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Some records are essential
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

While Antoine de Saint-Exupary wrote “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” in “The Little Prince,” it was interesting that he did not say that what was essential was silent to the ear. I’ve always taken that as permission to say that some records are essential.

Now, when I say “essential,” I mean something that absolutely must be owned by the semi-serious music collector, the listener who takes pride in eclecticism and tastes that transcend genre. If your stack of music could be whisked away in a free-for-signing-up Quality Paperback Book Club tote, you most likely would not care about “essential” as it is defined on this page. The disks I intend to hail here are not meant to sit well between Hootie and the Blowfish and Toby Keith disks. The disks discussed here don’t merely entertain but have the potential to change the life of the listener (as opposed to potentially being a good drink coaster).

As such, the first disk I tackle is not just life-changing but world-changing. Released in 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico (AKA “The Banana Album” due to Andy Warhol’s cover art) is arguably the most influential rock and roll album of all time. I’d be willing to hear arguments for a handful of other albums but, in the end, I’d stand firm that no other album has had such a far reaching effect as TVU&N.

Released when most American youth were putting flowers in their hair, preparing for The Summer of Love, TVU&N was a bum trip, light-years removed from the Aquarian-age zeitgeist. While the world was immersed in the sonic hippie insouciance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, TVU&N crept far below the radar, slithering within the subterranean American psyche of drug addiction (“I’m Waiting For the Man,” “Run Run Run,” “Heroin”), S&M (“Venus In Furs”), prostitution (“There She Goes Again”), and jaundiced observations of the New York City avant-garde scene’s sybaritic excesses (“Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties”). Rejecting the day-glo psychedelic pastiche splashed on a million microbuses at that time, TVU&N was almost entirely black, stinking of mean street realism instead of patchouli-soaked hallucinations.

Revolutionary though the album’s subject matter was for the times, it was the music that stood apart from anything that was being produced. At times droning, throbbing, pounding, primal and dissonant, the seeming simplicity of the compositions betrays a structural sophistication that transcended the standard blues-based songs of the day. Indeed, the influence of TVU&N can still be heard with most indie-rock bands and was, far and above, the touchstone that informed the entire punk rock movement.

I was 14 years-old when I discovered TVU&N, my collection of baseball cards and miniature NFL helmets (rewards from the local IHOP) giving way to a healthy accumulation of vinyl. My nascent fandom, starting a few years prior, began with The Beatles, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin — heavy rock, for the most part. My listening habits developed into an obsessive interest with rock, fueled by the pages of Rolling Stone, Cream, Crawdaddy and Hit Parader. It was in those magazines that I continually came across references to Lou Reed and, especially, TVU&N.

Scraping together my lawn-mowing wages for a trip to my local record store, I purchased TVU&N and raced home on the lime-green Schwinn Stingray, anxious to hear what the buzz was all about. Setting the stylus down, anticipating the hardest, most excruciating rock ever, I was nonplussed. The first cut, “Sunday Morning,” was pleasant enough, if not conventional in a lame sort of way (to my adolescent ears), — and then it got weird and inscrutable.

Nico’s voice was almost as flat and dreadful as Reed’s reedy, nasal intonation, while John Cale’s experimental arrangements (heavily influenced by avant-garde classical composer John Cage) were maddeningly cryptic, if not unlistenable. The 14-year old music fan, prepared for metallic bombast and lyrical carnage was, to say the least, unimpressed. The disk was promptly exiled amongst the pile of albums never-to-be-played: Elton John (a gift from an aunt, trying too hard to be hip), Focus (an ill-considered purchase made for the wretched early-’70s instrumental hit “Hokus Pokus”), and various ’60s relics left behind by a vagabond uncle.

TVU&N reemerged from my orphan stack a couple years later, as the British punk movement found its way onto my turntable. The sound of punk — aggressive, primitive and challenging — changed the way I listened to music and what I valued in how music was made. And all of the punk bands, every one of them, cited TVU&N as a seminal influence.

My initial aversion to the album was immediately swept away and I was hearing it, really, for the first time. Quite simply, there was not a single weak cut on the disk and every song held its own, each a masterpiece. Then, as now, everything was fresh and new. Indeed, it still sounds modern, none of the songs rendered quaint with the trifling and tinny ring of a golden oldie. TVU&N could be released tomorrow and it would not sound out of place in the least.

Not a day goes by when one of the songs from TVU&N crosses my consciousness, a snippet of lyric, a slice of melody or the caress of a riff. And not a month goes by when I don’t put TVU&N on and listen to it from beginning to end. That’s at least 400 months (by my reckoning) but I wouldn’t accuse myself of hyperbole if I said I’d listened to the album at least a few thousand times.