Sunday, October 15, 2006

Liner Notables #3: The Velvet Underground And Nico

Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits...  

“You’ve never really known life until you’ve fucked death in the gallbladder.” It isn’t immediately apparent how this warm and fuzzy homily from the crap-and-camp film Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein is related to such music in which the figure of one song, as Lou Reed would have it, "started dancin' to that fine fine music / You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll."

But if anyone can put a death-mask on celebratory vigor it would be the avant guardian who splattered a soupçon of soup-can consumer culture on canvas and called it art. Indeed, as Andy Warhol produced them on their 1967 self-titled debut, the Velvet Underground and Nico -- way before death metal and goth -- stuck out from the Summer of Love like a Winter of Discontent.

With songs such as "The Black Angel's Death Song" and lyrics that deal matter-of-factly with the slipstreaming surrender to "nullify my life" while "closing in on death" ("Heroin"), the dark realism of a group who brought their tried-and-true brand of experience and experimentalism to this innovative album extends to the liner notes as well.

Those observations came in the form of newpaper excerpts from chomping-at-the-bit arts and music reviewers bending over backwards and soundboards to wallow in Warhol's mixed-media/performance art ensemble, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable -- a psych-out extravaganza designed to introduce VU to a potentially waiting world. As it turns out, the all-boffo commentary prominently featured in The Velvet Underground and Nico overstates a wide variety of preening pretentiouness as creative juices overflow.

Some writers stick to the expected hyperbole for the times, and concern themselves with the show-bizzy rock particulars. "At the Plastic Inevitable it is all Here and Now and the Future." One, more taciturn, takes his turn with "Three-ring psychosis"; perhaps "like Berlin in the decadent '30s" fits the bill; or "fused together into one magnificent moment of hysteria."

Meanwhile, the music of the Velvet Underground is described by one twisted wordsmith as a combination of "Sado-Masochistic frenzy with free-association imagery... the product of a secret marriage between Bob Dylan and the Marquis de Sade." Another frets that, by comparison with the "far out" headliners, the "great, groovy group which opened the show sounds passe."

But, getting back to the Frankensteinian philosophy of life and internal organs, other liner note contributors display an intimate fascination with dying and danger. You would not have thought death had undone so many...

"Not since the Titanic ran into that iceberg has there been such a collision as when Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable burst upon the audiences at the Trip Tuesday."  Embellishing this notion of watery graves, another reviewer opts for "these flowers of evil... in full bloom". To experience this menacing assemblage "is to be brutalized, helpless -- you're in any kind of horror you want to imagine, from police state to mad house." 

Is the late Nico, the Velvet Underground's resident Teutonic "Chanteuse" (as she is billed), a "beautiful, flaxen-haired girl," as one writer puts it -- or, as another attests, "another cooler Dietrich for another cooler generation"? A little less sweetness and light comes when a somewhat obsessed Dante wannabe plunges head-first into the inferno: "Nico, astonishing -- the macabre face -- so beautifully resembles a memento mori, the marvelous deathlike voice coming from the lovely blond head."

He might be a little head-over-heels for a Necro-Nico persona, but at least he's not gaga over gallbladders.


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