Album I couldn't live without: White Light/White Heat
Sometimes it is clear why we strike upon certain albums and promote them to feature as our personal soundtracks.
Some decisions are driven by fevered, illogical adherence to zeitgeist, with the disc destined to be buried deep at the back of a collection until it is safely retro enough to return to; others are bought on a stronger impulse, one that sets the fear of buying bum merchandise aside in order to make some kind of discovery.
The music may not be in, it may not be current, it may not even be close to making a dent in the charts, but you buy it on the recommendation of someone important to you who has already done the hard graft and placed their find within earshot.
This is how many stumble down to take refuge in the urban bomb shelter of the Velvet Underground, and I was no different.
Very few people in 1997 had an ear on one of New York's most apt representatives, so in a very real sense their reach was about as potent as it was when Warhol spat them out upon the public thirty years prior.
Most people I knew were either knee-deep in the ripped jeans/shredded vocal cord metal-blues hybrid that was grunge, or basking in the glory of Britpop's finest hour to pay any heed to such archaic sounds.
Both camps wailed away in their respective caves, coordinating their arguments with like-minded individuals for when it was time to compare the modern day greats at the next DB-soaked party.
I appreciated both sides, just as someone might appreciate the way a wasps' nest is constructed; it was interesting, and I wondered how it might look inside, but I wasn't prepared to stick my head in and find out.
Cobain was long dead, promoting his status even closer to the right hand of God for the loyalists, and the standard- bearers for the revised British Invasion among our group of friends spoke long and loud of the Be Here Now midnight release date set in the heart of Wellington, none of whom actually went to this monumental event.
The theft of their motivation was conducted via thin, green, tinfoil-encased fingers which were wrapping themselves around several of our consciousness's at the time; it was unanimously agreed upon that Oasis could wait until midday by the time the second joint was passed clockwise around the circle.
Later that year three very different personalities made the decision to move out of their respective, fully-funded comfort zones and together set up a bastion of enlightenment near the end of Abel Smith Street in the city.
Two of us had just turned 18 and thought we had a fair idea of how the world turned, and the other was a girl who - in my mind at least - held all the cards that I needed to make my hand complete.
Relatively ancient at 21, her judgment wasn't clouded by marijuana, her stomach remained undisturbed by invasions of cold Chinese food, and her mind prevailed against the endless pornographic visions that plagued the rest of the house. Hers was a pristine perception on the way foreign (the pub) and domestic (communal areas of the flat) matters should be conducted. She was also a seasoned drunk, and I loved her for it.
In her room was a myriad of mix tapes and CDs that would have been at home in any $5 bargain bin throughout the western world and most of south-east Asia.
Johnny Cash - before he died and became flavour of everyone's month care of a Hollywood bio-pic - was prominent, as was Will Oldham in his guise of Palace Music, who went about the task of vividly recreating the country music that Bob Dylan said had lost all its weirdness in a plummeting star of an album called Viva Last Blues.
My flatmate, and by this stage fulltime object of my feverish, teenaged infatuation, had gotten many of her leads on music from an ex-boyfriend who had callously flung her aside only a matter of months beforehand for a shot at a more compatible model.
Unfortunately, his legacy was to reign unshakably through her speakers and mock my half-arsed attempts at finding a connection beyond friendship, so I did what any young stoner in the middle of a titanic battle would do: I gave up trying to win her over and hit the pipe with a little more vigour.
It was by no means a total cessation of my thought to conquer; I wasn't strong enough to rid myself of the idea of her and I relating to each other as consenting adults completely.
The subconscious beating of skewed paths to her door commenced without official permission initially, but standing in front of the relatively unpopulated V section of Real Groovy records was very much a deliberate decision: her music was going to become my music.
Thousands of people had been introduced to one of the few merits of a solo Lou Reed the year before in the film Trainspotting, but not many were privy to the workings of his earlier incarnation as part of the Velvet Underground.
She was though, and that was the only reason I shelled out $45 to accommodate the exorbitant price tag that all titles with an IMPORT sticker plastered over their covers bore and carried their second album home with me in a little plastic bag. It had to be good if she said so.
Ever since I could afford to buy music, any album that made the grade to deserve my very finite amount of cash has received a complete and unreserved listening at least once. Pre-dating a late-teen appetite for the weed, Bob Marley's Legend was the first CD ever to instigate a raid on my paper round money, which standing at a meagre $70 to $80 per month meant that the decision was not taken lightly.
The strange sight of a 14-year-old lying prostate on the ground in front of his stereo listening to every word of the king of soft drugs greeted several members of the family when they opened my door, and doubts over the merits of having such a fascination were surely raised behind my back but never acted upon.
Pre-emptive strikes were for the American war machine and teachers, not my mother and father.
The very same attention was given to White Light/White Heat, an album from 1968 that sounded as clean and right for the period of time as anything produced by my contemporaries.
The opening song - which lent its name to the entire collection - laid a suitably strange foundation for the rest to build momentum on.
It was hard to figure out if it was a fast song or not because Lou Reed's increasingly languid vocals coasted like a passenger unwilling to pull his weight more than he had to over the top of John Cale's hammering piano, which sounded like he hated the keys on offer and was playing with two clenched fists.
