May 5, 2005

The Pretty Toney Column

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Their debut is said to have sparked the formation of 10,000 bands. They are reputedly as influential as any other rock artist ever. (One jerk even went so far as to label them Copernicus to the Beatles’ 16th Century church.) They are also partially to blame anytime anyone who isn’t blind wears sunglasses indoors. Ladies and gentlemen — the Velvet Underground.

Are the Velvets worthy of the almost unfathomable amount of hype they receive? Who knows, but it is undeniable that they are both directly and indirectly responsible for a lifetime’s worth of good music across a multitude of genres. You could probably make a CD-R box set of bands whose entire existence can be traced back to the song “Pale Blue Eyes” alone (not that anyone would ever want to).

Still, I often worry that I like the Velvet Underground solely because of those that they’ve inspired, or just because I should — two very stupid reasons to listen to anything. The first time I heard The Velvet Underground & Nico, the thirteenth greatest album of all time, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. I’ve since come around, and I don’t question its importance, but part of me continues to wonder if it’s praised as highly as it is merely because of its famous followers rather than its actual content.

However, I have no trouble recognizing the free-minded and free-fingered greatness of White Light/White Heat, the band’s second album and their final one with John Cale. Its November 1967 release gladly transported whatever aimlessly idealistic hippies who’d heard it from the Summer of Love into a jarring and frigid winter from the colorful illusions provided by LSD to the dark reality of life on heroin. The album crescendos toward its epic finale, “Sister Ray,” the 17-minute calculated improvisation that scores points for being one of the only songs classified as avant-garde that you can sing along to (or vice versa). “Sister Ray” captures the Velvets at their wildest and at their moment of greatest cohesion in the studio.

Whenever I hear an all-time superlative bestowed upon the Velvet Underground, I still scoff, but at least the argument for them goes beyond somebody attempting to sound cool. That their influence is as easily identifiable as it is massive lends their supporters instant credibility; they aren’t forced to venture into hyperbolic Lou-Reed’s-a-genius territory. Ultimately, this benefits everyone, because let’s face it, songwriters are no geniuses.

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Sun Staff Writer