author's note: this was written for a sociology class in like 1995. The assignemnt was to discuss the ideologies presented in some form of the mass media. I chose music and narrowed from there until I reached the following topic
They walked on stage, dressed all in black. They wore sunglasses. They had a twenty-year-old female drummer who played her side-turned drums with mallets. The Velvet Underground did not present themselves as your usual band.
They weren't. The crowd at Summit City High School in New Jersey had never seen anything like them. It was 1965, the West Coast music scene was about to explode and the Beatles were leading the new wave of performers from England. Out on the East coast, not a whole lot was going on that would ever matter in the scheme of music. Nothing in fact except for a little-known band called VU. When they took the stage at this, their first show, no one could quite relate to the songs: There She Goes, Venus in Furs, and Heroin.
Two audience members fainted and the Velvets career began.
This paper will examine some of the ideologies presented in the songs of the Velvet Underground as well as focusing on the solo work of Lou Reed, the main force behind the Velvets. I will show what it was about the words they sang that caused such a profound reaction from audiences. I will also examine some of the reasons why their words differed from other bands. Specifically, I will focus on Reed's perspective on drug and alcohol usage as represented in such songs as Heroin, Power of Positive Drinking, Endless Cycle, and others.
Music, like language, is one important way in which culture is maintained and transmitted. This is especially true because music tends to be an integral part of many ceremonies and festivals. However culture shapes the music and the language as well; they go hand in hand. Therefore it is important to look at the culture that shaped The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed briefly before we examine their ideologies.
The genesis of the Velvets took place during a time of great upheaval in the American cultural and political system. Much of this activity was occurring on the West Coast. The "hippie" movement was producing bands such as the Grateful Dead and The Doors. Drug usage was central to these bands' music and now, as the Grateful Dead continues to be one of the top grossing tour-bands each year, there is even a culture built around the Dead. Doors' lyrics contain many heavy drug influences and suggestions. "You know that I would be untrue/ You know that I would be a liar/ If I was to say to you/ Girl, we couldn't get much higher"3. During the Oliver Stone-directed movie chronicling the life of Jim Morrison, the lyricist/singer of The Doors, Morrison is constantly seen doing drugs and then writing songs.
The drug usage at Grateful Dead shows can only be described as excessive and legendary. The images presented both in the bands lifestyle and their music (mostly the former) tends to coincide with drug usage in their fans. The idea of freedom to do what you want to do tends to get equated with drug use in some circles.
The reasons behind this are simple. Both of these bands were surrounded by, and helped promote, a community where freedom in all senses of the word was an ideal held above all others and they fought for this idea along with the concepts of equality and free speech. Drugs on this coast were viewed as "mind-expanding" and were pushed by figures such as Timothy Leary, and many of the most influential cultural leaders.
This is the music and culture thought of when people refer to "the sixties." This and the other side of the music scene: The British Invasion, led by the gang of four from Liverpool, the Beatles. The Beatles music was trite and happy at one point and strangely trippy on the other.4 The music presented a similar idea of drugs. An idea which the late pop-artist Keith Haring saw in government anti-drug ads during the era. The commercials featured, for example, a picture of a fire hydrant followed by a drug-distorted view of a flower pot with bright colors. He looked at the distortion and thought that that would be a great way to see things. He bought some LSD. The words are trippy and that attracted a lot of people at that time and made drugs seem interesting and far from harmful. You never hear the Beatles sing about a bad trip. Not while Lucy is in the Sky with Diamonds.
Forgotten is the "preppy" culture throughout other parts of America. Forgotten is the New York avant-garde art scene.
This latter is where the Velvets sprung from. Their first album was produced by Andy Warhol himself and many of their influences came while rehearsing in Warhol's fabled Factory. On the East Coast, Reed knew the other side of drugs, both from first hand knowledge and from watching the experiences of others. The Velvet's audience was comprised of this type of "weirdo" artist. Many of them were heavily into drugs themselves. However even the drugs were different. Speed and Heroin as opposed to LSD and marijuana. Reed who sang in `78 that he didn't "wanna be a fucked-up middle-class college student no more," was singing for a slightly left-of-reality crowd. He was not singing for the upper classes, he was looking at the underworld.
Lou stated in the book Nobody Waved Goodbye "`I was first introduced to drugs by a mashed-in-faced Negro...named Jaw. Jaw gave me hepatitis immediately which is pathetic and laughable at once.' He could not share in his classmates' love of the `innocent' Beatles; `I, after all, had had jaundice'."
Reed had also watched poet Delmore Schwartz, one of his closest mentors, die of alcohol-related diseases. It was difficult to sing positive songs when all around him was far from positive.
