Tuesday, March 28, 2023


Adapted from a previous post, this is an earlier version of a chapter in my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1).

An infinite number of tracks can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

Written by Lou Reed
Produced by Andy Warhol
Single [B-side to "All Tomorrow's Parties"], Verve Records, 1966

I don't have a Lou Reed story. It's been said--often--that the Velvet Underground sold only a handful of records during their original lifespan, but that everyone who did buy one of their records was inspired to form a band. The statement's become cliché, but it's still about right. Nonetheless, neither the Velvet Underground nor Lou Reed was really on my radar when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s; I heard Mott the Hoople's "Sweet Jane" and the Runaways' "Rock And Roll" long before I ever heard the Velvet Underground's original versions, and Lou's hit "Walk On The Wild Side" wasn't really at the toppermost of my poppermost. Still, I bought a ticket to see Lou Reed in concert in 1978. A life-changing moment? Maybe it would have been, but Reed got sick and cancelled the tour before it reached me.

But the Velvet Underground intrigued me. They were name-checked so often in the rock press, and by musicians that I liked, but getting to hear them was not an easy task; the Velvet Underground's records were (I think) out of print in the U.S. in the late '70s, radio sure wasn't playing them, and this poor college student did not have sufficient spare coin to acquire the pricey 2-LP import set I spotted at a department store on Staten Island. No, if the Velvet Underground were to play a role in my life being saved by rock 'n' roll, the mission had to be deferred.

If I had a Lou Reed story, then I could say that finally hearing the Velvet Underground--courtesy of a scratchy used copy of the group's 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground And Nico, purchased at Main Street Records in Brockport, Spring 1981--was either a revelation or anti-climactic. It was neither. But it was a record that I loved immediately. Fine, I never cared for the two noisy tracks at LP's end--go ahead and rescind my hipster status. But the album as a whole was brilliant. I didn't care about its influence, its importance, its long, sweaty reach into the crucible of punk, new wave, alternative, or trend du jour; all I cared about was that I had a new album to obsess over. The Velvet Underground And Nico instantly became one of my all-time favorite albums. It has been ever since.

I eventually owned the Velvet Underground's other three studio albums, and I liked parts of them (particularly "Beginning To See The Light," and much of the Loaded album), but none of them meant as much to me as the debut album. But...I dunno, it was LOU REED: a Syracuse University alum, a prime inspiration for so much of the music I love, an often-cantankerous figure who could be seen as rock 'n' roll's first anti-hero. Years ago, Syracuse Community Radio hosted a couple of Lou Reed Nights, inviting local musicians to take the stage and sing Lou Reed songs; my cohost Dana played bass with the group Lovelorn at one of those shows, and--goaded by friends--I considered taking the mic separately for a rendition of "New Age," but wisely chose not to. I don't have a Lou Reed story.

Well, maybe one Lou Reed story: given Dana's (and my) fondness of the Velvet Underground, it was inevitable that Lou Reed's music would be an ongoing part of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio. We played the Velvets' "Rock And Roll" and Lou's "Vicious" on our fourth show (January 17th, 1999). During that show, we got a call from a listener, who'd been driving around town, spinning his FM dial to the left, and he happened upon little ol' us, playing the Velvet Underground on the radio. He flipped out, tracked down our contact information, and called to express his enthusiasm and appreciation. I have no idea who that guy was, but the story is true: he turned on that Syracuse station, and he couldn't believe what he heard at all. That's how radio should work. Lou Reed wrote the script a long time ago.

In the wake of Lou Reed's passing in 2012, a friend of mine bemoaned the fact that many people presume that pop guys like us don't like the Velvet Underground, and it is true that many pop guys don't like the Velvet Underground. But we are more than our labels, and we are larger than the myths that amuse us. The idiosyncrasies of our personal pop cosmologies are solely for us to determine, solely for us to understand (if we understand them at all). The Velvet Underground embodied that foggy notion before anyone else in pop music--long before the Sex Pistols or Patti Smith, just a bit before the Stooges, and even more so than a contemporary like Frank Zappa: the notion that pop music can define itself apart from the marketplace, can choose its own vistas. If the vistas include sounds and subject matter that others deem taboo, well, that is why they are the others, and we are whom we choose to be. It can define itself with dissonance, with attitude, with a promise to reflect what we are, in case we don't know. The Velvet Underground did all of the above--and it was still pop music. It was still beautiful, unforgettable pop music. And it was all right.

I'll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don't know
I'll be the wind, the rain, and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you're home

Such a pretty song from such a shadowed origin, from such seemingly malevolent minstrels. For all the iconoclasm we associate with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, "I'll Be Your Mirror" is very nearly a conventional pop song. For the lead vocal, the harder edges of Nico's Teutonic voice softens just enough to suggest a vulnerability, an understanding and empathy we might not expect. Reed's lyrics provide comfort for the crippled feeling within, against the gnawing internal ache that insists we can't be good enough, can't dare to dream of adequacy much less divinity, against a certainty that inside we're twisted and unkind. I find it hard to believe you don't know the beauty you are. There's a hint of darkness, but a possibility of a hand to our darkness so we won't be afraid. Please put down your hands, 'cause I see you. The reflection is more forgiving than we expected.

If you like what you see here on Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do), please consider supporting this blog by becoming a patron on Patreonor by visiting CC's Tip Jar. Additional products and projects are listed here.

Carl's new book Gabba Gabba Hey! A Conversation With The Ramones is now available for preorder, courtesy of the good folks at Rare Bird Books. Gabba Gabba YAY!!

This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

I'm on Twitter @CafarelliCarl

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