Fifty years after its release, Ashley Davies hails the album that never gets old.
I love this album because it’s a noisy marriage of filthy musical ingenuity and raw storytelling about characters fucking themselves up in an attempt to feel different, to feel something and to feel nothing.
Just about every track bleeds stickily with dark poetry about heroin: what it does to your body and mind when you take it or really really need it, and what you have to do to get it in you. There’s dead-eyed prostitution, jagged and velvety S&M, paranoia and a twisted attempt to offer comfort. YUMMERS!
It was an interesting choice to open the album with Sunday Morning, a melodic and slickly produced track that, if you disregard the lyrics, sounds like a cosy, dozy contemplation of a day of peace, thanks to the lullaby-flavoured glockenspiel and optimistic guitar breaks.
But it’s not. There’s a suggestion of panic and yuck-mouthed regret about still being awake on the morning after the night before, anxious about all the rubbish things you’ve done catching up with you.
It’s not the only track in which the music is doing one thing and the lyrics are saying another. In the surprisingly jaunty I’m Waiting for the Man – all catchy guitar riffs and I’m-in-a-hurry arrangements – Lou Reed sings about being “sick and dirty”, desperate for a fix while remarking upon his dealer’s shoddy timekeeping. Our junkie poet describes having to explain to the people in his dealer’s neighbourhood that, no, he’s not here to chase their women – he has other needs.
And in Heroin, while his words describe his attempts to obliterate the bullshit by shooting up, the music tells a different story. Yes, the tempo – controlled by simple guitar and heartbeat-mimicking drum – alters dramatically to match the racing pulse of an excited addict, but that yearned-for peace never comes. There’s no honey-smooth anaesthetic. The cacophony just builds until listening is like you’re being banged about in his congested veins.
And you feel your heart starting to break when he sings: “’Cause when the smack begins to flow / And I really don’t care any more / And when that heroin is in my blood / And that blood is in my head / Then thank God I’m good as dead.” Oh, Lou, we miss you.
S&M hymn Venus in Furs is an outrageously exquisite piece of music, a richly pervy symphony that showcases the wild inventiveness of Reed and John Cale. That shrieky, frightened sound comes from Cale playing a classical viola using mandolin and guitar strings, and Reed achieved the jangly guitar noise (as he did on All Tomorrow’s Parties) using the ostrich method – tuning all the strings to the same note.
Which leads us on to the delectable Nico, whose presence on this album puts me in mind of a stern observer who might thwack you with a specially commissioned weapon if you stepped out of line. In All Tomorrow’s Parties, she delivers a barrage of half-droned rhetorical questions about the consequences of artifice, hedonism and the inevitability of ageing, while druggy strings jangle and roar underneath. It’s all dead Warholesque.
And with its light-touch arrangements and sweet poetry, I’ll Be Your Mirror should sound like a song offering protection and comfort, but there’s something about Nico’s deep, Teutonic delivery that feels slightly controlling. It’s reminiscent of a creepy scene in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author in which a predatory character tries to get a young woman to surrender her free will by offering to be her mirror.
I refuse to believe this record is half a century old. It contains sounds that had never been heard before and every time you listen to it something new oozes in to your brain. Brian Eno was probably right about its influence when he said that, while it only sold 30,000 copies during its first five years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”1996 Views
Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.