Late November 1969

Shortly before The Velvet Underground’s November 21 concert in Portland, Oregon, Lou Reed is interviewed on local radio station KVAN. The surviving half-hour tape of the show is by far the most extensive circulating audio interview with Reed during his time with the Velvets. Although it drifts off at points into less interesting, more whimsical tangents – as is common with rock interviews during the late 60s – it provides a fascinating insight into how Reed views his work at the time.

    Reed clearly already thinks of the Velvets’ output as a linear body of work. “If you start with the first album, and work your way, at your own leisure of course, slowly but surely to the third, it should make sense,” he says. In response to an apparent backlash against The Velvet Underground, he notes, “A lot of people said the third album was so soft, and that we were selling out and doing this and that. And they wanted another ‘Sister Ray,’ or another ‘Heroin’ and all that. Well … ‘The Murder Mystery’ is all of that, only it’s a lot more. Only you gotta work for it … which is why it’s a mystery.

    “I mean, all the people that really like that side of us and think that that side’s not there any more, well, they haven’t listened to ‘The Murder Mystery,’” he continues. “It’s just like, where can you go past ‘Sister Ray’? … We took the energy thing as far as we wanted to go. There had to be a step past that, and that’s ‘The Murder Mystery.’ [It’s] one very long, kind of obtuse circle. But it’s not impenetrable. You can get into it. You just gotta hustle a little.”

    Reed sees a parallel between the simultaneous narratives heard on ‘The Murder Mystery’ and some of the devices being used in contemporary literature. “One of the things that Joyce and Cage and all these people did … [was] like trying to print two things side by side, or print one thing on top of itself to show that two things were going on,” he says. “Well, you see, having a record makes the other thing antiquated. There’s no need to bother even doing that, because here you got a record with a stereo channel going. You don’t have to have a printed page with this on top of it … all you do is you have stereo left channel, stereo right channel … It’s not an avant-garde idea, ’cause it’s been, you know, since the 20s. European writers since the 20s have been doing it. But doing it on record seems to have done it in a coherent, cohesive form. So the idea was, ‘bam!,’ on the left and right. Two different voices doing inversions, both of mood and content.”

    The Velvets will later be portrayed as a kind of ultimate anti-psychedelic group, but are in fact very much people of their time. Reed even steers this particular discussion in a direction that would find favor with the most spaced-out of hippies. He’s just had his aura read, he says, and had his previous incarnations revealed by a ‘reverend’ in Los Angeles, where “they told Doug, for instance, if you have long hair, you should always get it trimmed a little, get the ends cut off, because you’d pick up spiritual wasps.” (For the record, Lou’s aura was white, with “some blue, some green.”) Reed also reveals that he’s had 1,143 past lives. “Geez, that’s a lotta lives,” the deejay replies.

    Reed goes on to hint at the origin of the “white light” he sings about in ‘White Light/White Heat’ when he reveals that he has recently been investigating a Japanese form of healing in Los Angeles that’s “a way of giving off white light … I’ve been involved and interested in what they call white light for a long time.” He briefly talks about Alice Bailey and her occult book A Treatise On White Magic, another likely source of his interest in white light. “It costs like ten dollars, unfortunately,” he notes apologetically. (Reed’s interest in such matters might later seem rather unlikely, given his hard-bitten, realist image. But Rob Norris recalls discussing “angels, saints, the universe, diet, yoga, meditation, Jesus, healing with music, cosmic rays, and astrology” with Reed in the late 60s in an article for Kicks magazine. Furthermore, he recalls Reed being a member of the Church Of Light in New York, which studied Bailey’s work as part of its theosophical teachings.)

    As the interview continues, the conversation turns to Delmore Schwartz, which leads to a chat of the nature of talent and how to use it. When the discussion returns to the music to The Velvet Underground, Reed seems keen to point out that the group has always mixed aggression and flamboyance with gentle, reflective material. “There were slow songs on the first and on the second [albums],” he says. “It’s just, no one had noticed it, ’cause the placement wasn’t so good. ‘Heroin’ kind of ran away with it, ’cause it was kind of overt and easy to identify with. But you know, we didn’t want to be put in a bag of being forerunners of the drug maniacs and all of that. So I had thought there was a balance, like ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Femme Fatale,’ all those kind of things, which didn’t work out. Then the second album was an energy job.”

    Reed also offers some general thoughts on The Velvet Underground’s modus operandi: “We didn’t put things in, we took things out, which is kind of the reverse of the way everybody else works,” he notes. “We never add instruments, we don’t bring people in for sessions, we don’t basically do anything that we can’t reproduce on stage.” And he doesn’t see the lower volume of much of the third album as being such a departure from the complex issues the group has always tackled. Citing ‘Candy Says’ as an example, he says, “It has its own kind of tension. It’s about somebody saying, ‘Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body and all it requires in this world.’ With all that little pretty music going there, you start figuring, ‘What is that all about?’ And then the whole rest of the third album is just about that.”

The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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