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stream-of-consciousness artsy ramblings, loosely inspired by The Velvet Underground
Greater Bird of Paradise

a couple weekends ago i stayed up late and had a couple beers while trying to figure out why The Velvet Underground is a big deal.

uh, let me backtrack a bit.

my total knowledge of The Velvet Underground prior to this exercise was:
remembering the review was what got me curious. i didn't know anything about lou reed, but that review was so insightful that i wanted to know more about the dude & his band. i adored yeezus from the first time i heard it (more on that later), but i couldn't explain why. as someone whose idea of a hobby is "screaming in various fandoms about why i love things," this gnawed at me. reed's review finally gave me the words to explain that appeal; his insights resonated pretty well with my feelings toward the album.

so, i googled lou reed. famous for being in The Velvet Underground. okay, googled that next.

The Velvet Underground was apparently revolutionary for its time. rolling stone had a feverish paean to their glory written by an overeager music editor. huh. i pulled up their first album and clicked on a track at random, but honestly, nothing was jumping out at me—what was the revolution here? it sounded a little grungy and dark but not grip-me-by-the-shoulders innovative.

people on various online forms said, you have to remember that they were doing this in the 1960s, way ahead of their time. except, uh, honestly, i'm a really casual rock/pop fan, and all i know about the 1960s is The Beatles. and they're different from The Beatles, sure. The Beatles seem to be more into the big-orchestra flashy-catchy-beats thing, but that was pretty innovative for the time, too, in its own way.

pay attention to the lyrics, another article said. no one else was singing about the kind of stuff they were. and boy, it's funny how quaint it seems, looking at the past sometimes, how fast things change. i see a song called "heroin" and am utterly unsurprised when it's a dark moody story about a heroin addict. but apparently that kind of thing was really dark and shocking and weird in the context of the time. i compare against my mental model of The Beatles: they sang about drugs, sure, but mostly psychadelic ones, in goofy, upbeat, thinly-veiled meatphor ways. "lucy and the sky up of diamonds." okay, yeah, The Velvet Underground is categorically different from that.

probably the most striking bit i found came from an interview rock-bassist-turned-revolutionary, who fell in love with the album while in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia: "The Velvet Underground was something very different, very new, very real, because their music was a part of their life. . . . It brought us America in a real way. It was good to see that in the States there were normal people who had problems like us."

there's an apocryphal story that the Velvet Revolution was named partially for The Velvet Underground. it's probably not true but god i wish it were.


when i first played porpentine's "howling dogs", i rolled my eyes at the opening, which is just a long quote lifted from a kenzaburo oe's teach us to outgrow our madness. i had an unconscious, knee-jerk reaction: oh gee, look at this pretentious person, probably into lousy MFA fiction, majored in lit, putting on airs by name-dropping foreign nobel prize winners. (my unconscious it not very nice.)

i played the game and didn't much like it. it felt pretentious. its language was overwrought. there wasn't really a solid core.

but a few years later i read an interview with porpentine that made me rethink the knee-jerk reaction. because, though porpentine's guarded about her past, she certainly doesn't seem like a self-important MFA student. she got kicked out of the house in her teens. her housing situation was unstable a lot of the time. she talks about books not in a name-dropping elitist way, but a i-read-shit-to-survive-my-shitty-circumstances way. i remember how, when i visited my grandma as a kid, i'd read any damn book she had in her attic, just because i was bored and another world sounded good right then, and it was there.

i still don't like most of porpentine's work, but i respect it more. i thought she was making weird shit for the sake of seeming edgy, artsy, whatever—but now i don't think that's true.

—but this is sort of dumb, right? the content of porpentine's work hasn't changed at all. just my shitty (and kinda classist) prejudices about it.

i guess the takeaway is: pandering and pretentiousness are two sides of the same coin, and the perception of either can make me lose faith in a work. pander too hard by throwing too much idiotic irrelevant fanservice into a show, and i'll roll my eyes at your lowest-common-denominator targeting & walk away. drop too many highbrow references in your weird hipster indie game and i'll assume you're trying to make the work seem smart and elevated, appealing to my own desire to seem smart and elevated, rather than simply making a game that is smart and elevated.

i mean, that and i shouldn't be a dipshit who assumes bad faith on the author's part, but yeah.


a few months ago i saw some art history post on tumblr that i'm having trouble finding again. it was about rothko—talking about some black painting of his—where the whole deal was, while it looked like rothko had "just" painted the whole damn canvas black, if you looked at it closely, you'd notice that it wasn't actually solid black. it was dozens of shades of very slightly off-black—black-blue, black-red, black-green—the longer you stared at it the more color you'd see. rothko had some sort of dramatic, intellectual-ish artist's statement to go with it, explaining why it was profound.

i related this when i was at the Seattle Art Museum a few months ago with a friend, while we were staring at a rothko. i read the little placard next to the painting—it told some anecdote about random folks off the street coming to one of his exhibition openings, and how some of them would break down crying in front of his paintings, even while others were just staring at the huge flat colors with befuddlement.

i looked at the rothko painting with the tumblr post in mind, appreciated it more on an abstract level than i ever had with rothko before, tried to imagine what he was trying to convey with each brushstroke. but i imagine rothko doesn't give a particular shit about my abstract-intellectual appreciation; he's painting for the woman who broke down crying the first time she saw it. a thing grabs you or it doesn't.


moe tucker is a single mom who lives in georgia these days. she worked at a wal-mart distribution center while raising five kids, and is taking care of a grandkid now.

