The Velvets do not deal in abstractions but in states of mind. Their songs are about the feelings the vocabulary of religion was invented to describe—profound and unspeakable feelings of despair, disgust, isolation, confusion, guilt, longing, relief, peace, clarity, freedom, love—and about the ways we (and they) habitually bury those feelings, deny them, sentimentalize them, mock them, inspect them from a safe, sophisticated distance in order to get along in the hostile, corrupt world. For the Velvets the roots of sin are in this ingrained resistance to facing our deepest, most painful, and most sacred emotions; the essence of grace is the comprehension that our sophistication is a sham, that our deepest, most painful, most sacred desire is to recover a childlike innocence we have never, in our heart of hearts, really lost.
- Ellen Willis [From “Velvet Underground: Golden Archive Series” in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Music; originally published in Greil Marcus’ Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (1979)]
I suppose I read this essay years ago when I was tearing through Marcus’ work, but I never took much note of Willis’s perceptive comments on the spiritual and moral dimensions of the Velvets’ work until I re-read it last night in the new collection of Willis’ music writing.
Ostensibly an essay on her desert island album—a slightly Willis-doctored (she switches out “Afterhours” for “Pale Blue Eyes”) version of an existing Velvet Underground anthology—, it’s more of a general essay on the band and even Lou Reed’s post-VU work. While the Velvets are, at this point, as entrenched in the canon as the Beatles and Stones and have probably been examined from virtually every critical angle possible, the tendency is to understand the band’s lyrics in terms of their detachment. Casually observed, it’s easy to buy that Reed largely wrote non-judgmental songs about decadence and nihilism, with occasional bouts of humane tenderness (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”) and sadness (“Pale Blue Eyes”)—even though these quieter moments account for more than a minor chunk of their catalog.
Willis situates all sides of the band into a larger framework that accounts for detachment, innocence, irony, and, most unusual in writings on the Velvets, moral responsibility. As she sees it, there’s an intended irony in their emotional distance; their stance is self-critical and even in danger of being internally undermined:
The risk is real because the Velvets do not use irony as a net, a way of evading responsibility by keeping everyone guessing what they really mean. On the contrary, their irony functions as a metaphor for the spiritual paradox, affirming that the need to face one’s nakedness and the impulse to cover it up are equally real, equally human.
Fascinatingly, Willis’ focus on the band’s not-so-obvious approach to morality anticipates Reed’s most overtly socially conscious music in the 80s and 90s (culminating in 1989’s New York) and also grounds the band’s music in both spiritual and existentialist concerns. Religious historian/theologian Karen Armstrong, who rails against both literalist/fundamentalist interpretations of holy texts and “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, has observed similarities between music and religion at its least literal and, in her opinion, at its best:
Music has always been inseparable from religious expression, because, like religion at its best, music marks the “limits of reason”. Because a territory is defined by its extremities, it follows that music must be “definitively” rational. It is the most corporeal of the arts: it is produced by breath, voice, horsehair, shells, guts and skins and reaches what the British critic George Steiner calls “resonances in our bodies at levels deeper than will or consciousness”. But it is also highly cerebral, requiring the balance of intricately complex energies and form relations, and is intimately connected with mathematics. Yet this intensely rational activity segues into transcendence. Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything. A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in hearer and player alike; and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight.
Key in Armstrong’s work is an emphasis on compassion; she argues that it rests at the heart of most major religions and that the literal understandings that provide sustenance to fundamentalist movements and confound the New Atheists only serve to distract. Compassion, of course, has a lot to do with how we act, what we do—orthopraxy (essentially, “right action”) over orthodoxy (essentially, “right belief”).
Reed, too, has a lot to say about orthopraxy and frames our spiritual struggle in ways that I think Armstrong would find compelling (although I get the impression that her tastes run more classical). As Willis writes: “[Reed’s] basic religious assumption (like Baudelaire’s) is that like it or not we inhabit a moral universe, that we have free will, that we must choose between good and evil, and that our choices matter absolutely …”
In fact, if you drop the idea of an inherent morality in the universe, you can square all of this (Armstrong, Reed, and even Willis’s reading of the VU) with existentialists like Sartre, who put a similar emphasis on choice. All would probably agree on Reed’s outlook as expertly articulated by Willis: “if we are rarely strong enough to make the right choices, if we can never count on the moments of illumination that make them possible, still it is spiritual death to give up the effort.”