The Velvet Underground

I remember a time before there was such thing as the Velvet Underground. It appears in my memory as a time before music, a time in my life before music was important, relevant, defining. And then, at some point when I was around nineteen, they took over my attention. The world was then divided into pre-Velvets and the contemporary world, a world in which Sweet Jane and Heroin were part of the landscape (soundscape?) There were always other groups, other music. There was Sonic Youth. They came before the VU, but were overshadowed and engulfed by their predecessors. There was (and is) Dylan, who had influenced the young Reed and has now outlived him, and whose songs (Memphis Blues Again, Visions of Johanna) were and are capable of inducing in my post-adolescent imagination something unique and hard to describe, something akin to influence. After those songs you are not the same again. They change you. The Velvets changed me. Patti Smith did, too, when I first heard Piss Factory. Marquee Moon changed me. Heart of Darkness. And all of them were indebted most to the Velvets and, perhaps less directly, Dylan. But it’s the VU I go back to, who’ve never left me. CDs, vinyl, cassettes, iPod, YouTube, streaming…I keep them close no matter where I am listening.
I remember a time when nobody I knew would listen to them. (They do now, of course.)
I miss you Lou.

The Christian Life

I love this song despite – or perhaps because of – its boozy Christian sentiment. It makes me feel like I just stumbled into an Oklahoma leather bar full of Jehovah’s Witnesses (or something). Here’s a lyric that makes me giggle every time:

Others find pleasure in things I despise / I like the Christian life.

The whole album is wonderful. Enjoy!

The greatest

When I sent a fake Bob Dylan tweet last night before going to bed, I didn’t realize he was turning seventy today. Seventy! I’m not going to go into a long spiel about how Dylan is the greatest songwriter since X or how he revolutionized contemporary music more often than Y, because there’s really no point. But who’s got the consistency of quality we find in Dylan’s work over such a span of time? Lou Reed has always been my rock-n-roll hero, but he’s been constantly checked by Dylan every step of the way. I love Lou for his chutzpah, much of which he likely lifted wholesale from Bob (and both via Warhol). Bob made Lou possible, not the other way around.

Anyway, here’s a brief post I wrote a few years ago under my then-nom-de-plume about the influence Blonde On Blonde had on my youthful self.

I arrived in New York City armed with a roll of twenties, my mother’s suitcase, and a portable tape player. I kissed mom goodbye, paid rent for a week (this was a hotel on the Bowery!) and went back upstairs to contemplate my life. I was barely twenty, freshly dropped out of artschool, and unemployed with few or no prospects. I remember throwing Blonde On Blonde into the tapedeck, lying back on my rented cot, and hearing the words that  illustrated my predicament with what seemed an eerie truthfulness. The organ swerving through trickling guitars. That mercury sound. The nasal voice. “Well, the bricks lay on Grand Street…where the neon madmen climb.” I was two blocks from Grand Street! In the middle of the muddle of Dylan’s masterwork–this was why I had come after all! The Chinese fishmongers were still there, the street was indeed paved with bricks, everything shimmering in the bronze light of an early March sunset in Manhattan. Twenty-nine years after the album was cut. The first day of the rest of my life.

In time I must have memorized every word of this album, the most enchanting and eclectic of Dylan’s long career. It functioned like a treasure map of the city, as I followed its clues from point to point, navigating through the people and the places with unassailable curiosity, searching out the Dylanesque in every bookshop and bar. Years passed, and the traumas of life in the city brought me regularly back to Dylan’s couch in order “to find out what price/ you had to pay to get out of/ going through all these things twice.”

(Note: I looked for a Dylan performance of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” on YouTube, but all I could find were covers. So listen to Cat Power, ’cause she rocks, too.)

“Daddy, What’s a Ramone?”