One of VU's most controversial songs, Heroin, was written while Reed was a student at Syracuse University. Heroin paints a graphic picture of drug usage which many people found disturbing and unusual at the time. As is traditional with Reed's lyrical style, he pulls no punches. He sings about the hardship of addiction: "Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life." He sings about the dark side of the drug: "I have made the big decision/ I'm gonna try To nullify my life...When I'm closing in on death/ And you can't help me now, you guys/ And all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk/ You can all go take a walk." This idea of what drugs were really like, about what drugs could really do to someone was so disturbing that radio stations and record stores wouldn't take advertisements for the record album because it had Heroin on it. What was going on on the West Coast would ease the difficulty people had before too long (he was playing this live on the radio within seven years.) but in 1965 this was something totally new. The dark side. The bad. The pain and loss of addiction, told first-hand first-person.
Next the Velvets put out an album which contained a song called Sister Ray. They walked into the studio and the producer asked, "Where is the bassist?" "there is none," "how long will this last?" "until it's over." This was going to be something different. They sing about a drug-filled orgy while the guitars just wail for about 17 minutes. A sailor is shot and the only concern shown by the people at the party is that he might stain the carpet. The cops come and the party-goers don't seem to understand what is happening. They continue on with the main set of lyrics in the song "I'm searching for my mainer/ I couldn't hit it sideways/ She's busy suckin' on my ding dong/ Aww, it's just like Sister Ray says." Once again, this is difficult music for most audiences to handle.
The other disturbing facet of Reed's writing is that he doesn't just write songs that make the listener think a rather common thought (especially when listening to the Dead or Beatles) "what was he on when he wrote that." Reed is first and foremost a story teller. Many of his songs are either true stories about friends of his, autobiographical, or at least fictionalized accounts of others. He speaks about how drugs effect people. He does not just write while on drugs.
Reed tends to speak more personally of his life during his solo career while still maintaining his story-telling approach on some songs. Walk on the Wild Side, his most successful piece tells the story of many of the regulars at Warhol's Factory. "Jackie is just speeding7 away/ Thought she was James Dean for a day/ Then I guess she had to crash/ Valium would have helped that bash." Again the simple sentences. Again the straight forward narrative. Again the power. Again the disturbing nature of drug-life gone awry.
He also wrote an album called Berlin. Berlin is a concept album which for the most part follows the lives of a small cast of characters. One of the most poignant songs is The Kids. "They're taking her children away/ because they said she is not a good mother...and all of the drugs she took, every one every one." He also sings a song from the perspective of a junkie trying to explain addiction. "How do you think it feels/ When you're speeding and lonely8 // How do you think it feels/ when you've been up for five days/ Hunting around always because you're afraid of sleeping// How do you think it feels/ and when do you think it stops! And when do you think it stops!" There is such desperation there. Such pain. It once again draws the emotion of the listener into empathy for the character in the song. However, empathy and sympathy are very different emotions from excitement or interest. I would argue that one won't find too many people listening to this song and rushing out to find some speed and give it a run.
In the late `70s and early `80s Reed went through several changes in his life which are reflected in his songs. The drugs in his veins were creating a lot of problems. He was divorced from his first wife of whom he had once sung "man I swear I'd give the whole thing up just for you." One producer refused to continue recording with him. He produced a double album of speed-induced electronic noise, the liner notes to which Reed seems to have penned himself at the time--they are completely unintelligible and incoherent. So Reed decided to make a change.
In short, he tried to get off drugs. To do this however, he started to drink even more heavily. He wrote one song about the transition on his album "Growing Up In Public", which he described as a "drunken album." The song, The Power of Positive Drinking shows that Reed thought alcohol was a good thing as long as you did it for the right reasons. In the book Between Thought and Expressions, Reed says of this song "I tried to give up drugs by drinking." Then on the next page, the notes for a song called Underneath the Bottle, he adds, "It didn't work."
The Power of Positive Drinking shows Reed, and this is basically autobiographical, just before he hits bottom. On the up-side, he is off "hard" drugs and starting his second marriage. On the down-side, he is an alcoholic now. He claims not to have been sober at all during the recording sessions for this album. The song is quite up-beat and glorifies alcohol, Reed was thinking it was cure-all at this point. "Some say liquor kills the cells in your head/ [reed downplays] but for that matter, so does getting out of bed/ when I exit, I'll go out gracefully, shot in my hand." This brief ideal parallels Reed's life as he fights one addiction with another. However this sours quickly as we see in his next two albums. 1982 brought a change of decades and a change in Reed.
