Lou Reed wrote an essay for Aspen no.3 – the Pop-Art issue that Andy Warhol edited, in 1966 – some months before the appearance of The Velvet Underground's first album. Reed's sentences are of their time. The aesthetic, already in place, is light years ahead.
Repetition is so fantastic, anti-glop... Listening to a dial tone in B♭, until American Tel & Tel messed and turned it into a mediocre whistle, was fine. Short waves minus an antenna give off various noises, band wave pops and drones, hums that can be tuned at will and which are very beautiful. Eastern music is allowed to have repetition. That's OK for glops with strawhats and dulcimers between their blue legs... they don't listen to it, or see it, but they sanction it. Andy Warhol's movies are so repetitious sometimes, so so beautiful. Probably the only interesting films made in the US are Rock-and-Roll films. Reducing things to their final joke. Which is so pretty.
Lou Reed grew up on Long Island. He loved Mickey and Sylvia, Bo Diddley, and Dion. ('Femme Fatale', on the Velvet Underground's first album, steals, subtly, from Del Shannon's 'Little Town Flirt'; 'There She Goes' bears a passing resemblance to Marvin Gaye's Hitch Hike'.) He made his own, first records in 1958. (Here's one he made in 1962.) In college, at Syracuse, he fell in love with poetry and met Sterling Morrison, who went on to play guitar in the Velvet Underground. In New York, he met Warhol, Walter De Maria (who played drums in an early incarnation of the Velvet Underground), and John Cale, who'd been playing loud, amplified drones in La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music. By 1965, the basic ingredients were all in place.
The Velvet Underground made some of the most savage recordings I've heard, and some of the most delicate. They sang about dislocation and distance – from society, from sobriety, from the self. Reed could be abrasive in person. But he was also the most compassionate songwriter I can think of. If Warhol flattened the characters he surrounded himself with, at the Factory, Reed breathed life back into them, ennobled them.
For Reed, rock and roll was not a religion; it was religion itself. Repetitions, drones: these were the ways into trance states, and Reed's way around an 'all right!' was rooted in the old Pentecostal church, where the words 'I feel all right!' signalled your readiness to receive the Holy Spirit. In his self-reflexive masterpiece, 'Rock and Roll', music promised answers that religion could no longer provide. ('There is no god,' Reed wrote in the Aspen essay, 'and Brian Wilson is his son.') Over the years, the Velvet Underground became a kind of church in which teenage pilgrims found one another. 'Back then,' the novelist Jenny Offill has written, 'the music had saved me.'
One afternoon I was walking through a park when I heard 'Candy Says' playing on a boom box (this was nothing short of a miracle given where I lived). I stopped and talked to the pale, jittery boy who owned it and in an act of stunning generosity he took the tape out and gave it to me. 'This album will change your life,' he said, and he was right. I got in my car and drove around and around my stupid town, listening to it. By the time I got home, I knew that one day I would move to New York and everything would be OK. And that is more or less what happened.
Of course there's much more to say about the Velvet Underground, just as there was more to Reed than VU. But Reed knew his own worth. His memorial albums, Songs for Drella (recorded with Cale, for Warhol), and Magic and Loss (inspired, in part, by the songwriter Doc Pomus), are well worth listening to.