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.’ ”
The song goes on to describe Warhol, who sponsored and promoted the Velvet Underground early on in their career, pestering Reed to write more songs, repeating again and again that work was the only acceptable human condition. No wonder that a boy reared on ritual and iconography grew up to create commercial, colorful work that turned the detritus of pop culture into sacred objects of reverence.
But Warhol alone was not enough. The problem with Warhol—evident in each of his paintings and sculptures and movies and quips—is that there are no emotional boreholes lying beneath the arid surface of concept and artifice. And rock, Warhol knew, was the music of emotion; it was one thing to shoot eight hours and five minutes of the Empire State Building and call it a movie, but as soon as guitars and drums are involved, passion should be as well.
His first passionate disciple was John Cale. Born in Wales, the quiet, artistic youth had had just the kind of monstrous childhood that tends to turn people into either perverts or pioneers. Here he is, in his autobiography, about being a boy:
Each time I walked up the path in the growing dark I had to pass the local church, which, being the largest in the area, harboured a Rushworth and Draper organ for the High Church services held every Sunday. When I was twelve, wearing regulation schoolboy’s trousers, I was sexually molested by the organist. He was giving me special lessons in how to play and sing hymns. … The way into the organ loft was narrow and, once in, you could not easily get out. If you were there with the organ tutor, it was even more cramped. When you have lessons there is often attention given to your footwork and its accuracy in playing certain set pieces for examinations. He was trying to grab me and jerk me off, and in those short pants it was hard to avoid. It was distasteful and difficult to deal with. It lasted one spring and summer, and it certainly took care of my religious sensibility.
There are many remarkable things about this passage: its quiet, reserved tone, its sense of understated torment. But most striking of all is the fact that Cale remembers just what sort of organ it was that he’d played, remembers not as a traumatized victim holding on to detail but as a consummate musician thinking about his instrument even as he’s being raped in a musty room. And this is exactly what his music sounds like: incredibly controlled, with some eerie sense of dread thudding in the background. You can hear it best in Fragments of a Rainy Season, his stunning 1992 live performance in which beautiful and measured piano songs break down into thumps and screams only to regain their composure almost immediately. Although most of the Velvet Underground’s songs were written by Lou Reed, it is impossible to imagine the band’s sound without that electric viola, without Cale’s grace.
And then there’s Lou Reed. Born Lewis Allan Reed in Brooklyn, he was 14 when his parents dragged him to receive electroconvulsive therapy designed to fry away his homosexual urges. “They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue,” he recalled in an interview years later, “and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.”
Instead of reading books, Reed wrote songs, and his anger dripped into each line and chord. It was a particularly Jewish anger, the anger of someone who grew up in a community so eager to belong to society at large that the slightest touch of deviancy called for severe measures, the anger of someone who had come of age pinched by a litany of laws. Even when he finally managed to escape to Manhattan, he sought the kind of safety and security that reflects his middle-class, suburban, Jewish upbringing and became the in-house songwriter for the very commercial Pickwick Records, where he wrote soundalike albums. He later described the tenure as being “a poor man’s Carole King.”
Warhol and Cale gave Reed the background he needed, musically, artistically, and commercially. So much of Reed’s rage is made airy by Cale’s arrangements, and so much of his bitterness dissolves. By himself, Reed is frequently excellent, but he is also very hard to take because he is a bard of impotent fury, writing songs about beautiful losers hopelessly challenging social conventions they would never, ever change. But add Cale to the mix, and the frustrations turn sublime. Add Warhol, too, and the whole package is ethereal. The angry Jew, the repressed and damaged WASP, the anxious Catholic, each brought his own demons into the studio and, to everyone’s delight, the demons all played well together.
Which is why “Heroin” was, in retrospect, a great choice of a song for drugs and dirty deeds alike. Sex and intoxication both appeal to us so much because they are emotions we can never really understand, in retrospect, when we’re sober and dressed. They’re ecstatic, which means that they leave us, as we partake in them, vulnerable and victorious at the same time, very confused and very much in need of candor. It takes more than one religion to supply this kind of emotional honesty. It takes three. Luckily for the Velvet Underground, the ecumenical stars were all aligned.
In the final phase of his literary life, Harold Bloom, like Philip Roth, refuses to relinquish his vitality