Sunday, July 12, 2020

Wait/Don't Wait: I'm Waiting for the Man, by The Velvet Underground

Purchase "I'm Waiting for the Man," by The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground have always been a challenging band for me. They seem to be able to run the full spectrum: some songs are amazing, fully realized compositions reflective of musical roots and innovative of a new sound; other efforts sound like a band that is a strange, post-pop, kitchen sink style experiment in style and mode, more aligned to kitsch than actual art. 

There's no separation for me from the Andy Warhol psuedo-stylistc, anything-can-be-art approach. 

I'm sure there's more to the VU than sound, and that's probably the point I'm missing. But, experimentation and boundary pushing should still sound consistent. And sometimes it sounds good; at other times, it is experimental, at best. And a bit of a put on. The pretension of it can be baffling. Like people who rhapsodize over Warhol's soup cans or Marilyn Monroe portraits. Not my thing, but then, art is pure subjectivity. 

That Warhol vibe that colors VU's work runs two ways. It can be bad, just really artless and hard to take. But, it can be sleazy, tainted with something a little baffling and a little leary-making. And that's when it's most enjoyable, and reflective of the actual vibe that grew up around Warhol's New York scene, that of misfits, genderbent oddballs, hustlers and street creatures. It was that dark bohemia that rarely saw the light of day that VU touched on in their sketchy, dirty sound, same as a certain cadre of writers who used theme and subject matter to make a notable  shift in post-modern literature. Works like Kerouac's On The Road, Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, or on a visual planeRobert Frank's The Americans, shifted artistic expression toward a more focused look at the underbelly of society--that which had always existed but was never really given the spotlight in serious work. The down and out loser was celebrated, and the vivid portrayal of the dark, dirty taboo created a new, dark modernism. The tableau in the works are made from the junkies, trans and cross-dressing street angels, hustlers, thieves, the kind of folks that didn't really exist for most, at least not in the real world. And certainly, none of these types had ever taken on the role of protagonist, or been in a position to earn the reader or viewer's empathy. Transgressive work, very much including the VU's music, was an examination of the darker life, about the edge of experience, the evil things that happened out there, but never touched, nor sullied, most people's lives. The kind of stuff that took place only in godless Gomorrah's like New York City. Listening to it, say in the confines of the neat, clean and safe American suburbs, was akin to sneaking a look at porn: titaliting, dirty and done under cover with the fear of being caught. These are the kind of works that invoke Puritanical reactions in our society, where worry over the perverse leads to outrage. But there is beauty in the brutality and a strange dignity that is earned by the lowlife when the listener and the reader get an insight into their strange and singular humanity. 

A good summation comes from Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn. The book is the literary equivalent of a walk through hell, and the appeal of transgressive art can best summed up as thus: "Sometimes we have the absolute certainty there's something inside us that's so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won't be able to stand looking at it. But it's when we're willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel." 

While the genius of Kerouac's On the Road was the fact that it was one of the earliest attempts at elevating the lowest kind of folks to exalted position of literary hero, the Velvet Underground is probably among the first pop/rock outfits to celebrate similar deviants in art made for mass consumption. And I'm sure their music was a little shocking, the same way Kerouac and his Beat kin scandalized polite sensibilities with tales of drugs and debauchery.  Lou Reed made an entire career out bringing people face to face with the strange demons of the dark side and never more poetically than in "Walk on the Wild Side,"from 1972's Transformer.  He also celebrates that bohemian life in another track on the album, "I'm so Free", a gleeful declaration of allegiance to a life lived outside the careful margins. 

And while "Walk of the Wild Side" and "I'm so Free" are poetic and free-floating, VU's 1967 "Waiting for the Man" is far darker, much more forward and in your face in its theme and subject. Decidedly loose and funky,  documentarian rather than metaphorical, the song is the quintessential transgressive poetic experience. The song moves along at a propulsive clip largely due to the barreling piano roll. It's a bit of a barhouse singalong, with the dithering, jangly guitar and simple pound-down drums. An upbeat and oddly celebratory tune, it's certainly not the VU's only song explicitly about drugs, but it's certainly their happiest one. It's got a White Stripes sense of drive and almost anti-rhythm, which speaks to how influential this strange song would go on to become. And more for it's eccentricity than technical value, Rolling Stone ranked it as number 159 out of their 500 greatest rock songs of all times. It's probably helped by the fact that Nico doesn't chomp her vocals over top of it, like she did to ruinous effect on "Femme Fatale" and others...But, that's just an opinion. 

I'm going to avoid editorializing about the content. It seems a little more fun to look at the trivia of the song. David Bowie loved the song and according to my research, he and his band covered it it before it was even released. The story of the song takes place in Harlem, New York City. And like the Ramones' "53 & 3rd", "I'm Waiting for the Man" has a specific geographical context: Lexington Avenue and 125th Street. You can visit! 

There's plenty of history to the track; it holds an esteemed place in rock history, as does the band itself. Puzzling out the good from bad, in a lot of ways, makes the song, and the VU themselves, more interesting. The song itself, like any good piece of art, contextualizes experience for the audience, places them close in the experience by delivering the instinct and the visceral sense without the actual danger. It makes sense without having to be real. That's good art, I suppose. Maybe it's a warning when Reed sings that he feels, "Feel sick and dirty/more dead than alive/I'm waiting for my man." He had his share of struggles and came out on the better side. I don't suppose he meant to glorify anything here--just to elevate the experience into something that made sense of it. Good song, regardless. 

Note: I referenced Keith Rawson's 2013 article for, "There is No Bottom, There is Only the Abyss: A Hubert Selby Jr Primer" researching this post. The Selby quote from Last Exit to Brooklyn was quoted in his article.

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