34 ½ St. Mark's Pl., 2005
Once in a while, I randomly encounter the artistic products of the East Village, the Manhattan neighborhood that just so happened to be my teenage stomping grounds and early-20s area of employment. The avant garde-ness had long died down by the time I got there; outside of roving bands of streetpunks, there wasn't much left to connect the turn-of-the-millenium Village to its glorious fin de siècle in the 1980s. The art scene was completing its migration into Brooklyn, where it still resides today. The old punk rock shops were being replaced, one-by-one, by Japanese restaurants and the drag queens gave way to NYU undergrads looking for something to wear to 80s night at the long-since-tamed Pyramid Club. Sure, you could always find traces of the old Village if you looked hard enough – hell I punched the clock at one of the last independent punk rock boutiques – but everyone knew that whatever it was the East Village ever was, whether personally or by hand-me-down memories, was in its death throes. And that's why it is always nice to see evidence that it was once more far-out that I could ever imagine. Like when I came across these videos by artist Tom Rubnitz. Camp, LSD and yesteryear's consumer culture all combine into … well … just have a look:
I can't say I have a clear memory of the album's first few tracks. Sunday Morning felt sweet and innocuous; I doubt I was paying attention to the lyrics particularly, but I was on the fence regarding everything except how the goddamn celesta's tinkling – any of its (intended) ethereal beauty lost on the sound's voyage up the rusty needle, through the labyrinthine wires and out a set of speakers long past their prime. I'm Waiting for the Man was rockin', any favor I had toward it anticipating my future love of garage rock, the rawer the better. Nico's crooning on “Femme Fatale” suffered the same fate as the celesta; the instrumentation yielding to the unintentionally over-overdriven crackles and crunches of the high notes. I awaited Venus in Furs.
I don't think I can accurately describe what happened at that moment. Viola and tambourine, guitar and distortion tumbled out in an mildly Arabic dirge. Discounting the occasional brief and unsatisfying foray into early 90s punk rock, this was my first encounter with genuine dissonance, with instrumentation that looked you in the eye and sternly stated “I am not here to be your friend.”. The drums beat out a somber death march for the guitar. The tambourine struck and the viola shrieked in instantaneous response. The highs screeched, the lows distorted themselves out of melody. Lou Reed started singing. No, that's wrong entirely -- this wasn't singing. The music was a black mass, and Lou, plaintive and beat, intoned the incantation.
”Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you. Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.”
There was no mistake about it, the song wanted me sick. The noise rose and crashed, rose and crashed like against the surf within me. The repetitions were hypnotic, and yet the distortion, the grating, kept me awake, on that bleeding liminal edge. The images effortlessly flashed before my mind's eye. I could see the almond color of the furs, adorned, imperiously. In my gut, I could feel Severin's lust-sickness, his insatiable hunger for the blow.
”A thousand dreams, that would awake me. Different colors, made of tears.”
Until that day my only encounter with psychedelia was the occasional replay of Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit on the classic rock station, and a brief infatuation with the unabashedly silly Strawberry Alarm Clock. Venus in Furs was no Incense and Peppermints. Grace Slick made Alice a little stranger; Lou Reed destroyed a man named Severin before my ears. This wasn't a good-natured freak-out. I felt alien in my own crawling skin, embraced by a desire not wholly my own.
Certainly, I'd encountered these images before, courtesy of my unfettered and tortuously slow Internet connection. This wasn't the usual teenage kick, however, wherein the illicitness of the viewing itself was half (or more, depending on the [frequently piss-poor] quality of the material) the fun. I grew up a bit, that night, laying in the dark, enthralled to the rhythm. One bleary eye cracked just enough to let the light of self-realization make itself known; I couldn't see, but I knew I would, eventually. After doing some research, I went down to the Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of the book to which the song was ode. It was, for the content, absolutely dreary. An item good for getting lambasted for carting around filth by an octogenarian substitute teacher, and that little else. It didn't matter, though. I'd seen the gate to the thousand dreams, that was enough.