moe tucker was also the drummer for The Velvet Underground. rolling stone ranked her among the top 100 drummers of all time; the internet tells me that she had an unconventional, minimalistic drumming style that was apparently in a league of its own.

she dropped out of the band to have her first kid. she says she doesn't really play music these days. no time for it. she apparently spoke to some reporters when she attended a tea party rally in the late 2000's, to the horror of her mostly-liberal fans; i guess the young punkish drummer grew up to shock everyone in a totally opposite way.

but the bigger shock is the life she chose—one of the most famous drummers of all time! living somewhere in rural georgia and raising kids. i'm used to thinking of tragically-underappreciated-and-underprolific artists the way one thinks of van gogh, having happened a long time ago; it's weird to see it so baldly here in the present.


a friend of mine in college was a huge hip-hop head. i would've gotten into rap without him, but he was a catalyst; he was into all these underground & southern artists i never would've heard of otherwise, and i ate his suggestions up. sometime around senior year, i tried talking to him about some new rap artist i was into, and he seemed oddly uninterested. when i asked him why, he said he was weirdly tired of rap these days, and was getting into rock now. "you ever listen to coldplay?" he asked.

i laughed—in hindsight i probably sounded a little cruel—i didn't mean to be, just, from my world the question seemed so absurd, viva la vida was only playing on every radio station on the universe during my high school years, and i'd listened to "clocks" more times than i could count, without ever really trying.

but my friend had never listened to rock or pop-rock, and apparently none of his friends growing up did either, and he didn't know a damn thing about the genre. he asked me if i had any recommendations, and it wound up being so much fun, talking to him as he rotated through all these bands with fresh eyes—my knowledge of rock was shallow, but he saw a revolution in every band i mentioned. i mean, imagine it—he'd never really listened to anything like mogwai. he'd never heard anything like the decemberists. never heard anything like taking back sunday, like r.e.m., like nofx, like less than jake, like vampire weekend, like goddamn blink 182 or pink floyd. i wound up being a little jealous of hi; imagine getting to experience all those bands at once, all for the first time. he adored the obvious aspects of them, and aspects i'd never noticed because they'd become invisible to me from familiarity; it was delightful. (maybe he felt the same way when i was getting into rap.)

i dunno if he ever got around to listening to The Velvet Underground. now i'm kind of curious what he'd think. maybe i'll send him a note; i imagine he may be unjaded enough to appreciate it more than i did.


i've noticed lately that i've used the word "patient" to describe art i really admire.

it occurs to me now maybe it's vaguely related to that pandering-versus-pretentious dichotomy. something can be "patient" in the sense of "taking a long damn time to do exposition and shit"; but most of the time that's just boring, rambling, not the thing i'm talking about.

and obviously your, say, average hollywood blockbuster can't really be called patient. they're using cheap & conventional tricks to get your attention. that can be fun and interesting in a lot of ways but not patient.

the patience i'm talking about is—patient art has this wonderful self-assuredness, giving the feeling of locking eyes with someone and not looking away for an uncomfortably long time. the artist is confident that every piece is in its place, confident that you bought in and you're interested (because they know they're interesting)—and so they proceed at this steady, unhurried pace, and you're hanging on the edge of every word or every note, desperately eager to know where is this going, what's coming next—even as you're savoring it, because their unhurriedness is exactly what you love.

i felt it in kanye's original version of "wolves". people make fun of kanye's reliance on autotune, and god yes there are times he overuses it—but it's lovely here, giving his voice this relaxed-and-detatched quality while he's crooning through the opening lines. where another artist would take that "i need you now" to transition into a crescendo! a big moment! a guest verse!—kanye doesn't do that, just backs off again, leans into a relaxed and understated line of rap. gives us some beautiful, lovely imagery in those lines. sonically, there's nothing except him and an airy, operaic singer in the background; it should sound barren but the sparseness just makes it feel more whole. he cuts out to total silence at one point—only to bring back a sound like a wolf's howl from the darkness, and frank ocean's beautiful lonely outro.

a lesser artist couldn't do that, would fall back on familiar patterns, at least put a little more damn instrumentation in there. but kanye's completely self-assured here, and the result is so much more than the sum of its parts.

and that gets at another thing that probably set The Velvet Underground apart during their time. i love The Beatles—a lot—listened to them a lot as a kid, with my dad, and "Blackbird" was the first pop song i ever remember loving. but i wouldn't describe them as having this patience. they do flash and catchy beats and fun experiments and some bombast and those are great, but it's not patient.

i gave The Velvet Ground's "heroin" another listen. when i wasn't actively searching for the thing that made this supposedly revolutionary, i could appreciate it more. lou reed's in no hurry, lets the sound rise and fall like waves, speeding up and slowing down, back and forth and on and on. he lets all these ugly, screeching sounds in near the end—you can't play that on the radio! that's gross, it's grating, it's obnoxious—but he's not optimizing for the radio, he's optimizing for whoever held onto every second of this (pretty lengthy) song so far.

i admire this quality immensely and hope to figure out how to infuse it in my own artsy stuff someday.


probably you should just read lou reed's yeezus review. it's pretty good.


fun, totally unrelated aside: while i was plundering old 1960s music to get a sense of The Velvet Underground's context, i found it hilarious how much Simon & Garfunkel sounds like it could've come out of the indie-folk hipster scene in Portland like, yesterday, despite being like half a century old at this point! like, if i were a clever record label head or something, i'd do a re-release of their greatest hits and get that shit playing on every radio station i could manage. "cecilia" would be right at home right next to something by edward sharpe & the magnetic zeroes.


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