The Sixties were supposed to be happy, groovy, hippy-dippy love-fests 24/7 and nothing but good vibes. But the reality is that many people weren’t happy, weren’t hippies, and weren’t using LSD as their drug of choice. The Velvet Underground, dark and brooding, unleashed a sonic assault on the music landscape with their debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” in 1967, and followed it up with “White Light/White Heat” later that year. That both records are landmarks of American rock music is hard to dispute now, but the Velvets were virtually ignored because of their song material (none-too-subtle lyrics about sado-masochism, homosexuality, and heroin abuse). But they began to mellow with 1969’s self-titled album, and by 1970’s “Loaded” they were trying to reach a wider audience. As a band, though, they were falling apart.
Lou Reed would be gone from the band by the end of that year, about to embark on a solo career that, like all solo careers in the 1970s, was as much about recasting himself as a new artist and repudiating the work that he’d done before. Reed’s solo career would have many highs and lows, and by his death in 2013 (admittedly long past the time when many thought he would expire, based on his lifestyle of hard drugs and all sorts of dangerous living) he was a revered figure in the history of rock music. It’s fitting, then, that one of the most effective songs he ever recorded with the Velvets, sometime before they came apart, was titled simply “Rock & Roll.”
The story, such as it is, concerns Jenny (or is it “Ginny”?), a suburban girl growing up when rock and roll was still a new sound blasting out of the radio. Quaint though they seem now, the pioneers of the Fifties broke all sorts of barriers that polite society would have rather left in place. Of course people were having sex before Elvis came along, it’s just that songs about fucking weren’t allowed on the radio, no matter how much you cleaned up the lyrics or hid behind mixed metaphors, a double entendre, or just plain nonsense verse. Lou Reed came of age in the Fifties, and the music of that time (provided by artists white and black, mixing together at a time when that just wasn’t done) informs the feeling of his nostalgia-driven song. “Rock & Roll” is a Sixties song, no doubt, but it is a song informed by earlier times, much “simpler” times that nostalgia-fiends like Ronald Reagan would characterize in unrealistic terms during the Eighties (the decade of the ironically conservative “Back to the Future”).
Reed’s nostalgia isn’t for the simpler time, actually, but for the time when the shit gets real, when the rock and roll music coming out of the radio was something new, something radical, something exciting. And so it is with the Velvets themselves, who were put in a box labeled “obscurity” but who climbed out to influence more than their fair share of imitators and similarly genius artists. “Loaded” got that title because it was supposed to be loaded with hits; that it was virtually ignored when it came out is a shame, all the more so in the last vestigial hangover from the Sixties and at the dawn of a new decade that would be mired in selfishness and bad taste in fashion. But being appreciated in your time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Rock & Roll” is only the most obvious VU song that could sum up an America that looks more real to me than the country that pop singers who top the charts sing about. Give me “Sweet Jane,” “Sister Ray,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and countless others any day over whatever you’ve got over Taylor Swift. Not that Top 40 can’t be enjoyable or as moving as the music coming from the underdogs; but genius is often ignored in its prime. The Velvets were treated pretty shabbily during their heyday, but now they’re revered godfathers (and –mothers) of alternative music. And some kid somewhere could hear “Rock & Roll” playing away one day and be inspired. How cool is that?
Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.