VELVET UNDERGROUND / WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT 12"
When the Velvet Underground's second album descended on the world in January, 1968, nobody was ready for it. The Velvet Underground and Nico, the year before, had had Andy Warhol's imprimatur to promise that its passages of bleeding-raw chaos were art; it had also had the complicated but unmistakable beauty of the songs Nico sang as a lifeline for the tiny mainstream audience that caught on to it at the time. White Light/White Heat didn't have either.
By the time they released it, the Velvets were downplaying the art-world connection (despite the very arty slash in the album's title, and the fact that its black-on-black sleeve was designed by the Factory's Billy Name). Nico was out of the band, although bassist John Calewould continue to work with her for years. And the album was a relentless, screeching, thudding, scoffing assault on the pop sensibilities of its time: six songs with lyrics designed to horrify the bourgeoisie (not that they'd have listened to the Velvet Underground in the first place), ending with a one-take, two-chord, 17-minute speedfreakout. It clung to the bottom of the album chart for two weeks, disappeared, and went on to become the glorious, tainted fountain from which all scuzz flows.
That's the White Light/White Heat of legend, anyway. For its 45th anniversary—closer to its 46th, but keeping time was never their strong point—it's been reissued in expanded, remastered form, as if what this pinnacle of sloppy noise needed was remastering. As always, the title track, which seems like it should start cold with Cale and Sterling Morrison's backing vocals, sounds like it's had a little trimmed off the top to remove an extraneous sound—although, of course, extraneous sounds are kind of the whole point of this album.
Listening to White Light/White Heat now, it doesn't quite fit the template of its legend. For one thing, Lou Reed's songwriting is often a lot more conventional than it's reputed to be. Strip away the noise and flash and references to illicit drugs and sex, and "White Light/White Heat", "Here She Comes Now", and "I Heard Her Call My Name" are all the sort of simple rock'n'roll readymades that Reed had been cranking out at Pickwick Records a couple of years earlier. (So is "Guess I'm Falling In Love", recorded in scorching instrumental form at the White Light sessions, which is practically the same song as the Rutles' "I Must Be In Love".)
For another, the live disc appended to this edition is a reminder that the Velvet Underground were radical in a totally acceptable way for their time—that, professionally speaking, they were a party band with an audience of hippies, who appeared on bills with the likes of Sly & the Family Stone, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Chicago Transit Authority the year White Light/White Heat came out. The performance, apparently from John Cale's collection, was recorded at the Gymnasium in New York in April, 1967 (two of its songs previously appeared on the 1995 Peel Slowly and See box set). It presents the Velvets as a full-on boogie band, whose set is bookended by the instrumental grooves "Booker T." and "The Gift"—turns out they're slightly different songs, contrary to what VU fans have assumed for the past few decades. The rest of the gig includes what might or might not have been the first public performance of "Sister Ray" (it was still a very new song, at any rate), and one legit addition to the canon: "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore", a chugging electric blues that wouldn't have been out of place in Creedence Clearwater Revival's early repertoire.
So once this mysterious black-on-black artifact is demystified, what's left of it? More mystery, it turns out. What possessed Cale to start playing an out-of-time, two-note bass part louder than anything else at the end of "White Light/White Heat", and how could he have guessed that that was a great idea? Was the famous split-second pause before Reed's splatterbomb solo on "I Heard Her Call My Name" intentional? What the fuck was up with Reed filling in words—"SWEETLY!"—in the middle of Cale's vocal on "Lady Godiva's Operation", and why is it still hilarious? Speaking of that song, might lyrics about a delicate hypersexual creature interacting with "another curly-headed boy," directly followed by a medical horror-show, have anything to do with a curly-headed songwriter who was given electroconvulsive therapy to "cure" his bisexuality as a teenager? Why is "Sister Ray" way, way more potent than any other extended jam on a simple riff by an American band of the 60s?
It's surprising to hear anything besides the universe catching its breath after "Sister Ray" ends, but the first disc of this reissue is filled out with other previously released evidence of John Cale's final months in the Velvet Underground: the instrumental "Guess I'm Falling In Love", both versions of the electric-viola showcase "Hey Mr. Rain", and the band's thoroughly charming stab at making a commercially viable single, "Temptation Inside Your Heart"/"Stephanie Says". There's also a previously unheard alternate take of "I Heard Her Call My Name" (not quite as good as the official one, and mostly interesting to hear which of Reed's apparent ad-libs weren't), and one fascinating curio: an early version of "Beginning to See the Light", recorded at the "Temptation Inside Your Heart" session. By the time the song appeared on The Velvet Underground in 1969, it had become lither and wittier, and Reed had sharpened a few of its lyrics; this broad-shouldered, clomping version is distinctly not there yet, but everything the Velvets released on their official albums is so canonical that it's strange and heartening to realize that their songs didn't just spring into existence already perfect.