local_cafe Sometimes Nothing is a Real Cool Hand

by Curt Cloninger

Published in Issue No. 26 ~ July, 1999

Welcome to the third and final installment of my inanely earnest Punk trilogy featuring Part 1: Better to Burn Out and Part 2: Immovable object my eye. My goal has been to flesh-out the true spirit of Punk by incisively analyzing the five most Punk things I know. One album, one novel, and two films later, we arrive here at an entire article devoted to one five-minute piece of music. Wow. This song must really be something special. It must be like an opus to Punk, having been years in the making. Nope. In true Punk fashion, “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a toss-off…an accident. It’s the second song on the second side of the second album by a band that has a viola player and a girl drummer. The Velvet Underground recorded White Light/ White Heat in two days. It is an album that most critics mention only in passing. White Light/ White Heat is a stylistic anomaly that even dedicated VU fans don’t quite know what to do with. They own it, but it’s not going to be found resident in a whole lot of five-CD changers. The fact that this CD is even purchasable here on the cusp of the new millennium is one of the odd and rare blessings of our era.

But enough about the album, and enough about the group. Onto the song itself. Have you ever been singing a beautiful song in a dream, only to wake up with that song right on the tip of your brain? If only you could remember how it went. Surely it would be the next “Yesterday.” But alas, it’s lost forever, crowded out by the necessary machinations of base consciousness. Well, “I Heard Her Call My Name” isn’t that song.

Actually, I don’t know what Lou Reed (songwriter and bandleader of the Velvet Underground) was trying to accomplish with this song. The lyrics are nonsensical. They could be about drugs, or about a girl, or about rubber underwear. The chord progression is stupid. There are even these ridiculously inappropriate doo-wop echo background vocals, as if the song is supposed to be some sort of nihilistic Earth Angel.” But two lyrical snippets float to the surface, indicating that this song is more than it portends. The song starts in media res (“in the middle”) with a disorienting cacophony that will eventually become distinguishable as the guitar solo part, during which Lou mutters, “Got my eyes wide open.” “Prepare thyself, unwary listener,” he seems to forewarn. “An irreversible sonic mind bomb is about to transform you.”

Got My Eyes Wide Open

Suddenly, the noise retreats, and we are dropped into the middle of what sounds like a spastic garage-rock surf ditty. The verse cascades along pleasantly and stupidly enough, but always with the ominous “chuck chuck chuck” of Reed’s guitar impatiently looming in the background. Actually, there is no background. The whole song is all blurred together, with very little stereo separation. It sounds junky and crappy. There’s no nice way to say it. Somewhere in the mix are two guitars and a bass, but nothing is very distinguishable, except for Reed’s moronic vocal narrative, which is mixed overtly loud. Maureen Tucker’s drums are also present to the far right, but they merely sound like a metronome amplified and played back through some cheap computer speakers. Her drums are too dinky to be “relentless,” too plodding to be “driving.” Let’s avoid calling them “insipient” and refer to them simply as “unwavering.” So, I best just go ahead and admit that, without the guitar solo part, this song sucks. But there IS the guitar solo part (and, oh, how it tingles).

Then I Felt My Mind Split Open

At the very end of the first hokey chorus, out of nowhere, Lou offers the song’s second lyrical signpost, “Then I felt my mind split open.” What follows is an audible approximation of said event. Reed’s guitar solo is not mind-blowing nor mind-numbing nor mind-altering. It is mind-splitting, as he warned us it would be. It sounds kind of like having your brain ripped out, and then having it shown to you still pulsating, and then realizing in your last fleeting moments of consciousness, “Hey, that’s my brain!” Except it’s not your physical brain that’s being ill-used, it’s your soulish mind, which is a whole lot more malleable than mere gray matter. Do you desire to undergo a major paradigm shift? Why struggle through a heady Neil Stephenson sci-fi novel? Simply drop your metaphorical needle on “I Heard Her Call My Name” and have a whole new worldview sonically forced upon you without ever having to mentally process a word! The song’s first guitar solo embodies a tone, and that tone codifies an ideal, and that ideal is Punk.

Then suddenly, we’re dropped straight back into the surf rock verse for a second round. By this point in the song, we are staggering, groping for a handrail (or more accurately, for the volume knob). What is this stupid song?!? But before we can escape, the inappropriate juxtaposition of bad pop-rock cheese and insanity-inducing noise stupifies us, temporarily immobilizing us just long enough for the final and irrevocable brain-damaging blow to be inflicted. We’re just like a hapless little squirrel caught in the blinding headlights of a steamrollin’ 18-wheeler, baby! At the end of the second verse/ chorus iteration, Reed croaks “And then my mind split open,” heralding the unleash of the song’s final solo. And what a solo! The first guitar solo was mere child’s play compared to this one. At this point in my essay, unaided expository writing fails to convey: Chaos in a nutshell. The edge of the edge of the edge. A rabid pack of wolves lurking on the edge of sanity, purposefully tracking you down. Yanking you in. Yanking you out, over, and through. Sentence-fragmenting. Bad-poetry-inducing. Don’t care. Can’t care. Can’t hear. Fear. Turning inside out. Am I here? Where is there? Mmmmblmmmnm….Crackkkkkk. END OF FILE. Nope, that would be far too cozy, mortal. Existence-justifying, but whose? RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE against the dying of something that should seem important. What was it/ is it? I don’t comprende. I can’t get up. Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! I can’t taste my tongue. I can’t move at all. It tastes like light.

Technically, this final solo is just a lot of distortion and feedback, but in the midst of it, you can almost hear Lou attempting to play something. He and his guitar amplifier are duking it out, and his amp is getting in all the good licks. Some greater force has been tapped into here, and the band is just along for the ride. They are no longer creating; they are merely surfing something that already exists. That greater something is Punk. Pure unadulterated Punk surfaced way back in 1968, the Velvet Underground latched onto it and rode it for five minutes, someone happened to record the resultant soundwaves, and now we have “I Heard Her Call My Name.”

Do you get Punk now? If not, I can’t help you. You should probably just give it up and look into mutual funds or something.

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Curt Cloninger is sporadically recording a CD that refuses to complete itself. Peruse his online exploits at the dream library.