The next time this album was in heavy rotation was six years later. I had now been working on St. Mark's, the slowly dying punk rock mecca of New York City, the very street on which I bought the record over a half-decade prior. I was living the dream, managing a boutique (read: t-shirt shop) I frequented as a kid. I closed Saturday nights and opened Sunday mornings, hungover more often than not. Those Sundays, I knew I could look forward to at least three things: peace and quiet (the owner, nursing her own hangover, left us alone on Sundays,) a grease-drenched Philly cheese steak from the falafel place a few doors down, and The Velvet Underground and Nico. My shoulder-length hair had been long since chopped off, given way to an overgrown mohawk dyed green long past its expiration date. The ultra-wide jeans and extra-large band shirts replaced by skin-tight everything. The ubiquitous flannel shirt replaced by a vintage blazer (“Made in Czechoslovakia.”) Eventually, Venus in Furs would come on the store's miswired (guess by whom,) stereo system and I would lean against the gumball machine, light a cigarette, and be more glad I wasn't a teenager than ever.
The title of this blog is derived shamelessly stolen from a song title by a British band named Broadcast, whom I fell for in the summer of 2002. Shortly after I graduated from high school, several internet-buddies and I, having met on a forum and discovered a tentatively mutual taste in tunes, set up an FTP and began trading music.
...let's rewind, though. To the first time a song hit me so hard, everything I was before that moment suffered a mortal wound. If this melodrama hasn't alerted you to it already, it happened during my teenage years: an era of malignant tedium, gratefully punctuated by moments such as these:
It is sophomore year. I've been collecting vinyl for a while now, discovering it as both an affordable and rewarding hobby. Access to eBay and the East Village, and armed with nearly indiscriminate taste, made this materialistic fetishization of my forefathers' (well, fathers') past a particularly easy task. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” original cast recording for six fifty? Sure, I'll take that off your hands. An assorted lot of beaten Beatles albums I've heard of in passing? Why not! I made my money compiling, editing and typing my mother's graduate school homework, and being an IRC- and MUD-addicted shut-in, I had nothing better to spend my it on than relics. Her ex-boyfriend's stereo system (a record player sitting atop a radio and tape deck,) warbled out Pinball Wizard and the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag at an average of thirty-three-and-a-third RPM (accounting for the disk's glacially-raised, millimeteric hills and valleys.) Perhaps two out of any of the four speakers would be working at a time, with even money on the fact that I was listening to only the left or right side of a stereophonic recording. I'd hardly ever notice, outside of, for instance, the tomfoolery on Yellow Submarine, which I could've sworn had singing the last time I played it, and would have had at the moment, were the speaker set-up wired by someone who knew what he was doing, rather than trying his best to simultaneously tie together wires and not fall from a shaky and, more importantly, wheeled office chair.
I've sidetracked myself.
It is the Spring of 2000. I am lollygagging about the East Village, wasting time in my favorite music shop with an 88 cent CD rack: St. Mark's Sounds. I'm with an old friend and his girlfriend. Inspiration drives me to the new vinyl section; I'd never before bought an new record. Perhaps it was spending the day reminded of my ongoing datelessness that made me crave something of my own and a new record would have to do. However, I didn't want the usual: a circa-1985 reprint of Dark Side of the Moon, sold off with everything else to make room for the new baby. It was a brand new album I was after.. An artifact not aged by someone else's time and, having worn out it's welcome, put on the path of least monetary resistance toward me. Well, what do you know, there it is: pristine and shrink-wrapped, unstained, uncreased shiny white with a big ole yellow banana on the cover: The Velvet Underground and Nico. I am sixteen; I've heard of them. My friend's ex-punk girlfriend vouches for group (the absurdity of her self-declared position within the counterculture was wholly lost on me.) I take the album home. I get the shrink wrap off, admire the sheer newness and slide out the record.
Holy shit. It's orange.
(Thanks to appleshampoo64 on Photobucket)