The Velvet Underground and Nico
I often wonder what Lou Reed found to be the most beautiful thing he ever saw. From his body of work, I wouldn’t be shocked if it was a drugged-up drag queen, turning tricks on a lonely Tuesday night, under the neon lights on 42nd street. Is that beautiful?
The Velvet Underground & Nico is not a beautiful album in any conventional definition; notwithstanding the eye of the beholder, this album is ugly—harsh, discordant, dissonant, drugged up, with singing in the loosest definitions and an anemic bass and drums. The emphasis is on noise, subversion, and abhorrence of the straight and narrow.
The concept of beauty is a necessary question for this album, as the aesthetic is integral to the understanding of art and art criticism. Is this album beautiful? I say yes, though not necessarily for the sounds themselves.
This album is free and unabashed. Reed and bass player and John Cale explore the music and subjects that interest them most with no regard for audience—drugs, BDSM, death, John Cage, early electronic music, Arnold Schoenberg—all of these influences are played with no consideration for the aftermath or effect. It is an album completely lacking in restraint. That is beautiful.
That sense of freedom is so unreasonably attractive: the woman or man—or both—who haunts your dreams with beauty dressed up in tight-fitting lingerie that hides nothing, dangling your desires in your face, begging for you in cherry-red lust. That idea that you don’t have to conform to the rules if you don’t want to, that you can express yourself and people will listen—it’s practically its own syringe.
...the woman or man—or both—who haunts your dreams with beauty dressed up in tight-fitting lingerie that hides nothing, dangling your desires in your face, begging for you in cherry-red lust.
I freely admit that this album took forever to fall in love with. But I listened obsessively, wore that T-shirt which so proudly displayed Andy Warhol’s contribution of the phallic banana album cover, and took a walk on Sunday Morning with it, just so I would indulge ironically in the opening track of the same name.
As I grew up, and my appreciation for different musical stylings matured, I developed an honest appreciation for the songwriting. “Heroin,” my favorite track, is written to mimic the act of taking heroin, with the drum functioning as a literal heartbeat, the dynamics, and the melody, and the pace matching the act of shooting up. The hypnotic “Venus in Furs”, with its droning guitars and lyrical discussion of Masochism now does a lot for me….not that I’m a masochist.
In Inferno, Dante depicted the most abject torments of Man, yet still made beautiful the ugly and raised the profane into a sacred realm, by making it a perversion of the things we love. In some ways, I think Lou Reed felt much the same about drugged up drag queens; or maybe he just thought of them as truly beautiful.
What’s Beautiful for me? Well, the answer is there, if you look closely enough.
Until I Have 26 Dollars, In My Hand.