How a Jew, a WASP, and a Catholic found the perfect religious balance and made the Velvet Underground one of the greatest rock bands in history
Three things happened in the fall of 1990 that changed my life forever.
The first—and by far the least significant—was the first Gulf War, which inspired Saddam Hussein to hurl his missiles at Israel. As if in some strange ghost dance, most of them landed within a two-block radius in a small suburb of Tel Aviv, forming a nearly perfect circle around my home. At dusk, which was usually just before the missiles would hit, I’d run up to the roof to see if any were visible on the horizon. Then, with the first siren, I’d rush down to the concrete-walled bomb shelter that in those days was my room, and I’d wait for the all-clear. Mornings were spent strolling the streets and looking for shrapnel, cool shreds of metal with Arabic inscriptions in red and green. The missiles were antiquated, their aim poor, and the damage minimal, which made the first Gulf War the best starter war a child could wish for: just consequential enough to convey a real sense of dread, but incapable of the sort of devastation that leaves nations and boys scarred for life.
But the war’s discrete charms—carrying your gas mask with you everywhere you went, keeping an atropine injector handy in case those threatened chemical warheads ever materialized—were nothing compared to the season’s twin colossal discoveries: sex and drugs.
I was a few months shy of my 14th birthday, and my first taste of hashish was like a second, and far more palpable, bar mitzvah. Someone had given me a joint, and I smuggled it past my mother and grandmother and down to my subterranean, bomb-resistant room. I realized the momentousness of the occasion, and with a rigid sense of ritual that only awkward teenagers can so earnestly conjure, I thought that an appropriate soundtrack was de rigeur. The same enabling friend had also given me a tape with a suggestive painting of a banana on the cover, and one song on that album, I saw, was called “Heroin.” Understanding very little about what set one drug apart from another, I figured that heroin and hashish were virtually the same thing, and that a song celebrating one would do just fine as I experimented with the other. I put the tape in my yellow Sony Walkman, stuck the ear buds in, pressed play, and lit up.
What happened next isn’t worth describing. Unless you’ve done drugs, or listened to the Velvet Underground, or done both simultaneously, or done both simultaneously when you were almost 14 and with Iraqi Scuds making their final pre-flight preparations en route to your neighborhood, you just won’t get how holy and filthy it felt, and how enlightening. Two hours later, the alarm sounded, and my mother and grandmother rushed down to my room and shut the heavy steel door behind them. I was panicking, convinced that the reek of burnt hash still lingered. It never occurred to me that we were all wearing gas masks.
That afternoon changed me forever. I listened to my tape endlessly: “Venus in Furs,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’m Waiting for the Man”—all Velvet Underground songs were about drugs or sex. And because I had no more of the former, I wanted to try the latter.
A few weeks later, I did. The girl was a sweet 16, and even though neither of us had done much more than breathlessly sneak a few fingers under a bra or down the pants, I felt I had to project a sort of secure masculinity, calm and seductive, and take control of the historic moment. I told her I had just the tape to put us both in the right mood. We undressed, turned off the lights, and I put the Velvet Underground cassette in her tape deck. If “Heroin” was such a befitting song with which to get high, I thought, surely it worked just as well for getting laid.
Four or five minutes in, with Lou Reed’s guitar and John Cale’s electric viola fighting like small, bleeding animals and Maureen Tucker’s drums as hypnotic as an underwater tribal trance, the Velvet Underground had given me the perfect score for scoring: The music was just as hysterical, desperate, insecure, elated, and terrified as I was, or as is anyone, I believe, who’s losing his virginity way too early and for all the wrong reasons.
Obviously, then, I spent much of my adult life thinking about the Velvet Underground and about what makes it such a stellar band. There are many obvious answers to this question, and some not so obvious ones, but there’s one I think deserves serious consideration: What made the Velvet Underground so great was religion—or, more specifically, the fact that its three most influential founders were a Jew, an Episcopalian, and a Catholic who together created the sort of perfectly balanced rock theology we haven’t seen before or since.
The Catholic, of course, is Andy Warhol. In Songs for Drella, the haunting tribute to Warhol that reunited Reed and Cale after years of animosity and alienation, the two recalled their mentor’s state of mind in a song called “Work”: “Andy was a Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones/ He lived alone with his mother, collecting gossip and toys/ Every Sunday when he went to Church/ He’d kneel in his pew and say, ‘It’s just work, all that matters is work.’ ”
In the final phase of his literary life, Harold Bloom, like Philip Roth, refuses to relinquish his vitality