Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Velvet Underground Goes to California

From 1966 to 1969, a non sequitor invaded California which was, at that point, ground zero for the hippie movement. Being the locus of this particular subculture, the vibe of peace, love, and the one-ness of human existence was in the air as if it were a new idea. Since it was believed to be a new idea; other, more ancient insights into human capacity for love were not taken into account. This made the round hole especially apoplectic that such a square peg would force itself on it.

This non sequitor that invaded this place and state of mind was none other than the New York avant garde rock group The Velvet Underground. Already, the group had recorded an unheard-of song about matter-of-fact addiction called "Heroin" in which the protagonist both rationalizes his addiction and admits that death awaits him.  This was more than ten years before J.J. Cale would write his famous song "Cocaine""Venus in Furs" further assaulted the senses with its unflinching depiction of masochism. The Velvet Underground did not receive a happy hearing in California.

From From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World:
Rather than indulging in the contemporary fascination with hallucinogenics, the Velvets were an amphetamine band – in every sense – loud, cynical, brutal and frenetic.  They were not interested in mellowing out an audience. (p. 22)

[Velvet guitarist] Sterling Morrison: When we finally made it to San Francisco we were attacked directly. They convinced themselves that we were there to destroy the innocence and purity of their music.  Ralph Gleason said that we were the urban evil of New York, and we were there to corrupt the simple beauty of the California music. (p. 23)
It is easy to say that hippie optimism about the human condition, just like contemporary Evangelical and secular optimism, is related to the optimism of the Enlightenment and Great Awakenings. That would be true. But it has always been so. It has been the default human position from the very beginning. No one wants to hear an accurate diagnosis. Even if it is true. Especially if it is true.
So, ministers of the Reformation continue diagnosing to plugged ears. People continue pretending like they didn’t hear the question and reacting angrily. At least until the wheels come off. Charles Manson and Altamont ’69 notwithstanding.

It is said that a minister can empty out a cocktail party with talk of original sin, total depravity, the bondage of the will and other pessimistic insights into human potential.  So, when it happens, just know that it has happened before; when the Velvet Underground emptied out Haight-Ashbury.

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