In 1968, The Velvet Underground released their second full length album entitled White Light/White Heat. The album was drastically different than the bands previous release which was The Velvet Underground & Nico. While their first album is more delicate in its song structures, White Light/White Heat is more destructive absorbing noise and volume in what John Cale once described as “anti-beauty”. The album is known for its longer jam based songs and fuzzy guitars. It would also be the last album to feature John Cale as a member as tensions grew amongst Reed and Cale and that sense is heightened in the song dynamics found on this album. In addition to the well known songs on this release such as the title track which addresses use of amphetamines, the pre-Stooges sounding “I Heard Her Call My Name” and the infamous “Sister Ray”, there is another track found here that definitely adheres to the bands early sense of the avant garde and experimentation and that is a song entitled “The Gift”.
“The Gift” is a bit different to other songs the band had done up to that point and would later be taken into a more extreme point in the song “Sister Ray”. The song is actually a short story that was written by Lou Reed in his college days, but read overtop of music provided by the band. The words are read overtop of the music by John Cale in a Welsh accent in a deadpan manner and the story itself reflects a college oriented relationship and lifestyle having the feeling of early J.D. Salinger New Yorker stories. The difference is the ending of the story which is quite shocking and unexpected, as was the bands music to some. Before we get to that I’d like to discuss the music for “The Gift” which in fact was developed from a jam that the band used to play during their live shows entitled “The Booker T”, named after Booker T of Booker T Jones & The MGs. The eight minute song features a prominent fuzz bassline over an intense fuzzy distorted guitar jam. While White Light/White Heat features other songs with similar dynamics what sets this song apart from the others on the album and makes it different is the fact that there aren’t traditional lyrics in the this song. The band could have easily could have put words overtop of the music to tell a story, but they did the opposite putting a story overtop of the music.
The songs content is an example of the bands literate background, literally. This story sucks the listener in with its tale as we hear to story of a love sick student named Waldo. He decides that in order to see his girlfriend who he has a long distance relationship with he will mail himself in a cardboard box. We learn of Marsha’s infidelity and when the box arrives Marsha, Waldo’s long distance girlfriend has difficulty opening it. She then acquires a sheet metal cutter from the basement and slices through the box and its contents inside and the story ends right there leaving the listener to wonder what event would transpire next after its jarring conclusion. The song teaches a strange, morbid yet valuable lesson. It teaches us through its avant garde style why it is not a good idea to mail yourself or people for that matter in a cardboard box. Throughout this story we also learn of the characters strange self-centredness, Waldo is obsessed and clingy, Marsha is uneasy with this and Bill the man who she commits her infidelity with is indifferent to her. We sense their ignorance and indifference to each other and each character cares primarily about no one, except themselves which results in a dramatic outcome and conclusion. It makes us feel as Marsha says in the story “all icky” even before the ending.
And while the song “Sister Ray” is often focused on more, this song was pre-planned in comparison. “Sister Ray” evolved from a jam in the studio in one take, while “The Gift” evolved from a previous jam and a story written well before that. It is just an example of how different and innovative The Velvet Underground were compared to other bands at the time. And while they have four albums (not counting their outtake albums and the one without Lou Reed titled Squeeze), this is just a small example of what makes this band stand out and still relevant even many, many years after being a band. I will leave you with a quote by guitarist Sterling Morrison that can both be applied to this song, the bands status in 1968 and the album White Light/White Heat:
“We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction. In the White Light/White Heat era, our lives were chaos. That's what's reflected in the record."
This Week's Play List:
1. Devo – Wiggly World (Live At The Walker Minneapolis, MN 1978)
2. Devo – Satisfaction (Live At The Walker Minneapolis, MN 1978)
3. The Nils - In Betweens
4. Threads of Fybre – Mama
5. The Shadows of Knight – Oh yeah
6. The Seeds – Pushin’ Too Hard
7. 13th Floor Elevators – You’re Gonna Miss Me
8. Toy Love – Don’t Ask Me (Live At The Gluepot 1980)
9. Gang of Four – Damaged Goods
10. Johnny Quest & The Rosebushes – Breaking Glass
11. The Reply – Give What You Can
12. The Falcons – Jokers Wild
13. Boxcar Guitars – This Heat, This Heat
14. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Shuffle Your Feet
15. The Stig – Block It Out
16. Tuff Darts – Here Comes Trouble
17. The Staccatos – You Only Live Once
18. Velvet Underground – The Gift
19. Alex Chilton – The Letter (Live In London 1980)
20. The Hoots – In My Room
21. Actual Water – Three O’Clock Kids
22. Link Wray – Growling Guts
23. Radio Birdman – I-94
To download this weeks program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and download the file for January 15. Or subscribe to Revolution Rock as a Podcast.