Cale also provided a bass track with as much gravel and desperation in it as Janis Joplin's throat in her prime, easily tearing attention away from Maureen Tucker's pattering drum and whatever Sterling Morrison was occupying himself with at the time.
I found it near impossible to immunise myself from the shadows of the amphetamines that ran through the veins of the song; it performed its duty of slapping me in the face and waking me up to what was to proceed.
The frailties of poor, pathetic Waldo Jeffers who starred in the next track had me wondering if I was any better than he.
Waldo was also in love with a girl who had her sights set further afield, and as he met his rather unfortunate demise trying to realise a feat that would prove the depth of his delusionary affection - sending himself to the deflector of his advances in an oversized cardboard box, only to die huddled inside as he sprayed 'little rhythmic arcs of red' from the wound in his head caused by his would-be girlfriend's sidekick opening the parcel with a huge sheet metal cutter - it occurred to me that Jeffers at least had the guts to make something happen.
The gift gave me the motivation to prepare my own advance, although one that hopefully wouldn't end in my untimely death.
I waited, and waited some more. Bickering and awkward moments began to seep into our happy little experiment of a flat, and to complete the scene we were all served an eviction notice on the grounds that we had reneged on the deal not to have any gatherings that might be construed as a party one too many times.
We actually broke that rule on the very first weekend, throwing a huge flat warming shindig that saw acquaintances reappearing out of long-forgotten woodwork to down crates of cheap beer and considerately dispose of every bottle cap out our kitchen window.
Dozens of things were broken and the fire extinguisher was let off for good measure - the signature of any decent party - but we thought we had the place back to a suitable standard when the landlord showed up the next day and asked what we had been up to the night before.
Innocent faces were rebutted with the evidence strewn below the window, and our first warning was absorbed.
I was solely to blame for the second: apparently the stairwell leading up to the top floors served as an excellent acoustic chamber for my electric guitar, amplifying my efforts several fold beyond what was acceptable to the rest of the building.
Strike two, and we were teetering on the edge of having the axe brought down on us before the first month was out. We clung on for what amounted to eight more weeks, until flatmate three decided to have his own party up on the communal roof, another serious violation of the contract we had all signed with good intentions.
The notice was slipped under our door while we were watching TV in the living room. It felt like receiving an invitation to our own funeral service.
Young women in their twenties generally being neater and smarter than beardless Neanderthals of the opposite sex, she scheduled a meeting with the landlord and was allowed to stay while we got the boot.
It was fair enough, although it didn't stop tacks being spat at the thought of having to move back home with hat in hand. There was an obvious silver lining to the change in living arrangements however: if I took a shot at getting closer to her and failed horribly, I wouldn't have to make small talk over a bowl of bitter-tasting weet-bix the next day, and the day after, and so on until one of us had enough of the discomfort and found another place to live.
During this period of rude upheaval, the album in question was being veritably worn out. The seventeen minute, three-chord epic Sister Ray was an automatic starter for when I wanted to escape the magnified conflict in my head.
It was so overwhelming, such a rip tide of a tune, the perfect vehicle for an escape act to be played out. Others could only handle about two minutes maximum of its filthy tone before rubbing their temples and seeing what else I had to put on, which is why the Velvet Underground always felt like a code which only she and I could decipher with any real success. Few others got it, or even wanted to try to understand the ragged appeal of what appeared to be a gang of fruity weirdoes from a bygone era. That was their loss.
There is a great Irish saying that advises you not to ruin your potential by trying to realise it. I wish that I had heard it before I cornered her at the Victoria University student bar and Waldo Jeffered myself to a sickening standstill.
She of course dismissed my advances with the most patronising verbal pat on the head I had been subjected to since finding out, when 12, my contention that Freddie Mercury wasn't gay was some distance from the mark.
The rest of that night is a blur of stumbling through the city, blinded by a harrowing sense of loss and the firm belief that I would never get over it and, as an additional stab in the back/heart/psyche, I would never live it down.
It was a night that I was at my most serious in contemplating suicide, standing on a bridge overlooking the cars speeding down State Highway 1, thinking how dramatic and satisfying it would be to put that guilt on her conscience for good.
Such tunnel vision is what spurs people to actually take that next step, I'm sure of it. Nothing is more important than that very second, how you feel at that exact point in time. Nothing.
Obviously I didn't follow through with that dark idea, and I even eventually got over the rift between my imagination and reality.
As time pushes forward against the past, these experiences have become something of a curio, an oddity that must have happened to someone else.
Those days are close to being wiped out as modern life gets filled up with people and directions that are infinitely more compatible with who I am.
One of the few things that can send me straight back to 1997 is hearing any of the six tracks which make up White Light/White Heat.
It took a few years of exorcism through repetition, but now I can handle the negative memories the album invokes because the good ones hold exactly the same weight.
Maybe that is the key to finding some kind of balance in this madness - not letting the bad outweigh the good. Pity Lou Reed didn't think about this concept when teaming up with Metallica, but that's another story...
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