Subtle Social Comment Through Storytelling: The Lyrics of the Velvet Underground

Songwriting is one of those personal explorations that just about everyone attempts. Thousands of people have tried to put their pen to paper and craft the perfect expression of their own tortured soul through song lyrics or its sister format, poetry, but capturing the perfect feel, words and style is something that even the most accomplished writers may never achieve.

Yet some people though just hit it perfectly, with subtlety, style and power.

Lyrics are not always the focus of music as often the and feel can be just as compelling without lyrics. Sometimes all that is needed is a poetic verse designed for sound and not for meaning, while other times a well crafted lyric can be the icing on the cake (if not the cake itself).

Sometimes though, a lyric can create a perfect little bit of truth or truth through fictional stories of social commentary that can be drastically more effective than any direct, deep lyrical statement.

Few people may realize that much of the modern grunge, punk, garage rock and other genres owe a debt to the Velvet Underground and their work back in the 1960s. What may be one of the most abrasive bands in history though, has definitely had a major impact on modern music, but that is a topic for another article. Instead, I'd like to discuss the lyrics of this band, as I consider their lyrics to be one of the best things about their music

A person's first listen to something by the Velvet Underground is a bit of a trial by fire as often people are not expecting the rough edged rock and roll laced with avant garde noise, jazzy experimentation or droning screeches and feedback. For those who continue to listen to the band after that first shock, it is often because of a particular thing that has drawn us in, allowed us to get past the initial ear shock, and allows us to appreciate these songs as complete works, understand why the roughness adds to the mood and why the Velvet Underground are both one of the most abrasive bands in history, but also one of the best.

For me, what drew me in was a single lyric from one of the band's more controversial songs from their first album "Heroin."

"I don't know just where I'm going
But I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
cause it makes me feel like I'm a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And Ill tell ya, things aren't quite the same
When I'm rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus son
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know"
From "Heroin" – from The Velvet Underground and Nico provided by LyricsFreak

A song obviously about drug use although not directly endorsing or condemning it, and probably at least partially influenced by the drug use that was occurring during the 60s music scene. Unlike other drug songs though, it appears to be written from the persona of a heroin user and addict, although whether Lou Reed (the primary songwriter for the Velvets) was ever addicted to heroin I don't know.

What caught me so much about this song and particularly this opening lyric was first of course its shocking stark and frank discussion of drug use, but alsoo how blatantly authentic and accurate this poetic phrasing of drug use is. Whether or not Reed actually was an addict, he could definitely understand some of the attractions to the scene, especially to a drug like heroin, something far beyond the recreational drug use of the time and certainly could do nothing but absolutely destroy someone's life. It has an almost journalistic feel to it like the band has transported you into the mind of an addict so you could look around, get a glimpse at their reality and form your own opinions (as I said, the song is not really pro or against drug use, but simply about it). It is easy to dismiss drug use as a negative thing that will ruin lives and kill (as it is both of those things), but to understand the attraction as well, is something else entirely. It is sobering, frightening and extremely honest.

The music has so much authenticity it is like a window to reality that doesn't hide any of the unsavory details but also is obscured enough to not focus on any particular details that might indicate a specific stance.

Yet, despite of the heaviness of the lyrics, there is a sense that the band knowns they are just a little rock and roll band, writing rock and roll songs. They just don't come out and make massive statements but use subtle stories, simply writing about their world perhaps making social comments but leaving the big decisions up to whoever is listening.

A good example is these lyrics from "I Heard Her Call My Name" from the bands second album:

Ever since I was on cripples Monday,
Ive got my eyeballs on my knees.
I rapped for hours with mad Mary Williams,
She said she never understood a word from me
Because, I know that she cares about me,
I heard her call my name.

And I know that shes long, dead and gone,
Still it ain't the same.
When I wake up in the morning, mama,
I heard her call my name.
I know shes dead and long, gone.
I heard her call my name.
And then I felt my mind split open.

I know that shes long, dead and gone,
Still it ain't the same.
When I wake up in the morning, mama,
I heard her call my name.
I know shes dead and long, gone.
Still, I heard her call my name.
And then my mind split open.
- "I Heard Her Call My Name" - from White Light/White Heat provided by LyricsFreak.

These lyrics are less than direct (read: extremely vague) in their meaning and parts are most likely either used purely for syllable effect or as vague meaningless symbolism and yet they still paint a picture and tell a story. Combined with the high strung rapid paced rock and roll and experimental music they go with, they create a sense that they are both saying something and nothing at the same time like a snapshot of a scene, a portrait of the music, but not necessarily about any particular part of that scene or saying anything about it. This gives a sense that the band is recognizing that in the end, it's only rock and roll, not some higher form of cerebral rock with all the answers.

Both of these songs I've mentioned have a subtlety in their storytelling that eaves them open to interpretation and I think this songwriting style exists throughout the music of the velvet Underground. The answers are in the snapshot of the musical landscape, you just have to make what you want out of them, like interpreting a reconnaissance photo; that could just me a bush or it could also be a missile silo, but in the end it's just a photograph...that's it... except instead of a photograph its a rock and roll song.

I find this subtlety very important in songwriting because I don't like being clubbed over the head with blanket statements, deep thoughts, what a song is supposed to mean or how I'm supposed to feel about something. Not every song needs to be tackling the deepest issues of human emotion. Some of the best certainly do while others don't, but the I like the subtle ones, as I like deciding for myself what they mean.

Now, some might say a song like "Heroin", "White Light/White Heat" or some of the other more drug oriented songs by the Velvet Underground are anything but subtle, but I disagree. These songs may make their topics known but they don't hit you over the head with what they're saying about those topics, or actually try to directly say anything. Instead they are little stories about the topic where they portray a particular scene but leave what it is actually supposed to mean up to us. If you've read any of my other writings you probably know I"m a big fan of blues . Blues is an emotion driven genre that is probably not what some would call subtle but again I would disagree and say that great blues songs create the same kind of musical snapshot and story without necessarily making large blanket statements, having direct meanings, purposes or deep ideas. They're just blues stories.

These musical stories whether they be from a proto punk band like the Velvets, from a blues singer or from a straight up rock and roll band, in my opinion are actually better at social comment than any direct statement criticizing society could be. Sometimes the topic is subtle and other times its right out in the open, but the meaning is open to interpretation.

I think the Beatles were great at this kind of subtlety although somewhat more surreal, especially on their later albums like all the albums after Help, Bob Dylan is an absolute master of it and for the Velvet Underground it just came naturally. It is this sense of storytelling and subtlety that I think is part of what makes them great as it is definitely what first attracted me to their music.

I don't think anyone could possibly claim that the velvet Underground are a band for everyone as if they were they probably would have had far more mainstream success over the years. There sound can just be too shocking for some, and thats understandable as not everyone can handle a shockingly honest, raw and real shot of society without something to help wash it down.

Still, they are an inspiration to thousands myself included, and a big part of why is due to their lyrical style and content.

There are so many different styles of songwriting but I think great lyrics don't have to be directly crafted statements about society. Instead a story that is told with subtlety, honesty and authenticity can actually be far more effective social comment than any direct statement and I think the Velvet Underground are a great example of this fact.


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