Forty-five years ago, a New York rock band under Andy Warhol’s patronage released their debut LP.
The Velvet Underground and Nico crept out under the radar compared to some of 1967’s other releases – The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance – but has claims to be one of the most influential LPs of all time. It has been said that “only 10,000 people bought it, but everyone who did went out and started a band” (a quote some people ascribe to Brian Eno, others to Peter Buck of REM); certainly it set a template, sonic and visual, for much alternative rock that followed it, and the basic ingredients of the Velvet Underground look (leather jackets, black clothes, sunglasses after nightfall) can be seen tonight on a stage near you, wherever and whenever you read this. Now, forty-five years after its release, that debut album is receiving the full anniversary box-set treatment (although those of us old enough to remember vinyl would reckon thirty-three and a third to be a more appropriate anniversary), showing a staying power few would have guessed from its obscure beginnings.
Much of the album is built around a few basic ingredients: loud guitars that avoid rock’s standard blues chords, John Cale’s screeching electric viola, minimalist drumming, a willingness to stay in one place harmonically, all of these a legacy of Cale’s study with modernist composers such as LaMonte Young. At its heart is Lou Reed’s songwriting, and the subjects of this were among the shocking elements when it was released: scenes of New York bohemia or, some would say, depravity, of drug abuse and sexual perversion, delivered by and large in an affectless sneer. The LP is a sardonic, dark response to the Summer of Love and California dreaming; if you’re going to New York City, be sure to wear a needle in your arm.
So what’s the connection to the Wellcome Library? Simply, that shocking subject matter: the more Lou Reed departed from traditional moon/June topics, the further he moved into areas that are our stock in trade. Two songs from the middle of the album make the point: “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin”.
The former is basically a retelling of the 1869 story of the same name, by the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895). Most people know that sadism takes its name from the writings of the Marquis de Sade (writings as punishing for the reader as for the characters in them); fewer know that the other side of that sexual coin, masochism, is named after Sacher-Masoch, and in particular “Venus in Furs”. In the story and the song, a male protagonist is sexually excited by his enslavement and humiliation by a dominant woman in fur and leather (the title to this post comprises the first words of the song). As Reed sneers “Taste the whip; now bleed for me” we’ve come a long way from moon and June. Specifically, we’ve come to the Wellcome Library’s archives and manuscripts collection, where 98 items of correspondence from Sacher-Masoch and his wives sit as MS.6909. And in the printed letterhead to one of these lies an indication that Sacher-Masoch set out, as they tell one in creative writing classes, to write about what he knew: a woman in furs swinging a cat o’nine tails. A minority taste, it’s fair to say, but one in which Sacher-Masoch was not unique.
Also in the Library are the papers (PP/KEB) of Professor Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, author of the first scientific study of sexual abnormalities (Psychopathia sexualis, 1886), which works in encyclopaedic detail through a long list of sexual abnormalities (including proclivities that make “Venus in Furs” seem very vanilla indeed). In Krafft-Ebing’s papers are a few postcard illustrations, perhaps from contemporary pornography, of unorthodox sexualities: among them we find a man on all fours, bridled like a horse, being ridden by a woman clutching a switch. Sacher-Masoch would certainly have cast an appreciative eye over this and probably swooned to be in his place, waiting for the birch to come down (although the woman’s costume is a little short on furs for his taste).
Also on the LP is “Heroin”: continuing a theme that was introduced earlier with “Waiting for the Man”, a monologue describing a journey up Manhatten to Harlem to buy heroin. Illegal drug use in general and heroin use in particular are well-represented in the Library’s holdings; intravenous drug use is particularly relevant in a medical setting as not only does it use medical equipment, syringes and needles, for illicit use, but it also brings a raft of medical problems in its wake over and above “mere” addiction, most notably of course the transmission of diseases such as AIDS. The word “drug” itself is Janus-faced, pointing both to medicines that cure and to the illicit use of chemicals, sometimes the same ones. A cursory search on the word “Heroin” in Wellcome Images brings up advertisements for heroin products from around 1900 when one could buy them in a pharmacist’s (and even be advised that children under ten should have only 10 drops or so if given it to treat a cough!). Later in the 20th century the images are more foreboding, focussing in particular on AIDS, a reflection of the strengths of our collection of posters relating to the global AIDS crisis. You may be a heroin addict, counsels one German poster, but at least if you wear a condom you can avoid adding AIDS to that. It’s a grim world out there in a lot of these posters: one that cries out for Lou Reed’s sneer to narrate it.
Sex. Drugs. Rock’n’roll. It’s a well-known triplet, but perhaps we could add “Wellcome Library” as a fourth. “And what costume shall the poor girl wear, to all tomorrow’s parties?” sings Nico elsewhere on the album. If she works in a library stereotype would have her in flat shoes and tweed skirt, with her hair in a bun, but maybe we should put librarians instead into the Velvet Underground uniform: leather jackets, black jeans, sunglasses at night.