100 Greatest Artists

19

The Velvet Underground

Illustration by Josie Jammet

When you listen to a classic-rock station today, why don't they play the Velvet Underground? Why is it always Boston and Led Zeppelin? And why are the Rolling Stones so much more popular than the Velvets? OK, I understand why the Stones are more popular. But there is also a part of me that has always felt that it should have been the other way around. The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time. And their music was weird. But it also made so much sense to me. I couldn't believe this wasn't the most popular music ever made.

Listening to those four studio albums now is like reading a good book that takes place in a distant time. When I hear The Velvet Underground and Nico or Loaded, I feel like I'm in Andy Warhol's Factory in the 1960s or hanging out at Max's Kansas City. The way Lou Reed wrote and sang about drugs and sex, about the people around him — it was so matter-of-fact. I believed every word of "Heroin." Reed could be romantic in the way he portrayed these crazy situations, but he was also intensely real. It was poetry and journalism.

A lot of people associate the Velvets with feedback and noise. White Light/White Heat is the kind of record you have to be in the mood for. You have to be in a shitty bar, in a really shitty mood. But the Velvets created some very beautiful music, too: "Sunday Morning," with John Cale's viola; "Candy Says"; "All Tomorrow's Parties" — I can't imagine that song without Nico singing it, although I thought Maureen Tucker had a cool voice, as well as being a really cool drummer. She had a femininity. I thought she sounded hotter than Nico.

In the beginning, the Strokes definitely drew from the vibe of the Velvets. I listened to Loaded all the time when we started the band, while I was writing my first songs. For four solid months, it was just Loaded and this Beach Boys greatest-hits record, Made in the U.S.A. A lot of our guitar tones are based on what Reed and Sterling Morrison did. I honestly wish we could have copied them more. We didn't come close enough. But that was cool, because it became more of our own thing. Which is something else I got from the Velvets. They taught me just to be myself.

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