Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Villalta searches for lessons in an album he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before
The Velvet Underground: Loaded
Summarizing Lyric: "Oh sweet nuthin'"
Personal Favorite: "Sweet Jane"
One Sentence Lesson: Reality, always under construction, can be morphed into the better world in your head.
A lake was the last thing I expected to see when I moved to San Francisco, but there it is, its ripples a mirror reflecting youth’s minuscule turbulence. To relieve my lungs of the cluttered with smog and human feces atmosphere of San Francisco, I jog around the lake a few days a week. I know I’m only tricking myself though. The perimeter of the lake is lined with shapeless, thin hedges. Next to the tangled brush, a path for walkers, joggers, bikers, static standers, and parents with baby carriages to share and do so without running over each other. By the path is the abrupt elimination of the lake’s illusion, a street full of cars, leaking their exhaust and cluttering the lungs of those on the path, the leaves on the hedges, the ducks and pigeons and seagulls searching for more bread, the water itself. Jogging around the lake only clutters my lungs with wafts of watered down smog and more animal than human feces.
Needless to say, I related wholeheartedly to the cynicism in “Who Loves the Sun.” In fact, I often found myself asking similar questions to the ones Doug Yule posed–“Who loves the sun?/Who cares that it makes plants grow?”–whenever I was out jogging around the faux bit of nature. “How could anyone love this? Look away from the water and there are a line of cars honking at the one in front who didn’t immediately hit the gas when the light turned green; look away from the water and it breaks you heart.” Difference between me and The Velvet Underground, however, is I asked with a fury that fueled a sprint to my finish line. The Velvet Underground used Yule’s buttery voice to ask the question instead of Reed’s corrugated talk; used a predominantly acoustic arrangement fit for a trip to the beach instead of searing electricity as the backdrop for the question; used infectious “Pa Pa Pa”s instead of Reed’s sneers–they recognized the futility of rage at something that was ultimately nothing.
Loaded, with its undying smile despite knowledge of rock n’ roll and love’s impermanence (“Don't you know honey that it ain't going to last… It makes no difference to me” off of “Cool It Down;” the against all odds optimism for a new age heard in the gospel-like outro to “New Age”), proves king cynicism requires no frowns from its subjects. King cynicism is a generous ruler. He does not impose a dogma, does not strip people of their liberties. People often interpret Nietzsche's suggestion of a world void of meaning as deeply cynical when in truth, if applied correctly, it can be the most freeing of philosophies. When nothing matters, you are not tied to any rules. Without such thought, Loaded would not have been possible. If The Velvet Underground tied themselves to being the art rock noisemakers they were at the onset of their career, neither their authentic attempt at country rock seen in “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” nor their attempt at Beach Boys harmonies heard on “I Found A Reason” would have been possible. It is through such experimentation, in many ways braver than the previous distortion soundscapes of “Murder Mystery” and “Sister Ray,” that the band was able to learn all they were capable of. On “Train Round The Bend” we hear Reed announce his preference for the city, the rock n’ roll which started the record, but if it weren’t for the 'fuck it' attitude, he and the band would not have known their limits. If they did not smile at the truth of nothing which cynicism preaches and call it “sweet,” not only Loaded, but the entire Velvet Underground catalog would have remained in the band’s head as records left unrecorded out of fear of judgement for breaking the rules.
My rage at the San Francisco landscape is a misdirected one. Really, it should be pointed at me, the person who uses the rage to fuel sprints instead of efforts at change. I could donate my time to homeless shelters, petition for their care and get the smell of human feces off the streets. I could at least study the effects of cars on the environment instead of jumping on the bandwagon of denouncers. I could take my cynicism and use it to do some good, but I’m holding onto a belief in the status quo. I want the way things are to have a meaning. Nothing, to me, is still scarier than it is sweet.
Before I wrote this I walked around the lake listening to Loaded. Something the music drew my attention towards was the ducks on the water. I always noticed how inhospitably green the water looked, but never noticed the indifferent smile of the ducks sitting on it. Surrounded by murk, the ducks made the best of their situation and smiled. Surrounded by conventions, The Velvet Underground made the best of their time as a band and experimented. Surrounded by a dying Earth, discordant society, and an occasional dreary essay prompt, will I allow my cynicism to turn into a immobilizing rage that leaves the status quo unchanged? Or will I make the best of this nothing; form it into an enjoyable “reality” I could smile in? I don’t know yet, but Loaded proves the latter is possible. A pleasing mind, life, world are all achievable when reality is raw clay itching to be shaped.