Monday, October 28, 2013

Track of the Week: The Velvet Underground, "Rock and Roll"

I heard the news of Lou Reed's passing yesterday in the most appropriate fashion possible: on the radio.  My wife and I were driving home from a rare child-free outing, and I had WFMU and the Glen Jones Radio Program playing on the car stereo, as I do every Sunday afternoon.  He put on VU's "Black Angel's Death Song," which seemed like an odd choice, then broke the news.  Reed's passing has hit me harder than I would have thought, perhaps because death is looming over someone I love so much right now.

Part of the reason also might be that Reed and the Velvet Underground played a crucial role in my musical coming of age.  During my teenage years I kept reading about them in music magazines, and how great and influential their records were supposed to be.  Living as I did in the middle of nowhere in the pre-Internet age, I had no way accessing their music.  My first glimmer came with the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's biopic about The Doors.  I pretty much had all the songs on the album on other Doors records, but I bought it because in contained "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground.  I burned with the desire to know these legendary artists, and was not disappointed.

I had never heard anything like it before; it was like the gates of heaven opening up before me.  The drones, squalls of feedback, heartbeat drumming, and dirty subject matter were all revelations.  I knew from that moment I had to explore more.  My chance came the summer after my junior year of high school, while out on college visits.  I was with my parents in Omaha, visiting my eventual alma mater, where I made a detour to Homer's records and picked up a compilation album on cassette.  Buying it on tape might sound like an odd choice, but I had my Walkman with me, and I needed to listen to the music of the Velvet Underground immediately.

I first heard it through the headphones of my cheap Walkman as I rode in my family's car across the rolling hills of Iowa, the setting summer sun dappling the corn with orange light.  It was a scene a million miles removed from the gritty Manhattan of the songs, but a sublime accompaniment nonetheless.  The last song was "Rock and Roll," which would have been a big radio hit in a more just universe.

It's got a catchy hook and some of Reed's least monotone singing, but maintains a little of the glorious drone and repetition that VU was well known for.  The subject matter also can't be beat: someone being saved by hearing rock and roll on the radio.  Growing up as a bit of an outcast in an isolated town I can say that if it didn't save my life, it came pretty damn close.  Once I heard the Velvet Underground, though, my horizons suddenly broadened.  In just the time it took for that compilation tape to come an end with "Rock and Roll," my appreciation of music had changed.  I sought out the arty and challenging side of music, and never looked back. I've got to thank Lou Reed for that. 

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