When You Listen To The Velvet Underground For The First Time…
An article on Quora (my secret lazy Sunday morning addiction) that answered the question “who is the most overrated rock musician” with “Lou Reed” (I will leave an answer to that answer for another time) got me listening to the Velvet Underground again this weekend.
We’ve all heard the quote about how the first Velvet Underground album didn’t sell very well but everyone who bought a copy started a band. I don’t know whether the numbers back that up but I know it was true for me.
As a musician and music lover there are some rites of passage you never forget: listening to the first Beatles album, playing the first gig and probably a first public screw up – one of the most memorable for me was when I first listened to the Velvet Underground.
The year was 1995 and I was spending one of those endless summer holidays with my grandparents in a rural part of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. No Internet, no cable TV, no Air Con – you get the picture.
My grandfather did have a gigantic collection of jazz vinyls (Bix, about whom he wrote a book, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman etc.) but I was way too much of a moody teenager to appreciate any of that, so I convinced him to let me use his credit card (I think it was a Diner’s Club, if you can remember those) to sign up to one of those CD club offers that from the back of the newspaper – the first five were free after which you were locked into a more or less endless subscription.
These weren’t my first CD – I already had Queen Greatest Hits (my first, I think), Definitely Maybe, G’n’R Use Your Illusion and lots of Beatles (I got one of their albums every birthday and Christmas) and I’d already started playing guitar, so I felt pretty knowledgeable.
I forget what four of the five CDs were but I suspect that most were current releases as 1995 was, in my opinion, a pretty memorable year with What’s the Story Morning Glory, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Jagged Little Pill, to name of few. ‘The Best of the Velvet Underground’ was a wild card choice and I think I only included it in my selection after hearing their name mentioned somewhere – I had no idea.
I unpacked the box, loaded up the multi-disc changer and sat down at the dining room table. Out comes Waiting for My Man – wow! Twenty-six Dollars in my hand – for what? It didn’t matter one bit that I had no idea the Man was the drug dealer – the snare on every beat (one of those touches you subconsciously realise are unsettling but can’t quite put your finer on), guitar tone that sounded like crushed glass and loose-but-tight lead plus dissonant piano in the outro got me there, no explanation needed.
And I could go on with the list because everything I heard on that record was a revelation but these two had the same effect on me as a newborn animal seeing its parent for the first time (imprinting?), or seeing snow for the first time in your twenties, another story from my Californian grandfather.
Pale Blue Eyes