The Blue Mask, was a self-proclaimed self-portrait. Reed sings, in Underneath the Bottle, "It's the same old story--of man and his search for glory/ and he found it, there underneath the bottles." So he seeks out another source of help. Waves of Fear shows his turmoil in greater detail. "Looking for pill the liquor is gone/ Blood drips from my nose, I can barely breath/ Waves of fear, I'm too scared to leave." His notes about the song say "I was seeing a world-famous Dr. Feelgood who administered to various heads-of-state. I wondered if they were in the same shape I was in."
Then in 1983 he bottoms out. His words about alcohol have become fully negative now as well. There is no more mention of speed or heroin anymore. Those are out of his life. This fact is just as important as their earlier inclusion. Reed is offering an ideology about drugs by simply not mentioning them. They are not good for his life, they are not bad for his life. The "Rock and Roll Animal," the "Godfather of punk," has turned 40 and is cleaning up his act. If Reed, consistently voted (with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones) one of the two top "Rock stars most likely to die," has given up the smack, why haven't his listeners. However, he still has one last hurdle to clear.
Bottoming Out is a term borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous which means basically what it says: you can go no further down. You're there. In 1983 Reed hit this point and moved on. The Last Shot shows his struggle with incredible clarity. Many of the lines are about going back to the drink. "A toast to everything that doesn't move// Whisky, bourbon, vodka, scotch/ I don't care what it is you've got." But then he ends, finally, with a repeated refrain "When you quit you quit but you always wish that you knew it was your last shot." And there it ends. No more personal references to alcohol or drugs appear in any of his later works. He has quit. And the change become apparent.
1984 brings New Sensations, a song about the little things. Riding his motorcycle, eating in diners. Not doing speed. Not drinking. These last two are not specifically mentioned but the fact that the aren't there is still the point. No substances are mentioned. So Reed's views on drugs and alcohol have been fully expressed. Almost. One more piece to go. Skip a couple of albums to New York, one of his most brilliant ever.
Here we find Endless Cycle which brings to the forefront the basic ideals which Reed promotes. This song puts everything in perspective. Reed's point goes something like this. Drugs can seem like an escape. In Heroin he wrote "I wish that I'd sail the darkened seas /on a great big clipper ship/ going from this land here to that// away from the big city/ where a man cannot be free/ of all the evils in this town." Drugs can seem like a party. The scene in Sister Ray does not seem like a bad one while you're listening. No matter what goes on everything seems fine. Back to escapism. But more to the point drugs can mess up your life. We have seen the contrast in Heroin and Sister Ray. 1978's Street Hassle also looks at problems associated with drugs as a young woman dies of a drug overdose at a party and the only real question is what to do with her body. "Why don't you grab your old lady by the feet/ and just lay her out in the darkened street/ and by morning she's just another hit-and-run." Drugs can take your family such as in The Kids. Alcohol can get you off drugs, but watch you for what it can do to you.
The constant recurring negative images throughout his lengthy career (now in its fourth decade) reinforce this ideology that for the most part, even though drugs consumed Reed's life for so many years, drugs and alcohol are a bad idea. Endless Cycle again, as do most of Reed's songs, focuses on the lower classes. These are, for the most part, the people who are doing the drugs and leading the lives which Reed sings about. This song depicts the cycle which Reed somehow had the strength and resources to break out of. The husband and wife drink heavily presumably to escape from the harsh realities of the neighborhood in which they live9. However, the drugs and the alcohol just make the problems worse, so they drink more to get away and the cycle continues. Unfortunately, their kids will get caught up just by living there and becoming socialized in that condition and watching their parents try to deal with problems.
They can't break the cycle. To say that this idea is disturbing is understatement. Yet, as always, Reed remains objective. He states in his trademark singing voice which is close to speaking that "singing" is a stretch, all the details. Yet he offers no solutions and perhaps there just aren't any. But Reed continues to lay it all on the line for his listeners so they can think about it and decided what to do on their own. Either in his own voice or one of his characters' he tells a story and that is that. Here is this person's life in a four-minute song. Deal with it.
This is more than most artists do, perhaps it is that weeks worth of journalism courses which Reed took before he changed majors. Many artists offer opinions. Many skirt issues. Many tell love stories. But few just present the facts of a situation graphically; starkly, but with emotion, and then leave it at that. It is not a pretty picture necessarily, but it is a picture.
Reed, over the course of 19 solo albums plus four more studio albums with VU has not left many of his ideas about drugs and alcohol to the listener's imagination. Yet he has never come out and said: I think Heroin is bad. He leaves that to the listeners to decide for themselves. Some take the hint, some still think drugs sound like a good thing. But his views are all there for the taking.