The Velvet Underground — Ocean

Lou Reed at his chilling, decadent best.

Fans often say that Lou’s work with the Velvet Underground is better than (so) much of the work he did after, and is still doing. Citing either the glorious decadence of the VU catalogue or the simply better song- and band-craft, Lou consequently gets pretty riled in interviews when the Velvets are mentioned. Obviously for Lou, he’s pissed because critics glorify his past over current projects, fearing they’ll be talking more about former in the great annals of music history. I must say that I side with the fans; with the exception of Transformer and maybe even Metal Machine Music, I don’t think Lou’s solo work has much of the energy or crafted smarts of his VU catalogue. The songs are better, his singing was definitely better, and the music more powerfully singular back then. I’d even speculate that the phrase ‘I like your old stuff better than your new stuff’ was inspired solely by Lou Reed’s situation. Oh Lou, what to do.

The songs of the Velvet Underground are street, literate and uniquely classy in terms of rock & roll. There’s a crafty and ambitious songwriter at work in them. There’s a radical noise and disturbance in the band, just as there’s a balancing tenderness and delicacy of expression. And thematically, Lou could cross from observational pop to disturbed and psychologically scathing poetry, all in the space of a side of vinyl. He definitely had a (drug-addled) gift for exposing the dark linings of life, and singing it. He was also one of the first to bring a sense of literary theme and form to songwriting.

In one interview, I remember Lou getting huffy with the interviewer’s hunger for more decadence in his new work, replying that he’d dealt with decadence once and for all on “The Murder Mystery” (on the self-titled Velvet Underground). Which track is really a piece of chamber-decadence, all deliberately nasty and disturbing images double-layered with sexy gore and funny commentary (‘isn’t it sweet, being unique … we’re number one, and soulful’). The track seems to play a role in the album’s otherwise conscious morality songs, offsetting their calm humanity. A nicely dirty, speedy revelry. But for decadence in the full poetic sense (fin-de-siècle-Maldoror-Wilde-Baudelaire etc), and ignoring for a moment the rather meaty poetry of “Murder Mystery”, I think we need to look elsewhere for Lou’s best work.

And that work is “Ocean”. Ignore the rough and ready version on VU, head straight for Volume II of 1969 The Velvet Underground Live. This version is monumental, disturbed, and loaded with all of the Velvet’s razor-to-bone intensity. And it is psychedelic in the best sense: it presents a vision of the world that’s existentially overwhelming. Which is not to say that the Velvets were into psychedelics and trippy visions of colour and love; this is the disturbing end of the drug spectrum.

Now, most drugs have a small value or by-product which occasionally marries with vision (excepting crystal meth) ― and the Velvets were big speed users (which is why “Ocean” repeats and repeats in the coda). But I like that even speed can inspire such a chilling poetic vision of the world:

Earth is a hollow head, part of a bigger head

It nearly drives me crazy…

Insects are evil thoughts

Thought of by selfish men…

Here comes the waves down by the shore

Washing the eye of the land… that has been… down by the sea.

Reproducing these lyrics is to miss Lou’s crucial phrasing of the words: the way he punctuates ‘It Nearly… Drives Me Crazy‘ is shockingly meant and sincere. Madness and the sea spread wide and deep like an hallucination as big as the world, possibly a means of obliterating the smallness of man and consciousness. The land is an eye, the ocean its cleanser, and the night possibly the lid that covers all. The small thoughts of man like an upstart of madness and evil compared to the bigger madness of the world. And a poetic onslaught against that madness; an angry and desperate dismissal. This is the kind of symbolism matched only by the heavy Baudelaires of the world. Though of course there is no overtly coherent intent or clear statement in them {I suspect that Lou occasionally made sloppy rhymes simply because they rhymed}. Still, this is heavy rock ― on its own it has the power to disturb.

I love the way Mo Tucker’s cymbals roll in and crash like recurring waves. I love her drums pounding relentlessly, forcing the heaviness again and again. I love the organ like an undercurrent of winds. I love the depth of the drop-D tuning on guitars. I love that Lou’s hallucination is somewhat static as the waves crash on to infinity.

It’s a speed-poetic vision made real by the band ― and exactly the kind of expressive magic missing from Lou’s later work.

Now a cynic would say that’s the drugs talking, Lou, and not some arty decadent wank. But I’ve got a little theory about drugs and music and it go a little something like this: no drug experience or inspiration is so total that it isn’t also somewhat human. Whether it’s Keef high on heroin or Bob on the ganja or Lou all wired on speed: these drug statements are also human statements. The drugs might be an oblique inspiration or effect, but ultimately they highlight something uniquely human and psychologically real. Saying ‘it’s the drugs’ is only a true in a small sense; what’s more real and significant is the depth and vision of humanity being expressed.

“Ocean” is like a dark vision of the world, the poetic key to a disturbing perception of human reality ― just like good decadent poetry. It is perfectly twinned with the lighter fun of the also-repetitive “What Goes On” ― catch them both on 1969. Contrast it with the versions of “Heroin”, and feel the shivers.

There’s another version on the Peel Slowly and See box set which has lyrics exploring the drowning angle, and princesses in castles and Malcolm’s Curse (huh?). But the live, Lo-Fi 1969 version is where it’s at.

It’s so heavy it’s good.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor.

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