content and style of pop albums with the release of 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the albums that followed Cale’s departure feature the band’s most memorable radio rockers, White Light/ White Heat is a singular moment in recorded music history. The chaos that swirls through the battling instruments and voices is the sound of a music discovering its true grit. Of all the pretty pictures painted by Lou and the VU, I find myself returning to this dark arrangement of avant-garde quirks most often. Something in the bass tones hints of black masses in a New York subway. That darkness was a powerful imaginative tonic to me in junior high, and it has compounded with every additional squeal of Cale’s organ.