We’re moving, and each time I move I end up reflecting on all the moving I’ve done over the course of my life. I’ve tallied up a total of 22 separate abodes in 36 years. I count as an “abode” any place I’ve lived for at least a month with no more permanent address to call home. To be clear, I’ve included places my father lived after our parents’ divorce, really just a succession of cheap apartments in which I was guaranteed a bed. A third of my “abodes” were in New York City, where I racked up a frightening four in one solar year.

Throughout it all I’ve managed to hang on to a few things — mostly books and records — thanks both to my mother’s basement and her goodwill. Now those things are in jeopardy; she’s moving to a small apartment and my ad hoc collection will have to find another home. The alternative is the dump.

Since I bought most of this stuff used, it would be perfectly natural to bid it all adieu in a similar fashion. I could sell the records and donate the books to a local library, in the spirit of the Greek adage panta rei (“everything flows”). What matters most to me is that they find owners who appreciate them. I know this sounds weird for a bunch of plastic and paper — and it’s purely sentimental — but it matters to me.

My collection isn’t worth much even by the standards of an armchair collector. Sure, I have a few choice albums: an original mono version of Blonde on Blonde, an unpeeled Velvet Underground and Nico, a vinyl copy of Metal Machine Music. It’s nothing any Dylan or Lou Reed fan wouldn’t have, and the records themselves aren’t in excellent shape. As for the books, I shipped a lot of them to Italy on my last visit. But what to do about my four-volume calfskin-bound set of Montaigne’s “Essays”? Throw it in my carry-on bag on my next trip? That’s a tough one.

“Forget about them,” my mother said. “Be glad you have your health. You have a family now. Stop obsessing.”

I know she’s right, but I can’t help obsessing. I’ve read the Stoic philosophers, but I’m not able to entirely repudiate material things. “Don’t preach,” I told her. It didn’t come out well, and I regretted having said it.

What she meant was this: “You’ve done perfectly well without these things for eight years. You’ve made a life for yourself in another country. Let them go. You’ll be happy when you don’t have to worry about them anymore.”

I’m not really attached to things in general; in fact, I don’t own much of anything worth keeping. Once you subtract my ballooning personal library, there’s not much left except furniture and underwear. So I think I should be permitted an occasional excess.

Happily, we’re moving to a place with more space than I’ve ever had in any previous arrangement, so there will actually be room for my things. It would cost an arm and a leg to ship them all here, and that’s a nagging detail, but wouldn’t it be worth it in order to restore the harmony of my collection?

That’s the meat hook beneath my skin right now. Should I heed the noble, philosophical angel on my left shoulder and separate past from future? Or should I listen to the neurotic bibliophile devil on my right shoulder and follow my impulses? The deadline is only a few weeks away and I can’t decide what to do.

Like all parents I entertain a fantasy of sharing my passions with my children. I want our daughter to grow up in a home swarming with books, records and cultural artifacts. Now that personal libraries tend evermore toward the electronic (hypothetically I could stuff every book I own into one wafer-thin Kindle) this seems particularly urgent. I dream of the day when Melissa pulls my copy of, say, “American Yiddish Poetry” off the bookshelf and I get to explain it to her.

Not long ago a columnist in The Guardian wrote ecstatically of getting rid of his “dead tree books.” I was mildly shocked reading what appeared to be a manifesto urging all decent people to toss out their weighty stockpiles in favor of a pared down selection of truly essential volumes. The author was positively gleeful, embracing the changing times. By contrast I am a melancholy, deeply torn 20th Century Man.

Which isn’t to say I’m not going to get an e-book reader someday. The problem is simply which one. Because, despite my 20th-centuriness, I recognize a Catch-22 when I’m in one. It’s simply impractical to keep accumulating books unless I develop a system of filtration. The records are a different matter. I would be happy with just a few of the really meaningful ones, and the bulk on CD or iTunes or whatever nascent technology is in store for us. I’ll miss the cover art, the skipping needle, and actually listening to sides of an album. But I’ll still be able to broadcast music through the house, prompting my daughter’s curiosity.

“Daddy,” I can hear her saying, “what’s a Ramone?”

From The American